What's Hidden in the Box
On dreams and imagination
Authors of the Week: Poland
First there is a box with a small hole in it. Two people walk the streets with this box and ask passersby to stick their finger through the hole and to guess – only by touching – what's inside. One little girl does it too, and after a moment of astonished silence she exclaims: “It's a bunny! I can feel its nose sniffing my finger!” She is exhilarated. The image of a rabbit, of its cool, curious nose and soft fur, is so vivid that there is no place for doubt: the girl doesn't think, for example, about the box lacking the air and being too dark to keep a living creature in it. She has her bunny; her imagination, like a magician, pulls it out of the darkness.
Maybe I remember the girl and her reaction so well, because I was myself a child when I saw on a TV programme called “Hidden camera”, where random people were unaware that they were being filmed during their interaction with the mysterious box. When its actual content was finally revealed, and it turned out to be some jelly, I couldn't rid myself of the question: did they tell the truth to the girl? That there was no bunny, no sweet funny nose, only THIS – a lump of ugly jelly? And if they did, how must she have felt? Of course, no tragedy had happened there, probably just a minor disappointment, a quickly forgotten moment of sadness. But these minor and major disappointments (every childhood has its own) accumulate. And according to the well-known rule, the more our childhood dreams and our imaginary worlds collide with reality, the quicker and more painful the process of growing up is. The question remains: how to become mature and, in spite of losing illusions, to not give up on creative imagination.
It's commonplace to say that a child perceives the world as the realm of boundless possibilities. This was the case with me as well. In 1990, after the end of communism in Poland, my parents, my brother and I were invited by our friends living in Malta to visit them in summer. We spent two weeks on this Mediterranean island, shockingly beautiful to me, then eleven years old. For the first time in my life, I was seeing a Western European country on the other side of the Iron Curtain, which at that time was disintegrating.
I was in love with Malta. After returning home – to Warsaw, which was suddenly dull and grey, with the boring school and the days growing shorter –, I decided I wanted to move to my ideal island and live there. But how to attain this goal? During our vacation, my mother, who is an ornithologist, got in touch with a group of biologists from the Malta Ornithological Society. They fought against the shooting of migratory birds, a sport still popular on this (not so ideal) island. One day in autumn an idea popped up in my mind, and when nobody was in the room, I searched through the drawers under my mom's desk, found the address of the Ornithological Society, and wrote a letter in my stumbling English to one of the biologists, asking to please give my mother a job there. The letter must have been really clumsy as I was just starting to learn the language. I sent it in utmost secret. When after a month or so the answer came – an elegant envelope with a stamp featuring a British soldier in a red uniform and a bearskin cap – my parents were quite intrigued. I don't remember what story I had invented. It wasn’t until many years later that I told them about this childish “job application” for my mom.
Naturally, the biologist's answer was no. But his letter was warm and respectful. It was crucial for me that I had been heard. And strange to say, I didn't feel disappointed that the only chance to move to Malta was now gone. On the contrary, I was even proud that I had followed my dream and tried to make it come true. I had failed, but somehow the energy of my longing to live elsewhere was expended on my effort to achieve this, and I simply stopped longing anymore. The exquisite post stamp with a soldier enriched my brother's collection.
There is a short poem by William Carlos Williams, that I translated once into Polish. It's called “Thursday”:
I have had my dream – like others –
and it has come to nothing, so that
I remain now carelessly
with feet planted on the ground
and look up at the sky –
feeling my clothes about me,
the weight of my body in my shoes,
the rim of my hat, air passing in and out
at my nose – and decide to dream no more.
I know exactly the feeling Williams describes. And surely many of us do. Our fantasies and projections that concern love, success, our passions and ambitions, sooner or later are verified by life. No one is immune to disappointment and loss, the loss of dreams as well. Though when it happens, when your dream has come to nothing, it can be liberating. You are grieving, you are devastated, but then you experience the unexpected calm because you don't try to escape anymore into the future or into the past. You are here and now, fully present, perceiving yourself and the world around you, sharply and intensely. As if you were newly born. When I showed Williams' “Thursday” to a friend who is in mourning after she and “the man of her life” recently ended their long-lasting relationship, she said it was about her.
Still, something disturbs me in this poem, precisely the last line. If the voice speaking here is the voice of the poet, then how can he declare: “and [I] decide to dream no more”? Does it mean: to write no more poems? Poetry that eschews dreaming seems to me deprived of its essence. Admittedly, “to dream” is not the same as “to imagine”; sometimes imagining the future in a realistic or catastrophic way prevents us from dreaming about it; but in art, even if it does away with illusions, dreaming is the intrinsic function of imagination. I understand that disappointment enables the speaker to adopt an attitude which is priceless in all creative processes: the full presence I mentioned earlier, the receptiveness and attentiveness. With no baggage of expectations and dreams left behind, one is open to the world as never before. It’s momentary enlightenment, though. If prolonged, this rejection of any kind of baggage can also turn into limitation and burden, both in life and in art. Poetry feeds on dreams, which doesn't mean that it has to turn a blind eye on harsh reality. This poses a problem, however: how to be the dreamer and the watcher at the same time, how to remain with feet planted on the ground without abandoning the world of imagination.
The most convincing and moving works of art are for me those that do something with this issue: find a solution to it, or struggle with it helplessly, or express in an innovative way the tension between dreams and down-to-earth reality. That's why I'm not so much into, for example, Matthew Barney's art, and his famous series of films The Cremaster Cycle. His is the realm of wild fantasies, visually intoxicating and fascinating for some, yet in their grandeur ignoring the basic human experience of disappointment, disillusionment and loss. And I believe the challenge for creative imagination is not to ignore this experience, not to escape from it, but to transform it into a meaningful form. This is what Marieke Lucas Rijneveld achieved in their debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, an uncomfortable book to read, which is uneven and yet important to me because its lyrical, imaginative language isn't art for art's sake. Instead it helps to face the drama of a child grieving after the death of her brother. I also find this characteristic in Ananda Devi's Eve Out of Her Ruins, whereininventive, dense, metaphoric prose is used to evoke the world of poverty, violence and social injustice, and the contrast between beauty and horror creates a disquieting and captivating effect. What comes to mind, too, when I think about the discrepancy between our dreams and reality, and about the power of creative imagination to cross this gap or this abyss, and make something out of it – are the classic sculptures of Pablo Picasso, assembled out of discarded items. An old bicycle saddle and handlebars found in the garbage become the bull's head with horns, and a wicker basket serves as the rib cage of a she-goat. These sculptures are playful, joyous inventions, but if we consider the fact that like Bull's Head, they were made during the Second World War, or soon afterwards, when the world was shattered, and that the artist managed to create a new quality out of shards and remnants, then they reveal another layer of meaning.
I would like to tell the speaker from the W. C. William's poem: come on, I know there was no bunny in the box. I know it might even be a relief not to wish for anything anymore. But it is Thursday when you feel like this. Tomorrow will be Friday, things will change. So don't give up on dreaming.
 The Dreamer and The Watcher is the title of Louise Glück's essay, that deals with loss and the writer's creative process.