A Journal of the Plague Week 25

Sunday, September 6th, 2020

This was a nightmare week.

Not a nightmare of a week, mind you. The week itself varied from fine to downright lovely. The weather improved, giving us not one but two opportunities to play Irish music outdoors with other people, and we even treated ourselves to dinner at the Shelter Hall on the beach again on Tuesday, indulging in pizza and fried chicken and poppadoms and cold beer after an afternoon of errands in town. Earlier that day I had submitted the book translation I’ve been working for the past several months (the job I was offered back on that stressful day a million years ago in mid-April), and I even got to send out several invoices—for the first time in months—for some translation jobs I did in August. It was, by all accounts, a good week.

But it was also a week bad dreams and/or bad sleep almost every night. When my brain wasn’t serving up perplexing anxiety dreams or full-on horror-movie scenarios in my sleep, I would spend long hours lying awake in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn, staring into the darkness and waiting for some unidentified something to happen—a nameless, directionless, all-encompassing anxiety, perhaps even worse than the comically obvious fears and monsters in my nightmares.

As I lay awake again last night, nightmare-free but also slightly headachy, sweaty and generally uneasy, I got to thinking about The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, a very problematic novel that I love nonetheless. In an early chapter of the book, which is set in a fantastical version of the Jewish Ghetto of Prague in 1890, several characters discuss the creature known as the golem and its habit of mysteriously appearing in the ghetto every 33 years. In one of the most memorable and unsettling images I’ve encountered in literature, an old man named Zwakh says of the golem:

Some people will tell how they have seen it coming towards them down a street, but, as they walked boldly to meet it, it would grow smaller and smaller, like an ordinary figure will do as it moves away from you, and finally disappear completely.

For all that I am deliciously unnerved by that description, it was not this that came to my mind at the witching hour last night, but rather the characters’ speculation on what might cause the golem to appear:

Just as, in thundery weather, the electric tension in the atmosphere will increase to a point past endurance, and eventually give birth to the lightning, may it not be that the whole mass of stagnant thought infecting the air of the Ghetto needs clearing from time to time by some kind of mysterious explosion, something potent in its workings. Something forces the dreams of the subconscious up and into the light of day […].

Perhaps this is what was going on in my psyche during the week: the “electric tension” of the book deadline and ongoing pandemic and various other stressors built up like a thunderhead, and when its pent-up energies were (somewhat) released with the submission of the book and resolution of other issues, the “explosion” of relief brought my “dreams of the subconscious up and into the light of day”—or into the dark of night, as it were. Much like people often seem to catch a cold or otherwise fall ill after a period of stress instead of during it, I only started to sleep badly after I had taken care of the things that should have been keeping me awake.

I first read The Golem in college, in a class on “the gothic and grotesque” in German film and literature. That class also introduced me to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which so enthralled me that I became determined to paint my bedroom walls like a German Expressionist cityscape. It’s probably good that nothing ever came of that—talk about nightmares…

German (post-)Expressionism literally gave me nightmares in my second year of college, when I took a class on “modern art from 1885 to 1955.” At some point in the semester I came down with a virus I couldn’t shake, so I felt sick and exhausted all the time (it would eventually be diagnosed as strep throat, but only after I had been ill for weeks). It was also my last semester before studying abroad, which should have been exciting but just made me feel even more sick with anxiety. And then in this art history class, we started studying artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Their grisly and grotesque works fascinated and repelled me in equal measure, and they also seriously messed with my fragile brain. I remember trying to sleep and instead just rolling around in a half-awake/half-asleep state, tormented by feverish visions of World War I battlefields and disfigured soldiers, the underbelly of Weimar Germany, terrible scenes of horror and violence. It was grim.

However, none of that stopped me from buying a poster of Otto Dix’s Portrait of Max John several years later at the Freiburg art museum that houses the painting. I tacked the poster to our wall at the time, but when we moved into our current flat and were trying to decide what pictures to hang where, Jeremy confessed that he found the thing creepy—which, let’s face it, he’s not wrong. The picture now resides in a poster tube in our attic, happily supplanted by my beloved Brueghel posters from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Rather oddly, a doctor I went to a few times in Freiburg had her own Otto Dix print hanging on the wall; I can’t remember what picture it was, though it may have been The Dancer Anita Berber. To be honest, that is also fairly creepy, particularly in a doctor’s office, but at the time I found it quite cool. Even now I’d probably find it quite cool.

Anyway, this is roughly this route my thoughts took as I lay awake in bed, mentally meandering through the circuitous streets of a fictional Prague, imaging the golem coming towards me and receding at the same time, before I moved on to the skewed cityscapes of Caligari and the dark Berlin of Otto Dix. When I visited the real Prague five years ago, I tried to find the remnants of the old ghetto, both the fictional one and the factual, with only a small degree of success. I found a “Golem” restaurant and, more pertinently, the Old-New Synagogue where that famous golem of Rabbi Loew is supposedly sealed up in the attic. But the original Jewish quarter was mostly demolished and rebuilt around the turn of the 20th century. And fantastical Prague exists only in books—and in my imagination, when my mind wanders off at night, places the charm in the golem’s clay mouth and brings him to life.

And, just as Nature has her own happenings that foreshadow the advent of the lightning, so do certain forbidding signs portend the arrival of this phantom within our world of fact. The plaster peeling from an old wall will adopt the shape of a running human form; and stony faces stare from the ice-flowers formed by the frost upon the window panes. Sand from the roof-tops falls in a different way from usual, filling the apprehensive passer-by with the impression it has been thrown by some invisible spirit, trying to form, from the hiding-place wherein it lurks, all kinds of unfamiliar outlines. No matter what the object one beholds—be it wicker work, all one colour, or the uneven surface of a human skin—we are still obsessed with this disconcerting gift of finding everywhere these ominous, significant shapes, that assume in our dreams the proportions of giants. And always, through these ghostly strivings of these troops of thoughts, endeavoring to gnaw their way through the wall of actuality, runs, like a scarlet thread, a torturing certitude that our own mental consciousness, strive as we may, is being sucked dry, deliberately, that the phantom may attain to concrete form.


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