It was, I believe, the third time that the small, hard, moist rubber ball struck my forehead and dropped to my pillow that I awakened fully (or dreamed I had done). The gaze that met my own was that of my dog Roland, his coal-black snout, drooping brown ears, and handsome chalk-and-charcoal face so beautifully illuminated by the pale golden glow of the rush light beyond my open bedroom door that he looked like a saint or bodhisattva wrapped in a haze of glory.
“Ah,” I said, clearing my throat and slightly raising my head, “yes . . . I don’t actually have any treats with me just now, and—”
But he interrupted me with his soft, slightly amused voice (so hauntingly reminiscent of Laurence Harvey’s): “No, no, I’m not playing that silly ‘Give’ game you like so much.”
“Oh,” I said, still gathering my wits. “Then why . . . ?”
“I was wondering whether you were dreaming,” said Roland; “and, if so, whether you’d be able to recognize the transition from one state to the other if I roused you.” His snout momentarily came nearer and he briefly sniffed about my lips and nostrils. “Yes,” he said, drawing back again, “you seem alert now. So—can you?”
I cleared my throat again. “Well, yes . . . of course.”
“Are you sure?” said Roland, drawing out the last syllable doubtfully. “Can you really?”—again, the last word skeptically prolonged.
“Of course,” I answered. “Why do you even ask?”
He sighed, smiled morosely, rose and moved several feet down the length of the bed, then turned and sat, facing me again. “I can’t help but notice that when you write about our conversations you usually describe them as occurring in dreams.”
“Yes,” I murmured, trying to focus on some thought or memory that seemed to have slipped just out of sight. “That seems . . . right. . . . I mean, they do all occur late at night and follow from some dream or other . . . and . . . ”
“Dear me,” chortled Roland, gently shaking his head, “there’s a venerable logical error for you: post somnium ergo propter somnium; sequence proves consequence; the cockerel heralds the dawn, hence its song must have conjured the sun. Really . . . and you with pretensions to philosophy.”
“Yes,” I said uncomfortably, feeling something of the force of his rebuke. “But they do seem, at least in retrospect . . . ”
“Seem?” he growled playfully. “And here I’d hoped you’d be able to judge precisely from the phenomenal feelings of the situation . . . its distinctive qualia.” He lowered his head pensively and, after a few moments, added, “Of course, I suppose that begs the principle. What really distinguishes a dream from wakefulness, after all? If experience is just the phenomenal translation of some occultly noumenal res ignota, where can we really locate the boundary . . . the point of quantitative intensity within the qualitative continuum that marks the division between what we call dream and what we call reality? In a sense, the whole world is the dream of the representing intellect.” He paused, gazed at me for a moment, and then sniffed tentatively at my shin; then he sighed again.
“What?” I asked after another moment.
“Just trying to discern your mood.”
“From my scent?”
Roland’s brow furrowed and a look of pained disappointment appeared on his face. “Of course. How else? There’s a reason why the olfactory is called the most divine of the senses.”
“I believe that’s actually said about vision.”
At once the look of disappointment dissolved into an expression of affectionate mirth, and Roland shook his head wonderingly. “Primates are so adorable. What nonsense. What sense is feebler and more fallible? The eyes take in only surface impressions, and are so easily deceived by masks or shrouds or peculiarities of perspective or optical illusions. They’re no use at all in the darkness. They’re the fools of every false smile, every feigned laugh that conceals a stiletto. But the nose—ah, that pierces every veil of dissimulation, penetrates the night as easily as the day, faithfully guides one through Stygian darkness or winding labyrinths, finds out the truth the liar involuntarily betrays, the hidden intent, the secret fear—a man can control his lips, but not his pheromones—and is never prey to false appearances. In naribus veritas, as the ancient wisdom has it. It’s the only sense that goes right to the core of the self. It’s the very window of the soul. Nasus ad nasum loquitur. Antony forsook all the glory and power of Rome not for Cleopatra’s eyes, but for her nose. No, no—olfaction is, as I say, the most godlike of the senses.”
