Examinations in the school of night

BOOKS MY EDUCATION: A Book of Dreams by William S Burroughs Minerva pounds 5.99
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The Independent Culture
IF EVERY art form makes a city, each of those cities has its ghetto of dreams, and the place means very different things to very different citizens. To some it is a ceaseless inspiration, a realm of beauty, insight, myth and surprise; to others it is little more than a wild and exotic locale, a place to return from hungover with strange souvenirs, while others distrust it, fear it even - they will counsel against a visit, or, if they find themselves blundering through its alleyways, will disregard what they glimpse in the windows, be it lost love, the long dead, the divine, anything.

This last group, of course, clutching the Baedeker and moving hastily back towards the sunlit boulevards and bureaux de change, has been running the world for several centuries. But they are not all administrators and scientists who wipe the nocturnal matter from their minds like sand from morning eyes; among them have been novelists, unpersuaded by their sightings of what Auden termed the "fauna of the night", or playwrights who believe only in restating and restaging the rationally possible in a way that champions their own points of view, or poets who would rather observe than imagine. To these artists, the ones who believe they know, the dream district is a quartier: they tolerate their city having it, but it is not the part they live in.

William S Burroughs has lived much of his life there, and this book is a journal of the place, a collection of its visions and voices. Burroughs is a connoisseur of dreams, a purist. Their connection to his life is clearly not considered of importance: he merely narrates and savours the individuality of his dreams, their repetition and relentlessness, their habits and inanities, even, sometimes, their dullness, for few literary endeavours can be, on the face of it, as unpromising for an auditor as a hearing of another's unconscious tribulations. But this leads to the heart of the uneasiness that governs the relationship between art and dream.

Does Burroughs dream constantly of a Land of the Dead? Does he drift through its looping avenues and gaping malls, hopelessly trying to find a place that he can get some decent breakfast? Does he meet the living (Ginsberg, Jagger, Reagan) and the dead (Kerouac, Eisenhower, L Ron Hubbard), see ghastly creatures, sleep with ghostly boys, jump off the buildings because he knows he can fly? All of this is believable, as it is when he declares several times that he is incapable of lying. What would be the point of consciously inventing dreams? The notion is grotesque. But nagging doubts remain. We allow ourselves to believe the most improbable of fictions, his conscious lies: why are his apparently genuine subconscious travels ultimately unsatisfying, somehow false?

The problem begins with the writing of dreams, which are generally wordless but for overheard phrases. The freedom of the writer's subconscious to throw up the images it wants actually compromises the freedom of the writer's conscious mind, his architectural instinct. The distortion is thus further increased by the need for the conscious to re-order the dreams, to overlay some rudimentary structure, so that the recurring elements - the Land of the Dead, floating, frustration, Burroughs's handgun, his elusive breakfast, hideous human decay - are able to light or warm each other.

Writing may often have exploited the realm of dreaming but dreams know sweet Fanny Adams about writing so they don't offer that kind of help. Their structures are infantile, their jokes in-jokes, their agendas either screamingly obvious or shruggingly obscure. To a dream in full cry, English language and English literature play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the Prince of Self- Indulgence: enjoying it, admiring it, but simply not getting it.

Picador's blurb wonders if the book is "as close to a memoir as we will see", and one sees their point. It is the difference between the moving glimpses of Burroughs the honest old man, the survivor, the one who lived, speaking briefly but straight at us: "I am thinking that I am by and large a very happy man. People and critics like to think of me in despair because they hate to think of anyone whose way of life they disapprove of as being happy," and then, immediately afterwards, the dutiful resumption of his bizarre catalogue: "A woman judge ... is deciding whether to hand down a jail sentence on my writing." There is more life in a trembling hand than in a gallery of its wildest paintings.