Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs to help readers get to know me better. This week I am sharing “About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies” for my current reblog tumblr, Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. It had formerly been called The Neglected and the Changed, but for certain reasons I chose a new name and wanted to explain it. If I were to summarize my feelings in this post, it would be with these two lines: “Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try”; and “I exult in the world’s indifference.”
About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies
Why did I rename this blog Dreamtigers and Silent Skies? I’m glad you asked! Both are references to the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, but it might take a bit of explaining.
Dreamtigers refers to the poem/short story “Dreamtigers” (the original Spanish poem has this English title). In this piece, Borges describes his childhood fascination with tigers. His love of tigers has faded with age, he writes, but they still prowl his dreams. The story (or poem) ends thus:
As I sleep I am drawn into some dream or other, and suddenly I realize that it’s a dream. At those moments, I often think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger.
Oh, incompetence! My dreams never seem to engender the creature I so hunger for. The tiger does appear, but it is all dried up, or it’s flimsy-looking, or it has impure vagaries of shape or an unacceptable size, or it’s altogether too ephemeral, or it looks more like a dog or bird than like a tiger.
—from Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley
I take “Dreamtigers” to describe and lament the difficulty of capturing in art the particular enchantment that reality has over you—or, I should say, the particular enchantment that you have draped over some favoured piece of reality. Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try. Our dreamtigers are our attempts.
Silent skies has more history. It comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s essay, “Pascal’s Sphere,” which covers both the history of imagining an infinite sphere and Blaise Pascal’s spiritual anguish. Borges writes of Pascal:
In that dejected century, the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe and yearned to adore God, but God was less real to him than the hated universe. He lamented that the firmament did not speak; he compared our lives to the shipwrecked on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confusion, fear, and solitude; and he expressed it in other words: “Nature is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
—from Selected Non-Fictions, translated by Eliot Weinberger
The essay follows the development of that last image; labyrinths and infinities are among Borges’s obsessions. But I was caught by this: “He lamented that the firmament did not speak.” The sky is silent. This sentiment reminds me of another history of thought.
Take, for instance, H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft’s writing is in many ways defined by his cosmicism. (He was also awfully racist, and his stories are as run through with racism as with cosmicism, but that’s for another day.) S. T. Joshi’s introduction to The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories puts it this way:
But if the “Cthulhu Mythos” has any significance, it is as an instantiation of what David E. Schultz has termed an “anti-mythology”: whereas most of the religions and mythologies in human history seek to reconcile human beings with the cosmos by depicting a close, benign relationship between man and god, Lovecraft’s pseudomythology brutally shows that man is not the center of the universe, that the “gods” care nothing for him, and that the earth and all its inhabitants are but a momentary incident in the unending cyclical chaos of the universe.
S. T. Joshi defines Lovecraft’s cosmicism as the awareness of or belief in “the vast gulfs of space and time and the resultant inconsequence of the human species.” That is what Cthulhu is: Cthulhu is a figure for the universe’s incomprehensibility and it’s indifference towards us. In other words, for Lovecraft, the firmament is silent, or at least it will not bother speaking to us because to the universe we are nothing.
Of a whole different tone, Northrop Frye’s conception of literature and literary fiction hinges on a similar view of the universe. Frye engaged in what he calls archetypal criticism, which seeks to find common or universal themes in literature. In The Educated Imagination, Frye describes a (largely fictional, not very anthropological) sequence according to which humans engage with the world. In the first stage, humans experience the world as it is:
The first thing you do is take a long look at the world around you, a world of sky and sea and earth and stars and trees and hills. You see this world as objective, as something set over against you and not yourself or related to you in any way. And you notice two things about this objective world. In this first place, it doesn’t have any conversation. It’s full of animals and plants and insects going on with their own business, but there’s nothing that responds to you: it has no morals and no intelligence, or at least none that you can grasp. It may have a shape and a meaning, but it doesn’t seem to be a human shape or a human meaning. Even if there’s enough to eat and no dangerous animals, you feel lonely and frightened and unwanted in such a world.
In the second stage, you have both an intellect that describes the world and emotions that like or don’t like it. In the third stage, you have imagination, where the intellect can abstract and model the world (science) and where you can imagine a world which conforms with your desires (literature). Frye writes, “Art begins as soon as ‘I don’t like this’ turns into ‘this is not the way I could imagine it.’” Literature thus begins with an ideal imagined world, and approaches the world-as-it-is as genre or realism require. Practically, there are limits to this, but in the imagination there is no limitation to humanizing the world, giving it human meaning:
At the level of practical sense, or civilization, there’s a human circumference, a little cultivated world with a human shape, a fenced off from the jungle and inside the sea and the sky. But in the imagination anything goes that can be imagined, and the limit of the imagination is a totally human world.
In his most famous work, his Anatomy of Criticism, Frye refers to the totally human world as the apocalyptic world (what you might imagine as heaven) and the objective, inhuman world as demonic, as “the world that desire totally rejects […] the world as it is before the human imagination begins to work on it and before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established.” He pins much of his theory on these two poles, and the positions between them, but notice that the objective world is demonic because it is inhuman. That is—the world is devoid of human meaning, the sky does not speak, and so it is horrible.
(In a seminar I once attended a professor told this anecdote: Frye was invited to a friend’s place in Vancouver for dinner. His friend had a back deck with a view of the mountains; “Look at those mountains,” his friend said.
“Yes,” said Frye. “Aren’t they ghastly?”)
This is not at all how I encounter the world. I exult in the world’s indifference. There are only three things that can make me forget my own petty troubles and strivings: engagement with people who have needs I must address, engagement with fiction and other art, and engagement with the natural world which does not care about me at all. The first and second, unfortunately, still keep me in the social world and are only sometimes successful at making me forget myself. The natural world, before which I am utterly nothing, is much more often successful. And it isn’t the power, the immutability of the mountains that does it: an ant, too, which I could easily crush or capture, is also ignorant of my needs and desires. I delight in the ant as well as the mountain because they take me out of myself. I do not want a totally human world; what a nightmare that would be.
It is my experience that the universe is silent on the matter of ultimate meaning. I do not mean to make any comment on God or objective morality, only that the world doesn’t offer us unambiguous access to either. This can be condition for great distress and misery, as it was for Pascal, or cynicism about human beliefs, as for Lovecraft, or anxiety about nature and an escapist vision of literature, as for Frye. I may have participated in all of these things myself, to some degree. But mostly, when I’m at my best, I listen to the silent indifferent skies and feel calm and wonder.
So when I invoke the dreamtigers, I invoke the attempt of art to capture that in the world with which we are enchanted. The attempt almost always fails, but we try. And when I invoke the silent skies, it is to say that I wish to honour the ways in which we are alienated from the natural world, but I also wish to enjoy and indulge in the way the world minds its own lovely business. These are the main themes, I think, of the things I re-blog.