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Minding the Dreamer: An interview with S. D. Chrostowska

By Joshua Rothes.

SD Chrostowska daguerreotype by Jerry Spagnoli

To dream is not simply to give in to our innermost desires; it is an extremely necessary period of consolidation and recombination for our minds, a period of metabolism for the brain, one made less effective by both glut and famine, in keeping with the metaphor. What then becomes of us when sleep is seen as a nuisance, a barrier to productivity, a problem area to be disrupted in favor of making more valuable use of our time?

Such is the conceit of The Eyelid, the latest book from author and scholar S. D. Chrostowska, a book that can be read simultaneously as fairy tale and withering social critique, as timeless fable and paean to the struggles of May 1968. But if there is a utopian vision in The Eyelid, it is obscure and well-guarded, leery of how easily fantasy and desire, once expressed, become a blueprint for further colonization of the spirit. Through erudite prose, by turns limpid and lyrical, Chrostowska does not seek to provide answers, and the hope that is alluded to is more workmanlike than radical. You might come away with the impression that Candide needed only to have napped, but to have napped with the proper care and attention, to have reached El Dorado, proper name Onirica, republic of dreams, wherein he would find that the immutable currency was not gold, but the kind of sound sleep that is more and more denied us.

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3:AM Magazine:  First, broadly, given your professional work, I’m curious how, historically, utopian thinking has responded to and been shaped by particularly dark times?

S.D. Chrostowska: Utopian thinking tends to thrive during social crises and upheavals, taking advantage of the cracks created by them to imagine alternatives. That’s certainly the case with the first modern literary utopia, Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516, written on the eve of the Reformation.

But utopian thinking also flourishes in periods of rapid social transformation. It’s thanks to the Industrial Revolution that the nineteenth century became the Age of Utopia. This was a time of liberal and socialist utopias, which focused and embodied the sense of the immense possibilities for progress without precedent opening before humankind. Liberal utopian schemes stressed individual freedom through competition enabled by free-market exchange. Socialist ones emphasized the values of community, of association. These two models of social happiness are still with us, even if they’re obsolete in some respects.

Are we living in particularly dark times? They can always be darker, I suppose. Only time will tell if we’re writing in the wake of utopias or in their waking.

3:AM:  Does utopia necessarily carry within it the seed of its own dystopia? If so, does the inverse also hold true?

SDC:  If you look closely enough at any narrative utopia, you will find things in it to criticize and question. So, in that sense, it carries the seeds of its own negation. Straight-up utopias often reserve a place for internal critics, who keep them on their toes for a resurgence of negative elements. There are also utopias that are on the point of curdling, like Huxley’s Island, and that identify the seeds of their own destruction.

Conversely, full-fledged dystopias, when they contain their own criticism or exaggerate the bad inside themselves to provoke an internal revolt, might point to a utopia at their origin that had gone awry, or, like 1984, they might engender the utopian hope that the future lies the other way, or, again, they might include recognizably utopian aspects, as is the case in Huxley’s Brave New World (to which Island was a pendant). But you can also think of dystopias as places where utopias go to die.

3:AM:  You said in a previous interview that your point of departure for The Eyelid was the question, “What would it be like to become the last dreamer, the last person who really dreamt?” Did you have a sense of the answer before you began, or did the writing process play out more like a thought experiment?

SDC:  Thought experiment, wild speculation—both describe the book. In addition to imagining the condition of the last dreamer, what interested me were the objective conditions for the grim scenario of the end of sleep. My question was not what conditions would have to obtain for there to be a last dreamer, a version of Nietzsche’s last man, but specifically what conditions and tendencies, latent or otherwise, are already in place in contemporary society that could lead to such an outcome. In the book, sleep and, with it, dreamlife generally—which includes daydreams—are reduced to shreds to free up attention for work, to maximize wakefulness and capitalize on it. While we still alternate between waking pills and sleeping pills, between waking and sleeping, the dark world of The Eyelid has no more use for the latter. What remains of the human capacity to dream is the last bastion of utopia.

