That phrase comes to me first in the dream, followed by a set of instructions issued in a calm, matter-of-fact voice:
- Write down the words heard in the dream.
- Describe what was happening in the dream when the words were heard.
- Record anything that connected with the words in your waking life that day.
- Enter the dream phrase into an internet search engine and see what you find.
It’s all very precise; a kind of manual for essay writing from the unconscious. There are no visions in the dream; the words come in blackness with just the merest slivers of red and electric blue swimming somewhere at the edges.
The next morning, as soon as I wake up, I scribble down that phrase ‘dream tetras’ and the instructions on a pad. It’s a day off work, so I make a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea and head to my study to start on this project, curious to see where it goes.
When you enter the words ‘dream tetras’, Google ignores your spelling and sends you straight to the Tetris Effect or Syndrome, named after the famous video game from the 80s. In the game, random four-sided shapes cascade toward the player who has to fit them into rows. The Tetris Syndrome occurs when people spend so much time devoted to a particular activity that it alters their mental image of the world and patterns their dreams, in the way a Tetris addict continues to see the little colourful tiles tumbling through their sleep.
The syndrome is actually the persistence of a habit into a new environment. For example, after a long time at sea, sailors grown used to rolling decks stagger when walking on land. Computer programmers dream in code. I’ve noticed the effect myself. If I’ve had a day of bodysurfing, when I shut my eyes that night, I see waves rising up out of the dark towards me. The Tetris Effect often occurs in a transitional zone between sleeping and waking known as ‘Hypnagogia’, a borderland or half-dream state, where images are seen and remembered, tactile sensations experienced, sounds and imagined speech heard, including, for me, that phrase ‘dream tetras’.
Further research reveals ‘L’effet Tetris’, a different idea relating to the development of artificial intelligence. In the original Tetris video game, the bright coloured shapes float down toward the player at increasing speed; you have to make quick decisions about how to orientate the tiles. There’s often no time to calculate every angle. To survive longer in the game, a ‘good enough’ decision is better than a perfect one, if the perfect one comes too late. I’ve often wondered about this. Do I spend too much time thinking about possible outcomes and then miss out because the moment has passed? Or is the fact that I’m still here a testament to the value of looking carefully before deciding? Sometimes it could be fatal to leap before you look, sometimes essential. But how do you know in advance? As Kierkegaard said, ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ Then again, perhaps dreams can help you understand life forwards? No one wins Tetris, by the way. It’s a bit like death, sooner or later it’s ‘game over.’ Right down on the fifth page of search results for ‘dream tetras’ is an entry titled ‘My Dream Tank’. Someone has posted their concept of the perfect aquarium. In the species list is the Cardinal Tetra – also called ‘neons.’ I look outside my study window to an empty fish tank on a bench under the back porch. It’s in a pile of stuff we are waiting to give away. I remember we used to have those little tetra fish. I liked watching them sparking around the aquarium. They, or perhaps the Tetris tiles, must have been the bright little slivers of red and blue at the edge of the original dream.
Some great literary figure is whispering Latin to me in the dream. The figure is cloaked, the scene shadowy. Maybe it’s a theatre and the whisperer is an actor playing Virgil. The set-design owes a lot to Gustave Doré. Then the stage lights go down, house lights up, and those sotto words are all I have managed to catch.
My Latin is terrible, but I know enough to realise this is about crying. I haven’t had a proper howl for years, though I weep more and more often – at small things and large, beauty and sadness. Far from becoming hardened, I think I’m getting softer and more emotional as I age. I cried at old man Leonard Cohen’s concert because it was so fine, I wept in the light wells of Gaudi’s cathedral, sometimes I shed tears at the television’s blatant prompting.
