The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.

Men dance on deathless feet

Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), William Butler Yeats, unknown woman by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), William Butler Yeats, unknown woman by Lady Ottoline Morrell

William Butler Yeats’s fascination with mysticism and the occult is well documented, particularly the influence of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. Yeats said, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” WH Auden noted the, “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.”

The Vedanta had a profound influence on Yeats, particularly evident in his prose work A Vision, a twenty year exercise of automatic writing. Through Theosophy Yeats met Mohini Chatterjee, writer of Man: Fragments of a Forgotten History:

Following the mystic idealists, we may divide the whole range of existence into different states of consciousness, with their appropriate objects or functions. According to these philosophers, existence is coextensive with consciousness; absolute unconsciousness is absolute negation. Now, it is within ordinary experience that consciousness manifests itself in three different states, namely, the consciousness of a man awake, the consciousness of a man dreaming, and the consciousness of one in a state of dreamless slumber. The first two states are recognized by all, the last requires a few words of explanation. It is true, in waking moments one has some conception of the dreaming consciousness, but none at all of the consciousness of dreamless slumber; its existence, nevertheless, is proved by the fact that the identity of the ego is never lost, and the beginning and conclusion of such slumber are strung together in consciousness. Had there been a cessation of all consciousness for one moment there is no conceivable reason for its reappearance. Besides these three states, all mystics hold, as no doubt is the case, that there is a fourth state of consciousness, which may be called transcendental consciousness. A glimpse of this state may be obtained in the abnormal condition of exstasis.

Later in his life, Yeats would bring Chatterjee to mind with the eponymous poem:

Chatterji, Mohini Mohun
Chatterji, Mohini Mohun

Mohini Chatterjee

I asked if I should pray.
But the Brahmin said,
‘pray for nothing, say
Every night in bed,
‘I have been a king,
I have been a slave,
Nor is there anything.
Fool, rascal, knave,
That I have not been,
And yet upon my breast
A myriad heads have lain.
That he might Set at rest
A boy’s turbulent days
Mohini Chatterjee
Spoke these, or words like these,
I add in commentary,
‘Old lovers yet may have
All that time denied —
Grave is heaped on grave
That they be satisfied —
Over the blackened earth
The old troops parade,
Birth is heaped on Birth
That such cannonade
May thunder time away,
Birth-hour and death-hour meet,
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.’

Idées Fixes of the Week

Dorothea Tanning: Birthday (1942)

Dorothea Tanner (1910-2012)

*****

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory for Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blog coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure and into a little white cup; dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of steam and the tent of rising aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavour of existence itself, unequaled by the tastes of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Memory of Forgetfulness (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi) is extraordinary, a staggeringly powerful  memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. To leave the description there would be reductive; Darwish interrogates the nature of exile and discourses widely, from the importance of coffee, to the relationship between memory and history. I’ve begun my second reading, unable to put the book aside.

*****

William Butler Yeats
A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But he fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

*****

*****

flowerville
[Thomas Bernhard:] An Attempt by Ingeborg Bachmann

I am convinced that the last prose of Thomas Bernhard goes far beyond than that of Beckett and is infinitely superior compared to it [Beckett], because of its compulsion, its inescapability and its hardness. In all those years people asked themselves, how would it look like, the new.

*****

Donald Weber – Interrogation (2011)