Musings on life, death and the nature of reality
by Jan Morris
This is what I dreamed. It was a short dream. I dreamed that Elizabeth said to me, casually over our coffee, “By the way, when you had the paper held up before your face before supper, was it because you were picking your nose, and didn’t want me to see?”
I had to admit that it was. “I have to admit that it was. It’s such an ugly thing to do, isn’t it, but sometimes I find it necessary. My nose gets so stuffed up. Do you suppose everyone does it? Does the Queen pick her nose when nobody’s looking?”
“I’m quite sure she does,” Elizabeth said, and there the matter dropped.
But it was a dream that was not entirely a dream. Was it a dream at all? Elizabeth tells me that we have never had such a conversation, but I have to admit that I had in fact picked my nose before supper, and had indeed hidden myself shamefaced behind the paper. It is such an ugly thing to do, isn’t it, though sometimes necessary even for the most fastidious. What has disturbed me about this little experience is its blending of sleep and wake, its accuracy so exact in some ways, so blurred in others, which has made me wonder where hallucination ended and memory began. Perhaps this overlap is true of most dreams but as I approach my eightieth year, I begin to wonder how much of it is true of life itself, and if the peculiarly easy, frank, inessential, glancing, but conclusive nature of our exchange over the coffee is what dying is going to be like.
Why, I wonder, should this particular inconsequential dream lead me to such portentous speculation? Something to do with childhood, you will doubtless say. It is true that I have one or two deeply ingrained phobias—for example anything to do with candles, like candlelit dinners, or candle wax—which I can only explain to myself by supposing they were planted by some experience in infancy. And it is also true that one of my most vivid memories, not a dream at all, concerns picking one’s nose.
Whenever I like, if I close my eyes and think hard, I can feel myself to be back within the few square feet of space, part light, part shade, that lies beneath the archway of Torn Gate at Christ Church College, Oxford. I have known it all my life, and whenever I please I can transport myself there. I’ll do it now. Sure enough, here I am in that shadowy archway, beneath the majestic tower, and even now its bell, Great Torn, reverberates around me, striking the hour. On my left is a fluttering bulletin board, and the usual jumble of bikes. On the right a stately porter in a bowler hat sits in his glass-windowed cubicle—the very same man, I swear it, who sat there in the 1930s, except that now he may be black. Students, dons and tourists sporadically pass through, and their progress in and out of the shadow of old Torn is like crossing a frontier.
For on one side the gate opens on to the tumultuous St Aldate’s Street, where the tide of the world thunders by, but on the other it admits its visitors to Torn Quad, one of the most magnificent quadrangles in Europe, regally serene and private. As I stand there halfway between the two it is like sniffing two drinks, a Heineken, say, and a Burgundy, whose bouquets seep in from opposite directions but never quite blend. They used to call this dichotomy “Town and Gown,” but nowadays it is a confrontation more subtle.
“Can I help you?” says the porter in a meaningful way, seeing me loitering there, half in and half out of the shadows of the gate. Christ Church College is a decidedly authoritarian establishment, founded in the first place by a cardinal and a king. But it is authority from the other side, the St Aldate’s side, the interference of the great world, of politicians and bureaucrats, of tabloids and ideologues, that I associate most pungently with Torn Gate. When I was eight or nine years old I was passing through the arch one day when I felt a tickle on my cheek, and scratched it with my finger as I walked.
At that moment there paraded down the pavement, walking in line ahead towards the police station along the street, half a dozen policemen, burly and helmeted in the manner of those days. They marched along, as they did then, in a semi-military way, and, with their antique helmets and their big boots, struck me as homely and rather comical. As they passed me one of them spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “Don’t pick your nose,” he said.
I wasn’t picking my nose! I was scratching my cheek! But I had no chance to remonstrate. The constables went dumping on, and seven decades later, as I meditate now, the resentment of that moment lives with me still. The unfairness of it! The arrogance! Perhaps it really is the emotion of that distant injustice, the latent dislike of authority that I feel to this day, which has obscurely linked the matter of nose-picking with the matter of mortality, via a short dream. Even if I had been picking my nose, what business was it of Mr Plod’s? And why shouldn’t I pick my nose now if I want to, whoever is watching, in my own house, seventy-eight years old?
But I protest too much. Shame enters my introspections. The habit of picking my nose only seized me, in fact, long years after that episode at Tom Gate, when a minor operation on my nose left it slightly dysfunctional—unable to clear itself by the normal processes of blowing or, I imagine, natural dissolution. Ever since, I have had to help it along by the unlovely process of picking it.
It’s such an unlovely thing to do, isn’t it, but d’you suppose everyone does it? I expect so, but since I am obliged to do so more often than most people, I am profoundly ashamed of it. As a matter of fact it is my only guilty secret, this unlovely habit. There have been times when I have been detected in the act. Passing motorists have caught sight of me picking my nose at the wheel, or at least I have thought they have, and although I have hastily scratched my cheek instead, and tried to persuade myself that they could not really have seen me, and anyway will never see me again, and probably don’t in the least care anyway, and are perhaps even gratified to find that somebody else does it too—even so, when they have flashed by, I am left ashamed of myself. It is such an ugly habit, isn’t it?
I am not actually ashamed of shame, if you follow me. Shame can be a saving grace, and certainly a consolation. We feel better ourselves if we are ashamed of something we’ve done, and, with luck, a show of shame can reduce the sentence in the courtroom, where slower-witted justices can be persuaded that shame is synonymous with regret. “My client is truly ashamed, m’lud,” counsel often successfully pleads, and he would have to be a moron to add, “but, m’lud, he doesn’t in the least regret it, and it would give him the greatest pleasure to do it again.” Shame and regret are certainly not the same things: je ne regrette rien, like charity, can cover a multitude of sins.
Shame can operate as a prophylactic, too. I first heard the word prophylactic when, with my batch of innocent recruits to the wartime British Army, I was given a welcoming lecture about the pitfalls of sex. I confused the word in my mind—why?—with little prayer-scrolls that used to be carried in leather pouches around the necks of rabbis, until my cruder comrades made songs and jokes out of it, and it was years before I realized that it had nothing either specifically sexual nor remotely Jewish about it, but merely meant a technique of preventive medicine.
The prophylaxis of shame can prevent bad behaviour before it happens. Often enough, like many another coward, I have been brave because I am ashamed to be frightened—or ashamed to look frightened perhaps, an even less admirable motive. Perhaps it’s true of everyone. I notice that shame, though it prevents me picking my nose in public, does not invariably bring out my better self when I am all alone.
But here’s a thought. Perhaps I was picking my nose that day, when the policemen marched past Torn Gate! I remember with absolute clarity that I was only scratching my cheek, but what if I wasn’t? It has been a dogma of my life that truth and imagination are not simply interchangeable but are often one and the same. Something imagined is as real, to my mind, as something one can touch or eat. A fanciful fear is as alarming as a genuine one, a love conceived as glorious as a love achieved. A virtual reality may only be in one’s own mind, imperceptible to anyone else, but why is it any the less true for that?
It is easy for writers, even writers of non-fiction, to think like this. Every sentence we create we have created from nothing, and made real, and every situation has been touched up in our memory. For years I remembered clearly how the roofs of Sydney Opera House hung like sails over the harbour when I first visited the city, until it was drawn to my attention that the Opera House hadn’t been built then. Every place I ever wrote about became more and more my own interpretation of it, more and more an aspect of myself, until in the end I determined that I was the city of Trieste, and Trieste was me, and decided it was time for me to give up travel writing.
I realized then that my dreams and my realities were merging. Could it be that much of what I had experienced in life I had not really experienced at all, except in my imagination? This was not at all an unpleasant conjecture—oddly soothing in fact, and it is what made me think that my dream about picking my nose, my shame about it, my secrecy, my denial, my realization that half was a dream and half wasn’t, the easy resolution of the conundrum, the sensation that it didn’t much matter anyway—all made me think that such a cloudy transition from one condition to another, or vice versa, might be what death will be like. If this essay is a muddle too, with its inconsequential repetitions—not at all my waking style—that is because I have allowed it to float along with the stream of instinct, among the weeds and little whirlpools, like Ophelia.
I always used to think that the most frightening words in literature were Hamlet’s “perchance to dream:” To die—to sleep/ To sleep, perchance to dream/ Ay, there’s the rub/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…
For years I laughed at Ivor Novello, who used the phrase as the title of a frothy operetta. But now I think the dreams of death may turn out to be much like my dream of life, mysteries gradually dispersing, shames forgotten, truth and fancy reconciled, drifting downstream through the weeds and the reeds—lazily, as Lord Salisbury once said of British foreign policy, “and only occasionally putting out a boathook to avoid a collision.”
“Picking one’s nose is a horribly distasteful habit, isn’t it,” I said, “though I don’t quite know why. D’you think Marilyn Monroe did it?”
“I’m sure she did. Edith Sitwell, too. I imagine Caligula did. Rabbis do it, spacemen do it, policemen marching down the street do it …” She was singing the words by now, to a familiar melody by Scriabin, but soon I woke up, and high time too.
Excerpted from the British literary journal Granta (issue 87, autumn 2004). Subscription information: Granta, 2-3 Hanover Yard, Noel Road, London N1 8BE, United Kingdom, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.granta.com.