RICHARD HELL

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— The phenomenon of dreaming is pretty intriguing. There are a lot of obvious things about it that come to mind instantly. First, that one’s dreams with very rare exceptions are boring to everyone but oneself. Second, that, first hand, dreams are indistinguishable from waking “reality.” Third, that supposedly, even “scientifically” (with the advent of psychoanalysis) dreams can reveal information about a person that would otherwise be hidden. And, for me, fourth is that they’re a source for a lot of art, including some of the very highest quality. The instance of that which surprised me the most was when I found out that Jasper Johns got the idea for his flag paintings by seeing one in a dream. Maybe the most impressive example is Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which ravishing, timeless 54 lines he brought back with him from a laudanum nod. Speaking of nods, William Burroughs also scavenged a huge proportion of his fiction from his dreams. I don’t know if a distinction should be made between narcotic nodding and conventional dreams. I think possibly–my impression is that a nod is a light doze that permits easier access to detail than a full-fledged R.E.M. dream normally does.

I’ve had a lot of revelations about dreams in a long appreciative intellectual relationship with them. In fact it’s been exhaustive enough that I was astonished recently to find myself tired of dreaming. I have been in a state where I awaken multiple times a night in such a way that I almost always recall my dream of the moment and consequently they actually started seeming annoying, pestilent, like uninvited experience nagging at me again and again without consideration: brain spillage, runoff.

I also recently had the experience of clearly perceiving, in situ, the actual process that creates the substance of dreams. I’ve for a long time, basically ignorantly, been sceptical of Freud, not trusting any science of psychoanalyis (penis envy, Oedipal complex, what have you). But I’ve found Jung’s approach to dream interpretation practical and useful. Namely to regard all the characters in a given dream as being aspects of oneself and, instantly, while the dream is fresh, to ask oneself what personal mental activity is suggested by the relationships and activities of the people (all oneself) in the dream, and, in my experience, quite consistently, an answer will immediately suggest itself which often is revelatory, exposing what’s going on in one’s psychology. But, the experience I mention of getting a kind of unimpeded front-row view of the process that forms dreams has given me a new respect for Freud, since it seemed to support his method of dream interpretation (as I understand it).

I have over the years compiled a small collection of sentences brought back from dreams. An example is, “All you have to do is pick up that front door and write ‘Charles Brodley’ on it,” and another is, “…spilled by the biggest airtime images in the Carbonville pap.” The other day I had the fluke luck to retain observation of the actual sequence of events underlying how such sentences are formed, which was self-evidently the same process, on a simpler scale, as for dreams themselves. You start with a unit of meaning–a word (in the case of sentence-forming), an image, or what have you, and instantly that unit spins off an array of associations that could have been suggested by any quality of the object–its shape, its sound, its color, its utility, anything. Largely by chance, one of these associations (all of which are inherently psychologically relevant or revealing to some degree because they’re limited to one’s personal repertoire) falls into the slot (like a reverse roulette wheel–many balls and one slot–, or like a shotgun fired at a target and it’s the ball of shot that hits one particular randomly placed shot-sized mark that gets chosen from the blast), and it’s that new object in the string (now two units long) that sets off the next array of associations, and the dream proceeds like that. The combinations are largely chance, but not only are they limited to one’s stock of associations, but the number of related associations will increase according to one’s preoccupations, so the dream is personal.

Anyway, over the years, I have exploited into my published works a number of dream images, words, and narrative threads. Maybe a third of them came from my drug days. In a way it’s a disservice to the works to identify them as rooted in dreams, because it risks inclining readers to trivialize them and class them as forms of anecdote, but what the hell. How much can I lose, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Real appreciators of art know that the “source” is irrelevant, it’s the execution that matters. My favorite is a poem (that came after I’d stopped using drugs) that uses for its title a phrase from a dream, and then describes in a kind of indirect, carefully composed, and annotated way an experience of succumbing to sleep and dreaming:




Another, the earliest one, came from before my drug period. I was about 21 when I wrote this poem that was a pretty faithful rendering of a nightmare I had:




One of my favorite of my drawings came from something I saw in a dream. It was a fountain made of iron, the design components of which are a simple pipe, maybe three inches in diameter, gushing water straight up from near the top of the contraption, and a couple of feet below that, maybe seven feet off the ground, a set of riveted slats in the crude shape of the outline of a horse’s head that mechanically swivels back and forth in an arc of maybe 100 degrees, with one extreme of the arc ending at the spot most convenient to turn itself upwards and open its jaw as if drinking from the fountain. All the mechanics of the machine are exposed (though I didn’t try to show them in the drawing, but rather just sketched a large cone instead):




Another poem I like was a slightly reframed, but fully faithful dream transcription:




The most astonishing experience I had in these lines does come from a period of heavy drug use. I was a heroin addict and one morning after a long night of supplementary cocaine consumption, I woke up from a delerious sleep in the late morning alone on the floor mattress in my girlfriend’s loft, with an entire novelistically complex, or film-ready, plot complete in my consciousness. Nothing like that had ever happened before and nothing like it since. It was all there, a detailed narrative (grand guignol, noir, pulp) from beginning to end:

LOWEST COMMON DOMINATOR (synopsis)
A Psychological Horror Story

This is the story of a group of six unexceptional lower middle class Americans and their relationship with a rich and famous sensationalist gossip columnist.

