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Journeys in Dream and Imagination

Essay in Am J Psychiatry 150:12, December 1993 on Artur Lundqvist's book Journeys in Dream and Imagination. Village Station, N.Y., Four Walls, Eight Windows.  1991,129 pp. Translated by Ann B. Weissmann & Annika Planck. Introduction by Carlos Fuentes.

by Montague Ullman, M.D.

Essay replicated in Drömdialog (medlemsblad för Drömgruppsforum) Nr 1, 1994

Outside of literary circles the name of the author is not well known in this country. Arthur Lundqvist (1906-1991) was a leading contemporary Swedish poet and author who, in addition to his prolific output (over eighty books of poetry and prose) was a prominent member of the Literary Committee of the Swedish Academy. As such he exerted considerable influence on the choice of Nobel laureates. Fluent in Spanish he was instrumental in bringing a new generation of Latin and South American writers to Sweden. (Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz). He is generally regarded as having brought modernism to the Swedish literary scene.

An inveterate traveler, urbane and cosmopolitan in outlook, he was truly a world citizen. He was also an autodidact. Brought up in a working class household his formal education terminated in the sixth grade. Early in his career he was identified with the generation of left-wing avant-garde writers. He has been described as proletarian in his sympathies and aristocratic in his writings. Like all Swedes he had a deep love for nature and never lost touch with his rustic roots.

In October of 1981 Artur Lundqvist suffered a severe heart attack, lost consciousness and lapsed into coma. He was kept alive on a heart-lung-machine but remained unresponsive for two months. His wife, Maria Wine, also a writer, remained at his bedside constantly and, despite the forebodings of his doctors, persisted in her efforts to reach him through poetry and song. The first indication that some measure of awareness had returned was a faint flicker of a smile in response to being told a funny story. It took many weeks for the recurrent stretches of clouded consciousness to dissipate and many months to regain most of the ground he had lost. In the years that followed he returned to writing and continued to be productive.

Published originally in Swedish this book came to my attention by Swedish colleagues who knew of my interest in dreams. As I made my way slowly through the Swedish edition I was amazed at the author's detailed recall of dreamlike imagery in connection with the prolonged coma and the slow recovery that followed. There is no clear timing of the events he describes but, from what I could gather, there were a few fragmented memories and impressions from the period of deep coma.

Most of his recall seems to be associated with his subsequent struggle to hold on to the fleeting moments of awareness. His inner life was particularly vivid during this period and was recounted later in elaborate detail. The result is a melange of dreams, dream-like imagery, flights of imagination and the exaggeration of various sensory impressions.

How does a gifted and richly imaginative person cope with the dreadful combination of enforced immobility and near total disconnect from the world he knew? Artur Lundqvist found a say which he describes in his opening words:

"I know I am traveling all the time, possibly with no interruptions, also with no tremors or noises, soundlessly and softly, and then I am no longer lying in my bed but stepping out into the world where everything is awake, sundrenched, comforting, and I am there clearly as a visitor, and I am quite at ease, it must be a dream journey I have undertaken, a definite dream journey where all is real, where all my wishes are fulfilled without my even asking, precisely the way all journeys ought to be, but maybe one has to be dead in order to journey like that."

Out of touch with his surroundings, entombed in a metal cabinet, he was able to create and later recall elaborately crafted metaphorical imagery that simultaneously reflected the confinement he was subjected to and the contrasting freedom he felt as his imagination took over. This "immobile traveller" as Carlos Fuentes refers to him in his Introduction, went on voyages to strange lands, witnessed strange happenings (cows giving purple milk, white people transformed into black people) and where strange things happened to him (varying in size from tiny to huge).

Not all was pleasantly wishfulfilling. Although he usually experienced himself as a detached observer, the scenes he witnessed on his journeys reflected poignantly his touch and go encounters with the ever-present threat of total oblivion. Scenes of passion, sensuality and beauty are offset by images of death, barrenness and petrifaction. He comes upon starving people who wear their skeletons outside their bodies. He muses about the sun as a "master of space ... tearing itself apart ... bearer of unbearable forces constantly destroying themselves". He reflects on the evanescence of life as he watches a rain drop splash against a window or a snowflake falling and disappearing.

