“I’m glad we’re finally meeting somewhere else instead of that damn bar on Madison Avenue. That dump gives me the willies,” said Connor. He was sitting with Gallagher on a bench in Theodore Roosevelt Park behind the Museum of Natural History. “Besides,” he admitted, “I was getting awfully sick of drinking nothing but seltzer water.”
“You should’ve broken down and had a Guinness. It would have made you feel better. You’d have been a hell of a lot less uptight than you were the last time we were there.”
“That’s ok. I feel well enough as it is now that I’ve finally had the dream I’d been imagining for so long. True, it might not have been as exciting as I’d thought it would be, but at least I was able to pull it off. That’s the main thing.”
“I’m happy for you, but you have to admit it’s pretty insane what you told me about all those old textbooks. Imagine going back more than twenty years just to go through your college reading list all over again. Myself, I’m glad to be done with that shit.”
“Don’t play the illiterate with me, Richie. Now that you’re living in Williamsburg you like to pretend you’re a cool-talking hipster, but I can still recall the nights we stayed up till three in the morning arguing whether it was Faulkner or Hemingway who was the better writer. Back then, you were as much into reading those authors as I was.”
Gallagher laughed at the memory. “Hey, man, back then I just wanted to check out for myself how well read you were. I could’ve cared less about the authors themselves.”
“You could’ve fooled me.”
“You’re just jealous that my grades were higher than yours.”
“That’s because you cheated every chance you got.”
“So what? That just shows I was the smarter of us two,” crowed Gallagher. “Still am. Don’t think I didn’t catch the gaffe you made last week on Shakespearean sources.”
Connor was caught off guard. “And what exactly was that?”
“Didn’t you tell me that when you were going through that old textbook in your dream you came across an earlier version of Hamlet that had been written by Thomas Kyd?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“Kyd’s play doesn’t exist, that’s what. Not that there hasn’t been a lot written about it over the years. Some scholars think it’s a lost work, others that it was never written in the first place. It’s all speculation. For sure, there are some similarities between the Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s play, but that’s it.”
Connor couldn’t believe it. “You’re putting me on, aren’t you?”
“You and I were in the same course back then. I took it as an elective. Don’t you remember? We even shared textbooks. I ended up doing a lot of research using those same sources after I decided my final paper would be a comparison of the four great tragedies. If there really had been in an earlier version of Hamlet in that textbook, I’d have seen it and studied it myself. I checked it out on Wikipedia the other night just to be sure.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“Look it up for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
“You’re damn right I will.” Connor was livid. “I know that earlier version was there. It was sitting in front of me in black and white. I actually read some of it.”
Gallagher was taken aback by Connor’s vehemence. “What the hell are you getting so worked up about, man? It was only a dream you had. Dreams aren’t supposed to be real in the first place. Don’t you know that?”
“You don’t understand. It was real. That’s what I keep trying to explain to people, but they don’t get it. It wasn’t the usual jumble of images that pass through someone’s mind when they’re asleep. This was just as authentic an experience as you and me sitting here right this minute.”
“I don’t know what’s up with you lately. Maybe you should put the seltzer away altogether and start drinking the hard stuff. If this is what sobriety does to a person, I don’t want any part of it.”
“Very funny.” Connor dropped the subject. He was in no mood to be laughed at.
Later, after Connor had ridden the subway back to the university for the evening’s dream session, he went first to the campus bookstore. It took him quite a while to locate what he had come looking for – the liberal arts had been so abandoned by undergraduates that there were few English lit textbooks of any kind in stock – but at last he found the volume for which he had been searching. It was a softcover copy of Chauncey Wentworth’s mammoth Shakespearean Sources: A Renaissance Reader, the same 1984 edition he had used in his course work twenty years before and which he had last seen in his dream.
Connor hurriedly flipped through the Table of Contents. Not finding what he sought, he then painstakingly began browsing through the pages of the oversized textbook. For the most part, there were no surprises. He found almost all the texts he had seen in his dream and in exactly the same order as he remembered. Here were the selections from Boccaccio from which the bard had taken Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, here the chapters of Plutarch’s Lives that had formed the basis of the Roman Plays, and here Holinshed’s Chronicles from which had come Lear and Macbeth. Nowhere to be found, though, no matter how diligently Connor searched, were there any versions of Hamlet that preceded Shakespeare’s own.
After having looked through the index at the back of the book and then having gone through the entire volume a second time from cover to cover, Connor at last put it back down on the shelf from which he had taken it. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered to himself. “It really isn’t there.”
“While lucid dreaming, in its ideal form, makes it possible for us to take control of our dreams, that control does not extend to the physical reality that exists outside the dream state itself.” Elicott looked at Connor to see if he was following. “In other words, we can’t change the real world through our dreams.”
The two were in the professor’s office. Connor had gone directly there after having left the bookstore. The researcher had been going through the results of the previous evening’s polysomnograms but had stopped at once when he saw how agitated his visitor appeared and had given him his full attention.
“I understand that perfectly well,” Connor argued. “What I don’t understand is how it’s possible for me to have read through a play that doesn’t actually exist. In my dream, it was all right there in front of me – the dramatis personae, the division between acts and scenes, the stage directions and the actors’ dialogues and monologues in their entirety. I could have put on a complete production and not have been missing anything.”
“It happened because your recollection is imperfect. That’s all there really is to it. Our memories are not infallible. I’ve had the experience myself of revisiting a place I thought I knew well and finding that things were not quite as I’d remembered them. You have to bear in mind that our memories do not so much store data as they do impressions. Details of what we’ve witnessed inevitably blur with the passage of time.”
