Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Emptiness of Dreaming

Last night I got an email asking if I could propose another 20-minute presentation for the IASD conference in Sonoma because someone had dropped out, and I realized pretty quickly I wanted to do this:

The Emptiness of Dreaming: Transcendental Fantasy in Three Films

The use of the dream plot or dream sequence in cinema in the manner of a Zen koan, to subvert the prevailing assumptions of realism, arouses intense anxiety even as it induces an experience that transcends rational understanding, as exemplified in three films: Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), and the British anthology film Dead of Night (1945).

Images from Discreet Charm, Dead of Night, and Waking Life. Below them is the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who said he awoke from a dream in which he was a butterfly and asked, "Am I Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi?"

Strange but True

This beautiful lake, which for years has had a reputation as one of Maryland's most popular outdoor cruising sites for men looking for sex with other men, is called Lake Needwood.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Doing 1984 in class, which I always think people overlook as a really great novel because it's so widely read at such a young age--and because it doesn't appear experimental in form. In graduate school, I used to enjoy discussions of why Orwell's literary reputation was subordinated to that of Joyce or Woolf.

This line from Foucault shows especially well the relevance of his analysis of panopticism to Orwell's telescreen:
By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance. . . .

From Foucault, Panopticism, in Discipline and Punish
(I've placed in bold what I want to ask students to comment on in class)

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him. Against the plague, which is a mixture, discipline brings into play its power, which is one of analysis. A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear. But there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power; not masks that were put on and taken off, but the assignment to each individual of his 'true' name, his 'true' place, his 'true' body, his 'true' disease. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of 'contagions', of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder. . . .

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.
The ceremonies, the rituals, the marks by which the sovereign's surplus power was manifested are useless. There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants (Bentham, 45). Similarly, it does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.
A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation. So it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations. Bentham was surprised that panoptic institutions could be so light: there were no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks; all that was needed was that the separations should be clear and the openings well arranged. The heaviness of the old 'houses of security', with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a 'house of certainty'. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side - to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance. . . .

It is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centres and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is - necessary modifications apart - applicable 'to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection' (Bentham, 40; although Bentham takes the penitentiary house as his prime example, it is because it has many different functions to fulfil - safe custody, confinement, solitude, forced labour and instruction).

In each of its applications, it makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power. It does this in several ways: because it can reduce the number of those who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised. Because it is possible to intervene at any moment and because the constant pressure acts even before the offences, mistakes or crimes have been committed. Because, in these conditions, its strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise, it constitutes a mechanism whose effects follow from one another. Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives 'power of mind over mind'. The panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense: it assures its economy (in material, in personnel, in time); it assures its efficacity by its preventative character, its continuous functioning and its automatic mechanisms. It is a way of obtaining from power 'in hitherto unexampled quantity', 'a great and new instrument of government . . .; its great excellence consists in the great strength it is capable of giving to any institution it may be thought proper to apply it to' (Bentham, 66). . . .

There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme, the discipline-blockade, the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the other extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come. The movement from one project to the other, from a schema of exceptional discipline to one of a generalized surveillance, rests on a historical transformation: the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society. . . .

But this extension of the disciplinary institutions was no doubt only the most visible aspect of various, more profound processes.
1. The functional inversion of the disciplines. At first, they were expected to neutralize dangers, to fix useless or disturbed populations, to avoid the inconveniences of over-large assemblies; now they were being asked to play a positive role, for they were becoming able to do so, to increase the possible utility of individuals. Military discipline is no longer a mere means of preventing looting, desertion or failure to obey orders among the troops; it has become a basic technique to enable the army to exist, not as an assembled crowd, but as a unity that derives from this very unity an increase in its forces; discipline increases the skill of each individual, coordinates these skills, accelerates movements, increases fire power, broadens the fronts of attack without reducing their vigour, increases the capacity for resistance, etc. The discipline of the workshop, while remaining a way of enforcing respect for the regulations and authorities, of preventing thefts or losses, tends to increase aptitudes, speeds, output and therefore profits; it still exerts a moral influence over behaviour, but more and more it treats actions in terms of their results, introduces bodies into a machinery, forces into an economy. When, in the seventeenth century, the provincial schools or the Christian elementary schools were founded, the justifications given for them were above all negative: those poor who were unable to bring up their children left them 'in ignorance of their obligations: given the difficulties they have in earning a living, and themselves having been badly brought up, they are unable to communicate a sound upbringing that they themselves never had'; this involves three major inconveniences: ignorance of God, idleness (with its consequent drunkenness, impurity, larceny, brigandage); and the formation of those gangs of beggars, always ready to stir up public disorder and 'virtually to exhaust the funds of the Hotel-Dieu' (Demia, 60-61). Now, at the beginning of the Revolution, the end laid down for primary education was to be, among other things, to 'fortify', to 'develop the body', to prepare the child 'for a future in some mechanical work', to give him 'an observant eye, a sure hand and prompt habits' (Talleyrand's Report to the Constituent Assembly, lo September 1791, quoted by Leon, 106). The disciplines function increasingly as techniques for making useful individuals. Hence their emergence from a marginal position on the confines of society, and detachment from the forms of exclusion or expiation, confinement or retreat. Hence the slow loosening of their kinship with religious regularities and enclosures. Hence also their rooting in the most important, most central and most productive sectors of society. They become attached to some of the great essential functions: factory production,~the transmission of knowledge, the diffusion of aptitudes and skills, the war-machine. Hence, too, the double tendency one sees developing throughout the eighteenth century to increase the number of disciplinary institutions and to discipline the existing apparatuses.