That day, on my lunchtime walk from the office, I pass through a tiny park called the A.J. Shard reserve. The name always strikes me – a remnant scrap of some awkward land division, it really is a shard. There is only one bench in the park, and on it, a young woman sits crying. Big, silent, shoulder-shaking sobs. She looks down to her feet as I go past. At first I keep walking, embarrassed, not wanting to intrude, but then I do a u-turn. Standing beside her I ask if there was anything I could do to help. Lifting her head, eyes watery bowls, she silently shakes her head. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say and walk on. The end of an affair, a miscarriage, death of a parent, a savage argument, or having to euthanaze her pet… who knows? It could be anything. Maybe just the sorrow of the whole world, focussed there, at that moment, in her being.
‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’, is the correct form, the internet tells me. ‘There are tears for things’, ‘tears in things’, Virgil has Aeneas say, as he looks at a mural showing the Trojan war, a war that has forced him into exile in Carthage. He’s a refugee, he’s suffered, but he’s found safety. Sympathy for another’s misfortune, but also the general tragedy of the human condition, both meanings are there in the Latin.
But I mis-heard it in the dream, jumbling ‘sunt’ with ‘rerum’ and producing ‘rerunt.’ What did that mean? Was Virgil calling me a runt? A poetic squib with no big stories, just shards and fragments of feelings? A search on ‘rerunt’ leads to a young woman’s blog about the death of her cat who was called ‘re-run’ but also, because it was skinny, ‘re-runt’. Unlike the girl in the park, this virtual one, tells everyone, everything.
‘This is improvalogue!’
In the dream, a voice-over announces these words to a capacity audience in a large theatre. The house lights go down and suddenly I find I’m on a brilliantly illuminated stage with several actors. The set is a slick modern lounge and open-plan kitchen, like something from a David Williamson play. The female lead walks in, wine glass in hand, delivering her opening speech. I’m supposed to respond with witty barbs. I now realise I’m the male lead in this vehicle of social satire with a topical political edge. We’re sophisticatedly unhappy and of course our marriage is falling apart in front of our over-achieving friends. But wait, there’s something different going on here. While the rest of the cast have been rehearsing this play for months, I’ve never read it. I have no idea what the next line will be, or any of them. At first, my responses are odd, out of place, threatening to deconstruct the play: ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘I don’t know who you are.’ ‘Why do you say that?’ But the other actors continue as if I was supplying the correct words, so the play wobbles, teeters, then strangely begins to right itself as I hear more of the plot and guess lines that might possibly fit. This is improvalogue! Each night a different person is brought in to play my role, so they never get used to it, and what happens is different every time. It’s exhausting, nerve-wracking and when I wake up my tee-shirt is damp with sweat.
The next day at work the phone rings. Things have changed. They want to postpone the season of programs I’ve been planning for months. I’ll have to replace them with something else. ‘Like what?’ I ask.
‘Improvise,’ they say. ‘Get agile, get disruptive!’
These are their new favourite words. Unfortunately, ‘agile and disruptive’, the more you examine them, seem to involve a new type of conformity where the speedy, neurotic and half-arsed, replace the careful, considered and meticulous. However, I don’t want to appear too rigid and last night’s dream was offering me guidance, so I finish the call with ‘Ok, I’ll improvise.’ It’s true, improvising has often brought me good things. I like improvising, but I’m also afraid of it. What if I fail miserably? I prefer private improvising, before public exposure. A browse on ‘this is improvalogue’ sends you to acting classes and writing workshops. Improvising is also big business in those jealous realms of super-heated air known as academia. There are all sorts of Institutes and Research Centres formally studying it. How ironic. ‘This is improvalogue’ leads on, in the way of these web searches, to ‘this is improbable’. There’s a magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research that looks at possibly absurd, possible useful research around the world. Serious scientific experiments have been conducted into discovering if you can get drunk by soaking your feet in vodka, or if sniffing the fetid odour of a certain species of Hawaiian mushroom produces spontaneous orgasms in female subjects. There have been patient, long-term studies about why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones. Apparently, the dragonflies mistake the polarised reflected light from the dark tombstones for the surface of still water, and so lay their doomed eggs there.
