Thank you one and all!
D R E A M S
With the exception of two childhood dreams (no. 1—which was recurrent—and no. 2), all of them were transcribed immediately on awakening, often in the middle of the night. They are in chronological order. Any resemblance to Kenneth Koch’s The Gold Standard: A Book of Plays is perhaps not entirely coincidental.
I am seven years old, perched on the edge of a cavernous boat in the middle of the ocean. It is night. Far below me on a floor in the open hold there's a big party going on. An orchestra is playing old-fashioned swing, everyone is dancing and laughing and shouting to each other.
The only way down into the hold is by means of a ladder on the other side of the hull. Slowly I start to inch my way around the edge to reach the ladder. Getting past the sharp angle of the prow is the hardest part. Just as I reach the ladder, I slip and fall outwards towards the water. I fall very slowly. Just before I hit the water I wake up.
I am back in Provincetown, perhaps ten years old. My terrified parents are advancing up the stairs to the attic, about to confront a ghost. I follow along behind trying to reassure them, explaining that I am only having a dream and that, when I wake up, the ghost will no longer exist.
I am in grave danger. Unseen hands carry me away and place me in a small wooden shed with two benches, simple boards, facing each other. Immediately someone else is thrust through the door. He sits gasping opposite me. It is the Pope. Silently we join hands and give thanks to whoever it is that has rescued us from certain destruction.
An aged historian approaches me, peddling his latest pamphlet. I inform him that history is only the last lie we can still remember when we have forgotten all the rest. He shakes his head in bewilderment and moves on to the next potential customer.
A radical friend fathers a child. He comes to me with a new theory of child-rearing based on the application of 19th century liberal economics to the family relationship. I tell him it is immoral. He doesn’t understand me.
Stockhausen has written a new opera. It is four hours long. It is for a single performer, a percussionist who both plays and sings and who gradually removes all his clothing. It must be a man, because by the end the male organ must be erect and used as a beater. Stockhausen and I have an argument as to whether this is feasible, especially if there is also a matinee.
Sir Lawrence Olivier is about to repeat his famous adaptation of the Shakespeare history plays, which begins with a half-hour soliloquy, delivered along the length of a long Gothic corridor to an audience of one, who follows behind him. It is, he says, the most difficult thing he has ever done. As on a previous occasion, I am to be that audience. I tell him how deeply moved I was. We shake hands emotionally and I wish him well.
I was lead singer with an Italian pop group. I had wondered into a back yard in Milano where they were trying to get their PA to work. I immediately noticed that it wasn’t plugged in. They were mightily impressed. I took up a strange staff, like a shepherd’s crook, which appeared to be radio-powered, and terminated in a rather elegantly designed knob at the top with a microphone on one side and a small loudspeaker on the other. I vocalized a few nonsense syllables and was amazed at the strength and purity of signal that came out of it. A few neighborhood types, characters out of a di Sica film, drifted into the yard and applauded. I was the man.
They took the staff away and gave me another, which was much less impressive, with only a microphone. The speaker was distant and I could hear only a vague booming. The man at the mixer was turned away, talking to a friend. There was no foldback monitor.
Suddenly I was on stage before a vast audience. The band were down in the pit; the sound coming back to me was enormous but undefined. The first number was beginning, a tune I’d never heard. “Can I have a copy?” I stage-whispered at the leader, who went on vamping. A small card was brought to me with a few Italian words scribbled on it. “No,” I protested, “A score! I need a score!”
The music came suddenly to a halt. The leader stared at me. “He reads music!” he shouted. The audience took up the phrase and began to chant, louder and louder, “He reads music! He reads music!” I was hoisted onto their shoulders and borne in triumph out of the hall and through the narrow twisting streets.
I was sharing an apartment with Charles Dickens. It needed repainting. This was tricky, for the rooms were the setting of one of his novels. He wanted to change the color scheme, but this might necessitate altering the book, and so he had read through it carefully to ascertain which colors in which rooms had been specifically referred to. Fortunately, he discovered, he had been more vague than he had remembered.
Mr. Dickens took responsibility for wielding the brush. I had put myself in charge of moving the furniture and taking down the curtains. This, he thought, was a waste of time as he had a steady hand and could paint right up to the edge of the material, but I pointed out to him that we could never move a chair or draw back the curtains in summer; he grudgingly agreed.
Pointillism had come into fashion and Mr. Dickens thought this would be a clever mode of decorating the rooms. However, it would require a great deal of fiddly brush work, and so he conceived the ingenious device of wearing spectacles on whose blackened lenses hundreds of tiny pinholes had been scraped. We wondered why the French painters did not similarly save themselves a great deal of unnessary labor.
At this point a call of nature intervened. . .
Somehow the giant turtle was getting into the deserted tower block. While we were cleaning the empty rooms, we could hear it bumping around. There would be a crash, and then one of the lifts would start going up and down. There were only two of us working in the building; every night it was the same. In the morning we’d find turtle droppings in the lift and new scratches on the paint around the ventilation slit at ground level.
The bosses didn’t seem to care. Sometimes they’d drop in unexpectedly, to be sure we were working and not just sitting around. Maybe they thought we were somehow faking the turtle; either way it didn’t seem to bother them. The important thing was that this huge derelict building should always be ready for instant occupancy.
I found it hard to believe that here in England there was this secret contingent of the brotherhood. It wasn’t just the front organisation they called the Mafia or, in America, Cosa Nostra. This was Casa Nostra – our house – the big supranational corporation that no one ever talked about. Here they had a country-wide monopoly on the maintenance of empty tower blocks (of which there were more and more cluttering the inner cities) and also the cut-price petrol stations which occupied their ground floors. Nobody went to Shell or BP anymore; these scruffy anonymous forecourts seemed to be exempt from taxation, or even control.
Some guy was doing clandestine research on this burgeoning monopoly. Rumour had it he was a muckraking journalist writing a scoop for a left-wing underground newspaper. “Don’t worry,” our bosses said. “We know exactly what’s going on. His research is useful to us – he keeps us in touch with what’s happening out in the boondocks. We know everything he writes, even as he writes it. When he thinks he’s got it wrapped up, we feed him new info that shows he had it all wrong and then he has to start over.”
It seemed impossible that this huge monopoly-inside-an-oligarchy could carry on so invisibly and so efficiently. In local government everything fell apart, nothing functioned any more. And yet down here in the muck at the very bottom it all ticked over like clockwork. The bosses were so confident, so completely in command, that even a giant lift-operating turtle didn’t faze them. Perhaps, in some way we couldn’t fathom, it was part of the plot.
But what the hell! We had a job, it wasn’t hard and it paid OK, cash every morning. Anyway, it wasn’t too messy cleaning up after the turtle.
John Kenny had come to London to organize a concert. By arrangement with the Arts Council, part of the performers’ expenses were to be paid in Aberdeen Angus beef which he was bringing from Scotland. After the concert there was some beef left over, which John distributed to the performers as a bonus. The Arts Council, however, insisted that the surplus beef be deducted from their performance fees, at top market prices. John was disgusted.
Terry Edwards, Chorus Master of Covent Garden Opera, is the elder brother of Prince Charles. He is feeling depressed at being passed over for the throne. Gazing up at him as he towers a foot above me, I try to console him by pointing out that he has in fact achieved far more and earned greater real distinction than any other member of his immediate family. Prince Terry looks grave and promises to take this into consideration.
In the meantime His Royal Highness’ bundle of fish and chips, which members of the Royal Family carry as a mark of their exalted status, has begun to smell somewhat stale and must be given to the women in attendance who are charged with refreshing it.
President Eisenhower comes out of the pool accompanied by a middle-aged WAC noncom. She asks me for her towel. It has the damp sour smell of the gym locker and Eisenhower turns his head away, wrinkling his nose. I think, there was a time when you wouldn’t even have noticed.
Eisenhower sits down at his computer. It is in a long bare room where American Ex-Presidents spend eternity, managing their web sites. There is no sound except the gentle clatter of keys.
The two towering interlocking buildings were constructed on projecting rocks jutting up from neigboring countries. In the old days it was a popular passtime to step across from one half of the highest room to the other, over the gap of a few inches which separated them. People used to sit in one and listen on headphones to music carried across the gap on slender wires; but no one bothered any more. What, listen to music from another country? That’s the only kind there was now, and it was all the same. The buildings had grown shabby from disuse and poor maintenance. There was talk of tearing them down, for the winter storms had become more fierce and their safety was in doubt. What a silly idea it had been – they were like a pair of old jaws with nothing to chew.
Richard Ehrlich had discovered a way to place taste sensations on a website. It required a special digital camera with which you photographed the food in question. When you called it up on your monitor you could touch your tongue lightly to the glass and experience a sudden burst of flavor. “Downloading,” he proclaimed, “has taken on a whole new significance.” The quantities involved, he explained, were miniscule and so it was no answer to world famine. The remarkable aspect was its quality rather than its quantity.
