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Dreams and Destinies, the Rosetta Stone of Marguerite Yourcenar's canon, is an intimate journal of her dreams. In Dreams and Destinies Yourcenar has provided us with the most daring, yet least conventional form of autobiography, a form that allows the reader to view her life refracted through the poetic sensibility of her own sleeping mind. In recording her dream life, Yourcenar wanders through a picture gallery of the soul, pausing before ruined cathedrals filled with candles, dark ravines that hold dead bodies,...
Dreams and Destinies, the Rosetta Stone of Marguerite Yourcenar's canon, is an intimate journal of her dreams. In Dreams and Destinies Yourcenar has provided us with the most daring, yet least conventional form of autobiography, a form that allows the reader to view her life refracted through the poetic sensibility of her own sleeping mind. In recording her dream life, Yourcenar wanders through a picture gallery of the soul, pausing before ruined cathedrals filled with candles, dark ravines that hold dead bodies, and still reflecting pools located deep inside soaring gothic churches. Her dreams are populated by men, women, and children as well as animals and mythical creatures. Available for the first time in English in the way that she intended upon her death, Dreams and Destinies is a reminder from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century that the dreams we create are with us forever.
Dreams and Destinies
I wish herein to tell a few dreams, those which most intensely disturb or console a being who has dreamed considerably. Since adolescence (save for one or two exceptions, I scarcely remember my childhood dreams), I have been accompanied throughout my nocturnal life by a dozen disquieting or propitious dreams, as identifiable as musical motifs and susceptible, like them, to infinite variation. These dreams subdivide into groups, into clearly distinguishable families, similar to the provinces of some mysterious country that might only be visited with closed eyes. The reappearance of a selfsame character, of an object, of a detail of scenery, of the same sensation in my sleeping mind permit me to mark this or that nocturnal region where previous dreams had already transported me, but which I can never be sure of visiting again in the future. There is the region of dreams of remembrance, dominated by the figure of my dead father; the cycle of ambition and pride, which I have seldom wandered except during the nights of my twentieth year; the cycle of terror, the most primitive of all, populated with phantasmagoria of prisons, lepers, dragons, and torn-out hearts, but which I penetrate less frequently than before, since with time, dread diminishes like hope, and we will doubtlessly grow old as reassured as paupers, who have no reason to fear the theft of their misfortune. There is the cycle of quest, concerned with rediscovering the vestiges of a woman who has disappeared and changed into a phantom; there is the cycle of death,which is replete with gardens and which necessarily encompasses all the others, since it is impossible to either dream or think profoundly without coming up against this great, dark uncertainty; there is the cycle of the church, in which a cathedral is obsessively prominent, as formidable and reassuring as the tomb, the night with its stars, the hollows of the earth and of bodies; and sometimes this secret basilica is beheld from within, strewn with the intermittent glint of candlelight and filled with a silence that resembles solemn music, and sometimes it is viewed from outside and its double doors refuse to part before the sleeping pilgrim, who lacks the key necessary to penetrate its depths. And there is the dream of the pond, the only significant dream that originates in childhood, and also the only one that recurs from one year to another without the slightest change. And there is the dream of love, which it is pointless to burden with commentary since the only profound exegetes that this feeling has stirred until now are the organ and violoncello. These various dreams do not proceed, moreover, without concluding mutual alliances: the dreams of ambition, of love and death are frequently set within cathedrals, and the dream of the pond is also a dream of sacred terror. And there is the dream of melancholy happiness, recognizable in that it always unfolds beneath a certain rose sky, and the dream of absolute bliss, which I have dreamed but once, and where nothing transpires apart from an unforgettable blue color.
It is evident that I carefully set aside from these pages the physiological dreams, too obviously caused or favored by a poor functioning of the stomach or heart; and still more purposefully, I set aside those vague and muddled dreams, born of an indigestion of the memory, scarcely more than the shapeless residue of trifling daily afflictions, usually as unworthy of having been dreamed as lived. These occur the most frequently, for in the world of dreams just as in waking, there are, unfortunately, more copper coins than gold pieces.
