Cultural Caviar

Death or Discomfort?

August 26, 2017

Multiple Pages
Death or Discomfort?

Freud said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious—provided, of course, that the traffic was directed by him. His work has always seemed to me more like soothsaying than science, which perhaps explains its popularity in the 20th century, with its need for pagan mystics masquerading as rationalists. Neither the plausibility nor the persuasiveness of Freud’s speculations accounts for his influence on so many intelligent and well-educated people for so long; rather it was the convoluted implausibility of his speculations that attracted them. We all like to be in on a secret not comprehensible to others.

This is not to say that dreams tell us nothing. Often (especially these days) I am woken by a dream of needing to relieve myself, only to find that I do indeed need to relieve myself. My wife and I have reason, therefore, to be grateful to the faculty of dreaming.

But sometimes dreams reveal something deeper about ourselves to ourselves that we had previously failed to consider, or perhaps did not want to know. For example, the other night I woke in the course of an unpleasant dream that revealed to me the full extent of my adherence to convention and my insecure fear of social ridicule.

“For me, the avoidance of a scene was more important than the avoidance of death.”

I was at a friend’s house (in my dream), a friend older and better connected than I. It wasn’t her real house, which is both grand and disorganized, strewn charmingly with antique furniture and artworks of many periods and lands, but a kind of modern suburban Versailles, decorated in the style that the late comedian Bob Hope called “early King Farouk.” I had already angered my friend by opening all the windows, to which she had responded by piling wood into the wood-burning stoves, although it was very hot weather. But far worse was the fact that there was soon to be a black-tie dinner given for eminent persons, for which I was now dressing. I discovered to my horror that, though I had brought my evening clothes, I had only a pair of brown shoes with me, the kind of rustic half-boots in which I walk round the garden when it is raining. Never elegant, they would look absurd with my evening clothes: The entire company would laugh at me.

A truly self-confident person would have been able to carry it off as a habitual slight eccentricity of his, or brazen it out as if it were the most natural thing in the world; but I woke in a cold sweat, my heart thumping, at the prospect of ridicule of my sartorial faux pas.

On the scale of human disasters, objectively considered, this was surely at the less serious end of the spectrum, yet I experienced it as an absolute horror, as bad as any I could imagine. I could have slept happily through an earthquake or massacre, but a few people laughing at my shoes was insupportable to me. An odd scale of values!

Having woken, and being unable to get back to sleep, I began to worry that my reluctance to offend people, in the flesh if not in print, was not a virtue, as I usually held it to be, but a manifestation of insecurity and pusillanimity, a cowardly avoidance of unpleasantness rather than a demonstration of thoughtfulness toward others.

A strange incident (this one real) came into my mind. I had flown to another country to give a talk, and was met at the airport by a member of the committee that had invited me. He was to drive me about a hundred miles to the venue of the talk.

I saw at once that he was a man of many large business lunches, and he was obviously the worse for wear. His breath smelled of alcohol and he swayed slightly as he stood waiting for me. He led me to the car park where his car was parked. I saw that it was a very powerful model, capable of nearly 200 miles an hour.

He turned out to be a very fast driver as well; he had only to see a straight stretch of road to accelerate to the maximum, soon to be followed by emergency braking. This was terrifying enough, but he chose to emphasize what he was saying by manual gestures that necessitated taking his hands from the wheel. Naturally, he wore no seat belt. I wore mine and clung to my armrests for dear life, as if my grip would be of any consequence in a collision at, say, a combined speed of more than 200 miles an hour.

We stopped halfway for some refreshments. He evidently needed to keep his blood-alcohol level up. But the strange fact was that I said absolutely nothing, not a word, to him about his state or his driving. To coin a phrase, I would rather have died rather than do so. Was this politeness or cowardice, the mere avoidance of an embarrassing scene?

I told myself what was true, that statistically speaking the vast majority of journeys conducted by drunken drivers end safely (I knew this in part because, in my youth, I conducted some such journeys myself, always without mishap); it was only the relative, not the absolute, risk of death that was high. I told myself this not to reassure myself as to my chances of survival, but to reassure myself that to say nothing was, in the circumstances, perfectly reasonable and therefore the right thing to do. It was not cowardice; it was reason.

For me, then, the avoidance of a scene was more important than the avoidance of death. Of course, if I had said something a scene, or at least embarrassment on my part, would certainly have ensued, whereas death was only a possibility; but I think that even if death had been much more likely or certain than it was, I still would have behaved in the same way.

It is often said that life is not worth living unless there is something you are prepared to die for. I am not sure that the avoidance of an embarrassing scene is worth dying for, but I have feared such scenes far more than I have feared men carrying guns. Is this good or bad? In some circumstances it would make me brave, for I would fear to appear a coward in the presence of others; in others, it would make me a coward and warp my scale of values.

At least my dream informed me how ordinary I am.

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