Elicott held up his hand. “You said yourself it had been over twenty years since you had last picked up that textbook. After all that time, it’s not surprising to me at all that there were discrepancies in your remembrance of its contents. To be honest, it would have been much more remarkable if everything had been exactly the same.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Connor admitted. His expression, however, showed that he had not been completely convinced.
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled. Let’s move on then, shall we?”
Connor saw nothing was to be gained by any further debate. “Sure,” he agreed politely. “What comes next?”
The professor pulled a sheaf of notes from his desk drawer and began to shuffle through them. “Now that you’ve achieved your objective in reading the books you’ve dreamt of, we’ll set ourselves a new goal.”
“Which is?” Connor found himself growing interested in spite of himself.
“Do you own a camera?”
Connor was surprised by the question. “Yes, I have a fairly good mirrorless camera, digital of course. It’s only 16 megapixels and doesn’t work that well in low light, but it’s good enough when I’m traveling or just walking around the city.”
“That’s fine. As long as it’s something you feel comfortable using.”
“Yes, I know the controls well enough. Will it be part of the next assignment?”
“It’s a simple dream project we’re giving to everyone taking part in the experiment. No real photography expertise is required. All you and the others have to do is to use your own camera, the one you’re most familiar with, to photograph your surroundings while dreaming. That’s it. Then, when you awake, you’ll describe the photographs you’ve taken as best you can remember them, and we’ll compare them to everyone else’s. The idea is to achieve the highest level of detail possible in your recollection of the imaginary photos.”
Connor considered the idea. “It sounds simple enough. Is there any other purpose behind it other than to test the complexity of our memories?”
“We think it’s a great way to gauge everyone’s progress. Some subjects will be able to take the photos, others won’t. Of those who do, some will succeed better than others. There will be those who’ll describe the photos in exact detail while most will probably only be able to give the most general description. It’s even possible that some participants will encounter technical problems – shots that are blurred or out of focus – exactly as if they had been using a real camera.”
“It sounds fine to me. I was wondering what I was going to do for an encore anyway. I don’t think there’d be much point in staying in the library looking at any more books, especially not if it turns out I’ve read them all already.”
“You did achieve what you were after,” Elicott reminded him.
“But it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d thought it would be,” Connor complained. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was a big disappointment that all the works, except of course that Elizabethan drama I somehow imagined, turned out to be so familiar. That didn’t seem fair somehow.” He realized he was being childish.
“It couldn’t very well have been otherwise. As for the play you thought you’d read, that was only a faulty impression momentarily given reality by your unconscious.”
“Yes, that’s obvious enough to me now. The problem is that the whole sense of mystery I felt in earlier dreams when I was seeing all those unknown books is gone.”
“That’s an interesting way to put it. Carl Jung considered his theoretical archetypes to be by their very nature incapable of rational explanation. If they were, they wouldn’t be able to mediate between the conscious and unconscious. In certain ways, dreams serve the same function as do Jung’s archetypes. Once they can be explained by the rational mind, they lose some of the mystical power they originally held over us.”
“But we always want to know what our dreams are about,” Connor maintained. “That’s why people go to fortune tellers. And to psychiatrists.”
“That’s because people always want to make themselves whole. The most basic desire of humanity, the one that can never be fulfilled, is to integrate our conscious and unconscious minds into a single functioning unit.”
The young woman was suddenly at Connor’s side as he walked off campus that evening. One minute he’d been alone and the next she was there speaking to him.
“Did you see what I bought?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she dug in her backpack and pulled out the same copy of Shakespearean Sources that Connor had been looking at earlier that day. “I was at the bookstore when you were there this afternoon,” the woman explained, “and I saw how engrossed you were in it. After watching you go through it, I just had to buy it to see what you had found inside that was so fascinating.”
Connor took a closer look at his new companion. She appeared to be in her early twenties, but that might only have been because her classic all-American appearance – fair skin, blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes – made her look younger than she really was. Wearing no makeup and dressed down in jeans and a ragged sweatshirt with a picture of Jim Morrison on front, she reminded Connor of old photos he’d once seen of revelers at music festivals back in the 1960’s.
Connor took a step forward. “Are you a student here?”
“Oh, no. I’m just visiting.” She paused. “My name is Deirdre.”
“Are you an English lit major? Is that why you bought the book?”
“No, I already told you. I only picked it up because I saw how involved you were in reading it. I figured there had to be something incredible inside if you were so absorbed.”
“That’s a hell of a reason to buy a book if you ask me. Especially one so dense as that. It isn’t even Shakespeare’s own work that’s in it, only plays by other authors he drew on for his storylines. Most of those obscure sixteenth century works are almost unreadable today. Even scholars have difficulty with some of the texts.”
“Please don’t worry on my account. I’ll manage quite nicely, thank you.” Deirdre’s tone had grown pert.
“I wasn’t trying to put you down. It’s just that it can be pretty heavy going reading through all that. Shakespeare lifted the plots for almost all his plays from lesser writers.”
Connor picked up on that at once. “Yes, even Hamlet. What made you choose that particular example?”
“You have a lot of questions, don’t you?” Deirdre asked in a teasing voice.
Connor realized she was playing with him. “And you seem to have all the answers.” He glanced at his watch while wondering if he had time to ask this woman for a cup of coffee. He had decided he wanted to get to know her better. By the time he looked back up, though, she was already gone. He looked all around him, but she was nowhere to be seen.