“But O how glad I wak’d”

Posted: October 3, 2010 in Early sobriety, Literary Musings
Tags: , , , , , ,

At the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “A watchman, either drunk or too bundled up because of the freezing cold, had not heard a train being shunted and had been run over”  (64) as Anna departs the same train, having just met Alexei Vronsky, the man who would later become her lover.  Anna is not overcome by the violence of the man’s death in its own right, but shudders and is near tears because in her heart she recognizes the event as “‘A bad omen'” (65).  I hope I’m not delivering a spoiler when I point out that Anna will throw herself under a train, having ruined her life and crushed her spirit by allowing herself to live as an adulteress with a shallow man who cannot return her passion and commitment fully.

The man’s death was not a dream, but    it operates in Anna’s mind as one:  we do not know if “the bad omen” to which she responds is precisely the death of the watchman or the portentous meeting with Count Vronsky.  In the final analysis, perhaps her comment conflates the two.  In a split second, Anna may unconsciously be “reading the book to its end”–which is both the literary function of foreshadowing, but also the way the novel sets up Anna’s moral dilemma.  On some level, in some way, Anna has seen what will happen if she gives in to Vronsky’s seduction:  she has played the film reel to the end.

I was thinking of this narrative function this morning, having woken up from a dreadful dream about drinking.  (Apparently, all alcoholics get these wicked midnight visitations.)  It took me several heartbreaking minutes after waking to convince myself that I had not, in fact, been drinking–that the dryness in my mouth was not because of pre-sleep boozing, that my headache was because it was 4:30 a.m. and not the disheveled attendant of the Countess Hangover.  In the dream, I had hidden vodka in a knapsack, then had to abandon it.  My dream-self panicked, and I bought more, worrying even then that I had spent so much replacing the other bottle that I would not have enough to purchase more two days later.  The dream went on from there–filled with paranoia, anxiety, desire, guilt, and self-disgust.

The feelings of guilt and anxiety  persisted all day, muting my otherwise good mood.  It is impossible, of course, to put the past entirely behind me; but, having nasty little dreams rehydrate those sodden memories doesn’t help.  Like Eve in Book V of Paradise Lost, I was visited by a Satanic little toad, whispering seduction into my sleeping ear.  In her dream, Eve literally gets “high”:  having eaten the forbidden fruit, she soars with her tempter above the clouds, only to be abandoned by him:  “suddenly/ My Guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down” (5: 90-91).  Sounds like the bottle to me.  Poor Eve.  “But O how glad I wak’d/ To find this but a dream!” (5: 92)  Indeed.

Milton believed in Free Will, with the big capitals.  Eve’s dream is foreshadowing, but it’s also a warning–an opportunity for she and Adam to talk about how they will handle temptation, a chance to “read the book to the end.”  And yes, it’s a pity that Eve winds up post-lapsarian (and not just re-lapsarian); but, I’d point out that Genesis tied Milton’s hands on that score.  Adam’s encouraging words to a freaked out Eve might have served me well in the dim, early hours this morning:

Evil into the mind of God or Man

May come and Go, so unapprov’d, and leave

No spot or blame behind:  Which gives me hope

That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,

Waking thou never wilt consent to do.  (5: 117-21)

Just thinking of something, says Adam, even if it is evil, does not make the soul of a person evil, nor does the evil thought infect the will.   But the feeling of anxiety and warning persists and is perhaps necessary for effective action.

After having such a lovely, productive day before, this broken night of dream-rattled sleep left me feeling pensive and raw.  Thanks, subconscious, for the uninvited AV therapy! But, of course, that’s exactly what it was.  The lovely day before could have evaporated with one drink (because I can’t take just one!).  Bless my vigilant little brain for safely reading that book to the last chapter, because I don’t feel like playing that protagonist anymore.  Painful, yes, but, let’s call it a necessarily “sobering” dream.

Milton, John.  Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes.  New York:  MacMillan, 1957.

Tolstoy, Leo.  Anna Karenina.  Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  New York:  Penguin, 2001/2002.


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