Dream On

Bruno Lindan & James Soderholm


Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
    — Nietzsche

For several thousand moons I have been thinking about that epigram from Beyond Good and Evil. I wonder what abysses Nietzsche looked into. And did he become monstrous in the act? Is he warning himself as much as his reader? Do you think Nietzsche stripped away all the veils of illusion—he said we could not live without them—and saw straight through to the truth about human beings and to the oddity of their obsession with "the truth"? Or did Nietzsche see, like Hamlet, that life is essentially absurd, so absurd that being asked to do anything is quite pointless—hence, the need for illusions to keep us going? Nietzsche had many monsters to fight (the monster of Christianity, for example) and no doubt worried that extraordinary toil of slaying them would eventually turn him into a monster. What is the alternative? To turn away from monsters. To practise forgetfulness, to be wistfully indifferent. Nietzsche also saw the value of what he called "active forgetfulness." Is that kind of deliberative forgetting in some ways the best way to slay monsters?

BL:  Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is (TLP 6.44). As in Nietzsche's forgetfulness, so in Wittgenstein's radical silence do we find a certain nostalgic impulse to stand in innocent relation with the uninterpreted world. Perhaps, to hear the music of the spheres anew, recast. The opening between mind and world which ultimately imprisons the madness of reason is no doubt one of Nietzsche's abysses. The creation of forms is catalysed by the illusion of permanence that remembering brings about; it is the impulsive ossification of similarities over time. The kernel of this process is our native urge to equate, to impose structure—this urge which defines our thought. In this peculiar sense Reason is an enstatic category. Somehow we must, knowing this, respond to the call of the infinite. We must step outside of ourselves. 

Art is usually a good bet. In what ways can it catalyse forgetfulness? The cataclysmic artistic gesture of Ligeti's Atmosphères is the attempt to cleave us from the orienting horizon of time. In a naive sense there is no eternity in music. It seeks to fall behind the will to truth; in its ephemerality is its essence. From within Ligeti's monolithic sonic landscape of abstract, seemingly unending, formless sound we observe in perplexity the sphere of becoming and passing away, the terrible Heraclitean river. In Sitsky's words, Ligeti wanted the piece to be 'suspended outside time'. The Quartet for the End of Time (which Messiaen wrote as a prisoner of war) comes to mind too, with, for example, its 'infinitely slow' and beautifully static fifth movement, or, perhaps more pertinently, its third movement, the Abyss of Birds for solo clarinet. Messiaen writes:

The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

Messiaen was obsessed with birdsong. Here the waxwing slain dances around nature's "riddles and iridescent uncertainties [1]in opalescent reverie. This is an exuberant dance in chains. But Messiaen's birds stand in opposition to this particular abyss. Where do they live? Do they enjoy the "harmonious silence of Heaven"? There is something terrifying in the Abyss of Birds, something in the music that forcibly tears us out of a dogmatic slumber of sorts. Where does this lead us? How can art interrupt, disturb, distort the basic elements by which we interact with the world, to breach a perceptual continuum, and what might that do for us, we sorrowful moderns?  Might we thus, in our silence, as it were, see light, stars, rainbows, hear jubilant songs?

JS: It seems that Time, that terrible river you mention, is one creature to slay, if you can. Chronos eats his kids. He has no choice. It’s his job! And what is our job? To forget time so energetically, so artistically, that it ceases to exist—at least for the moment? Or to deliver ourselves over to the Heraclitean flux because, after all, there is no avoiding it. There is only submission and survival and even the enjoyment of our necessarily being-in-time.

One thing that strikes me about the Abyss of Birds is that it should do away with its title, which is conceptual and makes one imagine one must imagine both an abyss and birds in it, somehow. Doesn’t that force one to pin the music to ideas and images, and thus delimit it? Isn’t that also the problem with all programme music: its storytelling that necessary unfolds, even proudly, in chronological time, like the 1812 Overture or even Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Perhaps Kant was onto something when he argues the beauty must be completely detached from ideas and concepts so it can play with its own forms, unchained to anything worldly or even wordy. It’s all good to say that “the birds are the opposite to Time” but if one really wants to escape the eager maw of Chronos, isn’t it better to leave one’s compositions untitled and unfettered, and let listeners’ imaginations play with the pure tonality (and timelessness?) of the clarinet’s lyric warblings?

