The Awful Truth by Diana Hamilton
Golias Books, 2017
152 pages / Golias Books
I’ve been writing down dreams since the mid 90’s, a practice that is difficult, one which requires discipline and luck. Dreams don’t want to be remembered. They flee at the first glimmer of conscious life. The dreamer has to be stubborn. The simple decision to pee first can effect an impenetrable wedge between the dreamer and their notebook or phone. For days on end I’ll win, waking up with a capacious narrative: all the events, people, language, and images intact. And then some days only a feeling—yes I was cutting purple potatoes into sixteenths but why. Then days or weeks of nothing. Distant impressions, longings, situations which fill me full of intuition but which I cannot possibly name.
Writing down dreams transforms the original material, subjugating fantastical series of perceptions to the tyranny of syntax. Once this violence has been done, the dream itself “awakens” to an afterlife as a text, its permanent resurrection body. When I return to notebooks and review old dreams, a strange, almost contradictory feeling accompanies my reading. The atmosphere of having the dream initially somehow returns: I sense the muddy approach of sleep, recall the impressions and inferences of the dream, even when they are decades old. In this sense, my dream journals are highly intimate, an intimacy only I can experience. To anyone else, I suppose, reading them would be profoundly boring, even with the occasional sex and outrageous plot turns. And yet, on the other hand, these dream records don’t feel “mine” at all. Like a poem dictated by angels into the ear of a poet in the throes of rhythm, I don’t recognize myself as the author of these texts.
The dreamworlds of Diana Hamilton’s extraordinary The Awful Truth are like this: wildly intimate, totally estranged. The Awful Truth studies dreams in their afterlife as texts, confronting them for what and how they mean for us as writing. There are many dreams recorded in this work, apparently reflecting the author’s “real” dream life. Hamilton foregrounds this memoiristic tendency in the book’s dedication, which notes the book is “for the author’s blankets,” and includes conversations with friends and lovers that seem to gesture to real life companions. On the other hand, these dream records are emphatically distanced from Diana Hamilton. Their narrator is always called “Hamilton,” estranging their scribe from the dreamer’s perspective—a perspective which is inevitably first person, although dreams infamously portray our selves as others.
The opposing pulls of writing and reading dreams, deeply personal and obliquely deferred, is mirrored by the structure of The Awful Truth. The book is formally a diptych. The first piece, “Write In Your Sleep,” is an expansive contribution to the oneirological tradition–mixing memoir, history, theory, study, anecdote, gossip, dream-transcription, reflections on literature, and exhortation (I partly read the title as an imperative to the reader.) The book’s second half, “Fear and Trembling,” is framed by Hamilton as a novella written by “Elsie Maria Kingdon” which she discovered outside of a movie theater in lower Manhattan.
“Write In Your Sleep” studies dreams from the murky junctures of private experience and the dreaming, objectified body. Hamilton writes,
This is about dreams and writing
them down. There’s a fake “neutrality”
though: if “who’s dreaming?” affects dream content,
it matters who gets to sleep through the night
While “Write In Your Sleep” preserves the odd deflection of subjectivity common to dream-writing, it doesn’t suggest the dreamer ceases to be, finally, a person in the waking world. One of the book’s “awful truths” is that, even while asleep, the nightmares of our dominion persists, conjugating our bodies according to its cruel grammar.
Hamilton narrates, and inscribes in the book, an exchange with the artist Rindon Johnson, whose Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People refers to a connection between the racist structure of waking life and the domain of dreaming (which depends on sleep for its existence.) Encountering this work, Hamilton writes to her friend Johnson, “presumptuously” asserting, “Now that I am learning about who goes to sleep, I am also learning that perhaps white people have the most dreams.” Johnson replies, “I don’t really dream and when I do the world is ending or something and when I wake up it still is. So my dreams are realistic I guess.” Hamilton contextualizes this apocalyptic insight with statistics: White women dream 6.7 hours a night, white men dream 6.1 hours, black women dream 5.9 hours, and black men dream 5.1 hours.
Another grim reminder that the dream has been appropriated for terrible ends is elucidated by Hamilton’s study of Reddit communities organized against masturbation, who theorize a relationship between abstention and lucid dreaming. This is not simply a pseudo-scientific attitude shared by freaks online. “NoFap” is intimately related to alt right Reddit boards, whose users infamously perpetrated the misogynist violence of Gamergate and related campaigns against feminism, including widespread adulation of Santa Barbara murderer Elliot Rodgers. These same users, of course, frequently espouse neo-Nazi and other white supremacist ideals, trolling cucks from the cumless province of far Kekistan. This sexist and white supremacist affirmation of the power of the dream, and its implication of the dream-text as proof of masculine sexual austerity, corresponds to the real life violence nourished by the patriarchal and racist structures of everyday life. Hamilton quotes one of these users, “minivanman1” from the “r/NoFap” board: “Are you starting to have vivid dreams? Congrats, your dopaminergic reward pathways are healing!”
