Green within green
Beware the sleepwalkers
Sleepwalking is an evocative image, existing in that liminal zone of consciousness, simultaneously present and absent. The dreamworld seeping into the real, or the inverse, with pressures of waking life intruding upon rest.
Somnambulism is a condition that captures an odd, unnerving combination of agency without conscious volition. Acting without being fully aware of one’s actions. It was in this sense that Hannah Arendt suggested, ‘unthinking men are like sleepwalkers’, warning of the dangers that come from not being awake to the necessity of thought.
Yet sleepwalking can also convey a general sense of disorder, of things not being as they should be. In Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is taken as a sign of a tormented soul. Her behaviour at night betrays an unsettled mind: she is not completely thoughtless, it would be easier if she was. Lady Macbeth’s condition is different from that Arendt describes, with her conscious being partially aware but unable to completely suppress her feelings of guilt.
Doctor: You see, her eyes are open.
Gentlewoman: Ay, but their sense is shut.
It is instructive that Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking generates a profound sense of unease in her onlookers. There is a recognition that things are not as they should be. This scene is powerfully conveyed in the stark black and white of Joel Coen’s recent rendition, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
We don’t know black from white any longer. Everything’s topsy-turvy.
This line is from Hermann Broch’s, The Sleepwalkers, which is consumed by the problem of the loss of order and meaning, a time where reality stops making sense. It captures that fin de siècle combination of things breaking down and speeding up, of which there are now eery echoes:
Amid a blurring of all forms, in a twilight of apathetic uncertainty brooding over a ghostly world, man like a lost child gropes his way by the help of a small frail thread of logic through a dream landscape that he calls reality and that is nothing but a nightmare to him.
In this harsh rendering, we are collectively both Lady Macbeth and her onlookers: ‘we feel the totality to be insane, but for each single life we can easily discover logical guiding motives.’ The world is simultaneously fine and broken, normal and absurd.
The motif also appears in Federico García Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’, an evocative poem that captures part of the strangeness of the condition, its meaning simultaneously present and diffuse. Supposedly Salvador Dali said of the poem, ‘it seems to have a story, but actually it has none.’ Indeed, this is a judgment that could be applied to much in the world.
Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
No longer black and white. Tragedy and death, hope and love: there are many meanings ascribed to the colour of green in this work. Lorca said the poem would ‘always have changing lights, even for me, the man who communicated it.’ Changing lights, and yet, there is the motif of green. Why green?
Green, how I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The Chinese poet Bei Dao reflected that Lorca was the influence for Mang Ke’s long-lost poem, ‘green within green’. Perhaps the poem is spoken in the garden of Liu Shilong. Somehow this image makes sense, verse lost in colour, meaning blurred in mystery, imagination merged with memory. The green within green must surely be jade. Here I recall a description from Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows:
the cloudy translucence, like that of jade; the faint, dreamlike glow that suffuses it, as if it had drunk into its very depths the light of the sun; the complexity and profundity of the colour.
As Minerva’s greys blend with dreamlike hues of jade, sleepwalking captures something about the present moment: the queasy mix of recognition and unease, agency without awareness, things not being as they should be.