Jeffery Eugenides' novel Middlesex is a triumph of creative empathy. It accomplishes what the best novels do, which is to expand our humanity by transporting us inside the lives and perspectives of others. It also shows us how we can do this for ourselves, by using active imagination to enter the lives of ancestors or the body of a person of a different gender, even a gender not commonly recognized.
So I was delighted, though not surprised, to read Eugenides' revelation in a recent article that it was a dream, simple but shockingly direct and numinous, that gave him the power to finish Middlesex. He was living in Berlin at the time, struggling to keep food on the table through a modest fellowship, often sleep-deprived because of an infant child, drinking a good deal of German beer in an effort to loosen up.
He was seized by a dream. His entire dream report reads as follows:
An owl, descended out of nowhere, seized me in its talons and blew into my mouth a single breath tasting of blood.
The one-sentence report describes a dream that lasted (he says) all of four or five seconds. Yet he sensed that the owl's visitation "originated not from my mind at all but from a source outside of me". The owl was gigantic, "and not particularly realistic". Its plumage reminded him of paintings by Klimt, with lozenges of color running up and down the wings and over the breast, and "a large helmeted ceremonial head". The owl's eyes were fierce and bright yellow. When the owl dipped its beak to Eugenides' lips, he opened his mouth, unresisting. The owl exhaled one long forceful breath. With a whoosh, his lungs inflated. This inspiration had a taste: "the mineral, meaty flavor of a predatory diet".
The writer awakened with the deep knowing that a power had been conveyed to him from a greater source: "the great Owl in the Sky had taken a personal interest in me and my book. The owl had come to give me the power to write."
Graphic: René Magritte, "The Companions of Fear" (1926)