November 12, 2010
by Dennis Johnson
What is it with sleep and artistic genius, asks Shalom Auslander in an essay for Tablet Magazine:
Paul McCartney, who might be a genius but definitely isn’t really a genius-genius, claimed that the song “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. Handel, who was a genius-genius, said the last movement of his Messiah arrived in the form of a dream, and Wagner, also a genius-genius, dreamt the opera Tristan and Isolde. Robert Louis Stevenson (genius), Poe (crazy genius), Charlotte Bronte (genius) and D.H. Lawrence (genius-genius) all claimed that dreams fueled the inspiration for their work. Goethe (genius-genius) said he was guided by his dreams, as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge–the story goes that he dreamt the poem “Kubla Khan,” sat up to write it down, and was interrupted by a knock on the door. When he attempted to finish transcribing it, it was gone. The poem remained unfinished.
The observation inspired Auslander to put a lot of weight onto a dream he had himself once, when he dreamed a title for a new book and forced himself to wake up and write it down. Since then, he notes, “I have now wasted, roughly speaking, two fucking years on that stupid dream. Twenty-four months of my miserable life, gone.”
Which leads him to ask, “Why we have this need to make writing somehow mystical, spiritual, beyond our understanding is more interesting to me than why the dream title never worked.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.