A Dream within a Dream

This past winter, I recalled an essay from 1960 by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. It's brilliant. And should you be at all interested in whether we live in a formalist or Platonist universe, well worth looking into. In homage, I had originally considered titling this entry, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Language. But then a bit of poetry by Poe sprang to mind, which ties it all together nicely, I think.

Language has always been my paramour: intriguing, seductive and encouraging. She's a pedophile, too, fondling me as a tyke but just like Anna Nichole Smith, also finds something praiseworthy in one of advancing years. A trusted companion for life she is.

Last season, a new word popped up (of which more in just a moment), and it came along in the nick of time to shed light on something upon which I was ruminating. Words really do give form to what would otherwise lie below perception.

As I mulled it over, my mind went back to one of the first philosophical discussions Mike and I had over forty years ago. This would have been very shortly after we met, and may have taken place in his abode, which entrance required a harrowing ascent; not for acrophobes, this!

We debated language and thought that afternoon after classes. Having recently been irrevocably corrupted by Joseph Chilton Pearce's groundbreaking Crack in the Cosmic Egg and Charlton Laird's magnificent The Miracle of Language, I argued that language precedes thought. A proposition still resonating within me.

I've seen verification of it time after time. Just when I'm losing my finger-hold on the near vertical cliff of life, all of a sudden, the lover I spoke of in the second paragraph, above, provides the necessary piton to prevent a tumble into unknowing.

A word classifies, yes, surely. But more, a word breathes life into an idea which might never have come to fruition otherwise. Without that word, the experience is stillborn. In a way, a corollary of this would be Sherlock Holmes admonishing Dr. Watson (in A Scandal in Bohemia),

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.
Language is the first step in a cure for blindness.

So I was pondering Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt yet again. That truly is the only holy book worthy of reverence in my universe. In particular, I felt the need to refer to his dealings with the fairy child. We come in on him as he's just starting to awaken from a night's sleep, his only respite from an unfulfilled life:

For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would sail—

Rumble and bang of the milk-truck...

Babbitt moaned; turned over; struggled back toward his dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters.
Take especial note of that last sentence; it leads directly to my word for the day.

Now obviously, as you no doubt guess, I have my own fairy child who haunts. That's probably why the venerable George F. popped to mind yet again. That's old news of course, and epidemic among all who grow up disappointed. But here's the miraculous aspect, in keeping with the theme of this essay.

Out of nowhere, and don't ask me to retrace my steps, a most unusual word popped up in my peregrinations this past season. Of Greek roots, of course. And with at least two roots hinting at its meaning. But still just mysterious enough to entice. Are you ready for this? 


hypnerotomachia: (n), striving for love in a dream

Without the word, I really doubt the phenomenon would find extension in the fourth dimension. Oh sure, it's probably the case everyone has had a fleeting encounter in slumberland, but upon awakening the event evaporates and simply doesn't register in our vocabulary. Makes me think of the old joke which kept us junior high boys in stitches:


I dreamt I was a policeman and woke up with a billy-club in my hand.

But there's more. No way I'm going to let this slippery eel of a word wriggle out without investigation. I eventually stumbled upon a reference to what sounds to be an absolutely crazy book from 1499, Italy. Entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, it seems to be straight out of a dinner date sharing a hookah with Tim Leary. Wikipedia gives the following brief synopsis:

The book begins with Poliphilo, who has spent a restless night because his beloved, Polia, shunned him. Poliphilo is transported into a wild forest, where he gets lost, encounters dragons, wolves and maidens and a large variety of architecture, escapes, and falls asleep once more.
Well, the maidens sound okay, although the rest might require plastic bedsheets. This is followed by even more bizarre phantasmagoria, and then:
Poliphilo resumes his narrative after one-fifth of the book. Polia rejects Poliphilo, but Cupid appears to her in a vision and compels her to return and kiss Poliphilo, who has fallen into a deathlike swoon at her feet, back to life. Venus blesses their love, and the lovers are united at last.

As Poliphilo is about to take Polia into his arms, Polia vanishes into thin air and Poliphilo wakes up.
I hate it when that happens.

Take another look at the last sentence in the Babbitt quote, above.

And then Poe writes one of the few genuinely epistemological poems I've ever read, and it's a slap to dear old Descartes' face.
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

--Edgar Allan Poe (1849)
Indeed, dreams can be scary as hell, like when your best beloved appears to you in a bun coiffure.  Babbitt, Poliphilo and Poe didn't know the half of it.

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