“Write In Your Sleep” does not offer any rosy picture or easy redemption for this catastrophe, any more than our dreams can adequately address or resolve the crises of our waking lives. For Hamilton, this is repeatedly proven by dreams about ex-partners, who haunt her dreamlife. After reporting one of these dreams to a friend, she writes,
Here, we hit upon the limits of these materials, which we can only access through the dreamer’s transcription. The dream itself cannot possible have written so positively, so we take this not as evidence of the dream’s actual ability to process loss, but as evidence of the way our mediation of dreams on waking has curative functions similar to diaries; in both, we pretend to document wishes, feelings, longings, or regrets, but we instead write them into existence.
Awake, you still have hope.
You recognize your own edit,
“love” to “loved” (we also Write In awake).
But you don’t get the pleasure of being relaxed.
If some of these things we “write into existence” when we write down our dreams are triumphs, (e.g. the unforgettable “Dream Where Ex-boyfriend Slowly Drowns at the Bottom of the Shower While I Hold Him Down With My Foot and Eat Chocolate Pudding, Letting the Pudding Drip All Over Both of Our Bodies, Smiling”), much of what we end up longing for or performing while we sleep is actually awful. Which might beg the question, why write them down at all? That notion is dispensed with in the book’s opening lines:
Some say we shouldn’t describe our dreams.
I say: fuck that.
But saying “fuck that” won’t persuade everyone.
Instead, I’ll prove it with “research”
about dreams & wishes. Specifically, two:
the wish to write, the wish to feel better.
There are many kinds of “research” involved. Hamilton’s dreams are source materials, and appear alongside literary texts, films, and the dominant psychoanalytic theories of dreams, especially Freud’s. But “Write In Your Sleep” is not beholden to any systematic interpretation of what dreams are and what dream-writing does. The “wish to write” and the “wish to feel better” are approached from many perspectives, familiar as scholarship and not.
“Write In Your Sleep” stages “fuck that” in different styles, including the more formal “research” embedded in it. Its refusal to choose silence, even when the dreams are awful, stems from these two crucial wishes, to write and to feel better. These wishes recur in the book’s second half. “Fear and Trembling” is a demonstration of the results of Hamilton’s research in “Write In Your Sleep.” The two halves of the book relate to each other in an analogous way as the dream text relates to the dreamer’s consciousness about their dreams.
“Fear and Trembling” is a dreamy narrative, obliquely relating “Elsie’s” attempt to improve the lives of her friends by imposing an art project on them. Elsie’s friends are struggling. Fear and Trembling opens with them, “Recently every young person I know agreed they were ‘very anxious.'” To treat this anxiety, Elsie devises a project:
If I could talk sense into my friends, I’d ask them to give up; I would tell them to enter the movies. With their lines written in advance, they would be freed from the anxiety of wordlessness–except where they were directed to express it–and freed too from the burden of getting over it.
As Elsie narrates a couple of these interventions with specific friends, it becomes clear how “Fear and Trembling” reiterates, in obscure half-light, elements from the book’s first half. In “Write In Your Sleep,” Hamilton refers to her friend Joey Yearous-Algozin, who she asks to recommend a poem about dreams. When he recommends Ted Berrigan’s “Something Amazing Just Happened,” Hamilton wryly notes that “I could only avoid being a NYSP (New York School Poet) in this section by telling you Joey’s last name is Yearous-Algozin.”
Hamilton refers to the casual coterie name-dropping of the canonical New York school, recalling both the anarchy of identities in dreams (e.g. “I was in the park with Brenda but it wasn’t really her.”) and the baroque formality of “Hamilton’s” appearance in the book’s dream texts. And yet in “Fear and Trembling,” Joey returns, this time with no surname:
Take Joey, one of my oldest friends, a writer whose fantasies of control are even bigger than most poet’s: he’s not only going to hash out his personal shit, his daily regrets. No, he wants to register world-historical shit, too–the young man seems to actually believe that by writing about the use of drones in contemporary warfare, the racist state of our prison system, or structural inequality more broadly, he’ll support political resistance.
The return of “Joey” is mysterious. Are we to assume it’s Joey Yearous-Algozin here, or another person entirely? Should we now presume that Hamilton–or rather Elsie–is now writing in the tradition of the New York School, formally distinguishing Hamilton’s inclination against repeating these tropes from Elsie’s seeming embrace? In any event, “Joey” has now doubled. The dream can always furnish us with the opposite of what we wish. I’m in my grandmother’s house eating a vast tuna sandwich while my grandfather hacks a living fish into pieces. Gross.
