By Sean Lambert
Reading Jindřich Štyrský’s dream journal highlights what an understudied genre of literature the dream journal is. Perhaps if there were a larger body of famous examples (Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams and William Burroughs’ My Education are desperate for company), it would be clearer how uniquely compelling, evocative and revealing is Štyrský’s own contribution. It first appeared as Sny (“Dreams”) in 1970, twenty-eight years after the author’s death. Now, Štyrský’s journal is available for the first time in English thanks to a 2018 translation by Jed Slast for Twisted Spoon Press. Dreamverse includes Štyrský’s collected dreams and poems, and a selection of his prose essays, which span speeches, manifestoes, and works of criticism.
Dreamverse is likely to be the first work by Štyrský that Anglophone readers encounter – unless they have read Štyrský’s “Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream,” collected in Edition 69, a 2004 translation of Czech surrealist literature also by Twisted Spoon Press. Štyrský’s art and writing are distinguished by the way they foreground dreaming as a vital tool for probing the psyche and creating art. Štyrský’s erudite style, in Slast’s translation, clarifies the connection between this project and those of the high modernists around the world who sought to exhume the power of the subconscious over waking life at the same time as Štyrský did.
Štyrský was a founding member of the Czech surrealist group that formed in 1934. He was active in this group, as a collaborator in the work of his friends and as a prolific artist in his own right, until his death in 1942. His body of work included painting, illustration, collage, photography, poetry and essay writing. Slast’s elevated diction and elegant prose style highlight that Dreamverse is intended as a work of literature, not merely a personal dream diary. As a result, the journal comes across as somewhere between autobiography and fiction, resembling the way that dreams often seem to be happening to and for us simultaneously, in a complex mixture of perceiving and experiencing. For example, in “Second Dream of Emilie,” dated October 2, 1926, Štyrský writes,
I am about 8-10 years old, and Emilie and I are playing with dolls in the garden at Čermná… Workers are erecting a fence around the garden. I remark that 4×35 posts will be needed… My pockets are full of assorted bits of broken coffee mugs, plates, pitchers bearing painted flowers, ornaments, pieces of a landscape, pieces of a face, shards of drinking glasses with engraved roses, etc. I throw all of it into the holes, though I regret doing so, yet tell Emilie it has to be done to make the fence sturdy… out of nowhere a post is standing there, alternately dancing in the hole like a pestle in a mortar and laboriously moving up and down like a paper pulper. (37)
This account is part dream, part memory, and part original work of fiction, raising the question who is the ‘I’ at the center of this narrative? Is this ‘I’ speaker the same Štyrský that narrates other dreams in the journal? Is that narrator the same Štyrský as the author of Dreamverse? “Second Dream of Emilie” is a kaleidoscope of subjectivities typical of Štyrský’s dream-writing. This technique positions Štyrský in a high modernist tradition of complicating point-of-view and foregrounding the vicissitudes of the subconscious in order to clarify the structure of waking life.
The vehicle for Štyrský’s modernist project is the procession of uncanny objects and environments that recur throughout the dreams, which index disturbances in psychology (his own, or those of the dreamt-up versions of himself that appear in the journal entries). Štyrský’s dreams often take place in the liminal spaces of modern life – gardens, graveyards, empty houses, headlands, parks – places marked by absences. None of Štyrský’s dreams ever mention crowds, and though his friends often appear, he and they are the only people in the world. The inescapability of these environments suggest that something about modern life is fundamentally alienating, but due to the uncertain nature of dreams, the source of that alienation can never quite be articulated.
Similarly, out-of-place objects in Štyrský’s dreams produce traumatizing, uncanny effects that can’t quite be accounted for. These abject objects abound in “Dream of Scarecrows and a Birdhouse,” a “reconstruction of an unrecorded dream” perhaps from 1933. The dream finds ‘Štyrský’ in a desert with “curious rock formations” that “will never be wiped from [his] memory” (72). He has a slab fastened to his back, which he believes inexplicably to have “the year and manner” of his death written on it. When he sits up, he notices four people coming towards him, but when they get closer, he discovers they are not people, but scarecrows. At the end of the dream, he sees, with horror, “one of the scarecrows is me.” After this revelation, the whole desert transforms into a volcanic field, with a birdhouse attached to the rocks, then everything disappears, including both him and the scarecrow he now is, except a gray bird, which “wanders through the sand.” The dream is full of objects that evoke terror and wonder, but the source of their potency cannot be explained. Štyrský’s difficulty in accounting for the feelings these objects provoke further underscores his alienation from modern life. This is just one more way that Štyrský positions dreams as cyphers for understanding the waking world, albeit cyphers that can never be fully solved.
Frequently throughout the journal, Štyrský encounters an object and comments on it in unexplained ways, as though the affective force of the object is somehow beyond description. Waking explanations of dream phenomena never quite seem to explain the reason why they linger, transfix him or haunt his memory, though a clue as to the haunted quality of Štyrský’s dreams comes from the dedication page, in which he introduces the figure of his sister, who will come to serve as a central figure – one might say the main antagonist – in his unusual narrative.
The catalyst for Štyrský’s journal, and the most discernible through-line that runs throughout it, is the death of his half-sister Emilie, who died in 1905, when he was 6. He introduces this trauma immediately in the dedication page, where he recounts seeing the head of a beautiful woman in a magazine as a child. He writes,
I tried to place this head on those closest to me at that time: my mother and sister. The head was a perfect fit on my sister. So I was madly in love with her. In the depths of my memories of my sister lies the memory of her death… Thus I instinctively created my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT, on which I am fixated and to which I dedicate this work. (23)
Thus, the author invites us from the start to read the dream journal as an account of his working through his grief and horror at his sister’s death. If many apparitions in Štyrský’s dream journal can be read as an incarnation of his sister’s ghost, then the dream journal acquires a sort of narrative; the dreams become a vehicle for a story about recovering from trauma. As a result, when one has finished the dream journal, one has the experience of having read the autobiography of a shadow. Despite the impression that a character has changed, one cannot quite describe the features of that person or the precise nature of that change. In this way, the journal succeeds in capturing a sense of the abstract, inexpressible ways that internal life changes over time, in a way that traditional narrative forms are rarely able to achieve. An atmosphere of play and dreamy sensuality set against an undercurrent of melancholy makes Štyrský’s dream journal into a strange, modernist sort of Bildungsroman, with an ambiguous quality unavailable in most examples of the genre.
This new translation will bring Anglophone readers into the world of Czech surrealism from which Štyrský comes, but it will also remove him from that context, and put him into conversation with a wider world of 20th -century authors who also undertook to use dream narratives to structure their own psychologically probing writings. Reading this book, one understands Štyrský’s links to Proust, as much as to his cohort of Czech surrealists, such as Toyen or Vítězslav Nezval. This simultaneous expansion of and alienation from Štyrský’s literary context is one of the exciting results of translating for the first time an author whose work is both historically specific and thematically universal. If the dream journal is to become a more studied literary form, Dreamverse makes a welcome contribution to the canon.
Štyrský, Jindřich. Dreamverse. Translated from Czech by Jed Slast. Twisted Spoon Press. 2018.
Sean Lambert is a writer from Massachusetts. He writes about aesthetics in literature and other media, especially how they shape the emotional experience of modern living. He translates from German (and does his best with French.)