Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Black Dog Rx at the Conference of Vienna
I rediscovered a travel journal I kept during a visit to the strange city of Vienna, where I led a workshop in January 2006. I'll share an excerpt just for fun, as a sequel to my previous post titled “Black Dog Sightings” (January 27).
A doggie theme began to develop en route to Vienna. On the Austrian airlines plane, I read aloud from the German text of the bilingual airline magazine, in a basically hopeless effort to bring my German up to speed. I amused and then irritated my wife and daughter by reading repeatedly the opening sentences of a humorous article describing a dog's eye (or more precisely, dog's nose) view of Vienna, describing the places with the best smells:
Ich bin ein Hund. Ich habe eine Nase
After we checked in to our hotel, we found that tales of the Austrian devotion to dogs are more than legend. There were dogs everywhere. There was one at the table of the first place we stop for refreshments, a beisl (a simple pub-restaurant with communal tables) in the Inner City. This dog had his own seat, from which he jumped up to lick faces and sniff at dishes as they were served, to general approval. His people were hard-smoking men with sharp, calculating eyes. One of them pulled out a jeweler's loupe to examine the stone in a piece of jewelry that was traveling from hand to hand.
On the night before my weekend workshop, I dreamed:
THE CONFERENCE OF DOGS AND THE EMPIRE OF DREAMS
My black dog is speaking before a conference of the dogs of Vienna. He tells them that dogs have a vital role to play in helping their humans to survive. The human animal, he explains, needs not only food and water and air and love; he requires something called meaning or purpose. The best way to put humans in touch with purpose is to bring them back into contact with their dreams.
Some of the Viennese dogs object that they are already giving their humans the best thing. "We love them no matter what. We love them no matter how they treat us, and we are always there for them."
"It's not enough," my black dog says firmly, ears pricked.
A Viennese dog called Viktor speaks in support of my dog. "In Vienna, there is no doubt that man requires meaning. It was the lack of a personal sense of meaning that produced the collective nightmares that were born here and threaten to return.
"We dogs of Vienna," he insists, "must take on the role of psychopomps [soul guides] and oneiropomps [dream guides] at night."
The motion is carried overwhelmingly, with much tail-wagging.
Later, I walk with my black dog in the immense park that surrounds the Schönbrunn palace. We encounter the old Emperor Franz Josef, walking in his military uniform. My black dog, with fine deliberation, lifts his leg and pees on the emperor's leg.
I woke up laughing.
The black dog in my dream is one I loved deeply. He had been killed on the road nearly twenty years before, yet he remains a frequent character in my dreams. Beyond his own great spirit, he has become something more than the dog who shared my home: a kind of everyday (or everynight) Anubis.
Some other elements in the dream were familiar. I had done a little reading on Austria, and knew that the Emperor Franz Josef ruled for 68 years, resisting the modern world to the extent of refusing to have telephones or electric light installed in his vast palaces, stolidly chewing through the same dreadful boiled dinner (Tafelspitz) every day. The name “Viktor” and the substance of his speech reminded me of the Austrian Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, and his wonderful book titled Man's Search for Meaning.
I drew a picture of my black dog lifting his leg on the emperor before walking to the subway stop near the cathedral to catch a train to my workshop.
The first dream that was shared in the group that morning featured a huge black dog lying at the dreamer’s feet while a human-sized bird fluttered on her lap. I sensed terrific dramatic potential in her dream story, and asked her permission to turn it into spontaneous dream theatre. When I explained that this would involve casting members of our circle to play-act every element in the dream, she pointed her finger at me and said, “I want you to be my big black dog.”
My dream of the Conference of the Dogs was pretty cute - so cute that as I typed up my handwritten journal account, I felt, in addition to amused delight, some amazement that my dream-maker had induced my morning editor to let this report through. Certainly the hard-boiled reporter who still lives inside me (with his saw-toothed skepticism) would never have allowed me to concoct this in a regular state of mind.
I am again struck by the creativity and wisdom of our dream-makers. I was in a city notorious for seasonal depression (the Viennese have a whole vocabulary of their own for gloom and despair) with one of the world's highest suicide rates. Walking through cobbled alleyways the night before, my family and I had felt a terrible sense of oppression - and then realized we had come to the heart of the old Jewish quarter; most of Vienna's Jews perished in the holocaust. In that bitter January weather, the leaden sky hung low over the city like heavy lid, stealing the air.
My black dog dream allowed me to enter the workshop with a light heart and a vivacious, viral humor and joy. The first woman to share a dream - the one who cast me to play the huge black dog in it - that morning explained she had lost most of her family, including her parents and older siblings, in the Holocaust. Others in the group included psychiatric nurses and hospice volunteers who spent their days among the thought-forms of madness and distress, and carried some of the burdens that go with that. Lightness and laughter helped to lift all of that and opened the way for some deep healings.
I'll follow the Black Dog Rx every time, even when it's cute.