Richard had not experimented with poisonous or pain-producing sensations. He was afraid that his invention would, like all others, be turned into a weapon of war, and so he had withheld its secret from his publishers. “It’s a goldmine, but it’s a Pandora’s Box,” he observed sadly. “Foisting it on the world would be, in a profound sense, in very bad taste.”
We were crawling along a seemingly endless passageway. Occasionally it would open out into a small room in which a few men were tasting roasted peanuts. These were pouring past small glass windows from which a few would dribble into the room. Some of them tasted rather good but most were of a boring mediocrity and we would leave the room and continue our closely confined crawl. Gradually we realized that this was all there was, and all there would be for all eternity – just one more boring peanut.
There were free photocopy machines everywhere. No one knew who paid for them. Sometimes they didn't work – the asylum seekers that changed the cartridges and replaced the paper hadn't yet arrived. These slave laborers padded about silently and one was rarely conscious of their presence.
Today the photocopy machines were very important, for they were needed to turn out the parts for the band concert. Musicians from all over the country were assembled in the wings of the huge outdoor stage. They would be performing a new arrangement of Charles Ives "The Unanswered Question" in which only the solo trumpet would be visible to the audience. Seats for thousands were set out in orderly rows. When his moment came the trumpeter stepped out onto the edge of the stage and played to a sea of empty spaces. There were perhaps twenty people in a row across the middle, most of whom seemed to be working on the show. The other two or three were Japanese tourists; they took photos and left while the trumpeter was still playing. Little eddies of photocopy paper blew about the deserted aisles.
New and old cuisine
John Kenny and I went out for lunch in Edinburgh. We were very pleased to see that all the cafés were serving the vegetable soup we had made in a huge cauldron the night before.
Dinner was another matter. We found that many roads had been closed off so that we had to follow a circuitous path that led up the hill towards the castle. It narrowed down into a long tunnel leading into a restaurant, its walls and ceiling covered with a purple flocked wallpaper. There were many small rooms off to both sides, tables carelessly half-set for dinner with white wine already poured, getting warm. We finally found a menu, but it was ambiguous – many pages long, vague descriptions and very high prices. Finding our way out, we looked into other restaurants, cheek by jowl, all more or less the same: pretentious but depressingly shabby. We finally settled on one that was moderately busy, but when we tried to order from the menu, the waiter evaded our questions.
We got up to leave. “This will be the first time that I review a restaurant without tasting the food,” I said indignantly.
The waiter shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t expect to find anything different,” he said.“They’re all like that.”
And they were.
I had died and was suspended in formless space. God arrived, as formless as the space about us.
“Do you prefer gravity or its absence?” he asked.
“Gravity, I think, until I get used to it,” I replied, whereupon I was reclining on an invisible but comfortable bed.
“Are you easily bored?” God continued.
“And do you like to think?”
“Good. You’ll have a lot of time for it. Take this string and wrap it around your hand. Don’t let go. Later I’ll come back and give you another.”
And I was alone with my thoughts.
Written at 4:30 a.m., having awakened from a nightmare:
John Thorne was so anxious to get his first posting onto Eat Words that he had written and sent it to Marc Millan and me before the list had actually gone up. It consisted of a recipe of his mother’s he had promised her he would publish before she died, but had not done so. It was a rather dreadful cake with colorful, artificial and vulgar little things stuck into the dough. We could see why he had delayed its publication.
This awful cake would damage his reputation. What to do? Marc created a bogus list which would go to no one, but which would give John a virtual feedback leading him to believe that he was reaching a large audience. This launched him on a massive campaign of public confession and all of our time was taken up with inventing the responses of his non-existent audience. I woke up at the point at which we were about to organize, somehow, a large public meeting which John would address in expiation of the neglect of his mother’s terrible cuisine.
My red VW van had gone missing! Had Mary disposed of it, as she had threatened to do? There it was! Or part of it – the front and back had been cut off neatly at a slight angle and affixed to the front of a pub. But was it really mine? Yes! I could tell by the Egyptian license plates!
The entire universe as we know it is a figment of Aubrey Meyer ’s imagination. He's just thought of global warming and we must get it registered so we can do something about it before it's too late. Unfortunately, a big idea like that is expensive—it will cost us six thousand dollars. (Violas are cheap; they are only a couple of bucks.)
I tell Aubrey not to have such big ideas. If only he’d stuck with a static universe, we wouldn’t always be in debt. He shrugs his shoulders and mutters, “I was bored.”
