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For fear of losing Xanadu

Finishing a novel requires the determination that rendering oneself insane, unhinged, broke and socially isolated is worth taking a moment of inspiration to its artistic conclusion

For fear of losing Xanadu

I wrote the word dream. That’s all I did, really. It really was the most deceptively banal reason for a literary obstruction. As my therapist friend has recently taught me, dreams are completely deceptive and endlessly useful. They are the ephemeral bridges between the conscious and unconscious mind but, they are never obvious and everything in them is a metaphor.

But what does it mean when a writer likens a journey to a dream? If the writer is simply and rather carelessly just attempting to show a lack of lucidity on the part of the traveller, then she has discounted the numerous and overbearing associations of dreams in a reader’s psyche. And if these associations bear hazardously flawed connotations, then the writer has failed to clearly convey the significance of the journey; and, since this journey is a pivotal narrative event, the writer has fallen into a plot hole.

It is the Occam’s Razor of dreams, deceptively simple in its complexity. The protagonist is taking a journey out of a pragmatic necessity for escape; she is merely reacting to her circumstances. Unbeknownst to her, this journey is going to catalyse the evolution of her life and self. But perhaps the metaphor of a dream-like state implies an unconscious agency – an unarticulated and unknown exertion of free will. Indeed, that is what the word dream should imply.

In colloquial connotations, the word dream, in the context of daytime, refers to two things: daydreams, which are temporary fantasies to escape the frustrations, emptiness and restrictions of ordinary life – and dreams for the future, which imply a long term plan to subvert and overcome those very obstacles that a daydream attempts to avoid.

The first connotation carries with it an unavoidable degree of fatalism. The second connotation, the correct one in the context of this story, carries with it a perhaps naïve belief that we can change our circumstances by realising our true selves.

So how does a writer distinguish between the two common associations that go with the word dream? And, more frustratingly, how does she ensure that the average reader leaves this transitional chapter with decidedly only one of those associations in mind? Does the writer, being a writer of fiction and not academic exposition, even have the right to make that distinction? These are the things that keep me up at night, writing rather than dreaming, which, of course, has advantages and disadvantages.

One of the alternative titles for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, arguably (and ironically as you shall see in a moment) his best work, was ‘A Vision in a Dream’. The incredible thing about ‘Kubla Khan’ is that it is not really a poem about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan or his heavenly summer palace (Xanadu). It is about a moment of inspiration lost, and the tireless struggle to recover it.

Everything that conspired to create the perfect moment of synchronicity, the opium-fuelled dream, the description of Xanadu that he had read the night before and his determination to outrun the melancholy caused by his physical ailments, was as fleeting as all epiphanies that emerge after a long incubation of seemingly unrelated ideas and images in the unconscious. Some epiphanies come out as dreams, some come out in drug-induced hazes and the best ones always come out when the unconscious mind is overflowing with fragmented ideas and pushes the epiphany into the conscious, waking mind.

These, of course, are the most traumatic ones, as they carry with them all the fear and anxiety that accompany any psychosis, productive or not.

According to the preface to ‘Kubla Khan’ (poems do not normally come with prefaces), as Coleridge was about to complete what was to be his masterstroke, someone knocked at his door and Xanadu was lost. He locked the poem away in his private collection in 1797 and only published it in 1816 on the insistence of Lord Byron, perhaps having abandoned all hope that he would ever be able to complete it 19 years later. Tellingly, and rather self-deprecatingly, his third title for ‘Kubla Khan’ was ‘A Fragment’. But I tend to find some hope in the fact that Kubla is beautiful in its incompleteness, that it takes the reader on a journey through Coleridge’s heart-wrenching process of trying to find the wholeness of inspiration that he knows is now forever left fragmented in his mind.

Moments of inspiration come as inexplicably as dreams after a collection of seemingly unrelated dialogues, ideas and characters percolate in the unconscious mind. And when they finally break free, nothing can be more important than recording them for a future literary project. Of course, this sort of an attitude sheds all vestiges of the present moment from the conscious mind. And most people in one’s life do not accept this as a plausible explanation. But finishing a novel requires the determination that rendering oneself insane, unhinged, broke and socially isolated is worth taking a moment of inspiration to its artistic conclusion – that anything would be better than losing Xanadu, even though success is never guaranteed in these sorts of endeavours.

Things get a bit more complicated of course, when one of the completely ordinary presences in one’s life becomes a source of inspiration in a way that cannot quite be explained. It seems that maybe some inaccessible aspect of this person’s self holds the key to a contradiction in characterisation, or worse, a plot hole or both. And one, in a frenzied search for that moment of synchronicity, when all the individual fragments of inspiration come together and push the work forward towards its actualisation, cannot chance this maybe.

So without cause, without explanation and without consideration for one’s pride or the other person’s convenience, one embeds oneself in this person’s life, feeding on their ever-shifting state of mind, which, after a long period of social isolation, makes even less sense. But that, of course, is a conundrum for another day.

Amar Alam

One comment

  • Excellent orientation and very well composed.keep the good work up.

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