A Riddle

Robert Herrick:
“By day we live as one; by night we’re hurled,
In dreams, each one, into a several world.”
So Herrick believes, or poetically asserts, that our dream lives are particularly and absolutely individual, that, despite the presence, in both our sleeping and waking perceptions, of other people, one is distinct from the other, that, when awake, other people are “really there”, actually part of our lives, but that when they appear to our sleeping consciousness they are in a fundamental sense not there, not really part of the action, but figments.
The final passage of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man describes, in an extended metaphor, the hero’s falling asleep: sleep is the incoming tide, the hero a creature of the rocky shoreline; when sleep comes the sea lifts us from our rock pools and carries us out into the deep, where we are together; in the morning we are dropped back into our rock pool for another day of individual existence.
Here we have a reverse cosmology to that of Herrick, and yet who does not, when reading either, feel strongly that one is reading Truth? Who does not deeply feel that the writer’s account is (at least metaphorically) True?
Plato is well known for being opposed to literature (at least all literature apart from martial songs), for three reasons: the poor behaviour of the gods in e.g. Homer cannot be true, and sets a bad example; lots of literature encourages vice; and, most philosophically, and most importantly to us, that all art is the creation of images, imitations, not Truth in itself. In the same way that a painting of a chair isn’t a chair, so Isherwood’s hero and Herrick’s “we” are not real, but imaginary, and hence inferior, not as good. We might not be persuaded that this is a problem, arguing that the world of the imagination loses nothing by not being actually physical, and that a painting of a chair might actually communicate something about the artist, or indeed about chairs, which is fundamentally True. In an appendix to a book on Plato, someone [sub: please complete] tries to rehabilitate Plato’s opposition to literature by targeting its semblance of Truth-dealing; he doesn’t use my examples, but the way Herrick and Isherwood make us nod our heads in Recognition of a Truth Conveyed is, he argues, precisely what Plato is attacking. Are we individuals when asleep and together when awake, or the reverse? On a matter-of-fact level, then Herrick gets our vote: the people around us in our waking lives are indeed more “real” than those, created by our minds, who appear in our dreams (for that’s what “real” means), but surely we can allow Isherwood his metaphor? (And we don’t criticise him for using a metaphor per se: it’s fine to represent people and their lives as lobsters, rock pools and the ocean.)
“He who hesitates is lost.” “Look before you leap.” “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” “Many hands make light work.”
It’s surely about context, and what else Isherwood is trying to communicate. The hero in A Single Man is shown at the end of the novel to be someone who ‘by day’ is, contrary to what we’d expect, from Herrick or from our own experience, ‘in a several world’. At night his unconscious ‘lives as one’ with that of the rest of humanity, and, in fact, in Isherwood’s twist, on this particular night he ‘dies as one’, as the ocean fails to return the creature to its pool. Isherwood is not writing philosophy, or psychology, but he is bringing a story about one fictional individual to a close, in a way which makes us learn the Truth about him.

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