“In the transition stages of falling asleep and waking up again the contours of everyday reality are, at the least, less firm than in the state of fully awake consciousness. The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities.” Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 42.
Somewhere I once read that Salvador Dali would take a nap every afternoon in the heat of the day, lying upon a couch with a spoon clutched in his fingers. As he slipped into sleep and his fingers relaxed, the spoon would clatter to the tiled floor and Dali would spring up, his head full of the bizarre images that we see in his paintings—headless torsos, eyes on legs, soft clocks dripping over the edges of tables, crutches supporting distended body parts. It was from this transition state that Dali derived so much of his imaginative power; he had learned how to lure it up from the depths and coax it out into the harsh light of day. Such a wonder should not go unremarked. I have experienced this time and time again, usually while waiting at interminable traffic lights in my commute to the university where I teach. Lest the reader draw the conclusion that I am an accident waiting to happen, let me say that so far my powers of concentration and alertness haven’t let me down. I may also have guardian angels who draw down overtime and hazardous duty pay.
My Dali state does not take the form of vivid images but of words that for the brief duration of seconds is like overhearing the one-sided conversation of an alien anthropologist reporting back to base camp. I marvel at the collision of ideas, metaphors that lunge out of dark crevasses, similes like clanging cymbals, and the occasional meteorite of a thought arriving at the speed of light from a distant galaxy. I wish I could conjure up this stuff when I’m staring at a blank computer screen.
Being a product of the mid-twentieth century, I naturally view all this through psychologically-tinted glasses. It’s all there in the unconscious, I reason, so at some point I must have snatched up these bright baubles and tossed them into a bin for later use. But instead of a sober and reflective scrutiny of them through the lens of reason I see them flung in the air, catching the light as a mad juggler tosses them from hand to hand. In the Dali state they have a coherence that vaporizes when the light turns green and the SUVs around me lumber into motion. Just as our dreams impress us with their genius in the dark hours but seem overwrought in the first light of day, so the messages one gets in the Dali state find no place in polite conversation.
Yet, in pre-modern times such messages were often thought to be of divine origin, having arrived in the nick of time to avert catastrophe or to predict one. Millenia before Freud lit his torches in the labyrinthine tunnels of the mind the boundaries between waking reality and the visions that unfolded behind the eyes of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and many more throughout the centuries, were seen as permeable. Not only that, the scripts of these ultimate reality shows were written down, turning the mysterious and numinous into prose for us to idly ponder in these witless and distracted times. Would we know a vision if we saw one? I’m under no illusion that these traffic-light dreamlets are anything more than the venting of steam from an overactive curiosity reactor, but that’s partly the point here. The “plausibility structure” of ancient religions made room for such phenomena; there is no space in our metaphysical blueprints for anything like that.
I’ve longed to sense the numinous, “to dream dreams and see visions,” as Isaiah promised the Hebrews 2700 years ago—though I have no wish for the prophetic life. Even a cursory tour through the Old Testament is enough to convince one that prophecy is a career devoutly to be avoided if God will allow. But I seem to have little capacity for transmission, though I do believe the receptors are there. Perhaps the signal needs to be amplified or there is presently too much noise in the channel. Wordsworth lamented:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
He was willing to look for Triton bursting up from the ocean’s depths just to be in touch again with the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. We could wish as much.