But where the first Joey is portrayed as a charming and witty authority on 20th century American poetry traditions, Elsie is more cynical about her friend of the same name. “Writers are most stupid,” she writes, “when they believe they can purge themselves of their various traumas by writing through them.” In other words, while “writing” and “feeling better” are the two key wishes Hamilton outlines for the book, Elsie does not find these two circumstances causally related. The imperative to Write In you sleep may result in writing and feeling better, but, for Elsie, there is not a causal link between the two.
This discrepancy is beautifully embodied in an anecdote in “Write In Your Sleep” where Hamilton meets Bernadette Mayer in Oakland. Approaching Mayer, whose work affirms the dream as a productive source for writing, Hamilton asks her to sign her copy of The Ethics of Sleep, “because I love her more than all poets / who have ever existed and that was the book I had / just bought. I told her I loved her.”
Mayer asks Hamilton for a sip of her beer and asks her, Hamilton, if she should keep writing.
I said, ‘Of course, selfishly, I want
to say yes. But you should do whatever the fuck
you want. She threw her head back
and laughed again as she opened the beer. “You know
I can’t sign my name since my stroke?”
She wrote “BM” in block letters. I said, “yes.
She recalls this exchange a little later, reflecting on the opening of Mayer’s classic “Midwinter Day,”
need your permission to write this book, just as
she didn’t need mine to write whatever she will
or won’t in the coming years, but
this is her dream: “People all around me / Wondering
what it is I write”–she’s dreaming and writing
of a needy reader, a lover show shows up a lot.
It’s the dream itself that permits you
to write it.
I love this interpretation of dreams. That their coyness in being remembered, and thus potentially transformed into text, is their prerogative, not the dreamer’s. That no matter how much mugwort we drink before bed or the position we place our phones in by our pillows, our dreams realize their own autonomy, dictating their continued existence or not.
The other side of permission, though, is control. And if “Fear and Trembling” is, in a way, a dreamy reiteration of “Write In Your Sleep,” its dreaminess does not take on a normative narrative arc. It begins with a supposedly stable first person narrator, Elsie, insisting that her friends undertake experimental art projects, negating their identities and merging their world with the oneiric sets and scenes of the movies. One of these friends, however, rebels.
After a couple of attempts at satisfying Elsie’s demands, “Sophie” turns against her:
Soon Sophie had developed still further strategies beyond mine, and had begun to write me about them; above all, she needed to prove that the act of writing was not incompatible with the act of accepting one’s lack of control. She came up with a series of procedures to carry out, but there was one she could never bring herself to do, in a way that surprised both of us.
“You say we shouldn’t bother to write in the absence of any real control,’ she said. ‘I say, fuck that.’ So she wrote me a story.
The key elements of Sophie’s story, about a woman imposing strict silence upon herself while wooing a hot plumber and avoiding governmental surveillance of her dreams by the NSA, evoke much of Hamilton’s research: it’s about writing and not writing, anxiety and sex, asserting oneself against dominion’s imperative to forget about dreams. Sophie’s story derails the ordinary narrative flow of “Fear and Trembling.” Like a dream that starts in the office but ends with you hanging out with your ex, your mom, and ten kittens wading in a mountain stream while an oceanic eruption of water shoots into the sky, which is also somehow your office, Elsie and her other friends disappear.
If the two halves of The Awful Truth constitute a diptych in their relationship to each other, and loosely allegorize the relationship of dreamer to the text they make from their dreams, inside each there is enormous variation, movement, contradiction, digression, and wonder. It is a work full of study, intellect, humor, and pathos. Hamilton has done something very difficult in showing the results of her extensive research without the moronic professionalization of academic writing or the anti-intellectual airlock of philosophical systems.
It is a common understanding that dreams are terrible literature. “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” Henry James warned. And yet I was never lost reading this book. It hearkens so much to worlds both familiar and unreachable. By studying how the dream futilely signifies—and energetically provokes—the emergence of abundant nothingness, and likewise how the awful world we make, and share, bears down on the dreaming body like the succubus in Goya’s “Nightmare,” The Awful Truth models how we might continue to write against these sentences on our possible futures.
The racist prison state might not crumble based on what we make. But those conditions, gruesomely clinical in their affiliation to knowledge, power, and truth, are passionate enemies of the dream. The only proper thing for us to do, from the perspective of capital, is to get up, pee, have coffee, hurry off to work. Leave the pages of the dream journal blank, they will only distract us. To which, I say, with Hamilton, fuck that. We want to write. We want to feel better. This book will help us.
Brandon Brown’s most recent books are The Four Seasons (Wonder) and Top 40 (Roof). He lives in El Cerrito, California under the shadow of Albany Hill.