3:AM:  Having ceded a few hours a day and a couple of days a week to leisure time an odd century, century and a half ago, our leisure time is now a seemingly inexhaustible mine and, as such, we seek to maximize our waking time… Books on productivity, habit building, etc. abound. What do we lose when we don’t allow ourselves those empty moments to daydream, or simply, to be bored?

SDC:  Calling leisure time a “mine” represents it as something exhaustible. This seems false, insofar as there is no limit to the monetary value we can extract from every last moment of down time. But we still use this time primarily to consume culture. After all, we have the world’s cultural treasures, and refuse, at our fingertips. There is not much more rhyme or reason to this cultural consumption than the novelty factor and media recommendations increasingly based on our consumer habits. When it isn’t justified as self-improvement or cultural competence, it’s simply a way of killing time. While such leisure activity doesn’t exhaust culture or our capacity to consume it, it does exhaust our capacity to derive meaning from what we consume. This holds true also in the examples you give, when our consumption is productive or geared towards boosting our productivity. We don’t have infinite amounts of time and attention, and our economic system incites us to exploit them. Boredom is banal. Time not used to one or another putatively beneficial end is considered dead time. But, to come back to your question, daydreaming as such isn’t incompatible with consumerism.

There is, however, a balance to be struck between consuming and absorbing: by eating only as much as we can digest. Even supposing we were able to store all the culture we consume in our memory, we wouldn’t be able to use and transmit it meaningfully. Our cultural bulimia and bloat result in an impoverished experience, even when our mind is set on fire and we love to relay information. Cultural glut is largely the result of regurgitation and repackaging of existing material. Such activity is necessary only insofar as it’s the mainstay of dwindling livelihoods and keeps the wheels of capitalism from spinning idly. What we gain in the process of engaging in such frenetic secondhand creativity is audiences, influence, occasionally some money. What we lose is the mental space to reflect ourselves on what’s wrong with the world and to transform it. We lose the capacity to daydream. Interiority is reduced to a private cellar, in which, by analogy to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” our inner child is made to suffer in silence so that every bit of our social life can find its place in the sun of a streamlined universal “utopia” of communication. Not to mention that the 24/7 sharing of culture and experience, the orgy of online connectedness, distract us from the sinister interests they too often benefit.

S. D. Chrostowska, The Eyelid (Coach House Books, 2020)

3:AM:  The end of dreaming would seem to be to signal not only the end of the creative imagination, but also of the political imagination. Is it not coincidental, then, that The Eyelid doesn’t seem to take a stand of conservation, but rather a quiet revolt?

SDC:  A quiet revolt not because The Eyelid is revolt fiction, but because it envisions transposing a social revolt to dreamland, a stage still inaccessible to such revolt. The link between the imagination and politics is, again, utopia. The market swallows up its own criticism, so to rise against the market, we’d need to produce anti-capitalist political-utopian visions that could spread through its bowels and, as it were, undermine it from within. But we know how a utopia-capital partnership looks in practice. The problem is that our personal utopias, publicly shared to get feedback and make them better, become so many places for capital to colonize, given their obvious potential for profit. This puts us in a bind as far as producing culture nowadays. When we don’t imagine utopias, as bulwarks against what is, we lapse into cultural barbarism—we are, most of us, passive consumers, capital’s obedient, cooperative subjects. But when we do imagine utopias and put them out there as cultural content, we are likely to play into the hands of the market, helping it to reinvent itself.

The Eyelid is clearly not exempt from this quandary, and it responds to it after a fashion— ambiguously—providing no solutions, idealizing the future as little as possible, while redeeming social values and hopes sacrificed to private property, family, religion, and a particular idea of order. It’s a political fiction that sketches a para-topia, a near-parallel present, as a dystopia with a utopian excess. Its political dimension doesn’t conform to the classic, State-based conception of what politics is—the State having a lock on politics, whose roots are in the ancient polis, or city-state. There is no concerted political revolt in The Eyelid, only low-level, underground subversive activity, a kind of infra-politics or “politics of the catacombs” (a phrase once applied to the utopian socialist revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui). And it prefigures a world without politics, a post- or meta-political utopia. But, given the narrator’s tenuous, kite-like link to reality and the unhappy end, it’s deeply dystopian. The Eyelid is really concerned with the proverbial “man in the street” and their unregulated, furtive wishes, for whom the good life and the good society are philosophical abstractions, rather than ends worth pursuing.

