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04 MARCH, 2015

David the Dreamer: Extraordinary Philosophical 1922 Children’s Book Illustrated by Freud’s Cross-Dressing Niece Named Tom

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The kind of book that reads you as you read it.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary before our nocturnal fancies became the subject of science — an inquiry catalyzed by the publication of Freud’s seminal 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams, which the legendary psychoanalyst considered in part his “own self-analysis” and in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

Two decades later, humorist, essayist, and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren wrote David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams (public library). This most unusual 1922 book is doubly notable for the absolutely striking illustrations by Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s eccentric niece Martha, who at the age of fifteen took on a male name and began wearing men’s clothes, and who went on to be a visionary and exceptionally talented artist of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

Several years before Seidmann-Freud authored her own visionary “interactive” picture-book, she illustrated Bergengren’s whimsical tale of an androgynous-looking little boy’s dream about his dog’s third birthday party — a choice especially curious given her famous uncle’s classic treatise, which paved the way for the contemporary study of the psychology of dreams.

David knew he was dreaming because he had on the white suit, very much like the Clown’s in the Circus, that he often wore in dreams, and never anywhere else. Fido was also dressed in a white suit, with neat ruffles around his legs, and the neatest ruffle of all around his tail. Fido always spoke doggerel in dreams, and David was not at all surprised when he said, jumping up and down and wagging his ruffled tail,

“This is a great day for me.
This is my birthday, you see.
Last year I was two,
And this year I am three.
And so what say you
To a birthday partee?”

Playful and whimsical as the story may be, running through it are also darker undercurrents of subtle philosophical lamentation — perhaps something that drew Seidmann-Freud to the story. Take, for instance, this passage touching on the various dimensions of losing control in life:

There is something very disorienting about being out of sight of land in a small boat, especially when you find out, with a sinking heart, that you don’t know which way to row to get home again. It is like getting lost anywhere else, only much worse; for there isn’t any Policeman or Kind Lady to help you, and, although a lot of people you don’t know all looking at you at once is bad enough, nobody at all looking at you makes you feel even more serious. Very-Little-David felt serious indeed… He told himself sensibly that it would do no good to cry, but he did cry. So there you are.

David the Dreamer is, alas, deeply out of print — a fact at once sad and unsurprising, for it is the kind of book you simply don’t see today: fabric-bound and kissed by gold leaf, utterly experimental and rather dark in sensibility, the kind of unclassifiable children’s-book-for-grownups for which contemporary commercial publishers seem to neither allocate the proper budget nor muster the proper bravery.

Perhaps Bergengren intuited this. In the third chapter of the book, titled “How a Book Read David,” the little boy comes to pear tree under which he finds “two very fine pears and a book.” But it isn’t any ordinary book — it’s responsive and alive:

The odd thing about this book was that when David began reading the book, the book began reading David… The letters ran around, and changed places, and many of them jumped off the book out of sight… It was a queer book. And another odd thing about it was the way the leaves left as soon as you had read them. When you started to turn a leaf over, it just disappeared. But there were always plenty of new leaves, so that it was the kind of book that would easily last you to read as long as you lived.

A century later, this gem of a book is as alive as ever to the private reader, even if commercially dead. It would take a rare and courageous publisher to reinstate its cultural aliveness with a reprint — here’s to hoping there are other bastions of books out there besides “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” (I, for one, believe there are.)

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03 MARCH, 2015

Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

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“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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03 MARCH, 2015

Special Delivery: A Mischievous Illustrated Reminder that Nothing Is Insurmountable in the Conveyance of a Loving Gesture

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A sweet story starring a heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll saw in it an invitation to be more civil to one another. There is, indeed, something deeply humanizing and civilizing not only about the act of setting contemplative thought down to paper for another mind to contemplate in turn, but also about the chain of human touch relaying that message, heart to hand to heart, from sender to receiver via postal worker. And yet we live in an age where such correspondence has fallen out of favor as we co-react with the click of a Send button — so much so, that the very prospect of sending a real letter seems like a gargantuan task that few care to undertake.

In Special Delivery (public library), Caldecott-winning author Philip C. Stead and illustrator Matthew Cordell wink at our relationship with correspondence by making that seemingly gargantuan task literally so. They tell the story of little Sadie — a brave, single-minded, will-do-whatever-it-takes heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart — who decides to mail her beloved Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, because Josephine “lives almost completely alone” and “could really use the company.”

When Sadie discovers that stuffing the elephant in a mailbox wouldn’t work, she heads to the post office to mail him as an oversized package.

“Please be gentle with him. So do not bend him, or drop him, or shake him much at all. He is fragile and very easily might break,” she instructs the postmaster, who proceeds to inform her that she’d need to buy an impossible number of stamps to mail such a large package.

Determined to get the elephant to her Great-Aunt, Sadie decides to borrow her neighbor Mary’s plane. (In a culture where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists, one can’t help but be heartened by Stead’s cast of courageous women.)

But the plan crashes as the plane does, and Sadie and her elephant land in the middle of the jungle.

Unperturbed, Sadie asks the Alligator for a ride down the river, promising to someday mail him a real letter with “a giant stick of bubble gum” inside, as a token of gratitude.

With her large friend in tow, Sadie hops on a train and imagines braving bandits.

A train will get us there quickly, and anyway it’s nice to see new things.

Finally, she gets a lift from the ice cream truck and makes it to Josephine, who awaits her surrounded by other mysterious packages and fanciful wild animals.

As the two embrace, Josephine offers her great-niece a cup of restorative hot chocolate, but Sadie insists on getting one urgent matter out of the way first. Squatting on the ground, with a box of gum by her side, she pens a “real letter” — a young woman of her word.

Special Delivery is an absolute delight, emanating Charlotte Zolotow’s quietly mischievous storytelling and Jules Feiffer’s expressive sensibility, and yet entirely original. Complement it with a very different but at least as touching tale of bravery and friendship starring alligators.

Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan; photographs my own

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