It’s Only a Draft, After All: Graham Greene on Love and Death in Existential Reflections from His Dream Diary
By Maria Popova
Once, in a small second-hand bookshop on the stormy New England coast, Judy Blume sold me a yellow inflatable life-raft. I woke up blissfully perplexed.
Nietzsche believed that dreams are an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Since Freud’s earliest theories, scientists have been trying to answer the question of why we dream — one of the great perplexities of consciousness. And yet it remains unanswered, perhaps even pleasurably unanswerable — for how drab would life be without the nocturnal escapades of the imagination, without that private wonderland where even the most improbable is possible? It is in dreams, after all, that we dance with our most unnameable desires and our deepest fears. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams, and this sleeping counterpart can often access what our waking selves cannot. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, Margaret Mead found the perfect existential metaphor in one, and Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a wonderful philosophical parable of identity.
Between 1965 and 1989, the great English novelist Graham Greene (October 2, 1904–April 3, 1991) kept a dream diary — an 800-page record of his fanciful nightly adventures in what he called “The World of One’s Own,” where his subconscious confronted what it could not in “The Common World.”
In the last years of his life, Greene prepared the best of this curious document for publication, organizing a quarter century of dreams into several overarching themes. Shortly after his death, it was released as A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (public library) — a strange and wonderful book, which Greene considered a sort of “autobiography, beginning with Happiness and ending with Death, of a rather bizarre life.”
He writes in the introduction:
It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else. There are no witnesses. No libel actions. The characters I meet there have no memory of meeting me, no journalist or would-be biographer can check my account with another’s. I can hardly be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for any incident connected with the security services. I have spoken with Khruschev at a dinner party, I have been sent by the Secret Service to murder Goebbels. I am not lying — and yet, of all the witnesses who share these scenes with me, there is not one who can claim from his personal knowledge that what I describe is untrue.
Out of these nocturnal fictions the unconscious wrests, or seeks to wrest, existential truth. The grander the question and more perplexing the problem, the more labyrinthine the path into the absurd in search of the absolute. From meeting with Pope John Paul II in a hotel bedroom to encountering Henry James on a riverboat in Bolivia, this voyage into the neverland of the bizarre unveils a strange and strangely profound cartography of meaning for the most elemental questions of human life — among them, inevitably, love and death, the great feat and the great defeat of being.
Greene recounts one particularly poignant dream:
On May 5, 1973, I had an awful experience I am thankful never occurred in the Common World. I had sent a love scene in a new novel to my secretary to make a draft, but her draft was full of gaps — that was only tiresome. What was awful was that as I read aloud to the woman I loved, I realized how false it was, how sentimental, how permissive in the wrong way. She too knew how bad it was and that made me angry. I threw it away. “How can I read it to you,” I demanded, “If you interrupt and criticize? It’s only a draft, after all.”
But I knew that the whole book was hopeless. I said, “If only I could die before the book is published. It’s got to be published to earn money for the family.” The thought of Russian roulette came to me. Had I recently bought a revolver or was that a dream? My mistress tried to comfort me but it only made things worse.
Greene tussles with the subject of love — which is “only a draft, after all” — in another dream:
I spent a sad summer evening in July 1965. I was engaged to be married to a girl whose mother detested me and longed to see the affair at the end. Harassed nerves caused a quarrel between me and the girl and her pride added its quota, while I pushed the quarrel to its extreme so that the girl broke with me and I accepted the break. The mother listened with satisfaction and then took the girl upstairs.
I felt sad and guilty and I knew that my relief at this final solution would not last. A party was going on at the house and the mother reappeared with her daughter in her arms, small and shrunken and ready to vomit. The mother appealed to me to find something and I brought a vase into which the girl vomited. I felt pity and guilt and love too, and I realized for the first time how much she loved me and what I was losing.
Among the guests was [the English sculptor] Henry Moore, and as I left the room I apologized to him for not having recognized him earlier, as I had been so preoccupied with my quarrel. I left the house and went for a walk with the girl’s brother. He was very sympathetic to both of us. We met her father, whom I had always liked, and appealed to him. “I am not such a rotten beast, am I?” He smiled to reassure me.
When I got back to the house the girl was there, and everything was all right again between us.
In the final dream in the book, Greene revisits the subject of redemption in its ultimate extreme:
In this World of My Own I found myself writing a bit of verse for a competition in a magazine called Time and Tide, but, needless to say, the paper never received it. It was about my own death.
From the room next door
The TV talks to me
Of sickness, nettlerash, and herbal tea.
My breath is folded up
Like sheets in lavender.
The end for me
Arrives like nursery tea.
Complement Greene’s A World of My Own with the science of lucid dreaming and the relationship between dreaming and depression, then revisit this marvelous 1922 philosophical children’s book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud’s brilliant cross-dressing niece.
Published April 29, 2016