2. The swarming of disciplinary mechanisms. While, on the one hand, the disciplinary establishments increase, their mechanisms have a certain tendency to become 'de-institutionalized', to emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once functioned and to circulate in a 'free' state; the massive, compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted. Sometimes the closed apparatuses add to their internal and specific function a role of external surveillance, developing around themselves a whole margin of lateral controls. Thus the Christian School must not simply train docile children; it must also make it possible to supervise the parents, to gain information as to their way of life, their resources, their piety, their morals. The school tends to constitute minute social observatories that penetrate even to the adults and exercise regular supervision over them: the bad behaviour of the child, or his absence, is a legitimate pretext, according to Demia, for one to go and question the neighbours, especially if there is any reason to believe that the family will not tell the truth; one can then go and question the parents themselves, to find out whether they know their catechism and the prayers, whether they are determined to root out the vices of their children, how many beds there are in the house and what the sleeping arrangements are; the visit may end with the giving of alms, the present of a religious picture, or the provision of additional beds (Demia, 39-40). Similarly, the hospital is increasingly conceived of as a base for the medical observation of the population outside; after the burning down of the Hotel-Dieu in 1772, there were several demands that the large buildings, so heavy and so disordered, should be replaced by a series of smaller hospitals; their function would be to take in the sick of the quarter, but also to gather information, to be alert to any endemic or epidemic phenomena, to open dispensaries, to give advice to the inhabitants and to keep the authorities informed ,of the sanitary state of the region.

One also sees the spread of disciplinary procedures, not in the form of enclosed institutions, but as centres of observation disseminated throughout society. Religious groups and charity organizations had long played this role of 'disciplining' the population. From the Counter-Reformation to the philanthropy of the July monarchy, initiatives of this type continued to increase; their aims were religious (conversion and moralization), economic (aid and encouragement to work) or political (the struggle against discontent or agitation). One has only to cite by way of example the regulations for the charity associations in the Paris parishes. The territory to be covered was divided into quarters and cantons and the members of the associations divided themselves up along the same lines. These members had to visit their respective areas regularly. 'They will strive to eradicate places of ill-repute, tobacco shops, life-classes, gaming house, public scandals, blasphemy, impiety, and any other disorders that may come to their knowledge.' They will also have to make individual visits to the poor; and the information to be obtained is laid down in regulations: the stability of the lodging, knowledge of prayers, attendance at the sacraments, knowledge of a trade, morality (and 'whether they have not fallen into poverty through their own fault'); lastly, 'one must learn by skilful questioning in what way they behave at home. Whether there is peace between them and their neighbours, whether they are careful to bring up their children in the fear of God . . . whether they do not have their older children of different sexes sleeping together and with them, whether they do not allow licentiousness and cajolery in their families, especially in their older daughters. If one has any doubts as to whether they are married, one must ask to see their marriage certificate'. . . .