It seems to me we are already tangling—tangoing?—with an irreducible paradox about music: that most (all?) music seems to have one bird-foot in timelessness and the other in temporality. Perhaps the “ephemerality” you mention is the essential negotiation. I think of lovely lines from Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter.”

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.

Rainbows are endlessly desirable precisely because they vanish so quickly. And so are we to agree with Wallace Stevens: “Death is the Mother of Beauty”? 


And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is. And like a bird I sing hallelujah into the air.

So writes Clarice Lispector in Água Viva. Again, this nostalgia for what is behind thought, or beyond it. Mathematics is one of Stevens' artificial flowers, and nonetheless it possesses an impossible beauty. Under the greatest weight of the singular constraint of consistency it unfolds its glacial logic. This graveyard of perceptions would be hidden from us were it not for the foothold of analogy. Mathematics constitutes an alien and self-contained realm to which we are granted access by the location of the heart of all concepts in the equation of things in flux, which we do when we start perceiving. Perhaps so too with music -- perhaps in chaining it to something worldly we give ourselves a chance to look into the space of churning instantaneous forms that it occupies. In Dickinson's words, tell all the truth but tell it slant

What to make of the dual impulses towards the instant, the undifferentiated flux, and towards the eternal, the luminiferous other? Do they nourish or wither one another? Mathematics as a metaphysical rebellion against the mortality of ideas - its austere beauty is not (or tries not to be) that of the vanishing rainbow. It consecrates as autotelic the creation of forms. Music, rather, suffers this nostalgia for the instant. In opposite directions these two sacred games strain away from the chronic weariness of time. And yet they meet. To peer into the uncollapsed, precarious duality of ephemeral and eternal, by which I mean the relation of human as perceiver, as creation, and our hopeless yearning for whatever transcends - music, or art more generally, and mathematics, in a sense share this goal. Forgive the muddy abstraction. By all this I mean not so much an idea as a dreadful experience, that slimy entanglement with time that slips away whenever you try to put your finger on it - that essential negotiation. This elusive running against the boundaries of experience is what constitutes both sorts of break from the everyday, art and mathematics. I feel we are doomed to waltz around it and get nowhere (lest we both be blind).

Something lighter: I stubbornly maintain that there is a great deal of hidden wisdom in the sacred children's TV show Clangers (the original, of course - already in the sanitised blue sky of the redesign do we see fatal misunderstanding). The final episode, The Music of the Spheres, is unexpectedly moving, and unashamedly ridiculous. At its climax, a preposterous orchestra of peculiar heavenly instruments play and dance as Tiny Clanger conducts. Out of the procession of the ordinary this improbable jubilant song suddenly erupts, this enigmatic theatre of consciousness. It breaks from analogy; as a moment it does not transcend itself. I'm sure there's something of significance in it. Heidegger tells us that to lead good lives we ought to spend more time in graveyards. In this transitory mausoleum of forms we perhaps experience Lispector's is. What is in this instant? What can it show us?

JS: You probably know this well-known passage from Nietzsche, based on his translation of Heraclitus: αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεσσεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη (Time is a child playing at draughts, a child's kingdom). 

Ein Werden und Vergehen, ein Bauen und Zerstören, ohne jede moralische Zurechnung, in Und so, wie das Kind und der Künstler spielt, spielt das ewig lebendige Feuer, baut auf und zerstört, in Unschuld — und dieses Spiel spielt der Aeon mit sich. Sich verwandelnd in Wasser und Erde thürmt er, wie ein Kind Sandhaufen am Meere, thürmt auf und zertrümmert; von Zeit zu Zeit fängt er das Spiel von Neuem an. Ein Augenblick der Sättigung: dann ergreift ihn von Neuem das Bedürfniß, wie den Künstler zum Schaffen das Bedürfniß zwingt. Nicht Frevelmuth, sondern der immer neu erwachende Spieltrieb ruft andre Welten ins Leben.

(A coming-to-be and a passing away, a building up and tearing down, without any moral glossing, in innocence that is forever equal - in this world it belongs only to the play of artists and children. And as the child and the artist plays, so too plays the ever-living fire, it builds up and tears down, in innocence – such is the game that the aeon (αἰὼν - life, time) plays with itself.

Transforming itself into water and earth, it builds up towers of sand, like a child making sandcastles by the sea, heaps it all up and then tips it over; from time to time, it starts the game anew. A moment of satisfaction: then need seizes it, as the need to create seizes the artist. Not hybris, but the ever newly awakening impulse to play, calls new worlds into being.)

Perhaps we need to play in graveyards, as artists and children. Do children hear the music of the spheres because their imaginations have not yet withered into realism and literalism? It’s not altogether clear what Nietzsche or Heraclitus meant, by the way. When you watch those Clangers playing their game, are you lost in time, are you nesting in the cozy nostos of childhood, when the world was not at all out of tune? Are you a child playing at draughts, in the kingdom of harmonious Spieltrieb? The loss of that connection to imagination and childhood furnishes Blake and Wordsworth with endless opportunities to depict the fall from childhood as another Fall of Mankind.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

In what spheres of music do we most happily flourish? Why is music so instantly redemptive, so reliably salutary? Why do we end up unweaving rainbows as we grow up? 

BL: Perhaps the redemptive power of all art-acts is found in their condemning an irredeemable nothing: mathematics, the transience of forms, music, the silence of the spheres. (They then reach out into this nothing in an act of defiance). In this condemnation is a knowingly-futile recreation of a lost ideal. Art is nostalgic for some way of life that never was. Perhaps we have it so that we may reimagine the truth (as a burning fire that passes away). All art is engaged in the illumination of possibility. Mathematics weaves a floating tapestry of the general - it is breathed into being by the word ‘if’. But music conjures specific possibilities out of the interrelations of its concrete atomic elements. Impossible and ephemeral beauty bursts out of this substrate. It seems unique in being christened in flux.

If we accept the most radical sentencing of Reason in Nietzsche’s formulation of the ‘fundamental error’ thereof, then, having thereby imprisoned it in the edifice of forms, music becomes a unique outwards break. It alone meets the worldly whole on its own terms (which is perhaps to say none at all). It is a reaching-out. (An illumination over the beyond, as it were). There is perhaps some flame towards which music alone can take us. In our music-boats we not only look into but intrepidly enter this abyss and go fishing. There is a striving, an opening of possibility. What do we catch? And for what else do we have this rudderless nostalgia (what hopeless features of childhood and artistry)? How to valiantly enter these abysses? - to undergo Nietzsche’s final metamorphosis, or to take Kubrick’s odyssey, and for the first time see by innocent eyes (and hear abandoned birdsong)?

JS: Are we suggesting the Art is precisely the way out the Abyss that often swallows its contemplators? Do you recall Nietzsche’s comments on Hamlet and Dionysian man?

I quote at length because Nietzsche deserves our abiding interest.

Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no--true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.

Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immortal beyond. Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; now he understands what is symbolic in Ophelia's fate; now he understands the wisdom of the sylvan god, Silenus: he is nauseated.

Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity. The satyr chorus of the dithyramb is the saving deed of Greek art; faced with the intermediary world of these Dionysian companions, the feelings described here exhausted themselves.

Is the rudderless boat charmed by the music of the spheres at once sublime and comic, especially for the child? Does it not make perfect sense, then, that Nietzsche also writes: “We must regain the seriousness of a child at play”?

BL: We try, but can never regain that ludic seriousness; the serenity of the child is a dream in the middle of which we have been awoken. But we must somehow dream on, in order not to perish, as Nietzsche insists. The inescapable impulse that there should be time no longer, that perverse wish to wrestle out of the entanglement, is born of the nauseating certainty that the home of the spirit is always over the factical horizon. Naive inversions do nothing for us—worldly immortality would solve no more problems than does our actual finitude. There is of course no escape—for this reason the impulse is perverse. But the striving attenuates the flux. 