The skyscaper next door had disappeared without a trace. We tried to get some news of it on the pub TV, but it was Hugh Macdonald's ’s turn on camera and all the stations were showing him making an omelette. He didn’t seem to know about the disaster, and I wondered how he could ever find out when the only TV he could watch was self-referential. How many millions, I thought, must be watching Hugh’s cookery lesson, waiting for the networks to give us some clue as to what was going on.
Cyrus Todiwala had teamed up with a biological scientist. “We are developing new animals for the kitchen,” he said. “They feel no pain and offer themselves willingly to the knife, one chop at a time. This one is a long tube of tasty meat surrounding a marrow bone. As it gets older the flavor gradually transforms from chicken to goose to mutton. When it is very mature it tastes of elephant. This is highly prized by some religious sects, who believe that it conveys eternal life. Actually it does the opposite, which helps to rid the world of the superstitious.”
Mary had left her beloved Honda in a huge parking lot where construction was going on. When we returned, all the cars had disappeared. “This is a new Wal-Mart cemetary,” we were informed. “We are experimenting with methods of instant burial, starting with cars and extending to other forms of technological life. Your Honda is six feet under. It met a happy end.”
From Harstad, 1998: “I dream all night of a world-wide conspiracy in which the supra-national food industries invent a secret substance which is cheap, makes everything taste delicious and is profoundly addictive. After a few months the substance is taken away, the world suffers withdrawal symptoms, and it is reintroduced, this time as an expensive luxury like truffles and caviar. As William Burroughs so often observed, the aim of capitalism is to sell the buyer to the product.”
The Gourmet Dining Club was about to serve up its annual cassoulet. I was approached by a man who said that he represented the Jewish membership. “This year,” he said, “we demand recognition of our ethnic identity. The celebretary dish should be a cholent.”
“But we’ve always served cassoulet,” I protested, “and we’ve already started to lay in the ingredients.”
“That’s no problem,” came the quick reply. “We’re happy with the recipe, even the pork—we only want to change the name.”
Professor James Rawls was teaching me how to rewrite history. Through my computer he had called up actuality footage of the FSM in 1964. There was Mario Savio’s finest hour on the steps of Sproul Hall; there was Joan Baez promising us that we would overcome. But the ending was all wrong. The campus cops should have behaved as they had in the laid back 50s, patting stoned students on the back and pointing them toward their dorms.
The good prof showed me how to alter the footage. Within a few minutes the cops who had been dragging the students down the steps by their hair were now exchanging bouquets and joining lustily in the choruses. Arm-in-arm, they paraded down Telegraph Avenue, waving to the smiling shopkeepers who had stayed open all night in celebration of the new era that California—and the world!—was about to enter. Governor Pat Brown, having successfully defused the crisis, would be reelected by a thumping majority; Ronald Reagan would be remembered for his celluloid friendship with Bonzo. America, truly the land of the free, would become the home of the diffident—bravery would no longer be necessary. We shut down the computer and drank a toast, knowing that we had made the world a better place.
I had died and gone to heaven. I think it was heaven. It was enormous—nothing but infinite space.
—What do I do? I asked my Guide.
—You get from here to there.
—Where is there?
—That’s for you to find out.
I started travelling. It seemed very slow. Along the way I encountered Rolf Gehlhaar. He had just arrived and was being inducted.
—What are you? the Guide asked him.
—I am a philosopher.
—Fine. Start travelling.
For a while we travelled together. Then he was gone.
—Where is Rolf? I asked another passing Guide.
—He has retired.
—Oh. When will he start travelling again?
—Never. Once you’ve retired, that’s it.
—What happens to him now? Is there a now?
No answer. I kept on travelling. I met another Guide.
—Have you met Dean Dickensheet? he asked me.
—No. Is he here?
—Oh yes. When you knew him in high school, he guaranteed himself immortal fame. Do you remember his poem that started with a schoolboy rhyme? The one that went like this:
In days of old when Knights were bold
And men were not particular
They lined the girls against the walls
And fucked them perpendicular.
—Yes indeed! I can still remember the rest, exactly as he wrote it:
In days before the priests of yore
Upon the temple dias
Would lay the women cornerwise
And fuck them on the bias.
Long years before in caveman days
When raw meat was the ration
They’d hang from treetops by their toes
And fuck the girls sloth-fashion.
But nowadays when little boys
Learn sex Thorne Smith- and Thurber-ly,
They’ve introduced a new technique
And fuck the women verbally.
