The Barefoot Anthropos Starts Something New
— — — — — — — — — — — —
Today, a conversation between Warsaw-based writer of “Śnienie (Dreaming),” Marta Zelwan, now out from the Operating System, and translator Victoria Miluch. This interview appears in its original Polish as well as in this translated form in the book. Find an excerpt here, at Asymptote Journal. “Śnenie” is the most recent release from our Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts series.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
VM: Dreaming is a collection of varied and sometimes surreal fragments focused on the world of dreams. Can you tell me about your process of writing the book? How it started, and how it came together?
MZ: Dreaming is a little like a dream where we never see the entire film, just frames; individual images weave through the entire book, the needles that connect them are like Aboriginal dreaming tracks, they’re invisible but lead us unerringly, with the caveat that the intentions of dreaming and the path of dreams are different than the aims of the waking world. Everyone knows of conscious and unconscious knowledge, of these different layers in the world, of different states of consciousness. We receive them together, but we rarely consider both simultaneously. Every day, I’d write about what appeared from behind what I’d already written. I didn’t plan anything, but I was attentive to whatever came in waking and dreaming, to the waking world that was revealed through dreaming, and sometimes the reverse.
It began as the first fragment describes, with a conversation with a stone in a park; the last paragraph of the fragment records the results of that conversation:
From the depths, from darkness, a voiceless, colorless being emerges, something that isn’t fully formed. It reminds me of cave paintings, or the shadow of a ghost on a wall, or a primitive, unfinished sculpture. I wouldn’t be surprised if, set loose, it could live a thousand years. It would manifest in various forms, make itself denser or more diluted, it would open or close in on itself depending on its needs — but when I reach out my hand to free it, it flees.
So goes writing about dreaming with the help of dreams. The art of dreaming is the art of freedom, it’s impossible to imprison dreams in some definite shape, a book about dreaming simply emerges, it’s enough to let it be, and now, after eighteen years, it’s receiving a second embodiment, it’s changing shape.
VM: How did you choose the form? Why do short fragments work well to explore the ideas in the book?
MZ: Short fragments are like short frames in a film that we only see a part of. We can unwind any dream in the imagination, in the waking world, but in this book I tended not to. I don’t know how I chose the form of fragments, dreaming chose it.
VM: What do you see as the central concerns of the book, and did the emergence of any surprise you?
MZ: This is a big question because dreaming doesn’t spurn any subject, and everything in dreams astounded and astounds me, though it didn’t surprise me that any of it appeared. A small book about dreaming touches on life’s largest concerns only because it’s about dreaming, and thus about everything in life and death — and what is in between them — that sentence isn’t from this book, maybe I wrote it in my next one, Księga Ocalonych Snów, or in Praobrazy, or maybe I didn’t write it at all. Maybe the main concern of this book, without going into specifics, is being in the in between. In the place we call reality, and yet from which we can see other worlds. In the place where they all connect. At the time of writing, I was astounded that this connection simply always exists. It requires recognition.
Many of the fragments draw inspiration from widely varied sources — literature, religions, histories, and philosophies from all around the world. How do you see these sources working in the book? What was your process in collecting them and bringing them together?
The sources collected themselves, I’d remember things I’d read years ago and forgotten, as though they’d been suddenly connected by the dreaming I was observing at the present time. They beckoned me. This kind of thing is everywhere. The world is one great dream. A dream isn’t an abstraction. Instead, it’s a test, a measure of how a rational mind will contend with it.
VM: Do you have a favorite fragment?
MZ: A few weeks ago, I was asked to read a piece of prose at an event, and I thought of the fragment “Barefoot Anthropos.” It’s my favorite fragment at the moment. Maybe this barefoot anthropos wants to start something new, I’ll have to keep an eye on it.
VM: You return to the idea of dreams often in your work — why? Is this something you’ve always been interested in? Do you know how the interest began?
MZ: I’ve always been interested in what’s behind firm reality. I often hear the phrase:tread firmly over the earth, but Yeats said to tread lightly because we tread on dreams. I like this idea. I don’t know what good treading firmly does, it doesn’t work for me even as a metaphor. Without dreaming, I would have had a very difficult life a long time ago, in the north of Poland, in Masuria. It’s a beautiful place, but very sparsely populated, and the reality there is nature, the natural world, which, back then, was still very wild. From that natural world I received a lot of dream knowledge, which we could also call C. G. Jung’s active imagination. First, I got acquainted with a living, active imagination; nature always addressed me in its own way, I remember it a lot better than anything people said. I came to believe nature. For a long time, I didn’t know that there are separate night dreams, I was very pleased when I learned, but a dream is only a specific instance of dreaming, really everything dreams.
VM: Do you consider yourself to be working in a tradition of Polish writing? Is there anything uniquely Polish or Central European about this book?
MZ: I wrote the book is Polish, and I live in Central Europe, in its history, so I believe that yes, the book belongs here. I also think that the world of dreams doesn’t recognize divisions and exists everywhere, literature about it has been written everywhere, it isn’t constrained by any one history or territory.
MARTA ZELWAN is a Polish writer based in Warsaw. She has published nine books, including collections of poetry, prose, and essays. Two of her books have been nominated for the Nike Award, Poland’s most prestigious literary award, and her other honors include the Iskry Press Prize, the Literature Foundation Prize, the Stanisław Piętak Prize, the Edward Stachura Prize, and the Culture Foundation Prize.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
VICTORIA MILUCH is a fiction writer and translator. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Passages North, The Southeast Review,and The Adroit Journal, and her translations can be found in Asymptoteand the Denver Quarterly. A recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, she now lives abroad.