Monday, July 21, 2008

there must be a great word in german to sum up this entry

In grade three or thereabouts a story was going around about the dangers of dying in your dreams. The story had two versions. The more dire version maintained that if you didn't wake up the split-second before you hit the ground/ met the bullet/ went up in flames, then you would die in real life, and your parents would find you dead in your room. This scared the crap out of my eight year old self. Even when my parents pointed out that there was no way of verifying a sleeper's cause of death as dream-induced (oneiropathic death?), I remained pretty sure that I was doomed to die by a nightmare that didn't know when to stop. The other, milder story said that dying in dreams was a sign of severe psychological issues.

So far I have died twice in my dreams, and as far as I can tell I'm not dead or too disturbed. But the experience is disturbing enough.

What I've realized from these dreams is that my subconscious is not up to the task of portraying what it's like to be dead. I don't hurtle forward into nothingness; I don't get a fast-track entry into afterlives of pleasure or torment; and my consciousness isn't pinned to my body (or what remains of my body; in both of my death dreams I've been hit by a mortar round – isn't that strange?). Instead I find myself in a new body. But the body does not come with a new life. Instead it's clear, in the way that dreams clarify by way of tacit certainty, that the new body is a loaner, a kind of holder for my awareness until I die again.

That's right – die again. Bodily death in my dreams is only the first stage in being booted out of this world. Afterwards, I am made to examine forms(somebody hands me a clipboard) and certify that I am scheduled for death at some undetermined-but-definitely-soon point. The forms are stamped, signed, and generally look as if they've been pulled from some file cabinet from an office in Albania in 1976. First the body is destroyed, then the bureaucracy takes over. During this period I feel a strange lightness, as if the weight of my experience no longer matters. It is a relief tinged with a bit of melancholy, especially when I see my broken corpse. Best of all, nobody cares that I'm now dead, and the people who were only moments before trying to kill me are now freed up for casual conversation.

I never experience the second death. Instead I wake up, my eyes opening to 4 a.m. darkness, my heart whumping away and my lungs aching, as if a gigantic weight has just been lifted off my body. In two days I will turn thirty-seven, and I wonder how many more times in my life I will find myself dead in my dreams, alive and waiting for the death that never comes? Except of course that it will come eventually - I just won't be there for the actual moment.

I blame The Flintstones. In all seriousness, it was Hanna-Barbera that implanted this bodily roundelay notion of death in my tiny, unformed mind. When I was very young, I watched an episode in which Fred got fired and then spent the rest of the episode sitting around his stone hut bitching about his fate. I didn't get it. I thought that he had been fired upon, that he had been killed, and that he had been given an extra allotment of time to say goodbye to everyone, to examine options and make plans that cannot possibly succeed. It seemed unspeakably cruel and strange for Mr. Slate to do this to Fred, and crueller still that a universe with this kind of punishment could be imagined and portrayed. Can I sue? And wouldn't it set an excellent precedent for all those disturbed people wandering around who could lay their troubles at the foot of childhood entertainment? I hope so.


Cecilieaux said...

I"m no shrink, but I'm told it's not very common to dream about your own death. I never have.

Second comment: Re the Flintstones, I recently heard an NPR (similar to CBC) radio program about the fact that many people carry from childhood some misconceptions that never get explicitly denied until some epiphanic (and usually embarrassing) moment in adulthood. One women told of being at a party at which everyone started listing horned animals and she listed a unicorn. Everyone laughed. She didn't understand. Then she was told they didn't exist.

Black Hockey Jesus said...

Wait a second. You get a loaner. But are you still in this realm? I mean, are a lot of the people that bump into me in crowded places like grocery stores just loeaners waiting for their second kills? Does your second self have a mission or anything? You need to clear this shit up.

Nat said...

Aha! I knew there was a good reason I wasn't allowed to watch the Flintstones when I was little. Look at all the pain and existential angst my mom saved me.

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

From my point of view, the word in question is almost certainly 'schadenfreude'.

Feroz said...

I've never died in my dreams yet. I've once nearly been suffocated by a big cackling balloon, but even then it burst before my death.

ozma said...

I think I remember this! I only had the falling in your sleep version. How do these kid memes spread? Is there some kind of anthropological study on that?

Great story about the Flintstones. I'm pretty sure they gave me certain misconceptions about marriage but none about death. I think I was trying to learn as much as I could about adult life from watching "Gilligan's Island." The results aren't pretty.

Ozma said...

Oh, and I wish I knew the German word because you are right, there is one.

For now you can just call it 'die todd.'

maarmie said...

I died in a dream once. An ex boyfriend shot me in the back of the head three times. I fell face down on the carpeting and remember feeling no pain or fear, just confusion. Then my spirit rose up out of my body and went over to him, told him I forgave him and begged him to tell my dad that I love him. Freaky dream to the max. When I woke up, I cried for two hours. Never forget every detail of that one.

Dan said...

I remember the die-in-your-dreams-and-you'll-really-die thing, but I didn't realize until now that they cribbed it for the Matrix.

I always had the waking-up-the-split-second-before type of death dreams, which, incidentally, made that twilight zone episode in which the guy tells everyone he is dreaming the world and then he gets the electric chair and wakes up -- remember that one? -- made it reassuring rather than frightening. Reading Descartes, on the other hand, still scares me.

But anyway, I really just wanted to suggest a great German word, frühstücken, which is a verb meaning 'to breakfast'. I'm not sure how it applies, but it's my second favourite verb in any language, after berkumis, which is Indonesian for 'to have a moustache'.