Bad Idea 2

Dreaming in Books


I had a *very* long footnote at one point trying to show some of the numerous examples of how much romantic literature was invested in promoting a notion of reading as dreaming. For a long time I was collecting examples of such scenes until I realized that “romantic” and “dreaming” were so synonymous that my map was soon going to be 1:1 with the terrain it was trying to illuminate. Similarly, I wanted to include a host of scholarly work that promoted, rather than challenged, this tradition from Foucault to Kittler. The starting point of a critique of this tradition for me was Cliff Siskin’s The Historicity of Romantic Discourse. One of the important outcomes of this romantic discourse that was then regurgitated in scholarship was that the association of the categories of both the “book” and “literature” with that of “dreaming” essentially cordoned-off these fields from their relationship to human communication. Literature was thought to be fundamentally opposed to “communication” and the book was imagined to be part of a highly individualized – and individualizing – experience. It was that twofold effacement that I wanted to get at, not necessarily a compilation of the association of dreaming and books. Here are a few samples from that project, which would have had to have been a book of its own.
The fundamental work of this tradition of visionary bibliographism seems to me to be E.A. Poe’s “Berenice,” where the narrator remarks, “In that chamber [the library] I was born. Thus awakening from the long night of what seemed, but was not, nonentity, at once into the very regions of fairy-land – into a palace of imagination – into the wild dominions of monastic thought and erudition – it is not singular that I gazed around me with a startled and ardent eye – that I loitered away my boyhood in books, and dissipated my youth in reverie; but it is singular that as the years rolled away, and the noon of my manhood found me still in the mansion of my fathers – it is wonderful what stagnation there fell upon the springs of my life…The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, – not the material of my everyday existence – but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.” E.A. Poe, “Berenice,” The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stuart and Susan Levine (Chicago: Illinois UP, 1990) 71-72.

To see how this discourse of dreaming and books could migrate from fiction to the making of fiction, see Clemens Brentano’s joint project with Achim von Arnim: “Since the first of May,” Brentano writes to Wilhelm Grimm in 1810, “I have been writing down all of my and Arnim’s dreams in a large book.” Reinhold Steig, Clemens Brentano und die Brüder Grimm (1914) 100.

And then to see how it moves from book to image, see Kersting's numerous paintings of lonely readers of books, which stand in stark contrast to the eighteenth-century depictions of the sociability of reading (readers crowded around a table, coffee-houses full of men reading the newspaper, etc.),

I cite Foucault’s “Fantasia of the Library” as a key reference for scholarship on this tradition, and I think quoting from it will help see what his influential essay overlooks: “Possibly, Flaubert was responding to an experience of the fantastic which was singularly modern and relatively unknown before his time, to the discovery of a new imaginative space in the nineteenth century. This domain of phantasms is no longer the night, the sleep of reason, or the uncertain void that stands before desire, but, on the contrary, wakefulness, untiring attention, zealous erudition, and constant vigilance. Henceforth, the visionary experience arises from the black and white surface of printed signs, from the closed and dusty volume that opens with a flight of forgotten words…The imaginary now resides between the book and the lamp.” Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. D. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977) 87-109; 90.

Foucault’s emphasis on the space “between” the book and the lamp is a key indicator of how unimportant the material object was for his thinking about this imaginary experience. But his emphasis on the “untiring attention” of this imaginary space picks-up on a central theme from Poe’s narrator who confesses: “This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive,” and who will speak later of “that nervous intensity of interest” (72; emphasis in original).

I tried to draw on this sense of nervous attention in the opening section of the introduction and I’m sure readers will see how indebted my thinking is to Jonathan Crary’s work here on a visual tradition. This explicit connection should show us how important the book was in generating this nineteenth-century discourse of nervous attention, something that will hopefully contribute to Crary’s project and those working in that vein.