Wang Chutong

I once had a fever dream. I dreamt I was missing, falling into the deep abyss of time. I sensed the touch of waves and the sweet sounds made by gulls flapping their wings most joyously. I dreamt I was traveling, most intensely, through mysterious mists of early morning, but a clear cracking of knuckles or a grin, a clenching of fists or teeth would immediately drag me back to the secular life, mourning, without a purpose. A lighthouse became clearer and clearer to me, while at the last instant, totally dissolved its shape and meaning. An artist’s magical paintbrush pointed nowhere, yet its gesture was most realistically scored on my heart, tragically, delightfully. A pale moon rose and fell; its temporariness and eternity were only meant for dreamers to demystify. It left conscious shadows and kisses on a wet black bough, which, because of this excessive intimacy, became frantic in a melancholic way. Birds perching on branches were singing gaily, as if they were fervently waiting for something or someone that would never arrive. Their voices were between a shriek of joy and a cry of pain, both an awakening and a drowning, as if they were merely calling for a temporal attention and a piece of ordinary music. Reindeer were so lonely that they ran almost beyond the limit of speed, as if this would be the only way towards salvation, towards getting rid of their own shadows, even though without shadows, they would completely lose any sense of existence.

I was still dreaming, deeply. I felt an unbearable heartache; I could suddenly feel Bottom’s dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and how it gradually encroached on my own fantasy island. I identified, disoriented, repulsed, and then identified again. It was so sweet, and its very sweetness came from an unreality of reality, a vanity of exorcism, and timid observations as a mild rebellion. Titania’s sweetest melancholy, the scent of her smile, fragrance of her frowning, and deliberation of her gestures were so heatedly seized by imaginations and pains, that they became logical and sensible merely for their own sake. Forests wild with sounds and promises were suddenly still, silent, helpless, revealing a Cheshire cat. A little inquisitive child’s confusion was intimidating me with a deprivation of possible escapes. I was sinking into oblivion, most blissfully, most vulnerably, dreaming softly about a tiny fragment of forever.

I also felt Hermia’s dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was so soothing, in the most profound way. It was therapeutic because it once was cathartic, sweeping away all sincere griefs and noises: noises that primeval gods in Mesopotamian epic stories fail to reconcile with, griefs that music from a faraway land could well embody to the utmost. I was experiencing a freshness of decadence, a strength of vulnerable desires. I felt someone was crying on my shoulder silently, but loud enough for me to understand, to know it made sense. An adult’s sweat could be a child’s glittering tears, and also an adolescent’s dreamlike expectation of raindrop. I dove again, hiding myself into an unfathomable peace and solitude.

I also felt Gilgamesh’s dream in mine; he was doomed to meet someone. He was going to caress him like a woman. He was going to experience sweet sorrows, irretrievable loss, unbearable pains, and indefinable ecstasies once their paths crossed. I sensed his timid eagerness, excessive desires, secret weariness like lotus-eaters, frantic expectations, groundless beliefs, and simple delight. I dreamt I was pushing him on a wayward course, hither and thither, to find, unlock, demystify, experience, and accept his fate: a sweet one, a tough one.

I felt Bella’s dream in The Twilight Saga. She drowned herself in dreams like Ophelia in Hamlet. She dreamt about becoming a vampire, immortal, with or without a soul. It was as if she had been born with both sun and shadow as her birthmark, born right into Dickens’s Bleeding Heart Yard. It was as if she had to experience all the intensities: heat and coldness, extravagance and cruelty, until she fled to a Never-Neverland, smiling faintly and promisingly, living obscurely and cheerfully. Her face was brightened up by a sensible rapture and reasonable fears. She lived her life like a lighthouse: waiting, being waited. She is the lighthouse.

I saw Narcissus and Milton’s Eve in my dreams. They were obsessed with reflections, representations, mediations and imaginations. They sensed another self, both subjectively and objectively. They tried to flee from a world of otherness, which they previously thought as absurd and grotesque, until a fruitful realization that they needed to re-judge this world: so painfully exuberant, so sarcastically real, so momentarily blissful, so imaginarily noble, and so unpromisingly faithful. They fell in love with it, again, starting from learning good and evil, and then forgetting about good and evil. Forever. Never. Ever. They most cheerfully entered into a world of tragic secrets, so revealing and concealing, authentic and romantic. They knew they had to leave, finally, but were already so deeply struck on their own shadows. They were lost. They fell. They finally could claim to understand “I” of the beholder: retreating into the past, paddling towards the future, and reconciling with all bleeding desires.

I felt Hamm and Clov’s dreams, their Endgame, in mine. They needed a telescope, so desperately, to extend their existence to something faraway. They needed a microscope, so frantically, to re-imagine things so close at hand. They needed glasses to magnify, to diminish, until they could see things as they really are, until they were completely lost in their own gaze, until they understood the vanity of the eye, mysteriously and unconvincingly. I saw in my dream that they were transformed into another Godot, the only person Estragon and Vladimir were waiting for blankly, who never really came, or who merely paid a short visit in their invisible memories.