The group of six all live in New York City. Their jobs are: secretary, bank teller, taxi driver, department store clerk, newsstand operator, and factory worker. But, more pertinently, they are all of a type not usually given much attention in art or storytelling, being dull, mildly suspicious, and resentful souls, even in their negative qualities small and undistinguished. They’ve been casually neglected and mistreated enough their whole lives so as to end up mildly dim and mean. The type of the petty bureaucrat.

Chance has finally brought these folk some good luck though. Two of them become friends. Then another is accepted into the group, until, one by one, they become a circle of mutual support. They all feel similarly cynical about the world, but their relationships with each other warm and relax them. They get together at each others’ apartments to watch TV and they go to movies together and meet for pizza.

Another thing they have in common is an admiration for mass-media legend Arthur Lyman. He’s a tabloid entertainment columnist and TV interviewer who is malicious towards his celebrity subjects, but in a subtle, insinuating way, and from a stance of moral indignation. His forté is the cunningly cutting, guardedly sarcastic, interview with a major star of the moment. He strikes a gracious pose in these confrontations, while alternating innuendo with disengenuous bluntness to exploit every suggestion of a nasty rumor or suspicion about each given subject. He thrives as beneficiary and exploiter of the resentment of the famous by those who’ve made them that.

Some of his victims handle it better than others. The comedians usually do best. But hardly anyone ever refuses an invitation to his table, because to be invited for an interview by Arthur Lyman is the ultimate celebrity achievement. To undergo his inquisition is as good as winning an Academy Award.

One night, Herb, the taxi driver, is complaining to the cohort about how cabbies with the fanciest cars get the best tips. He’s always wished he had tinted windows. Joan, who is a practical, self-reliant corporate secretary in her early fifties, suggests he might be able to find some kind of spray-on. But no, there isn’t such a thing. The group gets inspired. Over the course of a few weeks of investigation and research of various types (one has a cousin who’s a chemistry teacher), and then consultation with a lawyer, the group comes up with a plan to market cans of three different shades of spray-on windshield tint.

They advertise mail order in motor magazines. Sales are slow. They place some spray-cans in hardware and auto-parts stores. Sales start to increase a bit. After a few months they begin getting mail that leads them to realize that people are using their product to tint prescription eyeglasses. They change the cans’ labels and advertising and sales start to take off. They add new colors. Sales rocket. It’s a huge fad. Within a year the six are all millionaires. [This–the invention which makes them rich and famous–is the only part of the story I consciously made up. The original intact dreamed narrative had them suddenly successful by a fad invention, but I didn’t know what it was.]

Their success becomes national news. They’re covered by all the media, are guests on TV talk shows. People are charmed by their frankness and lack of affectation. It’s a fantasy story–six ordinary, uneducated, feisty, grumpy people become corporate millionaires by their own efforts.

The six are invited to be interviewed by Arthur Lyman.

Lyman’s legend is complex. He’s a devout Catholic who comes from a wealthy family. He was born with withered legs and is confined to a wheelchair. This all contributes to his populist appeal: he’s viewed by his public as a man with their bedrock values, who has overcome adversity, including the temptations of snobbery, to become the handsomely cultivated representative of their sceptical, honest, salty spirit.

In truth, he has contrived his popular persona as a way of using his intelligence and perceptivity, despite his physical handicap, to suavely exploit the pleasure the envious world takes in the troubles of the exceptional. He has evolved a way to succeed in society while getting revenge on it.

Lyman’s faculties have also ended up taking a particular aesthetic and religious turn. His Catholic devotion is part of his legend–he collects paintings of the crucifixion–, but its full flowering is personal. He regards certain artists and religious figures as being his only true equals (while at the same time he earns himself his own spiritual congratulations for acknowledging that all men are of equal value in the eyes of God).

There is a whole protocol and drill to the Lyman interview. He lives in a townhouse in Chicago and his subjects must visit him there for the interview weekend, every hour of which is strictly scheduled. He has a famous personal chef (who actually despises him, as do Lyman’s other servants).

One aspect of his household is secret: Lyman has had all the living quarters there bugged with hidden microphones. He uses them to eavesdrop on his subjects in hopes of turning up dirt he can use to his advantage. By listening in on such things as the conversations of his subjects with their accompanying entourage, or to what they say in phonecalls, he acquires information with which to discomfort them.

When Lyman’s six guests arrive on a Friday afternoon, he electronically eavesdrops on their chatter and is surprised by how innocent it seems and at how genuinely excited they appear and how much they admire and respect him.

In the evening, when drinks are served, Lyman is confused and disarmed. He’s like the classic grumpy old man unable to adjust to the innocence and warmth of the cheerful orphan he’s inherited. This makes him even more icy and formal, which begins to disconcert and alienate his guests.

