“Tout n’est que rêve,” Zola wrote as he closed Le Rêve, a story about a woman who died the instant she grasped her life’s dream. Anatole France fleshed out this thought by saying that our dreams and aspirations are the “eternal illusions that we cradle.” (Full disclosure: Anatole France actually hated Zola’s novel, calling it “flat” and saying that the above quote was “the only philosophical reflection that [Zola] ever had”–yikes!). Nonetheless, Zola eloquently and in very few words expressed a sentiment that has been repeated ad nauseum over the years (see all western music over the past 100 years, Romanticism, politics, art, literature, etc).
It’s the same longing feeling that Bruce Springsteen captures on the Born To Run album: “So, Mary, climb in: it’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win.” Unlike the protagonist in Le Rêve, Springsteen was able to both realize his dream and keep chasing it. I think this is the crucial difference between Zola’s simplistic message and reality. We never stop chasing our dreams. They evolve, but do our ambitions die with our achievements? Hardly.
The real inference from Le Rêve is that our aspirations are borne out of our experiences and relationships, and that our dreams act as rudders, dictating the direction of our lives just below the level of consciousness.
In his criticism of Zola, Anatole France either misinterpreted or misunderstood Zola’s choice of words in ignoring the word rêve (dream in the context of sleep) in favor of the word songe (dream in the context of hopes or aspirations). While this transformation is correct to an extent, I don’t think Zola chose his words by accident (he did not say “Tout n’est que songe”). The word rêve implies a deeper, less conscious way of expressing our desires and fantasies. When we sleep, we dream. In our dreams, we create worlds loosely based on reality, but more prominently featured are our unconscious, emotional perceptions of the world around us.
I have been thinking a lot about this idea lately, as I’ve come into the final hours before I step on a plane to China. Our destination might as well be another planet. I have no tradition linking me to China; I’ve never studied the culture, the history, or the language; I had never given much thought to China other than in a geopolitical context until about 10 months ago. The reality in which we are about to find ourselves seems only possible in my dreams. The culture, architecture, people, language, politics, urban design, and economics of China seem so distant, as if it is not–or could not be–possible.
Yet, it is possible. China is real, and soon Anna and I will be strolling through Shanghai, drinking baijiu, eating baozi, and wondering how in the hell we managed to find ourselves in such a place. I am looking forward to the experiences we will have in China, and I know it will be a great experience.
I hope to dream more like Springsteen and less like Zola.