Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, April 04, 2016

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Submerged Truth)

In our last reading Virginia Woolf said “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  She believes our dreams contain hidden truths that lie somewhere deep within us.  Delmore Schwartz has a similar perspective but says responsibilities begin in our dreams.  What does he mean by that?  This is an odd story.  It takes place in the early morning of a young man’s 21st birthday.  He’s dreaming about watching an old film of his parent’s courtship when they were young.  He says “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theatre… and the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes.”  The young man is three levels removed from reality.  First of all, it’s a dream.  Second, it’s a film.  Third, it takes place in an imaginary past.  He couldn’t possibly have known the reality of his parent’s courtship.  He wasn’t even born then and can only imagine what it was like.  Here’s the question proposed by the title: is the young man responsible for what happened in his dream?  In the film?  In the past?  From this point onward is he responsible for what happens in his own life?

We’ll look at the psychology of dreams later when we read Freud (On Dreams, GB5).  For this story we’ll focus on the film.  Schwartz describes the sensation of being a moviegoer.  He says “I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself.  It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug.”  Is this why we go to movies?  So we can temporarily be anonymous and forget ourselves?  The power of watching films can be addictive as a drug.  We can’t resist the action taking place on the screen.  This film is a little different though.  It’s not one that Schwartz can watch anonymously and forget all about himself.  It’s about his mother and father.  It’s a film intimately connected to his own life.  But readers must wonder how much of this film reflects the real mother and father versus how much they’re just acting out roles.  When his father proposes marriage Schwartz’s mother responds “it’s all I’ve wanted from the moment I saw you.”  Is this his mother’s real feelings?  Or is she simply repeating a line she thinks she’s supposed to say?  Maybe it’s just a line from a movie she had seen somewhere and vaguely remembered.
Schwartz finally drops his anonymity and plays out his own role as future son-to-be.  He “stood up in the theatre and shouted: Don’t do it.  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”  With the help of hindsight Schwartz already knows the ending to this movie and it’s not a happy one.  He wants it to stop and ends up shouting “What are they doing?  Don’t they know what they’re doing?”  This annoys the other moviegoers and the usher grabs his arm and asks “What are you doing?  Don’t you know you can’t do whatever you want to do?”  Now we’re getting at the heart of the story.  It’s Schwartz’s story.  It’s his dream.  Is it his film too?  Is he responsible for it?  When people make films (or any other kind of art) in real life, can they do whatever they want to do?  Are artists free to do whatever they please or are they bounded in by the rules of their chosen arts?  When Schwartz writes a story can he do whatever he pleases?  Or is he bounded by the rules of grammar and human logic?  Can Schwartz’s character in the story do whatever he pleases?  Or is he also bounded by the rules of time and human society?  And what exactly is the connection between art and real life?  Does art enhance and highlight what goes on in real life?  Or is it an illusion that distorts things?  Does Shakespeare’s Hamlet show us the deeper meaning of what it means to be human?  Or does he distort life because normal people don’t think and talk in such lofty terms?  All these questions may be what Virginia Woolf refers to as “submerged truth.”  It lurks hidden beneath life’s daily activities.  Is it the responsibility of the artist to bring this submerged truth to the surface?  Or is it our responsibility to dig it out?


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