What is now imposed on penal justice as its point of application, its 'useful' object, will no longer be the body of the guilty man set up against the body of the king; nor will it be the juridical subject of an ideal contract; it will be the disciplinary individual. The extreme point of penal justice under the Ancien Regime was the infinite segmentation of the body of the regicide: a manifestation of the strongest power over the body of the greatest criminal, whose total destruction made the crime explode into its truth. The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity. The public execution was the logical culmination of a procedure governed by the Inquisition. The practice of placing individuals under 'observation' is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

My own notes on this may be stupid but:

Note 1:
It’s a funny thing that Foucault doesn’t seem to relate this panopticism to European believers’ ideas of God—especially the “disindividualization” of “the seeing/being seen dyad.” Indeed, the idea of God is partly due to the capacity, the necessity, of imagining the separation of being seen from seeing, of abstracting vision into the concept of the all-seeing (which Freud would attribute to Oedipalism). That is, Europeans always experienced this panopticism in their worldview to some important extent; the panopticon just realized it in technical form. To allocate to the state powers imagined previously to belong only to God is just the point of not only panopticism, but also sorts of technical enhancements of power; and the fact that the power is imaginary in the case of God and real in the case of the state is a mere detail.
It is exactly the same issue in Baudrillard, it always seems to me: French post-structuralists appear to imagine this pre-modern world in a fundamentally different way than people must actually have experienced, because they leave out of their accounts central features of the belief system. I’m not the first person to say it, but what Baudrillard is known for addressing mostly sounds to me like magic and myth described by someone who is unaware of how significant they are in any culture.

Note 2:
Foucault is talking about the change from “the discipline-blockade” to the “discipline-mechanism” as an historical change. But like any historical change, it is just a result of different material circumstances. It is a breath-taking irony of history that just as we are expressing our concern about the discipline-mechanism in developed countries like the US (the controversies over surveillance speciously justified by “the war on terror”), the spectacularly ineffective discipline-blockade approach is urged in Israel, US borders, and now Iraq. The discipline-blockade responds to an insoluble problem of control in a supposedly practical way—as Foucault says, the segregation of populations or prisoners is the most fundamental discipline-blockade—but it’s obvious that it derives from a kind of primitive symbolism and wishful thinking rather than practical consideration of the calculus of benefits and consequences.

Freaking Out

I almost never get into that paranoid state of mind that reads coincidence as meaningful, but I had a very weird moment when I learned that Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published on November 4--my birthday.

A Social Theory of Violence Looks Beyond the Shooter

The most pertinent--probably the only really relevant--thing I've seen in a newspaper on violence since the Virginia Tech shootings.
I have to try to find out more about Black.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Dream About My Hair

I am in some kitchen when I realize my hair feels long and straight. I go look in a bathroom mirror and it has the same texture as now, coarse and thick, but it's long and black now, and cut in front with bangs. My face gets thinner, too, and looks drawn and thin. I think this makes me look like Frankenstein's monster or someone from the French revolution.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wild Strawberries

This will appear in the next issue of DreamTime, the membership journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams:

Most serious film critics who attempt to sort out relation of dreaming to cinema start with an obvious distinction, inferred from the conventions of the fiction films they study: There are films that are relevant because of their celebrated or notable dream sequences, like Hitchcock’s Spellbound or Vertigo, and films structured as dream visions, like The Wizard of Oz, or Richard Linklater’s underrated metaphysical fantasy, Waking Life. The latter is an ancient form, with a history in many media, and a tradition of critical interpretation as allegory, supernatural revelation, or philosophical statement on the nature of being in the world; the former is usually approached in the terms of twentieth-century psychology—especially Freudian—as a mystery to be decoded for clues to the dreaming character’s state of mind.

Very rarely does a film transcend this useful distinction and treat dreaming both as a device to present a glimpse into a character’s psychological state and as a means of elevating cinema to the condition of spiritual quest—considering, like the great artistic dream journeys of the past, the existential questions of authentic being, full engagement with the human world, and confrontation with one’s own developing and incomplete identity. Certainly no other film has integrated these two approaches to the cinematic use of dreaming with such consummate artistry as does the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries (Smultronst√§llet, 1957), a kind of modern Pilgrim’s Progress, but executed with the complex understanding of character of the dramas of Ibsen or Strindberg.

One of Bergman’s greatest insights was to recognize that the transcendent aspects of life—the sources of the religious experience he so often made his subject—could be addressed in film not through stylized attempts to depict the supernatural but by bringing the audience progressively further into a single character’s mind. The game of chess played with Death himself in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) remains justly famous, but largely through parody of its heavy-handed symbolism. By contrast, Wild Strawberries achieves profound impact in a scene in which a character simply recites a poem about finding God in nature, while dining in the open air.