Music and art in general are in a certain sense not, I think, saving sorceresses, not dizzying forces that reveal and open spheres of life one can joyously inhabit. I think rather that the structure of their redemptive action is that of a calling-out into chimerical spaces that the intractable urge for transcendence—the desire for light—makes us feel ought to exist—vestigial, phantasmic openings for which we has always felt there to be a need: the instant and the infinite, the two categories of harmonious stasis set apart from the turbulent, deafening flux of reality. A shimmering defiance motivates the constant renewal of this singing-into-silence. We aren't saved from an abyss into which we have fallen—we elect to stand in opposition to time, if never to be the jubilant Birds who are its opposite. The music-boat valiantly sails into the desolate atemporal night sky. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must sing. 

Thinking about all this can lead one into a marsh of vagueties. I'm certainly not convinced that everything I have written in this dialogue is saying much, if anything. But that in some sense congrues with the matter at hand. That the meaning of the world lies outside the world, and that by cosmic decree there is nothing outside the world—we are bound in this heady paradox. Art then does not rescue us from an abyss, but strives foolishly like a rat in a cage to escape the river of flux in both directions, and in doing so echoes into an unreal nothing, runs against the boundaries of time. Full of unreasonable hope, I believe in music and mathematics as the fashioning of honest illusion, the conjuring of dreams as dreams and not as certainties. The creation of a new heaven, tout un monde lointain - in Dutilleux's sublime cello concerto perhaps the riddle of the spell of time is stated; it ends in an enigmatic, glimmering tremolo that fades into silence as tentatively as the piece begins, and with Baudelaire's words:

Keep your dreams:
Wise men do not have as beautiful ones as fools!

That we might be in this sense nomadic fools—is this a good enough hope for us?

JS: In Heart of Darkness, Marlow says, “We live as we dream—alone.” And yet Conrad has Marlow tell a very long yarn in the hopes that the linguistic bridge will finally make it over to someone else, at last penetrating their lives. Otherwise, why speak, why sing, why make the spheres musical? Does it matter if we are profoundly alone, even in the thick of dialogue?

When I was an American teen, we used a certain expression, a bit of sarcasm, that we deployed whenever anyone voiced an unreasonable hope, usually for a particularly fetching American teen girl. We would say, ‘dream on.’ Thus was erotic hope chastised. My ears are now tuned to the ontic of ‘on,’ as in Beckett’s “I can’t go on.” Yet Gogo and Didi go on, ontically, in Waiting for Godot. Does life have any meaning? Dream on! To live in, as you say, honest illusion, is to reward oneself for dreaming on, to affirm the dreaminess of hope and play and to keep the nomadic act moving on, as the Clanger’s boat moves on—merrily, merrily—down the stream of memory.

And what if nomad is an island? What if we are always already alone in that childhood boat, listening only to the music in our private brain-sphere? What if Marlow is right? Is that tragic, or comic, or both, or neither?

BL: In what I hope is a fitting conversational volta, I feel a childishly impious urge to bring us back down to Earth, as it were. At our dialogue's end, I think about what Richard Rorty had to say about poetry shortly before he passed away:

I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends.

We have sailed into confusing seas during this exchange, have let spectral abstractions entropically flow into one another. So it always is when one considers art as a grand whole. And in so doing we sing merry praises, humble ourselves before the cyclopean ineffability of that whole distant world of whose scintillating boundaries we catch elusive glimpses. This generality can perhaps not ever be said to yield anything we might call progress of an argumentative character, nor even decipherable propositions. So be it. But dual to this possibly forever private, tragic, comic soliloquy is Rorty's peaceful reminder that we ought to call to mind from time to time the delightful folly and eternally simple joy of the ecstatic break from the mundane that we have been trying to psychologise. Not that we oughtn't try, of course. But the air is thin on that icy conceptual plain. Both categories of reflection on abysses depend on one another. And, crucially, counter to whatever solitude those abstract convictions impress upon us is the essential, simple, and joyous communality of our folly - and, fools that we are, whenever we return from that harmonious silence, into which we ever-failingly reach, much like our cheerful friends the Clangers, back from fishing in the music-boat with whatever they have caught, let us hope that we have become better at dreaming, if nothing else. 

JS: Never a close friend but certainly a friend of Rorty’s, I am moved to end our dialogue on an old poetic chestnut that partly evokes what you beautifully call the “joyous communality of our folly.”

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

[1] From the preface to Gay Science: "One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden herself behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties".