Thursday, September 28, 2023

Ghost Writers: The Rhyming Case of the Thirteen Lost Cantos

Classic mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers maintained that her best work was not any of her novels but her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. When she died in 1957 the last thirteen cantos of her translation of the Commedia – the final verses of the Paradiso – remained unfinished. They were completed by her friend Barbara Reynolds in a remarkable feat of ghost-writing described by Reynolds in her 2006 biography, 
Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man.

There is an extraordinary literary echo here, involving another kind of ghost. When Dante died, the same thirteen cantos were missing from his text of the Paradiso. 

Dante succumbed suddenly to malaria in 1321. He had been elated, not long before, to complete the Commedia during a burst of writing in Ravenna, on the Adriatic. Now his survivors could not find the final thirteen cantos.

In his Vita di Dante, Boccaccio relates how Dante’s children and “disciples” searched for the lost cantos for months, only to give up in despair, “enraged” that God would take Dante from the world before sharing the entirety of his work. Two of his children, Jacopo and Piero, decided they would attempt to complete the work themselves. Luckily, a miracle occurred to “check [this] foolish presumption.”

Exactly eight months after his death, Dante appeared in a dream to Jacopo. He showed himself with a shining face, in shining white garments. Jacopo asked him if he was alive. Dante replied, “Yes, but with the true life, not this life of ours [in the world]”. Jacopo asked about the lost cantos. Dante took him to a room where he used to sleep. He touched one of the walls and said, “Here is what you have been looking for.”  

Jacopo woke up and enlisted a friend to help search the house where his father had lived. They inspected the wall Dante had indicated. They searched behind a rug hanging in front of "a little window in the wall" and found the missing cantos “all moldy with the damp of the wall, and close to rotting if they had stayed there much longer.”

Illustration for the Paradiso by Giovanni di Paolo, 1450

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Midnight Library and the Café Jet-Lag

"Sometimes just to say your own truth out loud is enough to find others like you."

It's a great moment in Matt Haig's great novel The Midnight Library, when Nora, who is sliding between parallel lives, discovers there are others like her. This is what Hugo, the first to reveal himself, tells her. 

"We are sliders. We have a root life in which we lying somewhere, unconscious, suspended between life and death, and then we arrive in a place...A library, a video store, an art gallery, a casino, a restaurant..." 

And this place becomes the portal to a parallel world where you find yourself in the body and situation of your parallel self as they are in this same moment. You'll be challenged to catch up with their divergent biography, with a lover you never knew, a job you never held, songs you never learned, muscles you didn't know you had. 

The many worlds interpretation of reality, as it has evolved, makes sliding acceptable to theoretical physics. The architecture for transit - the library, the video store - is easier for human minds than theorems about quantum waves. 

Matt Haig's protagonist, Nora Seed, is exploring this territory while lying between life and death after overdosing. Her surroundings resemble an immense library, in the care of a lady who looks like her beloved librarian from elementary school. All the books in the midnight library are bound in green; to open any one is to enter a different parallel; life in which Nora made different choices.

We come to understand that the challenge for her is to find a life in which she wants to stay in a body in the physical world. She must white out volumes of her vast Book of Regrets. She can't take forever to do this. At a certain point the library of this limb will crumble and dematerialize.

The librarian tells Nora, "Every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irresistible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations...You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you made different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story."

We are then informed that "Doing one thing differently is often the same as doing everything differently. Actions can't be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try...But you are no longer within a lifetime. You have popped outside." 

The books in the library are near or far according to how near or far the alternate life is from the current one (in time as well as space since greater divergence seems related to earlier separation).

Nora learns to think of the life in which her body is lying in a coma as her "root" life, with all the others spreading and diverging like branches of a gigantic tree. I think of Sylvia Plath picture of  existence as a fig tree where you see the juicy fruit of other possible lives but can't get to them and must watch them rot. Here you can get to them but may leave them to rot. 

 So here is the friendly librarian's challenge: Which life would you like to try on?" 

 Choose to stay in another life and it will be as if it was always there. Your memory of the life you were living before - and of the midnight library- will fade and disappear. The book of that life will not be returned to shelves. 

 Nora starts by following her regret over not marrying a boyfriend named Dan and living his dream of running a country pub. The author teases us with his name for the Oxfordshire village where the pub is located: Littleworth. Nora lands in her slightly different body without knowing anything about the scene - she doesn't know where the loo is, or the name of the whiskery regular. A question not answered is: what happens to the Nora who was living at the Three Horseshoes pub while the "original" Nora is in her body and life?

Things don't work out at the pub, or with the boyfriend, now a surly dipsomaniac husband. Try again, and again. Each time there's the small problem of trying to catch up with all the things your parallel; self was doing before you slid into her body. Nora flunks a speech she is supposed to give, as an Olympic star, to a thousand people, because she can't remember the story of this alternate self.

When you check out another life, through a book from the midnight library, you start at the same exact time  00:00. In this other life you made other choices in the past. That is past history of which you may remember little or much or nothing in the body you are now in. You cannot touch that past. You can make choices in the present and future of the alternate life that will become your definitive life, unless disappointment throws you out of it. 

Among the infinity of parallel lives you may choose from, according to library rules, there is a category that is forbidden: lives in which you are already dead. We are told there are no books for such lives because the library is about possibilities and the dead don't have any.

This seems to me to be a wrongful restriction. The dead have choices, like the living, and plenty of possible futures. In exploring my own parallel lives I have entered worlds where I died years ago. Some I find quite enjoyable, even beautiful. For relaxation I sometimes go the penthouse of a Robert who died before me. I enjoy swimming in his rooftop pool, and foraging in his vast library, and watching dreams that play all around me, as if I have slipped into a virtual reality pod, when I stretch out on his bed.

 Nora's dialogues with the slider Hugo, who seems addicted to quantum jumping for its own sake, are marvelous and an effortless introduction to the Many Worlds hypothesis in physics which suggests that there are an infinite number of divergent parallel universes. "Every moment of your life you enter a new universe. With every decision you make." 

Sliders might be popping in and out of parallel worlds all the time. People around them generally don’t notice even when they say, "My mind went blank" or "I am not myself today."

Hugo says, with admirable clarity, that "the human brain can't handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function so it organizes or translates this complexity into something it understands." Like librarian in a library. When Hugo goes sliding, his departure lounge is not a library, but a video store. Other sliders use different launch pads There is always a guide who resembles someone who was helpful in life.  

You don't need to be half-dead to explore this field for yourself, though we all exist somewhere between life and death. I use a very special library, and a cosmic video store, and an art gallery or museum often as portals for lucid dream adventures in parallel worlds and others. I open such spaces to adventurous dream travelers as departure lounges for group journeys powered by shamanic drumming. and play guide for groups that want first-hand experience of these things.

 I have made Mat Haig's novel recommended treading for the advanced dreamers who are engaged with me in exploring and mapping the multiverse. His sliders' varying choice of portals makes me reflect that, beyond a library and a video store, I could make more use of restaurants. I often dine well in my dreams and return with the taste in my mouth. I think I will see whether the Café Jet-Lag in Paris, where I would often stop for coffee or vin rouge after overnight flights, is a friendly transit lounge for interdimensional travel. The name matches my condition when I return from world-jumping. 

I am told that since my last visit the Café Jet-Lag has closed. This is not a serious obstacle to making a return visit. If in my root life the café is no longer there, I am pretty sure I can find it in a parallel continuum, maybe even one in which the old farmer's market is still in business nearby at Les Halles. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Swan Inlet


For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of swans. eyes closed and eyes open. Sometimes they lend me their forms. In a European city, in the twilight state before dawn, a swan rose from my third eye and we flew together over the river and the rooftops. 

This report I entered in my journal two years ago just flew out, seeking more attention. I will share it unedited: 

September 9, 2020


Swan Inlet

I stand in the woods near water's edge. The light over the bay is rosy gold, as are the waves. They move slowly. The water looks heavy and oleaginous. My guide explains that only swans are at home here. Other water birds avoid this inlet and don't swim in it. We watch a swan gliding into the swell, rocking with it, dipping its head and body after fish. 

Everything is suffused with that golden and rosy light. There is healing and magic here and the secret is with the swans.

Waking, I put myself back in the scene. I pick my way through roots and vines to stand at the edge of the bay. I take from it and the water in my cupped palm looks like olive oil in a spoon. It is lightly scented, a pleasing aroma. On my tongue it is warm and salted just right, like virgin dipping oil in an Italian restaurant. A swan is watching me closely. Will it share the secret? Can I rise on its wings as I did before?

I hope that the guide who was instructing me before will answer. But the only voice I hear now is my own. Swans fly over the oily waters in arrowhead formation toward the pink sun on the horizon.


I think of Plato and the swans. There is a Greek tradition that Socrates dreamed the night before he met Plato that a young swan settled n his lap, developed at once into a full-grown bird and took off into the sky with a song that enchanted all hearers. [1]  In the Phaedo, Socrates says that swans sing most beautifully when they sense they are going to die. “They rejoice because they are about to approach the god whose servants they are.” This, we are told, should be a model for humans. 

Socrates says of himself that “like the swans” he is in the service of Apollo, “the holy property of a god.” Here, among swans, he gives the best definition of real philosophy, that it is “nothing other than practice for dying and being dead.” [2]

Before his death, Plato is said to have dreamed he shapeshifted into a swan.

I think of the swan in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, or "Great Forest Book", one of the oldest Upanishads, at least 2300 years old.. In a beautiful passage, the dreamer travels between worlds as "the lonely swan", flying in and out of the nest of the body. We are told that the dreamer is godlike in their ability to create in the dreamspace.

Here the dream state is described as a state of "emitting" [srj], a word that can also mean the ejaculation of semen. The dreamer "emits" [srjate] or projects "joys, happinesses and delights...ponds, lotus pools and flowing streams, for he is the Maker." We learn that as we grow the practice of dreaming, we can create realities. The word srj is also used to describe the way a turtle projects its head and paws from under its shell.

I think of the swan shamans of the Dane-zaa of the Pacific Northwest, who used to be called the Beaver Indians. Their word for a shaman is Naachin, which means Dreamer. As in the Upanishads, the Dane-zaa say that a powerful dreamer travels like a swan from and back to the nest of the body. ”The Dreamers are like swans in their ability to fly from one season to another. Like the swans that fly south in the winter, Dreamers fly to a land beyond the sky and bring back songs for the people on Earth.” [3]

I think of a shapeshifting Irish god who must become a swan to meet and mate with his dream lover. He is Aengus, and she is Caer Ibormeith, which means Yew Berry and hints at intimacy with death and the underworld. Yew Berry is under an enchantment, sometimes represented as a curse, sometimes - in the deeper tellings - as a gift. She does not stay in one form. She is a beautiful woman for one year. Then for the next year she is a white swan. Then the cycle repeats.  

The day of shapechanging is Samhain. Halloween. If Aengus would win the lady, he must find her on the liminal day, on a lake whose name is The Dragon's Mouth. At Samhain, Aengus goes to the Dragon's Mouth. He finds "three times fifty" white swans with silver chains around their necks, and one swan with a gold chain. He recognizes his love in the shape of the beautiful white bird, and calls to Yew Berry to fly to him. No, she tells him. You must change into my form.

Aengus changes, becoming the long-necked bird. They mate, in beating splendor, above the deeps of the Dragon's Mouth. They fly together back to the palace of Brugh na Boinne - Newgrange - and the love music they make in flight is so lovely and lulling that all the land is at peace and people drift into pleasant dreams and stay there for three days.  [4]


1. Patricia Cox Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1994) 3.

2. Phaedo 64a.

3.  Robin Ridington, “They Dream about Everything: The Last Dreamers of the Dane-zaa” in Ryan Hurd and Kelly Bulkeley (eds) Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2014) vol. 2, 194.

4. Jeffrey Gantz, trans. and ed., "The Dream of Óengus" in Early Irish Myths and Sagas (New York: Dorset Press, 1985) 107-112. I have used Yeats' preferred spelling for the name of the Irish god of love and dreams. For my full account of this story, see Robert Moss, The Dreamer's Book of the Dead (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2005) 18-21. 

Photo by Romy Needham

Journal drawing by Robert Moss

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Dream readers and Raven shamans


I always scratch my head when I see dream researchers reporting that reading is a rare activity in dreams, or that if you start to read in a dream the text will blur and you won't be able to bring anything away. Perhaps these conclusions are based on the fact that the typical survey group is college kids, who may be less enthusiastic about reading than other sections of the population. Anyway, for as long as I can recall I have read at least as much in dreams as in ordinary reality and this have given me extraordinary leads for my own research, mystery words that prove to be keys to previously unsuspected cultural treasuries, and paragraphs - sometimes pages - of fresh material for my books.

Opening an old journal at random, as I often do., I found an entry from 1996 that put me on the trail of an ancient Hellenic shaman who was reputed to be able to take flight from his own mouth in the form of a raven. Here is my journal entry, edited only for length:

January 28, 1996

Dream Archaeology: Keys from Mantis

I am greatly excited because I have discovered several relief carvings from Mantis, an Egyptian site. Their images were separated in an exhibition or catalog. When brought together, they hold the key to an ancient mystery. Some are fragmentary.
    I go through dictionaries and reference books, working out the connections. I look up meanings for the words Diva (or Deva), Divina and Drostic (“to do with defense of lost causes”). One of the reference books contains verses and a heroic genealogy derived from the Arimaspea.

Waking, I recognize the last reference. The Arimaspea is a lost epic poem attributed to Aristeas of Proconnesus. It describes a people of the north, the Arimaspi, who live in mountains that may be the Carpathians and battled with griffins for access to gold. We know the work through fragments preserved by Herodotus, who says that Aristeas journeyed to fierce northern peoples, “possessed by Apollo”.

 Aristeas was a Greek shaman, living on an island near modern Istanbul, who projected a second body from his mouth in the form of a raven, and was credited with the power of bilocation. I own a book about him by an English classical scholar.

Aristeas was said to have dropped down dead in a fuller’s shop in Proconnesus, on the Sea of Marmara. At the same time, he was seen alive and well at Cyzicus, four hours away by boat, on the mainland. When the news reaches his town, his body – already prepared for burial – is found to have disappeared. 

 In book IV of  the Histories, Herodotus reported of "the birthplace of Aristeas, the poet who sung of these things", 

I will now relate a tale which I heard concerning him both at Proconnesus and at Cyzicus. Aristeas, they said, who belonged to one of the noblest families in the island, had entered one day into a fuller's shop, when he suddenly dropped down dead. Hereupon the fuller shut up his shop, and went to tell Aristeas' kindred what had happened. The report of the death had just spread through the town, when a certain Cyzicenian, lately arrived from Artaca, contradicted the rumor, affirming that he had met Aristeas on his road to Cyzicus, and had spoken with him. This man, therefore, strenuously denied the rumor; the relations, however, proceeded to the fuller's shop with all things necessary for the funeral, intending to carry the body away. But on the shop being opened, no Aristeas was found, either dead or alive. Seven years afterwards he reappeared, they told me, in Proconnesus, and wrote the poem called by the Greeks The Arimaspeia, after which he disappeared a second time. This is the tale current in the two cities above-mentioned. [trans. George Rawlinson]

Two centuries after his death, Aristeas appeared in Metapontum in southern Italy. He commanded that a statue of himself be set up and a new altar dedicated to Apollo, declaring that since his death he had been travelling with Apollo in the form of a sacred raven.

Other details from the dream remain obscure or mysterious. Mantis is a familiar word. In Greek, a mantis is "one who divines, a seer, prophet,"(from mainesthai "be inspired," related to menos "passion, spirit"). But does this correspond to a site in Egypt? Seventeen years after I journaled my report, I have not found confirmation of the meaning of "drostic" (not drastic) that was given in the dream. 

Illustration: "From the Mouth of Aristeas" by Robert Moss

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Birth of Apollo

I cannot be born
on solid ground,
only where everything flows.
To enter my dawn
you must be unbound
from how the fixed world goes.

Leave behind
your maps and losses,
let  dreams be all your law.
Trust the wind
when the ocean tosses,
burn your boats on the farther shore.

Make new songs
and your floating island
will be rooted beneath the waves.
Drink my sun
and you dance on the high land
your heart, remembering, craves.

This poem is included in Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Poems and Stories by Robert Moss. Published by Excelsior Editions. 

Island of Delos by Carl Anton Joseph Rottmann (1847). According to legend, Delos was a floating island until Apollo and his twin sister Artemis were born there.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Wakeful Ecstasies of Swedenborg


Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was the son of a Lutheran bishop attached to the Swedish court. Living at the dawn of modern science, he mastered all the sciences of his day. He was driven by a passion for knowledge. He became fluent in nine languages. He made his own telescope and produces designs for a submarine and an airplane. He published a whole library of scientific treatises on subjects ranging from algebra to fossils, from hematology to the brain. In the words of one of his biographers, “he exhausted all the known sciences after founding several of them.”

Then he brought his towering intellect and his experiential approach to the study of the unseen. He was called to the new work by his dreams. In his fifties, he began keeping a dream journal in which he was wholly frank about erotic dreams as well as spiritual adventures. In twilight states, between sleep and waking, he found himself being drawn into experience of a deeper reality. Surfacing from sleep, he found himself entering “wakeful ecstasies.” 

I lay awake, but as if in a vision; I could open my eyes and be awake if I wanted to, but yet I was in the spirit — there was an inward and sensible joy through my whole body. 

In the city of Delft, on the night of April 6, 1744, Swedenborg experienced the vision that transformed his life and work. Retiring early, he wrestled with an entity he described as the Tempter. After his struggles, he heard a noise under his bed, which he interpreted as the departure of this dark being.

He started shivering uncontrollably.  He was at last able to snatch a few hours’ sleep. Then: 

I trembled violently from head to foot and there was a great sound as of many storms colliding, which shook me and threw me on my face. In the moment I was thrown down I was fully awake and saw how I was thrown down. 

Terrified by this wholly vivid experience of being propelled outside his physical body, Swedenborg prayed for help. As he held up his folded hands — the hands of his subtle body — “a hand came which clasped mine hard.” He found himself in the presence of a radiant being he took to be Christ. 

I saw him face-to-face….He spoke to me and asked if I had a certificate of health. I answered, “Lord thou knowest that better than I.” He said, “Well, then act.” 

Afterward, Swedenborg found himself traveling far and deep into nonordinary reality in a state that was “neither sleep nor wakefulness.” He conversed and interacted with beings in the spirit would “the same as with my familiars here on earth, and this almost continuously.” He conversed with dead people “of all classes,” including many people he had known during their physical lives. They gave him information he was able to verify and put to use. 

These encounters gave him a firsthand understanding of the conditions of the afterlife. Previously, his religious faith had convinced him that the spirit survives physical death. Now he could begin to study how it survives.

He gained important insights from encounters with departed people he had known before their deaths. He discovered that dead people are frequently confused about their situation because they cannot distinguish between the physical body and the subtle body. During the funeral of Christopher Polhem, one of his former teachers, Polhem “came through” to Swedenborg, “asking why he was buried when he was still alive.” The dead man was puzzled by the fact that, while the priest sermonized about the resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgment, “he was still alive” and “sensible of being in a body.”

 Swedenborg’s observation of the condition of other spirits in the afterlife led him to formulate the important observation that “when a man dies, his soul does not divest itself of its peculiarities.” He observed the condition of the executed nobleman Eric Brahe and reported that two days after his death “he began to return to his former state of life, which was to love worldly things, and after three days he became just as he was previously in the world.”

The departed follow the path of their desire and understanding. In his soul journeys, Swedenborg tracked them into many regions in the Otherworld. He encountered an angelic guide who told him that the “other members of his society” were appalled by the “crass ignorance” of the real conditions of the afterlife that prevailed among Westerners even after they took up residence in the spirit world.       
Swedenborg’s mentor told him that “angels” of his rank are instructed to gather newly arrived spirits, find out their ideas about heavenly joy — and give them what they desire. “You know that everyone that has desired heaven…is introduced after death into those particular joys which he had imagined.”

For example, there is a heaven for big talkers and another for big eaters. There is a paradise for those who believe the promise that they will rule with Christ forever; they see themselves enthroned as kings and princes. If you think of heaven as a beautiful garden, you get to smell the roses. But in all cases, according to Swedenborg’s mentor, you will be bored to distraction within two days. 

Now that you are ready to move beyond your expectations, the guide assigned to you can begin to instruct you on further possibilities. By one means or another, you will learn that happiness requires “doing something that us useful to ourselves and others.” Swedenborg’s angel explains that heaven is not a fixed environment or program of events, but a state that corresponds to — or is actually created by — the spiritual condition of its inhabitants.

The local clergy were not enthusiastic about Swedenborg’s road maps, or the fact that his example might encourage others to go exploring for themselves. Inflamed by Swedenborg’s observation that few priests (“that order of which very few are saved”) seemed to prosper on the other side, a Swedish minister plotted to have him judged insane and committed to a lunatic asylum.

Swedenborg’s geography of the afterlife was the gift of experience, which invites us to go beyond his maps, just as he went beyond the maps of previous explorers. His basic travel techniques will be recognized by active dreamers. They include: 

Deep relaxation: He would close his eyes, focus his attention on a single theme or target, and slow his breath. He first practiced this approach, especially breath control, in childhood during morning and evening prayers. He spoke of the “passive potency” of his meditation practice. The heart of it was to “withdraw the mind from terms and ideas that are broken, limited, and material.”

Experiment in the twilight zone: The half-dream state on the cusp between sleep and waking was Swedenborg’s favorite launchpad. He described this state as “the sweetest of all, for heaven then operates into [the] rational mind in the utmost tranquility.” He worked with both spontaneous and familiar photisms. For example, he writes of an “affirming flame” that would appear on his inner screen at the start of a journey or in the midst of a writing binge, reassuring him that conditions were favorable and that he was on the right track. 

Soul journeying: Swedenborg developed a fluid ability to shift consciousness and travel beyond the physical plane. “When I am alone my soul as it were out of the body and in the other world; in all respects I am in a visible manner there as I am here.” 

Night and day, he lived and worked as an active dreamer. His banker friend Robsahm observed that Swedenborg “worked without much regard to the distinction of day and night. Swedenborg himself noted, “When I am sleepy, I got to bed.” He kept a fire going at all times, drank large quantities of coffee with a huge amount of sugar. His dress at home was a robe in summer, a reindeer coat in winter.

Across the centuries, his words echo as a clarion call to new generations of explorers who refuse to settle their accounts with possibility and just do it: 

I am well aware that many will say that no one can possibly speak with spirits and angels so long as he lives in the body; and many will say that it is all fancy, others that I relate such things in order to gain credence, and others will make other objections. But by all this I am not deterred, for I have seen, I have heard, I have felt.



Text partly adapted from Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and LifeBeyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Illustration from Swedenborg Foundation

Ten Things to Say Before You Die


I love you

The only time is Now

May my doors and gates and paths be open

If you can dream it you can do it

Don’t leave home without your sense of humor

I brought something new into the world

I have not obstructed water when it should flow

Walk on the bridge, don't build on it

Je ne regrette rien

Dogs love you no matter what

Picture: "Dogs in Heaven" by Robert Moss