Anyone not yet convinced that dreams can be a form of art, much less a marketable one, should have told that to Melville House Publishing before they published the dream journals of Georges Perec (“la boutique obscure” translated by Daniel Levin Becker, 2012). Most famous for his novels “Life A Users Manuel” and “A Void” (written entirely without the letter ‘e’), Perec was a highly inventive and linguistically challenging writer who was not above the challenge of trying to record his dreams with the same style of language and plot consistency in which they were dreamed. According to Perec’s introduction to his dream journals, which he called the world’s first “nocturnal autobiography”:
“Everyone has dreams. Some remember theirs, far fewer recount them, and very few write them down. Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)? I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them. These dreams—overdreamed, overworked, overwritten—what could I then expect of them, if not to make them into texts, a bundle of texts left as an offering at the gates of that “royal road” I still must travel with my eyes open?
Perec goes on to give some notes on transcribing and composing dream records on the level of typography and page formatting (paragraph breaks indicate changes of style, place, mood as felt within the dream), before presenting the dreams themselves.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a dream journal titled (though not translated as) ‘the obscure shop’ carries with it a certain everyday or quotidian banality—dreams abound of conferences, house-calls, writing crossword puzzles, chasing cats, and buying clothing. One is strongly reminded of the dream journals of French critic Hélène Cixous (published in translation as “Dream I Tell You” in 2006), where the most untoward and dream-like situation is that her daughter keeps transforming into a kitten. While both dreamers are often haunted by scenarios of the World Wars, they also struggle with the mechanisms of dresser drawers and interpersonal relationships (though Perec’s journals do not avoid dreams of sex). Perec’s dreams, though, also indicate a fascinating shift toward a post-modern worldview and literary style.
Born in 1936, Perec’s dreams included in this book were not dreamed until the 1970s-80s, and amongst the quotidian, early-century concerns of his formative subconscious, one finds fascinating moments when Perec finds himself living out the plots of modern movies or demonstrating as a “hippy.” In one dream (no. 52 in the collection), after making dinner reservations Perec, “returned to Paris in a magnificent machine, ultramodern and very sci-fi. I remember panoramic portholes. Dizzying speed.”
While it is tempting with a collection of dreams like this to quote from the whole selection—as it is through the repetition of symbols that dreams texts take on their full aesthetic fascination—the first dream, called “The Height Gauge” gives a powerful feel for the dreaming imagination of Georges Perec:
“A scene with several people. There is a height gauge in the corner. I know I am at risk of having to spend several hours under it; it’s an act of bullying rather than real torture, but extremely uncomfortable, because there is nothing holding the top of the gauge and, after a while under it, one might shrink.
“Naturally, I am dreaming and know that I am dreaming, naturally, that I am in a prison camp. It’s not really a prison camp, of course, but an image of a prison camp, a dream of a prison camp, a prison-camp metaphor, a prison camp I know only as a familiar image, as though I were ceaselessly dreaming the same dream, as though I never dreamed of anything else, as though I never did anything but dream of this prison camp.
“It’s clear that the threat of the gauge is enough, at first, to concentrate in itself all the terror of the camp. And then it seems it’s not so bad. In any case, I escape the threat; it doesn’t come to pass. But it is precisely my avoidance of this threat that most clearly proves the essence of the camp: the only thing that saves me is the indifference of the torturer, his liberty to do or not to do; I am entirely at the mercy of his arbitrary power (in exactly the same way as I am at the mercy of this dream: I know it is only a dream, but I cannot escape it).
“The second sequence modifies these themes slightly. Two characters (one is without a doubt myself) open an armoire in which two hiding spots have been forged, crammed with deportees’ valuables. By “valuables” I mean any objects that could increase the safety and chances of survival of their owner, be they bare necessities or objects with some exchange value. The first hiding spot contains woolens, countless woolens, old and moth-eaten and drab. The second hole, which contains money, is made of a rocker device: one of the armoire’s shelves is hollow inside and its cover lifts up like that of a school desk. But this little stash seems unsound, and I am just activating the mechanism that opens it to take the money out when someone enters. An officer. In an instant we understand that all of this is useless anyway. It also becomes clear that dying and leaving this room are one and the same.
“The third sequence could surely, had I not forgotten it completely, have supplied a name for the camp: Treblinka, or Terezienbourg, or Katowice. The performance might have been the Terezienbourg Requim… The moral of this faded episode seems to invoke old dreams: we can save ourselves (sometimes) by playing…”