“Yes,” I began, “all right, I . . . ”
“I mean,” Roland continued, “if you were, say, hiding some bacon about your person, and I were forced to rely on my poor, pitiable, credulous eyes to discover it, I’d . . . ” But then he paused, glanced at me suspiciously, and lifted his snout and sniffed hopefully about; then he sighed yet again. “Well, I’d have no chance. Vision is nothing but a dream within a dream. . . . Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for you, come to think of it. How hard it must be for an ophthalmocentric ape to distinguish reality from fantasy.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s any harder . . . ”
“That reminds me,” Roland said, yawning magnificently, “I’ve a question that you might be best able to answer, being a Hindu.”
“Oh, that again,” I said, unable to suppress an exasperated groan. “Look, I’m not . . . ”
“Yes, yes,” he said with an indulgent grin. “None of your games. Just tell me how you’d translate ‘maya’ from the Sanskrit.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to raise the angle of my pillow slightly, “well, it comes from the same Indo-European word as mageia, magia—magic—and means something like the power of creation, power to produce . . . especially God’s infinite power to create.”
“And yet,” said Roland, “most of us in the West assume it simply means ‘illusion.’ Why is that?”
“Yes, well, in a certain school of Vedanta, and then elsewhere, that became its special acceptation. Adi Shankara certainly used it, not to indicate that the world is unreal, but that our false understanding or ignorance—our avidya—makes us perceive reality as separate from God . . . ”
“Avidya!” It was an almost triumphant bark. “That’s what I mean. Your Indo-European roots are showing. ‘Not seeing,’ ‘failing to see.’ Reliance on the eyes cuts you off from God.”
“Now, wait . . . ”
“I’m joking,” said Roland with a gentle snort. “All the senses dream, I know . . . or, rather, all dreams have phenomenal forms. Ghostly music, phantom palaces, fragrances from the banquets of the gods . . . the honey of a lover’s lips . . . the prick of a thorn. I suppose that’s why primate culture is so uncertain of what dreams are: whether Thomas Browne is right—‘visions, and phantasticall objects wherin wee are confessedly deceaved . . . fictions and falsehoods . . . ’—or whether they’re visitations from beyond the Gates of Horn, truths written in the symbolic language of gods and angels, which only oneiromancy or oneirocriticism can elucidate to the waking mind . . . if there is such a thing as the waking mind.” He licked his shoulder pensively, then sniffed my shin again. “Cognitio vespertina, evening knowledge—isn’t that the scholastic term for the synthetic knowledge of finite intellects? Cognitio somnians might be better. Did Chuang-Tzu dream he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly dreaming himself to be Chuang-Tzu? What’s the ontological difference between the phantasmic or represented empirical world within all of us and the noonday reveries of some ectothermic animal, like a lizard or a Californian, drowsing in the sun? Really, you Hindus, at least the Vaishnavas, might have the best image there is of creation’s ground: Vishnu fast asleep, in bliss, embowered in the loving coils of Ananta Shesha, afloat on the Sea of Milk, hearing the sweet lullabies pouring from the great naga’s mouths, dreaming all things into being . . . and, asleep in each of us, that same divine awareness . . . so that we’re nearest God in dreaming within his dream . . . ” Roland raised his eyes now and gazed directly into mine. “Novalis knew—knew what we long for in finding God: that ‘last morning . . . when the light does not scare the night and love away . . . wenn der Schlummer ewig und nur ein unerschöpflicher Traum sein wird’—when that sleep within becomes ‘eternal . . . just an inexhaustible dream.’ Maybe the Oceanian aborigines saw it all long ago. Everything comes from the Dreaming . . . the time before time, the place beyond time . . . and we dream the world within the greater Dreaming . . . ”
“I think that might be a mistranslation, actually,” I ventured, hoping to curtail the rhapsody before it became a symphony.
But Roland took no notice. He merely stretched his forepaws out before him, lay down fully against my legs, and continued speaking, half to me and half to himself: “And we come from there and go to there . . . and perhaps choose the time of our coming hither and our going hence . . . and perhaps not. But still . . . we come from the Dreaming and to the Dreaming we return . . . all is the Dreaming . . . ”
But here, I believe, I was asleep again.