His feelings of confinement are metaphorically transformed:

"I wake up and find myself in surroundings with no vertical dimensions, the room seems to close just above me, leaving no space at all to sit up, I am forced to lie there straight on my back unable to turn on my side. He experiences a suffocating anxiety: ... now the horrifying thought comes to me that maybe I am in a coffin without having the slightest idea how I ended up there, possibly already considered dead. On another occasion he finds himself in a cage as if in a zoo with a crowd staring at him with curiosity. He comes across a building designed and built along time ago by two Japanese architects and wonders if they had been walled into the building alive.

The sense of his own cognitive loss is depicted in the inept and helpless feelings as a hotel guest in a land where he is ignorant of the language. He has difficulty negotiating even the simples amenity: "How badly suited you are to being a hotel guest, from the very beginning you feel suspect, you use the wrong expressions even in your own language, not to mention others ..." Dealing with the reception desk is "purgatory". He does not know where to leave the key or whether or not to say good morning.

Soon after the return of consciousness, when he discovered he could no longer write, he describes an anosognosia-like response. He blames his hand for the problem and suggests "... perhaps I could replace the hand one way or the other, perhaps have a new hand from a dead person surgically attached".

He captures the essence of dreaming itself when he notes: " ... how easy to lift the past to the surface and perceive its strange reality as present, but ... it escapes (as) from the hand cupped around water", or: "My dreams are of iron so strong, so durable, but they soon begin to rust and nothing is left of them".

This edition includes a Preface by a neurophysiologist, dr David Ingvar, who had an extended interview with Lundqvist during his period of recovery, an Introduction by Carlos Fuentes and a Foreword by Maria Wine; his wife of over fifty years. Dr Ingvar recounts the onset of the illness and some of the details of his stay in the intensive care unit. During the course of their conversation the subject of death came up. Lundqvist's response was: "But I know what happens now. It finishes. The world disappears. It is quite simple".

In her foreword Maria Wine writes movingly of her long vigil trying to keep hope alive despite the gloomy prognostications of the medical staff. To what extent did her persistent daily efforts to reach her husband through the poems and music he loved play a role in his recovery? A question not to be dismissed lightly! She writes: "Suddenly you were gone, and yet not quite gone: you lay there with large, open, astonished eyes, as if something invisible had interrupted their last visual impression, your pupils seemed wordless like black lackluster stones, yet in the greyish-blue iris of your eyes there was a hint of a milky white shimmer ... your face was dreamlike and still, you were like a 'dreamer with open eyes'". The latter was a reference to a book Lundqvist wrote in 1966, perhaps with some prescience, entitled "Self Portrait of a Dreamer with open Eyes".

Fuentes notes the metaphorical power of Lundqvist's imagery in translating, as the poet does, living experience into art, even the living experience of being so close to a sustained death-like state. In a wide-ranging explication of Lundqvist's account he sees connections to Aztec mythology, to man's effort to identify with and remain separate from nature, and finally as an epiphany of the changing state of European consciousness.

As is the case with any successful literary effort, this book stands on its own, apart from context. In this instance, however, knowing the context adds a significant psychological dimension, revealing as it does, the congruence between the imagery evoked and the nature of the life threatening circumstances under which it was generated. I would have liked to have been privy to greater clarity about the course of the illness and the timing of the various images that were recalled. That might satisfy my scientific curiosity but at the cost of greedily pursuing my own interest in the face of a perfectly satisfying aesthetic experience. The imaginative realm was Lundqvist's last remaining resource. He certainly put it to good use, enabling us to share with him what he described as "an autobiography visualized in a state of unconsciousness". For more of that autobiography to become available to an American audience I would hope that some day the hundred and two vignettes omitted in this edition will be made available in English.

In closing, I want to pay tribute to the superb translation by Ann B. Weissman and Annika Planck. They captured in full the lyrical quality of Lundqvist's prose.