Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Duke and a Secret Library

I am often excited when my house turns out to have an extra wing, a terrace, or an additional floor, that I did not know about. I am super-excited when I discover that it contains a secret library. I am talking, of course, about my dream house, which is often a composite of houses where I have lived in ordinary reality.

 I can’t say that finding a secret library in my dream house is truly a new discovery, since there are versions that I have been using for decades. Nonetheless when I enter a secret library in a dream, I am frequently surprised that I left it unvisited for quite a while. Sometimes access requires me to roll back a whole wall of books (like the one in my living room photo, complete with library dog); sometimes I pass through a door that is not immediately obvious in the outer room. 

Here’s my report of my visit to a secret library in my dream house last night. If the history part seems a little dry, a theme that is opened here is of compelling interest to me: the possibility that we are living parallel lives in parallel worlds, and that dreams show us how.

November 18, 2020


Marlborough and a Secret Library

I want everything on Marlborough to complete writing something important I must deliver the next day. I open the door to my secret library, a door I have not opened in a long time. There is an air of hushed expectancy throughout the house. As I walk the passage behind the door and approach the thousands of books on the shelves, I expect to smell dust or – horrors - mold. However, everything seems clean and dry. I find the heavy hardback biographies of Marlborough without difficulty. I have quite a reading assignment ahead of me, but I can do it if I stay up all night. This should not be a problem. I have done it many times before. 

Feelings: intrigued

Reality check: I know this secret library in my dream house. I have gone there in many dreams over decades. The books in this dream library (I have others) are mostly history. I do pull overnight binges of reading and research.

In my physical house I have a 4 volume paperback version of Winston Churchill's biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Marlborough was Captain-General of the English forces in the wars in the Low Countries in the early 18th century. The huge biography became a bestseller and the earnings kept Churchill afloat in dodgy times. I was impressed, dipping into these volumes, by the vividness of Churchill's historical imagination. He was able to transport himself right inside the living field of another time, putting himself inside a scene in which the outcome among the many possible event tracks in the many worlds was not yet determined. 

Why am I researching Marlborough in my dream? Well, I dipped into Churchill’s biography when I was writing about his historical imagination in The Secret History of Dreaming. I wrote elsewhere, in my historical novel The Interpreter, about the visit of the “Four Indian Kings” to London in 1710, when Marlborough and his wife Sarah – the on-again, of-again favorite of Queen Anne – were at the pinnacle of power. 

I am aware that there are many parallel Roberts, on parallel event tracks, who are also writers but have chosen different themes and genres. Maybe I stepped into the life of Robert the Historical Novelist or Robert the History Professor. Or into a future project I have not yet recognized, let alone decided on, in regular life.

Dreams set us research assignments. Naturally, my dream drove me to reopen my book The Secret History of Dreaming to my chapter titled "Churchill's Time Machines", where I read this:

Imagination and History

In his valedictory lecture at Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper observed that “the historian’s function is to discern alternatives, and that, surely, is the function of imagination.” He added: “History is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens.” Churchill had excellent reason to look at history this way, his mind always turning on alternatives, the ghost trails of roads not taken.

 Another English historian, J.H.Plumb, observed that for Churchill history was not a subject; it was “a part of his temperament” that “permeated everything that he touched, and it was the mainspring of his politics and the secret of his immense mastery.”  Isaiah Berlin, studying Churchill in his “finest hour”, concluded that “Churchill’s dominant category, the single, central organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is a historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multicolored past.” 

Churchill was a time traveler, at least in imagination, and his ability to read the tides of human events and the workings of character across the ages enabled him to see the patterns of the present - through the fog of war and the incredible proliferation of pressure and detail - and to grasp the history of the future.

In his time travels into the past, Churchill may have gained most from his ability to enter - fully - into the mind and situation of his great ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, who led the (uneasily) allied armies of the Grand Alliance to victory against the French in the early 18th century. His four-volume biography of Marlborough, written during his “wilderness years” when he was out of office in the 1930s”, is widely regarded his greatest literary work. Churchill announced that his intent was to unravel “the unfathomable mystery which Marlborough’s character represents.”

He learned from Marlborough’s steady resolve in adversity; early in his command Marlborough announced, “The issue in this matter is liberty or death.” He studied with Marlborough how to exercise leadership within an alliance, in a war involving much of the world and therefore offering multiple choices and rival priorities. Marlborough “never ceased to think of the war as a whole”; Churchill also was always looking for the big picture. Churchill noted that Marlborough’s success in command was related to his ability to enter the mind of his adversary: “The mental process of a general should lead him first to put himself faithfully in the position of the enemy, and to credit that enemy with the readiness to do what he himself would most dread….The safe course is to assume that the enemy will do his worst — i.e., what is most unwelcome."

Churchill concluded from Marlborough’s example that contrarians win when they are guided by accurate intuition. Marlborough made many command decisions that baffled or terrified generals with more conventional minds. 

Churchill was able to roam the past without being lost in it. Churchill’s command of history helped him to see the broad lines of a situation; he was able to swim through details without drowning in them.

 Churchill’s works of history were participatory. He wrote about events in which he or ancestors with whom he felt close affinity had taken part, and about causes he had espoused. There is no pretense of standing at the margins of the action as an impartial scholar. He said that his method was borrowed from Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier, in which the author “hangs the chronicle” of great evens “upon the thread of the personal experiences of an individual.” 

"Imagination and History": text adapted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.



No comments: