Thursday, May 8, 2014

Wordsworth's Dream

Professor Borges came out last year from New Directions. This is the translated transcript of lectures given by Jorge Luis Borges during the 1966 academic year in the Department of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires. The lecturer was already 67 years old. He had already become blind. The many quotations in the passage below would have been made from memory. Borges himself would live another twenty years and see his global reputation expand enormously. Still, these lectures needed to wait half a century for translation back into the language whose literature they very oddly and very marvelously explain.

The following excerpt is from Class 12, Life of William Wordsworth, The Prelude and other poems, delivered on Monday, November 14, 1966 

"Now, Wordsworth also planned out two philosophical poems. One of them, The Prelude, was autobiographical, that is, the meditations of a solitary walker. And in it is a dream I am going to retell. One critic has observed that Wordsworth must have had dreams of startling clarity, because he has a poem titled "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," with lays out his argument for immortality  based on the Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul. The poem is derived from recollections of childhood. In it, he says that when he was young, all things had a certain splendor, a kind of clarity that later became blurred. He says that things had "the freshness and glory of a dream." And in another poem, he says that something is as "vivid as a dream."  We know that he had hallucinatory experiences. He was in Paris a little before what has been called the Reign of Terror, and from the balcony of his house, a tall house, he saw the sky crimson, and he thought he heard a voice prophesying death. Then, back in England, he had to pass at night through Stonehenge, the circle of stones from before the Celtic era, where the Druids performed sacrifices. And he thought he saw the Druids with their stone knives  flint knives  sacrificing human beings. But now I'll get back to that dream.

Someone said that the dream had to have been dreamed by Wordsworth, but I believe  you can form your own judgment, of course  that the dream is too elaborate to really be a dream. Before telling it, Wordsworth tells us about the previous circumstances; the basis of the dream is in these circumstances, which are told with particular vividness. Wordsworth says that he had always been plagued by a fear, a fear that the two greatest works of mankind, the sciences and the arts, could disappear through some cosmic disaster. Nowadays, we have more right to this fear, given the progress of science. But at that time, this idea was very strange, to think that humanity could be erased from the planet, and along with humanity, science, music, poetry, and architecture. In other words, everything essential in mankind's labor throughout thousands of years and hundreds of generations. And Wordsworth says that he spoke with somebody about this, and that person told him that he shared the same fear, and that the day after that conversation he went to the beach. You will see how these circumstances lay the groundwork for Wordsworth's dream. Wordsworth arrives at the beach in the morning, and at the beach there is a cave. He seeks shelter from the sun's rays in the cave, but he can see the beach from it, the golden beach and the sea. Wordsworth sits down to read, and the book he is reading  this is important  is Don Quixote. Then the noon hour arrives  la hora del bochorno, as they say in Spain  and he yields to the weight of the hour; the book falls from his hand, and then Wordsworth says, "I passed into a dream."  In the dream he is no longer at the beach, in the cave facing the sea. He is in a huge desert of black sand, a kind of Sahara. Now, you can see that the desert, as well as its black sand, are suggested by the white sand on the beach. He is lost in the desert, and then he sees a figure approaching, and this figure is holding a shell in his left hand. And in the other hand he has a stone that is also a book. And this man approaches him at a gallop on his camel. Now, naturally you can see how the previous circumstances lay the groundwork, especially for an English mind. There is a relationship between Spain and the Arabs, and this rider on his camel, this rider with his spear, is a transformation of Don Quixote. The rider approaches Wordsworth, who is lost in that black desert. Wordsworth asks him for help, and he moves the shell close to the dreamer's ear. Wordsworth hears a voice "in an unknown tongue, which yet I understood," a voice that prophesies the destruction of the earth with a second flood. And then the Arab, with a grave demeanor, tells him that this is how it is, and that it is his mission to save the two capital works of humanity from this flood, this deluge. One is related "with the stars," "undisturbed by space and time." And this work is science. Science is represented by a stone, which is also a book. This kind of ambiguity is common in dreams. I have dreamed about someone who sometimes is someone else, or has someone else's features, and in the dream this did not surprise me; dreams can use that language. Then the Arab shows the stone to Wordsworth, who sees that it is not just a stone, it is Euclid's Elements, and this represents science. As for the shell, the shell is all books, all the poetry that has ever been written, is being written, will be written, by man. And he hears that whole poem like a voice, a voice full of despair, joy, passion. The Arab tells him that he has to bury  to save  those two important objects, science and art, represented by the shell and Euclid's Elements. Then the Arab looks out and sees something, then spurs on his camel. Then the dreamer sees something like a great light filling the earth and understands that this great light is the flood. The Arab is riding off. The dreamer runs after the Arab, asking him to save him, and the waters almost reach him just as he awakens. 

De Quincey says that this most sublime dream needs to be read. But De Quincey believed that Wordsworth invented it. Needless to say, we will never know. I think that most likely Wordsworth had a similar dream that he then improved upon."

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Borges later expressed surprise that the desert-dream sequence from The Prelude was seldom or never anthologized.