Friday, July 29, 2005

The Haunted Mind

is a fascinating meditation by Nathaniel Hawthorne on sleeping, waking, and what either have to do with the course of life; it beats Proust by about 75 years, and it's a good deal more doleful. The opening lines look forward to the "Overture" in "Swann's Way":

"What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised
the personages of your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad glance at them before they can flit into obscurity. Or, to vary the metaphor, you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport,
and behold its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is undisturbed. The distant sound of a church clock is borne faintly on the wind. You question with yourself, half seriously, whether it has stolen to your waking ear from some gray tower, that stood within the precincts of your dream. While yet in suspense, another clock flings its heavy clang over the slumbering town, with so full and distinct a sound, and such a long murmur in the neighboring air, that you are certain it must proceed from the steeple at the nearest corner. You count the strokes--one--two--and there they cease, with a booming sound, like the gathering of a third stroke within the bell."

From there, our narrator ponders the sense of time that can only come at 2 a.m.:

"Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath. Oh, that he would fall asleep, and let mortals live on without growing older!"

The narrator feels a chill, bringing with it thoughts of death:

"You think how the dead are Iying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb. That gloomy thought will collect a gloomy multitude, and throw its complexion over your wakeful hour."

He is gripped by all the usual hour-of-the-wolf thoughts: all you've lost, haven't done, haven't accomplished, can't regain. What once was passion has turned sour, hope has turned to disappointment, and you recall things about yourself you'd rather not:

"In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, those dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an
hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain."

Another insomniac, John Updike, knows the feeling. From "Villages":

"At three in the morning, our brains churn within the self, trying to get out of what we
know to be a sinking ship. But jumping out of the self is not a Western skill. The walls of the skull stay solid, sealing us in with our fears."

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