Thermidor – Sandman Meditations

The last time I remember meeting Lady Johanna Constantine was in the fourth part of A Doll’s House, “Men of Good Fortune”, where Dream said: “Her kind walk amidst the flotsam of lives they have sacrificed for their own purposes, till friendless and alone they needs must make the final sacrifice.”

Now, in “Thermidor”, The Sandman revisits Lady Johanna, who lives in Wych Cross, England, the place, in fact, where we first saw Dream, for that was the home of Roderick Burgess in “Sleep of the Just” and the place of Dream’s imprisonment.

Constantine, of course, is a name familiar from as far back as “Dream a Little Dream of Me“, when John Constantine helped the newly-free Sandman find his lost pouch of sand.

What do these clues mean? That there are connections throughout time and stories and dreams. They are not clues that add up to a single, simple pattern, but instead clues that suggest networks and webs; palimpsests, resonances, echoes. In its early issues, The Sandman created a sense of depth through allusions to an array of cultural and, particularly, comics figures, but now we are far enough in that the series itself lends its own recursive depth.

History, too, offers echoes and allusions. In “Thermidor”, the French Revolution provides the setting, but it is a French Revolution into which a bit of Greek myth has been inserted.

The great revelation of this issue is not Johanna Constantine or the Reign of Terror, but Orpheus’s head. It is what Dream has sent Lady Johanna to find, and the revelation is the reason: Orpheus is The Sandman’s son.

This would have surprised the Greeks, I expect, for though both Orpheus and Morpheus come from their tales, Orpheus’s uncertain parentage was not, as far as I know, ever ascribed to the dream god. It’s a nice touch here, and makes at least as much sense as saying Orpheus’s father was Apollo, as some storytellers did. Orpheus’s songs could dazzle anyone who heard them — a power not so far outside the power of dreams.

Tennessee Williams described his 1957 play Orpheus Descending as “a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them … and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all, but expedient adaptations or surrender to a state of quandary.” That’s a fine description of what The Sandman is up to now and then; there is much, even at this point in the story, that we do not know, and at least some of the answers that have been offered through the series have turned out to be hollow. The most compelling unanswered questions in the story, as in nearly every story, are the ones that haunt our hearts.

For instance, while “Thermidor” is, on its surface, a sort of horror comic about a misplaced head, it’s actually about much more — Orpheus and his father, certainly, but also the Reign of Terror and the excuses that powerful people make for their atrocities. “Thermidor” gives us a supernatural explanation for the end of the Reign of Terror, and in doing so trivializes the actual history, but the purpose and import of the tale lies elsewhere. It is no accident, for instance, that we get a glimpse of the imprisoned Thomas Paine, the rebel conscience of liberty who was so often disillusioned (and abused!) by the actual revolutions he lived through. Johanna quotes Paine to Orpheus on the last page of “Thermidor”: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly” (a statement from The Crisis, which began, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”). She tells him this to comfort Orpheus about the unanswered question of his father’s love. The personal and political reflect each other, and the dramas of history play themselves out in miniature within even the most immortal families. All hearts, it turns out, can be haunted.

One of my favorite plays of the last decade or two is Sarah Ruhl’s lyrical and surreal Eurydice. Early in the play, Orpheus writes a letter to Eurydice in which he says, “Last night I dreamed that we climbed Mount Olympus and we started to make love and all the strands of your hair were little faucets and water was streaming out of your head and I said, why is water coming out of your hair? And you said, gravity is very compelling.”

Telling stories of the past, we find the gravity in history — we let its force bring order to all the long-lost yesterdays. We know from primary sources that the past is a place of revolution and mass murder, of corrupted ideals and shattered hopes, where rulers walk amidst the flotsam of lives they have sacrificed for their own purposes. But with imagination, the old world can also be a place for a lost head to ache for a father’s care. History is a dream, and the gravity of its unanswered questions is very compelling.

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.