Likewise, I pass over in silence those purely sexual or postsexual dreams which are little more than a simple assertion of desire (or of pleasure) by a sleeping man or woman. Finally, I set aside those great dreams common to all, whose meaning remains uncertain, but which appear to each of us in almost invariable guise and confer upon us only emotions common to the entire nation of sleepers: dreams which are like national highways and public gardens in the land of illusions. Whatever might be, for example, the true significance of beautiful dreams of levitation, of uneasy dreams of chase where doors open and shut around the fugitive outstretched on his bed, and those unsettling dreams of exhibitionism in which the sleeper strolls nude, astonished at not giving rise to scandal these dreams, in and of themselves, provide us with no more information about the sleeper's individual essence than a metaphor sanctioned by usage enlightens us about the secret soul of the man who utters it after ten thousand others. On the contrary, what matters to me here is the stamp of an individual destiny pressed upon the metal of dream, the inimitable alloy that shared psychological or sensual elements form when a dreamer connects them according to the laws of a chemistry uniquely his own, charging them with all of the significations of a fate that can exist but once. There are dreams and there are destinies: I am, above all, interested in the moment when destinies are expressed through dreams.
My goal is to present a certain number of texts, the exactness of which I can guarantee, and not to propound a new system of dream, for which I am absolutely unqualified. But in the interest of the pages to follow, it is perhaps necessary to indicate my state of mind in approaching the narration of this sequence of dreams. To my way of seeing (and it goes without saying that this vantage point is extremely personal), the experience of the dreamer is not without analogy to that of the poet, and one could compare the oneiric components in their unpolished state, with their endlessly multipliable symbolic resonances, to the vulgar or exalted rhymes ranged alongside the columns of a dictionary. The sleeper assembles images the way the poet assembles words: he makes use of them more or less felicitously to speak about himself to himself. Just as there are mutes, there are sleepers who do not dream; others dream badly, tritely, or by fits and starts: there are stuttering and verbose dreamers. Others, among whom it would be sheer ingratitude on my part not to count myself, sometimes receive the benefice of a beautiful dream, like those sorry poets whom chance occasionally grants the windfall of a verse that astonishes even them. Finally, there are perhaps sleepers of genius who dream with sublimity every night. If only we had at our disposal collections, museums of dreams, we could doubtlessly authenticate the existence of a Delacroix, a Leonardo da Vinci, or Watteau of the world of closed eyes.
To assert that the sleeper makes use of his dreams as a means of expression might seem to overly disregard the fatal aspect of dreams. The author of sublime dreams is as narrowly determined in his interior climate as the parsimonious housewife who dreams of chipped saucepans, but the higher one rises on the Jacob's ladder that humanity climbs and descends, the more are liberty and fatality resorbed in each other to form the indivisible whole that is a destiny. A writer, who for thirty years has scrutinized his own dreams with a lucid and emotive curiosity, once confided in me that he was at last able to escape the zone of nightmare thanks to his own efforts as a sleeper: the nightmares miscarried, ended well, no doubt because this man now possessed the power to hold external adversities in check, precisely the privilege of those beings who have a personal fate.
The gift of dream, like the gift of second sight, has, however, nothing to do with innate liveliness of intelligence, and a man of exceptional genius may well be an imbecile in his dreams. On the other hand, certain mystical aspirations, certain renunciations, a certain dangerous atmosphere of pure suffering or pure solitude are favorable to the birth of hallucinated dreams, and I have observed in my own case that the percentage of incoherent and worthless dreams diminishes for someone who endeavors to set a barrier of serenity opposite the trivial misfortunes of daily life. Just as many claim that after the age of forty a person is responsible for his own face, and no doubt his destiny, it might likewise be said that maturity and old age are responsible for their dreams.