‘Dangerous, greedy monkeys, well on the way to causing their own extinction and taking down myriad other species with them.’
I heard this in the dream as part of a eulogy for a man whose name was John Savage. The eulogy was being delivered in a hall (not a church) by a tall middle- aged man in a grey suit. After quoting John Savage’s opinion of his own kind, the man went on to say, ‘Oh yes, he was a pessimist alright.’ In the dream I find out that John Savage was a TV critic. He was born in America and worked for a time in Hollywood as an art director but left in disgust. He migrated to Australia and found work as an interior designer but had a sideline writing syndicated television reviews. He was a blast of harsh air in the narrow, incestuous and sycophantic world of the Australian entertainment industry. He employed adjectives such as ‘infantile’ ‘f-grade’ and ‘brain dead’ in his reviews and his column soon became known as ‘The Savage Report.’
The next day I begin writing a TV review in the style of John Savage, after watching an episode of Restoration Australia:
The subject of this nauseating program is a terrace in Miller’s Point, Sydney, that was once public housing – now sold off by the New South Wales government to be the exclusive multi-floored mansion of two rich people who spent ten million dollars buying and renovating the site.
The wan presenter feebly comments that ‘the demographic of the area has changed.’ What he should say is that these two pampered individuals have displaced twenty people on low incomes. Frankly, I don’t care about their beautiful hand-carved railings or their room-sized walk in wardrobe, and by the way, how is the rate of homelessness going in this country?
These programs are utterly oblivious to their own consumerism, casting the cashed-up clients as heroes. They play out to a familiar pattern: The couple has overextended. Will the bank come to the party? Will they make the deadline? Will their relationship survive the trauma of having to use the cheaper marble instead of the premium Italian variety they had originally chosen?
The princess at the centre of this episode says ‘It’s torture’ waiting for her bespoke cabinetry to arrive. She is so lacking in perspective as to use that word, ‘torture’. Try living in your car all winter. Try actually being a victim of torture, surviving on a temporary protection visa in this country.
I enter the dream words into a search engine. They bring up articles on the extinction of apes due to climate change, and one called ‘Dark Ecology: searching for truth in a post-green world’ by Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth is pondering what to do as a sensitive human living during the terminal phase of late industrial capitalism when the environmental movement keeps losing the argument despite being fundamentally correct. He suggests withdrawal from the machine, getting your hands dirty doing something instead of just talking about it, creating your own refuges for non-human species. Fair enough, this will make you feel better as an individual, but it’s not a systemic solution. The author suggests that there are no systemic solutions possible, that in fact all our past systemic solutions just create further problems. I think he’s a bit too pessimistic here. World-wide renewable energy for example is not an impossible dream.
Further searching reveals a folk tale from Pakistan collected by the Reverend Charles Swynneton in 1892. A greedy monkey spies some grains of wheat fallen into a narrow crevice. He can get his hand into the crevice and grab all the grain but has to release most of his prize to get his hand back out again. ‘This however, he was unwilling to do, greedily desiring to have it all. So the consequence was that he remained without any, and finally went hungry away.’
‘You have to get the frame-rate right to control the past.’
