On night visions and homecomings

On the way to the airport well before dawn, my middle sister told me about the recurring nightmares she’d had when she was a girl. There was the one about the angry man with the red eyes. The one about my mother who’d become the mean witch from the Wizard of Oz. And the one about the Incredible Hulk who’d turned evil. In each case, the dream had been precipitated by an intimation or experience of death. In one case, she’d tried counting by 2’s to distract herself from envisioning; in another, she’d stayed up all night to protect us while we slept. This led to her two weeks of insomnia.

Have you had insomnia recently, I asked. No, that was years ago.

Mid-air and half-asleep, I remembered my recurring boyhood dream. In it, I feel my teeth getting loose. I think they’re going to come out, I bring my hands up to my mouth, but they don’t. The teeth stay put while moving about. Then, I go to speak, but my jaw is half-locked, not locked entirely but out-of-sync. My teeth rub up against each other, painfully but not as painfully as I expect them to, while my jaw moves discordantly, out of tune. The truth is that I can speak, can speak just fine, but the words that come forth clot out. These intelligible words are not the right ones.

For me, this is the shudder of a death that is mine. The meaning of the nightmare is not pictorial but metaphysical. It is not that there is some structural flaw in the architecture of my mouth nor is there some cognitive degradation in the hardware of my brain but rather a metaphysical rivenness in the order of things. In the face of the Unfathomable, my mouth is relatively intact whereas my words cannot but come forth broken. For someone like me who’s lived his life according to right speech, the terror abides still.

And will this be how Death comes, comes kindly for me? With whatever I say being the wrong thing but without the ability to make amends with some last rites? No matter my philosophical meditations on death, no matter my nightly ruminations or morning exercises, regardless of my lifelong preparations (Cicero, recall: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”), will I befoul the earth and the air, leave polluted a consecrated space, despoil the lives of others in my final moments? That is horrible.

Maybe this is why the wise (and lucky) among us, sensing the end, know to close their mouths and put out their hands and rub.


When I got home, I checked the lights and the heat. I looked in the refrigerator and checked the pantry. I turned on the faucets and watered the plants. I imagined having dogs at once forlorn and ebullient. Food, heat, light, life: the basics, the essentials. We’re inclined to think that these are no more than material necessities, but they may very well be inchoate philosophical thoughts.

It could be that our thought-actions are of home. Omphalos. Thought-actions that are a three-fold answer to a three-fold question:

Do you exist, ask the pigeons in the tree. (Yes, here I am.)

And have you forsaken us, plead the plants and the animals. (No, my friends, I’ve not forsaken you.)

And are you grateful, entreat the lights and the heat, grateful for this and for everything. (Yes, I am. Danken, my friends.)

One thought on “On night visions and homecomings

  1. Wallace’s and Kerouac’s stories were both tragic, each with a different ending. Your post led me to a train of thought about the philosophical attitudes one could adopt toward death. I’d say there are 3.

    1.) Turn Back. One could regard a meditation on death as a first moment the end of which is to turn us back toward life in the following moments. How to lead a blessed life after I’ve acknowledged with my whole person the fact of human finitude? This is usually where my thought goes in my philosophy practice, especially when I’m working with others.

    2.) Look Above. One could see death sub specia aeternitatis (“from the aspect of eternity”). This was the culmination of Spinoza’s speculative ethical vision, but it is also the ascent of much speculative and mystical philosophy. The finite self, when seen properly, is a part of the cosmic or divine whole.

    3.) Face Toward. Finally, one could become stand firm in the face of a death that is mine. I’m not sure how long this is possible. For me, it is rare and dangerous. I know also that “staring long” is not an option and that heading back into life, in however a mundane way (see, again, point 1), seems to be the direction my whole being tends. Could we be courageous and stand firm a few moments longer? If so, what then? But then perhaps that was Wallace’s final undoing…

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