Things continue to deteriorate at dinner. Lyman can’t find anything about the six that he can profit from slyly deriding. They are perfect representations of his audience itself, so how could he please them by ridiculing them? Lyman is stiff and the six are confused. They’re becoming disillusioned, suspecting that Lyman feels himself to be above them. Lyman can see what they are thinking and it disturbs him further. He really does consider himself to be at soul a man of the people and he can’t adjust to this contrary evidence. His mind is spinning without being able to engage. He’s like a laboratory animal which has suddenly had the reward lever begin delivering punishment.

By the time they all retire that evening, the guests to their second floor rooms, and Lyman to his bedroom on the top floor, one above, Lyman’s desire to sarcastically expose them in some hypocrisy is hopelessly struggling with the inexplicable craving he feels to be worthy of their respect. He twists and squirms inside, frantically groping for a way of framing his situation. Why did he feel inferior to his guests? Finally a door opens in his mind and he realizes there’s a way that he can safely accept his guests and free himself from this mental maze. His guests must be proof of the holiness of all humans, and this real-life illumination is his welcome from God into the ranks of His elect on earth. Lyman spends the deepest hours of the night reflecting and embroidering on the revelation. He doesn’t exactly acknowledge to himself his certainty that perceiving the perfection of his guests is his coronation by God, but rather assumes so deeply that the one must follow the other that he can’t realize it consciously.

At breakfast the next morning he frightens his guests even more. He is unshaven and incongruous. He speaks in a strange soft murmer, and insists on placing one of them at the head of the table, and that they make up their own menu. His obsequiousness continues to outrage the six. Lyman can tell how they are misinterpreting his humility as mockery, but, being new to this line of undiluted honesty, he can only compound the problem with more earnest sincerity. He’s bothered by their scepticism, but, after all, what else but suffering and misunderstanding can be the fate of a holy initiate on earth?

Lyman has stopped using his secret tape snoop apparatus. Not only is he preoccupied with this new era, but the recording system is a bleak vestige of his old, petty self.

The six, meanwhile, have been provoked to defensive action. They don’t have to take anybody acting like he thinks he is God toward them anymore, no matter who he is.

The house’s chef, Lyman’s only confidante, but who actually despises him, enlists to conspire with the six in a scheme for revenge. They will pursue the prank with the same determination and care as they’d advanced the inspiration that had made them famous. They have one more day and night, Sunday, to carry out their plan, and they go to sleep satisfied.

The next day Lyman’s erratic state makes it easy to keep him distracted with flattery, which, in a feedback effect, reinforces his delusions, in turn strengthening the resolve of the guests to carry out their elaborate revenge. The interview is scheduled to take place after dinner. When cocktail hour arrives, they have gotten privacy, even from the servants, with their host. They give him a doctored drink which knocks him out.

Lyman is unconscious for about three hours. When he first comes to, he is facing the mirror in his bedroom, naked. The mirror hangs on the wall above a small table opposite the foot of his bed. He is groggy, confused, and can’t turn his head, but in the mirror he stares in dawning shock as he realizes that he has been crucified, naked, except for the binding straps around his head, upside-down, on the wall opposite his bedroom mirror.

Realizing this tears him away in layers of terror and humiliation. His short and withered legs have been pulled sideways and his arms allowed to hang downwards where they are nailed together against the wall. This gives him the look of a crucified homunculus with genitalia in place of a head and vice versa. He vomits, spilling his stomach down his forehead and into his eyes.

He aches all over and sees a lot of blood on himself, especially around his feet and hands. He realizes that, despite all his failings he has finally gotten himself right up to heaven’s doorstep. He can’t possibly survive more than a few hours.

This event is the fulfillment of the ambitions of all its participants–ridding the six of their only remaining obstacle to bliss, and bestowing on Lyman confirmation of his analysis of the meaning of human life, which is death. Perfection. That’s how it is revealed to him anyway, until the next morning, after his visitors have left, and his servants have unstrapped him from where he dozes under the continued influence of the sedative.

He awakes to grasp that he’s only been bound harmlessly to the wall and given a few shallow razor slices in a joke on his weakness for the crucifixion motif.

His unassailable egotism and snobbery have been used against him more successfully than even the perpetrators can have imagined. This knowledge reaches him, finally, where he really lives and from that morning forward he is clinically catatonic.



Finally, another visual image. This is a painting that I actually saw myself painting in a dream. I had to go buy paint and try to reproduce it. I didn’t fully succeed. My painting is superficially true to the dream, but (though you can’t really tell here, where there’s not a sense of scale) the one in the dream was much larger, maybe five feet tall, and the paint application in the dream was more painterly, dense and rich. Some day I’d like to try to get it right. In the dream it was a good painting. (The painting is the area that has the white background–the red-brown frame around it is where it’s propped up on my sofa.)




I used a computer-graphics wallpaper version of it for the back cover of the dust-jacket for the first (“preliminary”) version of my book Hot and Cold:


Richard Hell first came to public attention as an originator of punk. His highly influential album BLANK GENERATION was released in 1977. Hell’s DESTINY STREET REPAIRED CD was released by Insound in late 2009, his most recent book is the novel GODLIKE, and he’s nearly finished an autobiography, tentatively entitled I DREAMED I WAS A VERY CLEAN TRAMP.

www.richardhell.com