The plot of the film, too, is simple—Isak Borg makes the long car trip to the university town of Lund to be honored for his life’s work as a doctor. Accompanying him is his daughter-in-law, who’s estranged from her husband, and along the way they encounter characters who all raise variants on the same question: Has Isak lived so cerebrally, so rigidly adhering to his own code of rectitude, than he has failed to experience the real humanity in himself and others? The incidents are mirrors that reflect his own failings to himself, though sometimes they comfort him with knowledge of the good he has done.

Yet Isak Borg is a character who lives as much in dreams, fantasies and reveries as in his present reality. His day begins with one of the most famous dreams in film history, loaded with symbolism of clocks, coffins, and empty streets that many critics have labeled “Freudian,” though Bergman himself has only hinted that it is an homage to the German expressionist films that impressed and disturbed him in his youth. It is—not to spoil the experience for readers who haven’t seen the film yet—a classic confrontation with mortality. The dream disturbs Isak enough that he determines to drive all the way to Lund instead of flying, the film’s first indication that its theme will be Isak’s growing awareness that he must accept rather than avoid life.
His second dream comes during a rest stop, as he wants to show his daughter-in-law the house where he spent summers as a child. This seems a kind of reverie, exactly recapitulating scenes from his early years, concerned with the petty jealousies and infidelities of adolescence, especially his unsuccessful pursuit of his cousin Sara, who ultimately prefers his more playful and lively brother.

His third dream, as he sleeps in the car while his daughter-in-law drives, returns to the theme, beginning with a fantasied conversation with the young Sara in which she explains just why she rejected him, and ending with a scene—remembered or imagined—of his wife’s adultery some years later. The intervening scene is another great exercise in convincing dream symbolism, an extraordinary achievement of capturing the real feel of a dream: Isak is required to take an unexpected examination, in an unknown language, in which he seems to fail completely in the elementary skills required of a doctor.

Two points become very clear as one examines these dreams: First, the tendency of the mainstream of American film criticism, from the intellectual establishment of the 1950s to recent post-structuralist theories, to ground all consideration of symbolism in Freudian terms seems especially misguided and inadequate here. All of Borg’s dreams so vividly illustrate Jung’s concept of compensation—that the content of the dream compensates for an unbalanced view of self and life in waking existence—that they might be used as textbook examples. Second, the complaint made by a few critics (and more viewers) that Isak’s dreams are haphazard, aimless interruptions of the narrative manifestly misreads the real structure of the film. Bergman—the writer as well as director—clearly considers carefully the different nature of each of Isak’s extended side-journeys into the subjective view. Though a Jungian reading of Wild Strawberries is convincingly neat, the Swedish director is after something larger. By emphasizing not only dream, but memory and fantasy, he goes beyond the illustration of concepts established in depth psychology, and subtly influences the audience’s ideas about the capacities of cinema itself. (Considering that his career as a screenwriter and director stretches from 1943 to the present—more than half the history of the artform—at least in hindsight he ought to qualify almost uniquely to do so.)

There are many tantalizing themes to take up in Wild Strawberries: the tension in Protestant theology, and this in western ethics, between the value of works and faith; the two characters named Sara, who appear in Isak’s old age as well as his youth, suggesting a notion of the anima or Eternal Feminine at the heart of the film; even the slight hints that Bergman is quite aware of the film’s indebtedness to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—itself a modern dream vision never fully appreciated by literary criticism. But the uniqueness of this film—consistently appearing on critics’ lists of the ten greatest masterworks of cinema, even as they frequently condescend to its “old-fashioned” and “literary” character—is truly in its structure. In the heyday of documentary realism—which has its own virtues but became a dominating paradigm squeezing out other approaches to film—Bergman took up the most foundational questions of cinema, the ones that require constant reinvestigation, by exploring not technique but representation itself, the relation of cinematic images to lived experience, and he did so, in Wild Strawberries, by showing us the continuity of dream, fantasy, and memory, and how much of our lives may be absorbed in them, and in meaningful subjective experience, in the course of a single day. The most significant function of art, as of dreams, is subversive—to show us that the words we use in the day are inadequate to our real experience, and that we must always remain open to new ways of framing and understanding that experience—new images, new subjective events, that can deepen our limited understanding of the world. Wild Strawberries constitutes its own theory of representation, and whatever else we find it, it teaches us something just be holding that our accustomed account of the relation of the individual to the world, and of the nature of perception and memory, is inadequate to our lives —and this is the most important work that the fictional worlds of cinema can do. Wild Strawberries thus stands as the distinguished forebear of virtually every recent film that challenges the metaphysics of everyday life—Memento, Pi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even such as apparently anti-Bergmanesque spectacles as The Matrix.

Wild Strawberries is available on DVD in a beautiful print from Criterion. Extras include a great documentary on Bergman’s life and work by Jorn Donner.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Dream Body of George W. Bush

This was written at the turn of this year and just published by Elizabeth van Fleet in Spot, a magazine she edited at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

I wake up—I wake up inside the dream, you understand—and I’m in my freshman dorm room, in my bed. It’s a narrow bunk bed; I couldn’t sit up without bumping my head. Sometimes when I got into it, it felt like I was climbing into my coffin. Anyway, I wake up—inside the dream—and my roommate, F---, is just standing there in the semi-dark, turned away from me, in his pajamas. My freshman roommate was a very dorky guy, who wore pajamas and picked his nose right in front of me. He turns slightly toward me and I can see he’s got a hunting knife, a big, scary-looking, slasher-movie kind of knife, like you’d gut a deer with.
Then he smiles down at me and he hasn’t got a knife in his hand anymore. He’s a got this unworldly big hardon tenting his jammies, like a fireplug, thicker than a guy’s dick could possibly be. He rubs it just a little, smiling. Then it’s like there’s a close-up of his face, or maybe he’s leaning in over me, and I see he’s got blood in his mouth, like his gums were bad or he bit his tongue or something, but he’s still smiling, and he’s turned into George W. Bush, like he looks in those pictures from his Texas Air National Guard service, grinning like he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

* * * *

My friend M--- and I are on an assembly line, in chef’s hats and smocks, like Lucy and Ethel, and there are candies coming by, we’re trying to roll them in chocolate but of course they’re coming too fast, so instead of freaking out like Lucy and Ethel in the show we just laugh and laugh like we’re stoned, and the guy in charge comes out like he does in the TV show, only it’s George W. Bush, and he looks at us in disgust. Then he reaches over and takes my friend’s chin, but gently, into his hand, and then he suddenly spits, hard, into my friend’s face, like a cobra spitting venom. And my friend’s head explodes. And then he turns to me and says, “Now you clean this mess up,” and leaves, and I start trying to clean up, and then the assembly line starts again and a coffin comes down the line and I have to drape an American flag over it and salute it as—the assembly line is like as long as a football field now—as it disappears out of sight.

* * * *

The night before my wedding two years ago, I had this strange dream: I’m back in the high-school locker room, and I’m stripping off my football uniform. There are a couple of other guys around doing the same. But beyond, I can see a very brightly lit white space, like a typical Chelsea art gallery, with people standing around. I recognize people I’ve seen on TV: Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Antonin Scalia. They’re all holding drinks and laughing. And then I see the guys and girls I knew in high school, the football players and cheerleaders, in typical Manhattan cater-waiter outfits, serving them.
For some reason, even though they can see me, I don’t mind at all walking past them completely naked, just carrying a towel, on my way to the shower. When I enter the shower room, the perspective gets all weird, like in Carrie: there’s only one guy there, but it’s like my field of vision has narrowed so he’s all I see, even though he’s all the way across the room from me. His back is turned, but I can see it’s an older guy, and I figure it’s the coach, who it always seemed to me, was in the showers more than he really ought to be. I mean, nobody thought there was anything funny actually going on, that I know of, but we knew that teachers weren’t really supposed to shower with students, and he always did. Anyway, I have this ominous feeling, like something’s going to happen that I’m going to have to deal with, to make a decision about, to act or fail to act.
I wash, he washes. And nothing happens. It’s not like I want something to happen, but I can’t believe I’m just standing here taking a shower with this guy when it feels like something’s supposed to happen. So finally I say, “Hey.” And the guy turns around. And it’s not the coach, it’s George W. Bush. He’s a lot shorter than I thought, really short, like 5’2”, though he’s got a dick on him like 6 inches soft, and his entire body is hairless, almost like a little boy with a huge cock on him. So he just nods at me, like, “How ya doin’?” and continues to wash. And I can’t stand not knowing what’s on his mind now, and I say, “Are you here for the party?” and he just looks at me, like, “Why would someone like me want to go to a party like that?” So I say, “I haven’t seen you here before. Do you teach here or something?” And again, he looks at me like why would I ask such a stupid question, only he seems more sorry for me than superior. Then I ask, “Are you here for the football game?” and he smiles kind of sadly and says to me, “To tell you the truth, I don’t really pay that much attention to sports.”

