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April 6, 2010

I often feel that my days have grown too rational. I learn formal logic. I analyze complex arguments for conceptual consistency. I find an almost perverse pleasure in unraveling layer after layer of reading, argument, and interpretation. Yet at night anything goes. This evening, that is, around 2am, I heard a growing rumble while in the shower. A niggling voice not far from the ear said “train, train!” yet the dominant thought was anything but “train.” Rather, it was an unreasoned certainty that it was the auditory accompaniment to a transformative fog sweeping through this New York town to render all sleepers, the unconscious into something quite similar: zombies. These would proceed to find and eat me. And this was the conclusion to which my mind naturally inclined, as if reason were suspended after dark.

We all know that such is not the case. Then why was my line of thought so inclined? It seems there is a sense of inhibition bound up with the day to which the night is not subject. There are no observers, no one to check one’s existence, one’s living. Night is a time when we are unusually free. This, in itself, does not entirely explain the suspension of rationality above. By contrast, my dreams do seem to carry a germ of some truth on this matter.

As one might infer from the above, my dreams are vivid. They are romps through unimagined places, involving a range of everyday tools: you know, swords, grenade launchers, flying, zombies, forced resettlement, hand-to-hand combat, amongst other things. While dreams operate under a reason entirely their own (dream logic), a reason seemingly poised to wash away the common constraints of life in this fragmentary, perspectival theater of the unconscious mind, most others’ dreams do adhere to something resembling real life. Interaction with real people, trips to the grocery store, worries about everyday tasks; their dream logic seems coextensive with that of real life.

For me, it seems that the late night hours are instead a time for my waking mind to approximate the (ir)rational structures of the sleeping mind. Every sound has a significance of a world newly wrought; each creak of the house filled with a meaning the bounds of which my mind can only begin to comprehend.

So, what is it that my mind is trying to comprehend here, to supplement in some way? The answer seems to lie in filling the sounds of the night, insignificant in themselves, with some potency, some independence, some authority, some personality from which I can feel estranged. My mind creates observers to replace those now unconscious. It is my mind’s attempt to reconstitute the sorts of limits I would feel in daylight, to reimpose those rational structures of the sun.

Yet something is inherently wrong with this process. I am always on the edge of flight at any given moment of those unseen hours. This is particularly obvious during sleep. Dreaming entails, for me, some supernatural event from which to flee. Often enough, I am wholly unaware of the nature of this threat. Yet it seems that it is the act of flight that lends it this opacity, rather than any mystery to which it might lay claim.

One particularly memorable dream involves a small group, including myself, wending its way through an abandoned amusement park. We are fleeing something, and I am the rearguard. There is no opportunity to stop. We move and move, pace after pace, our feet pounding out a broken rhythm on the pavement. We finally break free of this labyrinthine park and its walls. Just beyond this outer wall, the landscape gives way to a forested slope, tending sharply towards a distant river at the bottom of a cliff. As my comrades escape beneath the light-dappled boughs, I feel compelled to turn around. A bright sheen to match the knowing gleam in my eyes, the cold metal tube of a grenade launcher rests on my shoulder, its sights on the park. I need not tell you that it has emerged from nowhere, save some underlying dream material.

Feeling oddly at one with it, I begin to level both the forest around me and the walls and structures before me.

This sense of flight and the need to assert my subjectivity and capacity for destruction pervades my dreamscapes. The quarry varies as do the implements and methods of my flight, but I am always running, always avoiding something. The very foes I seek out in my rational life are those that pursue me in sleep.

This feeling also invades those hours of the night when I am conscious. Every percept blossoms from insignificance into an observer by which to reorient my sense of self. I flee, I avoid, I skulk, even the ominous buzz of the lamp beside the bed demanding my recognition.

These entities born of the irrational within me somehow seem slighter than the beings I encounter in the day. It is my mind which gives rise to them and sustains them. They are somehow both more fleeting and more deeply affecting than any observer of the day. They are profoundly unsettling. They await my arrival at a meeting I never seem to make, perpetually missing them.

Perhaps, they are those too soon gone from this world or those lingering at its outskirts, never having quite entered it. They are the insubstantial taking on substantality, Sebald’s butterfly man or the lost brothers of Nabokov’s fiction. They are the ephemeral, a butterfly, a red admiral in route, each wing on the verge of collapsing beneath its own weight. I am forever poised to call out to this unseen, seeing personage.

And this is why the night seems so boundless. This is why children find it liberating. This is why adults avoid it. It is at once liberating, pure unrestraint, and debilitating.

Deprived of contact with the real, we attempt to commune with something just out of sight, something birthed out of those untapped mental expanses, breathing life and significance into an otherwise meaningless percept or musing. This unseen observer proves unsatisfying in the end. The observers of daylight only delimit my person insofar as I likewise observe them. There is a mutual regard, a relationship that the unseen phantoms of the night simply corrupt and skew. Our nights seem full of possibilities, because they lack the proper delimiting spirits of the day. These appointments with the unseen observers of the night will always be missed; there is no other way for them to unfold. And it is because of these vacuous possibilities and empty gestures that I flee.

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