Tuesday, May 24, 2011

East of Eden

The house I grew up in had lots of books, mostly my mother's Book-of-the-Month Club selections from the late 1930s and early 1940s. There must have been a Bible in the house, although I don't recall it. Certainly the Bible played no role in our family life, which was pretty typical of Catholics. We were more into the Family Rosary Crusade. So my first acquaintance with the Land of Nod was with Robert Louis Stevenson, not Genesis.
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.

All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do--
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.

The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.

Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.
My Land of Nod was Dreamland, that mysterious territory where everything is familiar and nothing is familiar. Eugene Field's poem Wynken, Blynken and Nod confirmed the dreamy adventure of nodding off. I was quite prepared as a child to sail away in a wooden shoe and fish among the stars.

I still am. As I indicated yesterday, my dreams are vivid, often frightening, sometimes delicious. I've read everything in the college library about the science and psychology of dreams, but there's little agreement and much left to learn. I'd love to interrogate those three little Dutchmen who reside down there in the cellar of the brain, stitching tenuous memories into crazy-quilt counterpanes.

Brainstem activity during sleep somehow stirs up a jumble of remembered images, emotions and desires, which the cerebral cortex tries to shape into a story, or so says philosopher/neurobiologist Owen Flanagan. Although that doesn't tell us much, it suggests something both deeply biological and cultural. The animal and the angel.

Which brings us to Genesis.

It wasn't until my graduate school days that I started reading the Bible. And there in Genesis 4 was Nod: "And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." The impetuous fratricide was condemned to endlessly wander for his crime, in a strange and frightening land beyond the familiar, while bearing the baggage of his cultural self. Not a bad metaphor for the dream. If Abel is our generally reliable conscious self, Cain is our dreaming avatar: "A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth."

(The image of Cain wandering in Nod is by the French painter Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), whose subjects generally have the spooky, psychosexual feeling of having been dredged up from the primitive brainstem and pieced together in the cerebral cortex. Click to enlarge.)