I also dreamt of Alice’s confusions and anxieties in Wonderland. She was smiling like a morning dew; she was confused about purple wounds. She was fleeting like a purposeless cloud, casting its shadows on a rolling tide. She was sobbing like a new-born babe, with such a rosy cheek, vulnerable eyes, and musical gestures. She was irrationally proud of her baby hair and weird smile. She smiled like a looking-glass.

I felt Juliet’s dream too. I felt her young, innocent, fragile, melancholic, and passionate days with Romeo. Everything happened so justifiably, so unjustifiably, so hastily, so slowly. Their pre-maturity would be just alright in a place without memories, yet fortunately and unfortunately, they once lived most vividly in the great Bard’s imaginations. They could not survive longer than a performance, which had to be defined by temporality and temporariness. I could feel how her unrealistic dreams had most exuberantly enlightened mine, so picturesque, so musical. There once was a nightingale and a lark, vulnerable sunlight and melancholic moonshine, dancing hobgoblins and shrieking doors, animal intimacies and human desires, swift wind and shallow strait, purloined letters and winding paths. I felt her pain was so delightful, her delight so painful; both so real in their own right. I felt her voluntary immersion into all the sounds and silences, scents and fragrances. It was as if she could also feel my pulse and my existence. She was so lost in the always-unachievable, in the seemingly-so-real; I was lost, too. We once shared a dream, we created a dream together: an experimentation, an expectation, an exhaustion.

I dreamt of all pride and prejudices; I became another Elizabeth Bennet, who could not easily let go or forgive Darcy’s arrogant manners, because I was experiencing, jumping into both the beginning and the end of the story; because I already fell, in love, at the very beginning; because I already saw the ending. I was so afraid when the novel drew to an end: a binding promise, a distinctive mark, a voluntary wound, a conditional optimism.

I could perceive David Copperfield a great deal, elsewhere in my dream land; he was Dickens’s favorite child. I sensed the way David felt for Agnes. I heard him sing and speak, so gently and so timidly, “Oh, Agnes, oh, my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upwards!” I perceived how his sincere timidity and profound confusion had gradually evolved into an immersion, and how this immersion had helped him immensely, with dedication and emancipation. I dreamt of his once interior intimacy with young Emily, an inerasable vision. I saw how David was intertwined with a deeply-embedded memory through his whole lifetime, how he felt about little Emily who once stood on the verge of despair and death. “Is it possible, among the possibilities of hidden things, that in the sudden rashness of the child and her wild look so far off, there was any merciful attraction of her into danger, any tempting her toward him permitted on the part of her dead father, that her life might have a chance of ending that day…” Her intimacy with death had most deliciously swallowed the consciousness of life, which might be filled with vacant desires, faint memories, and blank philosophies. I felt I grasped David’s vision so eagerly, like young Harry Potter holding the philosopher’s stone: the recognition had not arrived together with the possession of the stone, but it would always be there, whenever I need it.

I dreamt I fell in love with a man, so unconditionally, so irrevocably. When his gaze met mine, I sensed the most scholarly perseverance, the most childish timidity, and the most unbearable pain. I wished, for that very moment, I could be like little Jane Eyre directly addressing my readers: Reader, I was so lost in the gaze, so lost in the imaginary love. I began to rethink the ‘male gaze’ coined by feminists, and discovered, most delightedly, that the only problematic thing was the creation of this word, not the word itself. A gaze could be so intimately connected with vastness of human emotions, fragile love, and fragmental memories. In such a gaze, we might feel complete; we might be replete. I dreamt how I was once so afraid of being emotional, of living too intensely, of having a heart, of giving a heart to someone imaginarily. I should be, I could be so proud of excessive emotions, not necessarily excessive desires; they were so scorching, so penetrating; they served as a frank lure to ensnare my most innocent senses; I was afraid, but I chose to drown, to dive in painful delight; this was just the way it was supposed to be.

I was crying in my dream. The innocent rashness of love was so terrifyingly beautiful, so imaginarily real. Did I fall? Did I serve as a temptation like Eve once did? Did I tell my Adam to share my mistake? Was that fearful? Did I have a secret intimacy with Satan? Did I also look into the pond and see my own reflection, being totally mesmerized by it? Have I even read, understood, accepted, challenged or internalized Paradise Lost?

I dreamt about how I once thought I might make the same mistakes as Dorothea did in Middlemarch. I could remember a very lovely moment in the novel, as if Dorothea was thinking what I just thought about. “She looked amusingly girlish after all her deep experience—nodding her head and marking the names off on her fingers, with a little pursing of her lip, and now and then breaking off to put her hands on each side of her face and say, “Oh dear! Oh dear!’” Amusingly girlish, that’s it. I understood how Dorothea’s life was full of emotional sorrows and ethereal peace. Dorothea and Ladislaw were bound to each other “by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it.” Ladislaw once felt Dorothea could be bound to something she disliked, but perhaps she was just bound to an abnormal normality, a doomed coincidence, with a childish delight and a cute stubbornness.

