Music of the Night: Dreaming in Fictional Worlds

A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader. 
~Vladimir Nabokov

I probably tend to read with less charity and more criticism. When the worlds painted aren't as alive and richly colored as mine I grow dissatisfied. There are flaws I can't forgive, and generally they are flaws of attitude. I can revel in darkness with only the smallest flicker of light, but if an author gives the indication he doesn't recognize a character's personhood I'm gone. Stock characters are all well and good, so long as I can feel their humanity. I can embrace a world unlike my own, so long as it doesn't offend it.

Jenna, Mr. Pond, your charity impresses me, but do you draw a line where quality is concerned?

The accolade of charity delights me, deserved or otherwise, but the format of blogging can introduce one critical confusion that I'd like to clear up right away. Blogging often mingles personal response with quasi-professional opinion a little too closely. I've actually (and very recently) begun trying to move away from that, to write objective reviews of the books I read rather than journaling about my own response to them—though I would argue that even the best and most professional reviews are somewhat subjective. Which contention is part of what got this blogalectic started in the first place.

Quality, however, matters to me as a reader, not just as critic and artist. I look for smooth sentences and prefer beautiful prose; I look for worlds drawn in imaginative clarity and strong detail, and for characters who show humanity in their joys and sufferings.

Most especially, though—and here is probably why I get along well with Meyer and Alcott and Rowling and Grisham despite their not-very-artistic prose—I look for a vision of light and life that resonates with our existence beyond the mundane. As Mr. Pond says:
A masterpiece is a world of night and shadows and moonlight, of wonder and anticipation and tears and laughter, that fits, and feels more homelike because it’s more true—even if it be more terrible and sad, or best of all more prone to laughter—than the capricious, flattening factual world.
What Masha calls charity is probably just that I find at least hints of this in almost everything I read. That fact is partly due to my optimistic tendencies and partly to my general refusal to read novels that will likely make me angry. Again like Mr. Pond, however, who calls Nabokov "one of the great literary charlatans" who "utterly wasted a talent for beautiful prose", I read with the understanding that just because I found nothing of value in a book doesn't mean that everyone will have the same experience. Mr. Pond continues:
I do not like Nabokov... But I like and respect Masha, who likes Nabokov. That tells me there is something about this man’s writings worth considering, something about his thoughts worth pondering. It tells me to remain open to the possibility that there may be something in these words that I cannot see.
Only a few problems ever thoroughly destroy a story for me. In Nabokov's case, it was a certain contemplation of the grotesque that I found particularly hard to put my mind through. But Masha hit close to my usual difficulty when she said this:
I can embrace a world unlike my own, so long as it doesn't offend it.
And with that, we move into the other two quotes she put up for discussion.
"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."  ~Oscar Wilde

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."  ~Vincent Van Gogh
The Wilde quote occasioned rather different interpretations by Masha and Mr. Pond, so I looked it up. It comes from a dialogue titled The Critic as Artist, which I got caught up in reading—and in laughing out loud over, because Wilde is hilarious. After some acquaintance with the personality of Gilbert, who I believe stands in for Wilde himself, I had to smile at Gilbert's claim to be the moonlight dreamer whose punishment is the first sight of dawn. "His punishment?" says Ernest in response, in concert with my thoughts. "And his reward," Gilbert finishes.

Van Gogh speaks as an artist, and indeed as artists we spend much of our time in the night. The conflict is there, the struggle, the passion, the story. For us novelists, the goal—usually—is the dawn, but once we've reached it, the story proper has ended.

Of course, now I'm confusing the symbolism. Wilde's comment and Van Gogh's do not necessarily make the same allegory of night and day. They did, however, give me the same thought at first look, and that is that night as a better place than day doesn't really work as a metaphor. Not to my sensibilities, at least. If you will, it creates a world unlike my own, which offends the latter.

Such a response is a completely unfair interpretation of both quotes. I understand that, but I also have a strong inner resistance to the call to "Turn your face away from the garish light of day/ Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light." It is true, as the earlier part of Hart's lyric goes, that:
Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
...and more importantly to the artist, who seeks to disarm and soften the disbelief of the recipient, that "Silently the senses abandon their defenses." But to love the night too much, as the Phantom does, is usually to become its true child: a monster. Raoul may be cocksure and Christine over-credulous, but both of them still have a firm hold on their humanity, and must come out of the night to live in the day.

The story ends there, of course, but only—I suspect—because we are mostly too much children of night ourselves to fully appreciate the inside of happily ever after. Most of us are also human enough to hope for it, though.

For some of us artists, writing dark imaginative tales is a way of holding on very hard to that hope. So hard that though we dream by moonlight, our visions are ever of the day.


  1. "I can revel in darkness with only the smallest flicker of light, but if an author gives the indication he doesn't recognize a character's personhood I'm gone."

    This here is what draws me to Humbert Humbert. When he declares at the end "I was a...monster...torrid, despicable, cruel...but there were times when I knew how you felt and it was pain to know it, my little one," Nabokov is showing us the personhood of a confessed monster. This gives me hope, because I know the darkness of my own soul; my sins are not the sins of Humbert, but my darkness is dark, and my persoonhood, hopefully, is in tact nonetheless.

    I cannot gripe about your disapproval of Nabokov, but I think it is worth sharing what I see in order that you may see it too, and still be spared reading something you cannot. Because, ultimately, I agree with you that the darkness sharpens our sensations and trains us toward hope.

    In general, though, I am more likely to rest and find solace in darkness for better and for worse: even as a child I felt more at home in the darkness, and loved winter for it. I like to be prepared for worst case scenario: if the darkness is all there is, should we hope for something else, like light? Or should we hope to find endurance and strength to continue in the darkness? I think both hopes exist, but I often cannot find the first, or do not want it, so I cling to the second.

    *The Lolita quote is prolly a bit off.

    1. Really great thoughts, Annie. It's good to hear the power behind Humbert Humbert's story; I knew there was something there, and I felt some regret in choosing not to force myself to get to the ending and find it. Humanization of even the worst monsters among us is a valuable task, if for no other reason than that it condemns our own self-righteousness.

      The story of the Phantom, too, involves Christine's finding in him a trace of humanity, though he never fully leaves the darkness.

      I appreciate your perspective, too. It's different from the way I tend to think, but that doesn't mean I think it's less valid. Besides, we're working in metaphor, where two things can seem quite opposite at first glance, yet can exist alongside each other in truth. :)

  2. For those of you who dream and create by moonlight, here's George Inness's "Winter Moonlight" (a.k.a. "Christmas Eve") to sigh by:


    1. Oh, wow--I LOVE it!! Wish I'd thought of it to link for this week's post. So beautiful. :)


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