—Yes indeed, I said, it is truly immortal. He deserves to be here. And I went on travelling.
It was strange meeting Chris Koch again after so long. Every year I used to see him in the box, just sitting there all day. Sometimes there were crowds of people around him; other years, not a soul. Once there was a battle – I remember bullets whizzing past, but he didn’t seem to notice.
And now his daughter had taken up the yearly vigil. The empty box was overgrown with weeds – it was strange that it hadn’t been broken up and carted away. This year would be grim. There were angry crowds everywhere, people without homes or jobs. The box would be a dangerous place, but we both knew she’d be there anyway. Would she be mobbed? Would she survive? It was almost time. Chris and I waited.
John and Jean Langdon had left me in charge of redecorating their enormous bedroom. When they returned they were amazed to find that I’d filled out the rather sparse furniture with big homey pieces that perfectly filled the empty spaces and looked as if they'd always been there. John was especially impressed by the odd bits of shelving I’d put in, which would perfectly accommodate what he wanted them to hold.
I told them that all the furniture came from an old man who had died under mysterious circumstances. It had been mine for the taking – all I had to do was find the card that had been given me with the address of an old shop where it was stored. I’d ransacked my room before I found it. Typical! The hardest thing about anything I do is just getting started.
I’m in Darmstadt, sitting in a big auditorium, sparsely occupied, where a lecture is about to begin. Suddenly Sophie dashes past, tosses me a book and calls out, “Save me a seat!” I’m surprised but not astounded. She chats vivaciously with a group of people near the front of the hall and in a couple of minutes she dashes back, plops down in my lap and starts to explain to me the ins and outs of Darmstadt politics. Her face is just inches away from mine, looking straight into my eyes. Somehow she’s only scarcely older and utterly, ravishingly gorgeous. As she chatters away, I think, “She’s grown so much brighter and more knowledgeable than me; what’s she going to do when she finds out?”
Global conflict is on the point of breaking out and the world’s military leaders are in wary consultation. Another Sophie (a young artist, not a trained musician) has taken up the fiddle. Miraculously, she proves to have the powers of an Orpheus! It matters not what she plays, or how inexpertly, fevered brows are soothed, bellicose warriors pacified. A history-making treaty is on the point of being signed, but Sophie, utterly exhausted, can hardly keep her instrument to her shoulder. “Just a little longer,” I tell her reassuringly, “and then you can go back to your easel.”
In the far off land of Pango Pango, a new community was being formed. Its mascot was an aged monkey. Found dying under a banana tree, it had been nursed back to life by a young girl. When it was healthy again it became mischievous and rambunctious and was finally confined to a cage, where it became disconsolate, moping in a corner and eating only enough bananas to stay alive.
One day the cage was carelessly left unlocked and the monkey escaped. The community were unhappy at the loss of their mascot, but the girl who had nursed it back to health said, “Leave the cage open – it will come back.” Sure enough, the next morning it had returned. Inside, the monkey and the girl were asleep in each other’s arms.
And so the strange couple became the new community’s official host and hostess. They gave lovely parties.
The pretty girl is looking for her place in the world. I'm not the right person to help her, because this isn't my world. We walk around looking and then we come to an ancient obelisk in the middle of a square. She walks up to it and touches it. There is a blinding flash of light and she disappears. The obelisk has turned into a shaft of steel; the square is now covered with shiny tiles and there is a low but substantial steel wall around it.
I have a new companion. “Don’t worry,” he says, “she’s found her place."
We leave the square and walk down a narrow alley. At the end is a Friends Meeting House. We join the people who are going inside. It's a small room with dark wooden walls and wooden benches around it. Everyone has identical small cups of coffee with grounds at the bottom. When they have drunk the coffee they empty the grounds into bowls that are placed about the room. My companion and I wait to see what will happen next.
I was watching a remarkable chamber opera. It was taking place in a rough building site and had a very small standing audience. There was little singing but a lot of dancing by unbelievably well-trained small children. I assumed that the instrumental accompaniment, which was modern but not dissonant, was pre-recorded, but then I saw a small group of musicians off to one side, playing and chatting amongst themselves.
Suddenly the children became the center of attention, executing a complex choreography that would have been difficult for any adult professional dance company. I was deeply moved and felt that this was one of the greatest operas I had ever seen. I wanted to tell the world about it and so welcomed a dinner invitation from John and Rosemary Carewe, to whom I could begin spreading the word!
John Whiting can be reached HERE
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