Often, as I am awakening, a word or phrase or snatch of song washes up from the depths of sleep. Is it the remnant of a dream? Perhaps – but no matter, I will scribble it down on the notepad I keep by my bed. I may mull over it a while, hoping that some meaning attaches to it. A case in point: the title of this piece, which was suggested by a bit of flotsam from the recesses of my brain, the words “mon ami Pierrot.” I remembered they came from the French folk song, “Au Claire de la Lune,” which we sang in Mme. Litvak’s 8th-grade French class more than 50 years ago. I doubt I have heard the song, much less sung it, in all the years since. Yet there it was, rattling around in my brain early one morning, when the door to my unconscious was still slightly ajar.
Thanks to Google, only a few keystrokes were required to retrieve the lyrics to the dimly remembered song, the first verse of which is given below in both French and English:
Au clair de la lune
Mon ami Pierrot
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot
Ma chandelle est morte
Je n'ai plus de feu
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l'amour de Dieu
By the light of the moon
My friend Pierrot
Lend me your pen
To write a word
My candle is out (dead)
I have no more light (fire)
Open your door for me
For the love of God
Leaving aside the smutty double-entendres, Au Claire de la Lune was a song about the very thing I was doing, writing a word or phrase that had come to me by the light of the moon.
There is a fancy term for the threshold between waking and sleeping called hypnagogia, from the Greek words for sleep (hypnos) and guide or leader (agogeus). The term was coined by a 19th-century French psychologist named Alfred Maury, who was himself a careful chronicler of his dreams. The mental activity characteristic of this in-between state would be alarming to anyone fully awake: visual and auditory hallucinations, intense emotions and weird physical sensations, including Alice-in-Wonderland distortions in body image. However, the disturbing aspects of hypnagogia are cloaked by the same amnesia as deeper sleep. The executive control functions of the conscious brain are likewise deactivated, and ego boundaries are loosened. The effect for many visual artists, writers, scientists and inventors who have experienced hypnagogia is to bring them closer to the source of their creativity.
It should come as little surprise that the surrealist painter Salvador Dali relied heavily on the unconscious in his work. He is perhaps most famous for his images of soft watches draped like deflated balloons in a barren dreamscape. The challenge for Dali and others seeking to tap hypanagogic experience is to remember it, particularly if one is drifting off to sleep rather than waking up. Dali used a technique called “slumber with a key” – a trick he says he learned from Capuchin monks. He would sit upright in a chair holding a heavy metal key between his thumb and forefinger while his hand was suspended above a plate overturned on the floor beside his chair. When he fell asleep, the key would slip from his fingers and clatter on the plate, waking him up. Dali would then remember the images that came to him while he was drifting off to sleep.
Dali’s trafficking in the unconscious may be less surprising on its face than similar practices by Thomas Edison, who boasted about needing only three or four hours sleep a night. Edison, who still holds the record for the most patents ever awarded to a single individual, was a dynamo, working as much as 72 hours straight. Yet he was also a prodigious napper, sometimes sleeping three hours at a stretch. Like Dali, Edison perfected a technique for tapping his unconscious when he was stumped by a technical problem. Instead of a key, he held steel bearings in each hand, which would slip from his grasp when he nodded off, landing on a tin pie plate. This would wake him up, and he would jot down any ideas that had come to him.
There was a time when those seeking inspiration would pray to one of the muses. There were nine muses altogether, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Each specialized in one of the arts and sciences, so Salvador Dali would not have turned to the same muse as Thomas Edison, had they been so inclined. Nowadays there are patron saints for artists, writers and poets, so presumably you can still offer up prayers if you need inspiration; however, scientists and inventors have no one with spiritual clout who is specifically assigned to their needs.
For those who are not religiously inclined but who still believe inspiration arrives from somewhere else, there is always the unconscious – a term that could apply to almost any neural activity other than the workaday mind. Freud, of course, viewed the unconscious as if it were a locked room in Bluebeard’s castle, full of repressed memories, criminal impulses and forbidden desires. Jung, however, had a more expansive view. He had once dreamed, in fact, of an old house, not unlike Bluebeard’s castle, except that when he descended into the cellar he found himself in a Roman ruin and then, descending still further down a narrow stone stairway, he came upon a cave with artifacts from a primitive human culture. From this dream he elaborated the idea of the collective unconscious, in which the individual unconscious recapitulates the psychic development of the human race over eons. For Jung, our principal task was “individuation,” which meant integrating the conscious mind with elements of the unconscious, which he saw as a source of creativity and enlightenment.
Fooling around with a Ouija board long ago, I received a message from the Great Beyond that I would one day find myself “mining treasure on the moon.” I had no idea what to make of that at the time but neither did I forget it. I suspect the Great Beyond had more to do with plumbing my unconscious than in communicating with the spirit realm. Still, the message proved prescient. As a writer, I am always mindful of where words come from. Some come by the light of day and some by the light of the moon. As the novelist Saul Bellow once commented, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” The moon in Jungian terms is an archetype symbolizing the unconscious. There is indeed treasure there, and the best part is you don’t need heavy mining equipment to extract it. You just need a pen.
Gary Lachman, Hypnagogia