* * * *

I dream I’m Colin Powell and I’m standing at attention at some kind of ceremony, in my uniform. I’m saluting and there are flags and a lot of Marines in uniform; I think it’s a funeral at a military cemetery, or maybe a memorial service; I can see Washington-type monument buildings around. And there’s this weird little buzzing noise, really bothering me. It’s a voice, saying something; I can’t hear what it’s saying. I look to my right, and there’s no one standing there. Then I look down and it’s George W. Bush, only he’s the size of a kid, like three feet tall, and he’s got a tiny, buzzy little voice and he’s talking the whole time. I try to tell him quietly to simmer down, just hang on, be quiet while whatever it is is going on. But he starts plucking at my trouser leg, and then he’s pulling at it it, and he pulls my pants down and I get tangled on them and fall on the floor and he’s attacking me, digging into me with sharp fingernails, going for my face. And he’s still the size of a little kid and I’m still Colin Powell, by the way.

* * * *

I don’t know about this, this dream really shook me up. All it is, is we’re sitting in a rowboat, me and this old friend of mine, from home. I can feel the water rocking the boat gently, I can hear the insects and the birds and the fish occasionally breaking the water; I can see the sunlight filtered through low-hanging branches. And we’re fishing, you know, with poles, out of the boat. On the bank of the river, in the sunlight, I can see some guys playing touch football. They have their shirts off, and they look like those pictures you see in an Abercrombie & Fitch store, like they’re just pretending to play football, just pretending to have a good time. And somehow, my friend turns into George W. Bush; he’s looking quiet and intense, like he’s thinking all seriously about something, and then I notice that the base of the pole he’s using is rubbing against his crotch, he’s rubbing himself off against it, and suddenly I’m really anxious, I mean I’m pretty terrified, like what’s gonna happen here. And he doesn’t feel like my friend anymore, but different, like a grownup does, when you’re a kid. And Bush grins at me, but that don’t make me feel any better, and he reaches across me, like to get at the tackle box, but his hand grazes across my crotch, and when the side of his hand brushes across it, I feel that my dick is rock-hard, and that’s when I . . . I mean, if you’d a told me I’d wake up from a dream about George W. Bush with a fresh load in my jockeys, I just don’t know what.

* * * *

I go through this doorway in like an ancient pyramid with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, guiding me, holding a torch. Before me is a mummy in one of those mummy-container things, and it opens slowly, you know, like in a movie, and standing there inside the thing is . . . Laura Bush. Her skin is like painted porcelain, and she seems as much like a statue as a person. She is beautiful but scary for some reason, and I draw back and look to Lara Croft for help. But now it isn’t Lara Croft there any more, it’s George W. Bush, and he’s wearing a long white Arab-type and one of those little white caps, like a fez, I guess. And then he says this weird thing: “Kneel. Kneel before the goddess of necessity.” He isn’t holding the torch any more, but the room is glowing with light and I realize that the light is coming from within him. I do kneel. “What am I supposed to know?” I ask, because I realize that I can learn a really big secret here. And he says, “When you come right down to it, it isn’t what you do that matters. It’s what you say.”

* * * *

I wake up in a cabin in the woods, and I hear noises, like someone rattling around in the kitchen. I walk down a hall, a carpeted hall, way too long and fancy to be in any cabin, and through a doorway I see that I’m looking into the Oval Office—in the White House, you know? The President is standing, turned away from me; it’s like there’s a stove at the window, and he’s cooking eggs and bacon or something, he’s wearing an apron and humming a little tune, like a TV sitcom theme song. He turns towards me—it’s George W. Bush—waves me over, scoops breakfast onto two plates, and sets them down. I come over and look at the plates and there’s a little dead dog on one and a little boy’s head on the other. And he’s smiling, smiling, and now he looks sort of more like Alfred E. Newman from Mad magazine.