In this dream, I’m pressing buttons on Stalin’s video recorder. It’s a cubic, light-green Soviet design, as big as an oven. It has no cue-wheel. Only clunky stop, start, fast-forward, and rewind buttons. I look over to see who said the dream phrase and there he is, sitting next to me on my right, the man himself, dressed in military uniform. He looks about fifty, his famous moustache bristly and grey. Those unmistakable pouched eyes glance sideways at me. I’m having trouble getting a picture on the thick glass monitor, so Stalin takes over operating the machine. My father appears at my left shoulder, saying, ‘Ask him about Trotsky. Ask him about Lenin. Ask him about Shostakovich!’ But looking again at Stalin’s moustache, I think of Mandelstam and that poem of his that was whispered around Petersburg like a deadly contagion. The one about no longer feeling ground under your feet because of the ‘Kremlin mountaineer’, the ‘ten thick worms’ of his fingers, and the ‘laughing cockroaches’ on his top lip; the poem that got Mandelstam a slow death-sentence in the Gulag. I’m just going to ask him about this when he jabs the play button and onto the cathode ray tube comes an image of a parade. Stalin is standing on the back of an open-topped truck among a crowd of generals wearing heavy coats and oversized hats. The truck is moving across a great wind-blown square edged with flags. One of the generals sidles up to Stalin, presses a pistol into the side of his chest and fires twice. Suddenly, the video screen goes black.
‘But that never happened’ I say.
‘I prevented it by getting rid of them all’ Stalin answers.
‘But why the past? Isn’t it the present and the future you want to control?’
‘If you have full control, the past, the present, and the future are all the same. You decide what happened, what’s happening and what will happen.’
At work, just before Christmas each year, they bring out the tinsel and the knives. An email goes round this morning telling us that our editor is being made redundant. Last year at this time he was making half of us redundant. Now his work is done, he is in turn dispensed with. They choose Christmas because everyone is too exhausted to organise any resistance, just wanting to get themselves to the beach or into their holiday novels. I’ve known this editor for thirty years. He’s part of my past. So many of the institutions and programs I worked for are being erased this season. I think of the dream. This is not execution; not starving to death in slave camps. Still, it involves fear and loathing and politics.
Tomorrow the Big Chief is visiting. This is the very man who got rid of my editor. The Big Chief wears R.M. Williams boots. Mandelstam’s poem talks about the ‘glitter’ of Stalin’s boot rims and ‘the chicken necked bosses’ who whistle, meow and snivel their tributes to him. If the Big Chief says hello, he will want me to smile and say hello back. The powerful like to make you forget. You have to resist them by not forgetting.
Applying the internet to the dream phrase you get all the technical details of vision editing, slow motion effects, and then you’re hurled down the bottomless mineshaft of shoot-to-kill video gaming: Siege, Call of Duty, Counter Strike, Just Cause, and yes, Stalingrad, a game that allows you to replay the battle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht to a soundtrack of Russian heavy metal. After further research on frame rates and controlling the past, I discover that Stalin personally edited and hand-wrote sections of a book called Falsifiers of History that rewrites the story of World War 2, minus the Nazi-Soviet pact. In his version, it never happened.
I’m in a small town in Algeria, about 1940. Albert Camus is with me and we’re both very thirsty. It’s high summer, the buildings are white and the light is ‘blinding’. There’s a faint, delicious hint of the sea, wafting through the street. We’re looking into a café window through an iron scrollwork grill. The café appears to be closed, but a waiter in a black suit protected by a white apron comes to the door and I ask him, ‘Tiene Orangina?’ Wordlessly he gestures to an antique fridge behind him, full of frosty little, orange-tinted bottles. ‘Why are we speaking Spanish in Algeria in 1940?’ I wonder aloud.
‘I’ll explain later,’ says Albert, ‘but you know the real Orangina is further out.’
‘A long walk.’
I’m torn. I’m dusty and hot. ‘How real?’ I ask him.
‘It’s better,’ he says, and so we set off again into the blazing sun. Camus is wearing baggy French colonial shorts and as usual, he’s smoking an unfiltered cigarette. How can he bear to smoke in this breathless heat?
The next morning, I try half a dozen cafés until I find one that stocks Orangina. The pear-shaped, dimpled bottle sits neatly and coldly in my palm. Sampled, it’s simply a lightly carbonated citrus drink. Nothing special, not ‘the champagne of sodas’ presented in its advertising. I guess a lot depends on the shape you put it in. The proprietor of Orangina, Jean Claude Beton, thought the bottle’s form was feminine, saying it had ‘a waist like a wasp and the bottom of a princess.’ But I think it’s also phallic, a plump scrotum below a short but thick shaft. Orangina’s modern advertising makes use of this symbolism, showing the bottle spraying its fizz over gyrating anthropomorphic dancers.
