Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Dreams and the Madness of Mercutio
“Do you know all about dreams?”
Elia and I were walking down a street in Firenze near the train station when he asked me this.
Truth is, I don’t often remember my dreams. I feel a trifle jealous of my friends who can recall their dreams. Especially sex dreams. Lots of people report having them. Me, never. It sounds like fun – who wouldn’t enjoy a little frolic with a succubus in the reverie of sleep?
The few dreams I do remember are usually entertaining or artistically intriguing, but only after the fact. My dreams are so vivid I always accept them as reality until I wake up; and yet, however vivid, I often forget them unless I write them down. Yet even then it isn’t the dream I remember so much as the description of it. For example, I remember writing down a dream in which my father was walking across a parking lot and said to me, “We are a quarter of the way to the goal and halfway through the hour!” But the image and the text I wrote down is what I remember. I can’t recall the dream.
Perhaps this also describes what we call “real” life: a very livid dream we believe is reality, and once the dream is over no one really remembers it.
“Do you know all about dreams?” asks Elia behind his round, Lennon-ish sunglasses, long, tan, and lanky in the harsh sun.
Through the years I have met many friends who are knowledgeable about dream interpretation. I never put much effort into organizing the information, so I don’t remember any of it. Water means something, bridges mean something else, people transforming into other people or simultaneously existing as two different people you know is also supposed to mean stuff. But what of talking animals? Or people who turn into scarecrows? Or colors that swirl like incense smoke and peel layers of the world like wispy veils? What of the inexplicable dread experienced in the presence of something as ordinary as a glass of milk or a sleeping dog? And to what do any of these “explanations” really correspond? Are they verified by any scientific method or stable folk tradition? What does anybody really “know” about dreams?
“Did you dream a dream tonight?” I asked, a reference to Romeo and Juliet, in which Elia was rehearsing the role of Paris and I Tybalt. In the play, Romeo speaks to Mercutio of dreams, but Mercutio – who, as we see in his “Queen Mab” monologue, certainly has a lively imagination while he is awake – is not awed by dreams. And yet in that famous monologue, he becomes possessed, starting off being silly only for a dark kind of madness to run away with him. Romeo wonders if dreams are the truths we dare not utter while awake; perhaps even prophetic, as a dream warns him that crashing the Capulets’ party might not be a good idea. Mercutio says “pish.”
True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the drew-dropping south.
So it is for Romeo’s dream of love, for the collective dreams that sustain their society (an elaborate social game with deadly stakes). And what of shared dreams, the hierarchy of images personal, cultural, religious and mythological? The Jungian open-source matrix from which we draw inspiration and direction? What of the mundus imaginalis?
Methinks Mercutio has no use for any of it. He sees the emptiness from which these forms emerge. Sadly, he throws himself into a lethal battle with Tybalt before we learn more about what Mercutio sees. The madness of Mercutio is one of those moments in Shakespeare where we glimpse something far deeper than what’s going on in the story of the play; but the playwright has to get back to business.
Maybe Shakespeare felt that the only fate for people who see the emptiness behind the social order was nihilism, or at least the most common reaction. But even “nothing” is a dream – a point Mercutio doesn’t quite reach in time.
Elia described a bit of his dream and it became part of my dream of that moment in Florence, walking past the train station on a hot, humid day where mosquitos feasted on wealthy travelers in beautiful clothes, drawing out a bit of their essence and leaving an itchy sensation behind.