Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dreamers of the Day



My in-flight reading for my trip back to the East Coast from California yesterday was a recent novel by Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day. She borrows her title from a much-quoted passage in T.E.Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”
     -Lawrence of Arabia ("Neddy" Lawrence) is a major character in Dreamers of the Day, along with other historical figures including Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, Lady Gertrude Bell, and other Brits involved in Middle East treaty-making in Egypt in 1921, which gave us Iraq and - distantly - the agonies of the current war. The author's brilliant device is to make a hitherto diffident Midwest 40-ish spinster, who has decided to give life a whirl after losing everyone near to her in the great influenza pandemic, her camera eye on all these intrigues.=
    There is wonderful writing, like this glimpse of the dust along the Nile: "Dust rises at every step, fine as flour. It is dried river silt, all that dust. Add water, and the soil is so ferile that you could plant a pencil and harvest a book."
-   Mary Doria Russell is nothing if not ambitious in her literary designs. In her first novel, The Sparrow, she tracked the first human space mission to visit an inhabited planet other than our own. The key character, a Jesuit, is inspired by the brilliant Jesuits, like Father Jean-Fran├žois Lafitau, who founded the modern science of anthropology in the 17th century through their close study of the customs of native tribes in north-eastern America. The shocker is that on the planet that has been discovered, there are two intelligent, humanoid and sympathetic species - one of which eats the others. The predators are also the poets.
-   The intended shocker in Dreamers of the Day is that the narrator, the Cleveland spinster Agnes Shanklin, turns out to be reminiscing from the Other Side, where she is hanging out with great men from the more distant past who visited Egypt and returned there, at least for a time: Napoleon, General George McClellan, even St Francis. What they have in common, it seems, is that they all drunk from the Nile - Agnes by falling in it from a fishing skiff. While I'm always interested in depictions of afterlife locales, this one doesn't work for me. And the fact that the narrator is dead is telegraphed much too far in advance, losing any surprise factor.
-    But I enjoyed the long view of the origins of our ruinously misguided adventure in a country that should never have been invented, the deft handling of the mystery of Lawrence's complex identity and of Agnes' belated affair (with a charming German Jewish spy who inserts himself into her life by walking her sausage dog) and the fine gossipy treatment of the doings of the great and often mistaken, including the discomforts of travel with Winston, especially on the camel ride that produced a famous photograph in front of the Sphinx.
-    At the end of the novel, the author probes the meaning of her title. "A dreamer of the day is dangerous when he believes that others are less: less than their own best selves and certainly less than he is." She goes on (in Agnes' voice): "A true prophet sees others, not himself. He helps them define their own half-formed dreams, and puts himself at their service. He is not diminished as they become more."
-    Plain good sense, from a novelist who constantly reaches through fiction to seek truths about our human condition; what challenges it and what sustains it.

2 comments:

Justin Patrick Moore said...

The last part about how "A true prophet sees others, not himself. ...helps them define their own half-formed dreams, and puts himself at their service... is not diminished as they become more." is something I needed to hear today.
As usual your communiques on this blog are timely, and often (though not always) reflect current conditions in my life. For instance, I've been studying the Celts and Druidism of late, and today I was just reading about how Winston Churchill was a member of the Ancient Order of Druids just earlier today. ...and here he is popping up on your blog.
In other instances a certain mode or aspect of dreaming has been described and then I have gone on to experience.
I suppose this is one way the web of dreaming can be weaved.

diane said...

I love the ringing true definition of the prophet, a definition that can help us to recognize the true from the false and manipulative, the shadow from the Light.

Like Justin, this blog is timely for me. I had discovered and was pining over a trip to Egypt - traveling on the Nile - offered through travelzoo, the day this was posted.