* * * *

I get hired by this creepy old guy to be a male prostitute. I mean, I’ve never had a sexual experience with a guy or felt any desire to, but it makes sense in a way, because the whole scene feels like it isn’t about sex in any normal sense at all, but about a task or ordeal, something distasteful to me I have to go through to prove myself. The guy who hires me is like a parody of sophistication in a bad old movie, wearing a smoking jacket, drinking a glass of white wine, and he has this ridiculous snotty British accent. Anyway, I have to strip and get in bed and wait for him, and when he comes in, he’s a little old man now, wrinkled and bald and squinty, and he’s taken his teeth out. I lie back on the bed and he “services” me, and all I can think about is, is my dick big enough, is it hard enough, is he going to like it, and I’m disgusted, yes, but really I mostly feel like it’s a job interview and I’m anxious about how I’m coming across. Then I’m on top of him and he’s got his thin creepy white arms around me and my cock is in, I guess, his hole and I’m pumping, pumping . . . It doesn’t feel tight, it feels loose and slimy, like I’m fucking into mud, like I’m sinking into a morass. It’s scary and depressing. I stop in a kind of shock and the old guy opens his eyes and looks up at me, and now suddenly, he’s George W. Bush. And he looks up at me, like “Why d’you stop?” but smiling that weird smirk of his and he says, “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, man, a heck of a job.”

* * * *

In this dream I’m running through a futuristic city. I run along some rails way up high, like the rails of an elevated tram line. I run through alleys, I run on empty desert roads, I run through crowds of Asian-looking people in some third-world type marketplace. And at some point, I realize that I’m Tom Cruise and I’m running to save the world from something, I have to get somewhere, I have to stop some catastrophe from happening, some supervillains are going to destroy our way of life. I run out on a pier, and this is the part that really looks like a movie, with edits and everything: I run towards a boat, with a huge flat deck, like a battleship, that is pulling away, and I run toward the end of the pier, and I just keep running, I fly through the air—I’m still Tom Cruise—and I land, gently as a feather on the deck. I’m surrounded by thousands of men in uniform, simple uniforms, chambray shirts and blue pants, and they’re looking toward the sky, gesturing and shouting, full of hope and expectation, transported by their excitement, and I see a form floating down through the sky. There’s no plane or anything, he’s just drifting down as if from heaven, but with a parachute, and he lands on an upper deck, men are stripping his parachute away and he stands revealed to the crowd below, holding his arms up like Rocky, and grinning, full of confidence and vigor, and I see that it’s George W. Bush, looking incredibly virile and youthful, like a guy in a ‘50s war movie. There’s a banner behind him but I can’t see what it says, and this is very frustrating for me, because I feel that, if I just knew what the banner said, I’d know how everything is going to turn out.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Little Bears and William James

Walking through the fields outside a really lovely country house. I see bears here and there but they’re small, like cubs, and seem playful, not threatening. They begin to approach, like kittens, looking to play, and we are aware we shouldn’t fool with them too much; it’s not good for the bears to get too accustomed to humans. As we approach the house, the bears want to come in with us, and we have to make sure the doors and windows are secure and they can’t get in. A couple do, though, and we have to catch them and out them outside. As I look at the doorway, I se a few extremely tiny bears—I think I am supposed to call them “pups”—trying to wiggle under the sill; they’re only an inch or two long. I wonder if I’m supposed to step on them and pick them up and fling them away.
It is the house of the philosopher William James—though he’s a very contemporary middle-aged man—and I’m there with Donald and some other people; I don’t know who. I am trying to be a very good guest, but I feel I’m irritating William James and he is just politely tolerating me, which I find very disappointing.

Friday, April 06, 2007

I Overhear One Side of Cell Phone Conversations

"The next thing I know there's this huge pink ass in my face. . . .
All I can see is this huge pink ass. . . .
Yeah, she's really in trouble now . . .
Yeah, she's such a pain in the ass--which I guess is kind of ironic."


Every year I forget I'm on the route of a Good Friday procession for a big Hispanic church until it actually arrives. First I hear this lament, like something Carmen Maura would sing in an early Almodovar movie. Then two trucks proceed several dozen marchers; a lot seem to try to dress in red. Then there's a roped-off section. First a number of adolescent children in purple carrying a very large, heavy-looking cross; then people in "Biblical" dress (sheets draped over their heads held in place by cords). Then Jesus surrounded by centurions in red, with realistic plastic helmets and spears. This year they stopped right in front of my house to abuse Jesus, the worst this year that I've seen. They shoved him around, and one of the centurions seemed to knee Jesus in the stomach pretty hard. Then another 40 or 50 people in Biblical dress, and then several hundred people following; it took them almost ten minutes to pass. Most of the time I was looking to kind of see if anybody was banging into my car or destroying my yard.