The dreams that compose this volume are all my own, and I have refused to allow myself to incorporate narration of the beautiful dreams that at times have been confided in me, on the one hand because I believe that it is impossible to manage describing with rigorous exactitude all of the minute details of a foreign dream, and on the other because it may interest the reader to know that all of the following dreams emanate from the same being, are the facets of one encompassing dream. But prefaces are made to receive the exceptions that would destroy a book's harmony. I insist on noting here the nightmare of an elderly woman, who saw herself once more in her childhood house, but in a reversed house, where the doors that opened to the right in her diurnal memories opened to the left in dream; and where the stairwell, the clock in the vestibule occupied an exactly identical though exactly opposite place to that which had been assigned to them in life. But what matters in this instance is not the dismal impression emitted by this dream, but the curious example it affords of a dream about dream. A sublime Persian superstition would have it that for every arrival in the world of a human being there corresponds the birth of a creature belonging to the race of genies, which are reproduced only through the intermediary of man and are neither our guardians, nor our demons, nor our doubles in the occult sense of the word, but a sort of reflection cast upon the invisible. When a human child cries in its cradle, it is because his impalpable brother is pulling his hair; if he smiles in his sleep, it is because his fairy brother is telling him amusing tales. Sexual failures are explained by the jealousy of these insubstantial beings, who envy humans the privileges of love and it is in order to thwart their ambush that it is considered wise to leave a little light near newlyweds. Finally, when a man or woman dies, the nation of genies arrives to fetch the ethereal brother or sister and carries it away for burial in the empyrean. Whenever I ponder this belief that endows human life with the beauty of castles reflected in their moats, embellished by their tremulous image with a mystery they would otherwise lack, as if their reflection were reflected upon them, I tell myself that the impalpable landscapes of dream belong perhaps to this same fairy universe of reflections and mirages, of the mirror and the desert. We have not sufficiently observed that the symbols in books of popular oneiromancy are explained by their opposites, as if the compilers of the naive Dreambooks somehow suspected that it was also their task to interpret a world distorted or righted by a play of mirrors. The mirror corrects images, deforms, or reverses them: these three alternatives correspond to the three modes of dreams, whether a matter of beautiful dreams that restore an ideal radiance to reality, nightmares that return an image of our own life as grotesque as it is fearful, and fearful precisely because it is grotesque, or finally those dreams wherein the inverted symbols serve to dissemble secret and dangerous truths, just as the reversed script of Leonardo da Vinci helped preserve him from the scaffold. Every sleeper is a Narcissus who takes fright and is fulfilled above an eternal silvering, and the mind of the man who does not dream is neither more barren nor more confined than any other, but is, quite simply, like a room lacking that magic bay window of the mirror.
Another phenomenon, distinct from the play of mirrors, is allied to dream, and more specifically to a variety of dreams not yet mentioned: dreams of longing. This is the phenomenon of mirage in which it would seem that nature compensates, strives to create for its own eyes the illusion of groves in the steppe, a sheet of water in the desert. We have all of us never dreamed so abundantly as during our periods of longing, or of pain, which is but a wounded longing. And just as in a given place, a mirage does not change its aspect but repeats with the same humble and monotonous obstinacy the image of the shade that is lacking or of the pond for which nature thirsts, our dreams of longing revolve around a restricted number of themes, no more numerous and no more complicated than our misfortunes. The wardrobe of the dream of longing holds innumerable disguises, but only a small number of real personages hide behind the masks cut out from the very fabric of the night. As in Greek tragedy, the other silhouettes that cross the stage remain vague or summarily delineated, much like the confidants and messengers of Aeschylus. Similarly, the oneiric stage design, as sumptuous, as magnificent as it may be, is demonstrably less varied than the places where we have walked with open eyes. Many of us have wandered over a good portion of the world, have caressed many hands, have slept in more than one bed, have contemplated the countless masterpieces that diversify and enrich the idea that they form of beauty. But these superficial acquisitions can only slightly influence the regimen of the soul itself, the muffled and slow life of the instinct that continues murmuring within us like a fountain, and we persist in dreaming of the few landscapes that recall those of our childhood, of the few churches similar to those in which our ancestors might have prayed, or of the few beings whom we have lost or whom we need in order to assuage our suffering. In the even universe of sleep, these successive objects of our longing and our fear escape the division of space into compartments, the principle of contradiction that opposes being and becoming, the sectioning of the world by the clock-hand, rendering futile all conjecture whether a specific dream is formed of premonitions or reminiscences, since the gravitation of time, which is hardly anything but the form of our own weight, has no sway over these profoundly light images made from the same substance as our soul. Time exists because we sink perpendicularly into death, with feet closed together, dragged along by our millstone of flesh. But the images of our vampires and our angels float in this pure space where we plummet with vertiginous speed, without hope of return.
