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January 18, 2002

I mentioned a book last week for its brevity and promise and decided to read it myself. “There’s no toilet on the road less traveled” has a few gems. I was pleasantly surprised by one chapter– by David Foster Wallace, author of the kilo-page novel “Infinite Jest.”

If you know him, you’ll have guessed that his is the longest entry in the book. He tells in great analytical detail of a week-long cruise on a luxury liner. It is funny, insightful and not complimentary.

The editor notes that the chapter is a shorter version of a much longer story in Harper’s Magazine. So I went to it. Much longer, indeed, but not better. The editor had done well.

Wallace is known for his encyclopedic style. He’s smart, loves words in all their splendor, and is, well, encyclopedic. He studied philosophy, and in particular things like mathematical logic, and from this I infer a drive to be comprehensive in every analysis.

Maybe there is room in every generation for a writer like this — whose art is less one of refined choice and more of volume and exuberance. I was thrilled twenty years ago to read Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” but I could not persuade myself to read “Infinite Jest.” After tasting this little travel essay, though, I might try.

But anyway, as I read, I spotted the name “Wigglesworth” — a name I had only a few days before come across at the library for the first time in my life! (1)

I thought: What mysterious forces at play in this world!

And one of the most mysterious is the Muse — which was already in my thoughts when I read Wallace’s essay, and so I had to wonder at his own.

It was in my thoughts because I had recently read of a word — “ngarong” — which in the language of a certain Borneo tribe means “a secret helper who appears in a dream.”

One of the most famous Western figures aided by dream helpers was Robert Louis Stevenson. Little people he called “Brownies” appeared in dreams to help him with many works, including “The case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote — or rather, transcribed — his famous poem “Kubla Khan” immediately upon waking from the dream in which he imagined it. I read somewhere that it began to fade as he furiously transcribed it and that he didn’t get it all down. I could have happened.

Robert Schumann had some well-developed characters, Florestan and Eusibius, often referred to as alter-egos, who personified the more extreme characteristics of Schumann’s musical abilities and tastes. Psychologically, they protected him from the risks of unpopularity as he explored beyond the pale of received opinion.

Similarly, it seemed that The Brownies influenced Stevenson in a rather amoral way, suggesting the baser and less constrained aspects of some of his characters that the waking Stevenson might not have dared.

The “waking dream” is another useful phenomenon. On a London bus, the chemist Kekulé had a ‘waking dream,’ in which he saw the atoms of benzene align themselves into the ring that solved the puzzle of the benzene’s structure.

So I wondered about Wallace’s Muse and what drives him to record his experience of the world the way he does. It might be the lack of a dream helper. (2)

(1) As far as the columnist recalls.
(2) The columnist doesn’t have one himself.


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