Searching online for ‘Tiene Orangina’, I discover the original recipe was created in 1935 by Dr Agustin Trigo-Miralles, a chemist from Valencia who was doing research into essential oils. So that’s why the dream was in Spanish I guess. Léon Beton, a French-Algerian, met Dr Trigo at a trade fair and bought his recipe. Beton had an orange orchard at Boufarik near Algiers, and I think this must be where Camus and I were heading in the dream.
Orangina followed the lines traced by war and French colonialism. The Spanish civil war and World War 2 limited its development until 1947 when Jean Claude took over the company from his father Léon. Success came with big sales to the French army and the design in 1951 of the little dimpled flaçon that seemed to offer post-war sunniness, a life under orange parasols. In 1962, production shifted from Algeria to Marseilles after the Algerian war of independence. Now owned by global conglomerates, the brand is still most popular in the old French territories of the world. Somehow, sipping it, I can’t help but think of Marie Antoinette and her 1000 orange trees at Versailles.
‘What do we know? Nix!
So hold my hand, let’s go
Down cemetery row.’
The voice is my own in the dream and I’m feeling pleased with myself. I like this little poem from the unconscious. But wait, even before I open my eyes, I know there’s something wrong with it. It’s too familiar, it’s….Oh no, it’s Philip Larkin!
In the morning I look at myself in the mirror – the face of a dream plagiarist. Never mind, off to work. What joys will the managerial spivs and carpetbaggers and their corporate toadies have for us today? Ah yes, the dismantling of our sound library. I’m reminded as soon as I walk in and see the boxes of CDs packed up for disposal.
Now everything must be virtual. No physical records allowed. I think of Wallace Stevens who said, ‘the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.’ How true. Work that is social, analogue and tactile, is so much more pleasant and satisfying than inhabiting virtual worlds in digital isolation cells. Even when the virtual work is more efficient, there’s still something missing. You start looking around for someone to talk to. Browsing the shelves of records and CDs collected over decades, talking with the librarians, reading the sleeve notes in a patch of sunlight by the window – it was just better.
I prepare another pyrrhic email. ‘Dear Management, congratulations on closing the sound library and showing our dedicated librarians the exit. I used to have friends and colleagues, now I have file-shares and databases. Hooray! Hope you get a bonus for meeting your Key Performance Indicators.’
They are paid well, these chief termites, to eat the organisation from the inside. They ride out the complaints, answer the objections with pat formulae, or simply ignore them, and they don’t care about Wallace Stevens.
When I Google the dream phrase I eventually get to ‘Toads Revisited’ by Philip Larkin, but I discover I’ve morphed it. Larkin’s poem ends:
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
The ‘old toad’ he’s leaning on is paid work, the idea that having a job is not just about covering the bills but helps distract us from our mortality. Larkin calls this poem ‘Toads Revisited’ because in it he is reconsidering his position on work. In an earlier poem simply called ‘Toads’, he depicts employment as an odious creature squatting on his chest, robbing him of six days a week, but he also finds that he himself is part toad, the need for security and material success, lodged inside his own heart. In the reprise, he now views the toad of work as a comforting presence against the burden of time.
Larkin the librarian. The cold stare of his eyes behind the thick, black-rimmed spectacles. The nasty streak. The bitter British irony. Clever, predatory, pervy, privately racist. No, I really don’t want to be like he was, though I admire his poetry. He’s the Anglo in my heritage I’d like to ditch. There’s a better way, more open. I won’t resign myself to solitary unhappiness. So what I have in mind, is not my own work, but a real person, an actual friend to take my hand, down cemetery row.
Text by Mike Ladd with art by Cathy Brooks.