At the same time I read the sixth part of A Doll’s House, “Into the Night”, I was reading a very different book, Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?. I certainly wasn’t thinking I would see any echoes of Josipovici in The Sandman or vice versa — after all, Josipovici at one point highlights approvingly what he sees as the Modernist dislike of fantasy (and, as he notes, realism too): “Not out of Puritan disdain for the imagination or the craft of letters, but out of respect for the world.” I’m too much of a postmodernist (world?! Pah!), and too enamored of weirdness as a quality unto itself to have a whole lot of sympathy for such a view, myself, of course, but you can see from it how a connection to The Sandman might not be particularly expected within Josipovici’s definition of Modernism.
It is probably Josipovici’s fault, though, that I immediately thought, on hitting page 6 of “Into the Night”: It’s an enactment of the differences between Gothic-Romanticism and Modernism!
(Yes, I know, I should get out more.)
Look at Chantal’s dream: “Chantal is having a relationship with a sentence.” The next page tells us: “The sentence spent most of last year in Czechoslovakian for political reasons. But it was recently translated into English. In order to stop the sentence being deported, Chantal has arranged to have it read into the Library of Congress. However … when the time comes she discovers that she can no longer read. She has no idea what the sentence is about. Despondent and joyless, Chantal begins to cry.”
Meanwhile, Chantal’s partner, Zelda, is dreaming about being a little girl (who very much resembles John Tennial’s Alice) in an über-Gothic world, one that refers to the seminal Gothic novels Melmoth the Wanderer and The Castle of Otranto, among other things. Chantal’s dream takes up the top of the pages, Zelda’s dream the bottom, with a portrait of the two women asleep together in the middle of page 6 offering a view of them outside the dream world: lovely and at peace in aquamarine shadow.
Josipovici’s description of Modernism is far too complex for me to render with any justice (for that, read Stephen Mitchelmore), but here is one sentence that connects to what I responded to so forcefully in Chantal’s dream: “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckett is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.”
Chantal’s beautiful, heartbreaking dream is an allegory of this affliction. Not an exact allegory, no — where the Modernists, in Josipovici’s framing, are tortured by the inevitable falsity of words and fiction, Chantal is tortured by a love for a sentence that she has read, not written, a sentence that becomes meaningless to her when she loses the ability to read any sentence at all. But the tortures rhyme, and I can imagine both between the lines of Beckett and Kafka and Hofmannstahl and Mallarmé.
Not just between the lines of great writers, though. The Modernists may have been great because they wrote through and into the abyss of alienation that the impulsion to write and the recognition of falseness opened in them; their works embody the affliction. Chantal’s dream, on the other hand, is an experience likely common to writers both great and utterly without merit: the alienation of affection. The beautiful, enchanting words that, on later viewing, possess no power to enchant. She has no idea what the sentence is about. A lost love, a lost world. Despondent and joyless, Chantal begins to cry.
In the panel below her, little Zelda “laughs and laughs,” having just seen Chantal, her “soul sister” pull up a veil and reveal a spider’s face. Zelda’s love, too, is transformed, but to an opposite reaction. Gothicism gains pleasure from fantastic grotesquerie; Modernism cries.
Chantal and Zelda are just a moment here, a few pages amidst many. There are other dreams throughout the story. A houseful, a worldful. They all meld together in the whirling vortex that is Rose. A small box of text amidst the whorl announces: “The walls come tumbling down.”
For all the drama of the moment (which A Doll’s House has been building to for a while now) and for all the drama of the other revelations here, I am still most moved by Chantal’s dream. The sentence loved, the sentence unreadable. Like language destroyed by a maelstrom, like reality torn asunder by the vortex of dreams. Chantal enters the whorl with all the other dreamers, but hers is one expressed by Hofmannstahl in “The Letter of Lord Chandos” in 1902: “Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.”
Or into the night.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.