In the following pages, the disciple of Freud will encounter, in almost every line, images that are easy to translate according to his system of symbols, perhaps too easy. If these texts serve to confirm him in his theories, I will not complain, but it is not for this purpose that I have collected them, no more than with the opposite intent. Freudian theory easily finds an application in childhood dreams, considering the immense role that physiological processes and curiosity about them play at that period of existence; since mental illness perhaps represents a delay or regression to an early stage, the dreams of the disordered confess with the same cruel evidence as children's dreams. I mentioned earlier that, with one exception only, I do not remember a single lyrical dream that can be traced back to this period; on the other hand, I was often visited between the ages of seven and eight by the most banal of nightmares; in dreams, I saw a bloody and mutilated body fall into a room through the conduit of a singularly large, dark chimney. My sleeping little girl's reasoning explained this event by the presence upstairs of burglars, about whose exploits the maids often read aloud from the evening papers in my presence, but it now strikes me as plausible that this was actually a dream of giving birth, resulting from curiosity about sexuality, or rather about procreation, on the part of a little girl who must often have heard whispered allusions to her mother, deceased in childbirth, and to the use of forceps at the moment of her birth. On the contrary, in those dreams that I would readily characterize as domestic, composed of inconsiderable details of daily life, the application of a symbolic key could well be superfluous, and when a gardener dreams of a wheelbarrow, it is not untoward to suppose that a real wheelbarrow might, on occasion, be intended. In the great classic or magic dreams to which I alluded earlier, the Freudian interpretation satisfies without completely convincing us: the dream of levitation may be of a sexual disposition, as aforementioned; it may also be an ancient totemic dream of the assimilation of man with bird; and the dreams of pursuit and exhibitionism possibly betray an impulse toffee societal constraint or rebel against it, which would not, however, exclude the presence therein of some degree of sexual symbolism. Concerning the dream and almost everything else in the world besides, the most apt explanations are arranged around the object for which they must account somewhat in the manner of circles that readily spread out to infinity while always remaining concentric to the object itself, at best encircling it more and more narrowly, though unable to intersect its heart. The Freudian hypothesis provides an almost satisfactory equation for the mystery of dreams; following different pathways, the speculations of the occultists attained the same result, just as did those of pharaoh's magi. Whatever the nomenclature, it is always the same quantity that lies in the scale of the precision-balance. The problems of the mind are by nature limitless; and those posed by the dream doubtlessly possess an infinite number of solutions.
Whichever theory one chooses, one always concludes by ascertaining the importance of a system of images which, if not perhaps presaging the sleeper's future, does, in any case, reveal his present and past, and, furthermore, is most apt to predict the future to the extent that it acknowledges this present and past. In every epoch, the connoisseurs of oneiric matters have distinguished between dreams issuing from the gate of horn and dreams issuing from the gate of ivory; they have distinguished between useless and clumsy dreams that mean but little and those striking dreams that mean something, the same distinction evident between those actions to which chance and fatality compel a man and those which arise from his innermost being and compose the web of his personal destiny. If l were asked how exactly these lyrical or hallucinated dreams are to be recognized, I would first mention a certain intensity of the colors, an impression of solemnity and mysterious rarefaction, into which enters something almost of terror and a hint of ecstasy, which only the word "awe" most nearly approximates. Then I would emphasize the inalterable character of this sort of dream: while the majority of dreams dissolve upon awakening in a mist of fatigue from which only a few inconsistent details emerge, the hallucinated dreams are cut out in sharp relief against the clear air of the night. As unmotivated and usually as deprived of conclusion as the others, they are characterized by an inner cohesiveness absent in the rest of dreams. It is impossible to change anything, to omit anything under pain of leaving a gaping rent or the mark of repair in the narration. With course set and fixed forever, they retain, over the years, the same monumental immobility by which are known the few great and moving memories of our life, which rarely coincide with the agitated and banal series of exterior events but which will doubtlessly be the only ones that we carry away to God.