I dreamt how I felt the way Jane Eyre felt for Mr. Rochester. I laughed so boldly when I thought about how her little wickedness most successfully aroused Rochester’s jealousy. I heard she speak to herself, silently, with her telling wise eyes and little unnoticeable smile, “I perceived, of course, the drift of my interlocutor. Jealousy had got hold of him: she stung him; but the sting was salutary: it gave him respite from the gnawing fang of melancholy. I would not, therefore, immediately charm the snake.” I smiled, with a heart, most heartlessly.

Then all of a sudden, I dreamt of a place, which was beautifully decorated by camouflaged indifference and sorrowful transcendence. I dreamt I was trapped into its crimson dim light which seemed to come from nowhere and thus everywhere. I dreamt I was safely protected by its most unfamiliar, mysterious and foggy atmosphere. I dreamt I was delivering a very informative speech, but there was only one audience: my own reflection in a hall of mirrors. I heard myself say out loud, quite confidently, and there was even no need to figure out whether what I heard was visionary or illusionary, whether that could be my authentic voices or echoes. Thus, I spoke:

“The place we live, be it the place of birth or where we are brought up, can in a somewhat sensuous and mysterious way be related to our modes of being and patterns of thinking, and above all, our interactions and willingness to interact with both the exterior and interior world. However, most of us might not have even a mere chance to grasp these thoughts, let alone further reflect on them. This is not to say that the moment of reflection never arrives for an ordinary person. The probable situation is that these thoughts do arrive in a moment and they first come as glimpses, but unfortunately, they totally decay in the blink of an eye. One possibility might be that they are simply engulfed by the subconsciousness or unconsciousness.

We live in the place, and are defined by it in some way. Some landmarks can be of particular importance to our individual way of life, yet whether we choose to show contempt or ecstasy, the more we are familiar with it, the more we tend to lose the ability to defamiliarize our surroundings. That is, we lose the capability to define it or jump out of the invisible spatial boundaries. This might not be a bad thing and might in fact secure us mental comfort. However, writers with their perceptive eyes and sharp brains tend to decentralize the living center and disturb the comfort zones by bringing back these memories and imaginations lost in time and place. Words they create are jumping in and out of people’s stuffed minds, somewhat refreshing yet dangerous (hopefully in a good way). Yet cities in their literary imaginations come to us in slightly different ways, not because they tend to distort the reality (though they can if they want), but because words are mentally captivated and go through writers’ own mental unconsciousness before they are brought into daylight and come to us. Literary critics might sniff at some hidden literary clues, while common readers appreciate or despise them, but the fact is that these literary imaginations can never be completely revealing. This is what I want to define as writers’ mental literary map. Dreams and visions can be no different in their literary imaginations. Fantasies and emotions mingle at a certain point that their mental city takes shape and at the same time dissolves shape.

This is also what I would like to bring into deeper discussion: the affective space that constantly shapes or reshapes not only their but also our interior landscape. And at the very moment they write down the stories, about the city or about city memories, can we justifiably say a certain historicity is localized and thus be seen as a temporal eternity beginning to unfold and demystify?

I am thrilled by writers and the cities that have meant something to them: Walter Benjamin’s Paris, Shakespeare’s Verona (and so many others), Dickens’s London, Joyce’s Dublin, but I also want to include J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (not a city perhaps, but at least a place). The latter two writers create these places out of their literary imaginations, which means they only exist in fantasies or memories. But does it mean they are thus not real? They can in fact be real to us as long as we also grant these literary places a mental and magical certificate, and they can then be the habitats we perch on and a mental paradise that we refer to day by day, for they continuously nurture our living memories and experiences.

Mental cities, or rather cities in literary imaginations, are without visible boundaries and thus escape definitions.”

Could I interpret dreams? Could I understand, demystify, disorient, fall from, escape from dreams? No remedy. No solution. No answer. I have already woken up. My fever dream, with all its overstretching capacity to blur the distinctions between illusions and reality, most nobly cured me. I felt relieved. I was thinking, and then I recalled most childishly and blissfully, how the ending of Alice’s looking-glass story turned elegantly poetic:

“A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July –

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear –

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies,
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear
Lovely shall nestle near.

In a wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream –
Lingering in the golden gleam –
Life, what is it but a dream?

Life: I dare not give it a second thought. Thanks to all the fictional characters and imaginary locations I once identified with in my fever dream, I am finally re-captured into an eventful transaction with life itself, and most willingly re-immerse myself into an awakening. I am awake, as always. Fever dream is the language on my face, flowers in my heart. I have lost it, irretrievably. I have saved it, miraculously.

About the Author

My name is Wang Chutong, a girl born on Jun. 14th, 1994 in China. I have got my BA of English language and literature, and MA of English translation and interpreting both from Peking University. I am now a third-year PhD student at Tsinghua University. I work on Shakespeare and mirrors, comparative literature and aesthetics. I am totally mesmerized by exuberant imaginations, intense emotions, wild colours and ethereal possibilities. I hope I could dive down deep into the abyss of human mind, while always being capable to jump out of its invisible boundaries. I hope I could listen, with full attention, the grass grow and a squirrel’s heart beat, but never really die of that roar. And I hope I could devote myself to cross-cultural understanding and life-long learning. Maybe someday I can contribute to intellectual exchange in my own way.