3:AM:  The Eyelid reads like an allegory. In fact, the first point of comparison that came to mind as I was reading it was Voltaire. What led you to this form for the story?

SDC:  That is indeed how I intended it: as a latter-day conte philosophique, a genre of storytelling made famous by Voltaire, with elements of adventure and fairy tale and a moral message or thesis. Choosing this form in twenty-first-century North America is obviously motivated less by escaping censorship, and more by overcoming possible resistance to certain of the ideas being aired in the book: the destruction of the environment by government and by overpopulation.

The story is built around a purely mental El Dorado—to Candide’s fictional one, his utopian vignette in a tale of otherwise relentless suffering and misfortune. Candide is of course a satire on Leibnizian theodicy, or solution to the problem of evil. The existing world being, in Leibniz’s optimistic estimation, the best possible one. For his utopian-minded critics like Voltaire and other Enlightenment freethinkers and philosophes, the takeaway—which they were quick to dismiss—was that, since the best possible world already exists, we don’t need to change a thing. Voltaire concludes Candide by advising us, half ironically, to “cultivate our garden,” a little terrestrial paradise of our own making, to keep out of trouble and live decent lives. But I have no moral lessons to dispense. The Eyelid isn’t a pulpit.

3:AM:  I don’t think of your previous books, Permission or Matches, as novels, or even as “fiction” proper, but The Eyelid certainly looks to the eye like, well, a novel. Did you set out to write something that, in the right light, might be taken for a novel? Thinking back to rules that guided Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), did you place any formal constraints on yourself in the writing of The Eyelid?

SDC:  What I write is very circumstantial. That goes for the form as well, which arises from my circumstances and pursuits at a given moment. Since I’m not a professional writer, there’s no objective urgency, and no one expects me to supply another volume in such-and-such a genre or category.

The circumstances that led me to write The Eyelid were many, but the trigger was the death of a philosopher and friend to whom the book is dedicated. I was living in Paris at the time, yet it wasn’t my home and I didn’t feel culturally assimilated; I was both centrally there and elsewhere. The initial idea for the story came to me earlier, in New York. That it would be a plotted fiction based on a fusion of France and America was clear to me from the start. As Robert Walser says, “What’s all around you is for thinking, what’s far away is for dreaming.” When I lay down to write The Eyelid, it wasn’t to lay elaborate plans for how to structure it. The form evolved organically, through a mixture of steady progress, passing moods, and chance. What came out is (in the right light) a condensed novel.

3:AM:  There was recently a second, expanded edition of Matches: A Light Book (punctum, 2019). It seems like a book you could add to forever. Could you see expanding it again? Could it work as well in purely digital form, where space to expand could become limitless?

SDC:  I probably could expand it forever if things hadn’t metamorphosed and the fragment form hadn’t to some extent already given me, in Matches, everything it had to offer. I occasionally still write reflections that are disconnected, pithy, and aphoristic. But unless a new constellation suggests itself to me, arising spontaneously from a contemporary conjuncture, such reflections will remain scattered and never part of a larger whole like Matches.

In a sense, The Eyelid is a sequel to that book. Style-wise, it finds its way back to aphoristic concision and exploits the vein of the prose poem. This is especially true at the start and close of each chapter— strategically in the most sensitive places. Lapidary expression matches a sojourn in dreamland.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
S.D. Chrostowska is Professor of Humanities at York University in Toronto and the author of, most recently, The Eyelid (Coach House Books, 2020). Her essays/fiction have appeared in such venues as Lit Hub, The Hedgehog ReviewBOMBThe Believer, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and her scholarly work, in New German CritiquediacriticsPublic CultureNew Literary Historyboundary 2, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, A Cage for Every Child, will be out in 2021 with Sublunary Editions.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Joshua Rothes is the publisher of Sublunary Editions, and the author of several brief books, most recently William Atlas (Osmanthus Press, 2020). We Later Cities, a novel written with the aid of machine learning, will be released by Inside the Castle later this year. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 10th, 2020.