When I think about my life, I behold again a few strolls beside the sea, a nude little girl in front of a mirror, some scattered gusts of pitiful music in a hotel corridor, a bed, a few trains whose speed crushed the countryside, Venice at dawn, Amsterdam beneath the rain, Constantinople at sunset, the lilacs of the rue de la Varenne, someone dying, roaming the halls of a clinic in a furlined cloak, the red box of a theater, a young woman whose face turned all mauve because she was standing under a violet-colored lamp, the calcined hills of Greece, a field of daffodils in the countryside near Salzburg, a few dismal streets in the old northern towns where my sadness paced at set times before the shop fronts of corn chandlers or dealers in bootblacking, the grand basin at Versailles beneath a weighted sky of November, a camel stall filled with animals munching blood red melon, a parting near a subway entrance, a hand holding an anemone, the sweet sound of the blood in beloved arteries, and these few dozen lightning flashes are what I call my memories. These fragments of actual events have the magic intensity of the visions glimpsed in my dreams; and conversely, certain visions in my dreams have all the weight of events that have been lived through. Only my reason prevents me from confounding the two orders of phenomena, but this same reason counsels me to perhaps reconcile them, to place them, one beside the other, on a plane which is doubtlessly that of the sole reality.
Aside from a few older dreams, recognizable by the very brevity which made me choose to incorporate them in this complicated suite where they will appear in the state of pure tonalities, this entire series of dreams is set between the nights of my twenty-eighth and thirty-third year. All gravitate around a few same feelings, a few same signs. Only the advice of a friend and the wish to bring additional evidence to bear in this so very obscure process of dream have induced me to remove them from the silence that covered them over like velvet, I feel reassured by thinking that these few meteoric stones fallen from my inner world will naturally have no more interest for others than mineralogical specimens arranged in a museum display case, and that their secret, talismanic warmth will continue to be perceptible only by me. Like everyone else, I have often considered someday writing a volume of intimate recollections: scruples, all too obvious to those of sound mind, dissuade me in advance from this venture which only the hardiest or perhaps the most hardened soul could undertake without lies. The publication of the ensuing narrations entails less glaring disadvantages, and this is what empowers me, facing myself, to bring to light these few episodes flora the memoirs of my dreamed life.
The Visions in the Cathedral
I am standing in the transept of a church. Which church? A Gothic cathedral of gray rough stone, Chartres, Lausanne, perhaps Canterbury, a stone forest of full-grown trees, stripped of soaring birds and soaring angels, without ornamental brushwood rimed with silver or reddened with golden filaments, without hangings of waving tapestries, with nothing of the subdued magnificence of Saint Stephen's in Vienna, also with none of the crowding of corpses carved in marble, polished as the purest ivory, which transforms Westminster into a hangar hovering over the river Lethe. Upon the draughtboard of black and white flagstones, chairs are slovenly arranged, their angles marking the more or less abrupt way in which the devout arose at the end of a prayer to take their leave of God. A cathedral where, for the moment, no divine service is being celebrated, a cathedral without music, without incense, without candles, but also without asphyxiating darkness, a cathedral bathed in a clear penumbra which seems to trickle from the stones and slowly augments in the distance of the perspectives. I am not sure if I am the only visitor to this cathedral, or if prayers rise in the shadows or embraces are exchanged there; I observe no signs. A cathedral that appears to be empty; a cathedral at twilight; a cathedral on an ashen day.
An elderly woman draws near to me: this is a woman renting chairs. She is also an American, a certain Mrs. Knife, an old withered American woman battered by life, whom I had met in a Belgian hotel, flanked by her tubercular husband and syphilitic son, and whom I usually avoid because her dull chatter only deals with the comings and goings of duchesses, and because it is distressing to be unpleasant with people whom you pity. Here, she is far from her husband and son and she does not speak. She is just ridiculous enough to be touching and she no doubt resembles at this moment all that is best in her soul. She wears a bandage over her left eye, for she is threatened with going blind, and her right eye is all red, as if she no longer used it except for weeping. She approaches a prayer stool, before which I had stopped by chance, and I notice that a large satchel is propped against the small bars of the back. This seems to be one of those large, black leather portfolios in which print dealers shut up their collections and from which they draw out, one after another beneath the client's gaze, the inevitable portraits of Beethoven, the slender, half-nude young women destined to decorate the walls of bachelor's rooms, and the forever artificially blue seascapes. The American with her countenance of an unfortunate Fate hurries to untie the ribbons of the satchel and the pictures it contains flow beneath my gaze, one after the other, without my knowing how she makes them file before me. I have the impression that the image from underneath emerges to the surface at the right moment and is superposed by itself over the preceding image, without confusion, without a jolt, somewhat in the manner of those broad prospects that fill a screen during a film projection, and it is as if corners of countryside, of rooms, of celestial space were suddenly introduced into the twilight cathedral. Much more than painted landscapes, these are immobilized landscapes; the air bathes them but does not circulate there. You would say that a very gentle spell cast over them has put a stop to their changing. I know beyond question that these magic surfaces were painted by the man whom I loved and were, for some reason or other, placed there by him long ago. I even believe that he had painted them for no one but me, surely not that he had destined them for me, but because we have indefensible claims to rejoice in those things we were born to love and these abstract rights are the only ones that can never again be taken from us. It was foreordained that I would one day enter this church, that this satchel would be placed against this chair, and that an old Mrs. Knife whom I barely know would show me these canvases where the hands which were the dearest in the world to me had fixed images as vast as the earth and sky.
First, there is a staircase. A simple, white marble staircase with a banister supported by a row of balusters, lost in the midst of a sloping meadow. But this meadow is not green; it is mauve, or rather, violet, for the grass has been overgrown and replaced by the meadow-saffron of autumn. The staircase seems to lead nowhere; perhaps it joins the two terraces of a park. The bottom of the stair vanishes into the mauve abundance; the upper part of the bank hides the sky, but it must be the close of day, the moment when the eyes of twilight are going to shut. The stairs, a little slanting, a little worn, are stained with a sort of moldiness, and veins meander in the depths of the indefinably white stone, of that white which hesitates between yellow and gray, and which only belongs to marble often exposed to the rain and sometimes to the sun, and to the discolored faces of the ill when they begin their decline. Each slender flower on its stem has a special look which distinguishes it from the crowd of its companions, like a beloved woman whom one would recognize in the midst of a multitude, but the general effect is of a single continuous sheet a single immense slant of mauve velvet, rich and soft as a fabric mellowed with age. But what I cannot express in words is the silent, delicate charm of this corner of a landscape, its compromise between sadness and serenity, the sense, diffused everywhere, of an intense expectation which is already no longer hope. As always in the presence of the lovely, peaceful aspects of the world, you have the impression that their very stillness is the result of a tragic tension and must end in annihilation. And perhaps it is that which endows this park where nothing happens with such poignancy, unless it is the sensation of day's end or the presence of flowers which only bloom in autumn.
Introduction: Reflections on the Dreamed Life of Marguerite Yourcenar
• Dreams and Destinies
• The Visions in the Cathedral
• The Accursed Pond
• The Pathway Beneath the Snow
• Torn-Out Hearts
• The Corpse in the Ravine
• The Keys to the Church
• The Blue Water
• The Island of the Dragons
• The Avenue of the Beheaded
• The Blue Child
• Wax Candles in the Cathedral
• The Animal’s Rich Repast
• The Wild Horses
• The Wind Through the Grass
• The Reflecting Pool in the Church
• The House of the Pale Women
• The Pathway at Twilight
• The Flower Boxes
• The Woman Stricken with Leprosy
• The Burnt House
• The Young Girl Who Weeps
• Love and the Linen Shroud
• File on Dreams and Destinies
• Quotations for Dreams and Destinies
• Notes on Dreams
• Notes Intended for Addition to the Preface
• Rough Draft, "Dreams"
• On the Nature of Dream
• Narration of Dreams (1960-1979)
• Concerning a System of Dreams