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False Bottom?

Dreamed October 1913 by Edith Wharton

A pale demon with black hair came in, followed by four gnome-like creatures carrying a great black trunk. They set it down and opened it, and the Demon, crying out: "Here's your year--here are all the horrors that have happened to you and that are still going to happen," dragged out a succession of limp black squirming things and threw them on the floor before me. They were not rags or creatures, not living or dead--they were Black Horrors, shapeless, and that seemed to writhe about as they fell at my feet, and yet were as inanimate as bits of stuff. But none of these comparisons occurred to me, for I knew what they were: the hideous, the incredible things that had happened to me in this dreadful year, or were to happen to me before its close; and I stared, horror-struck, as the Demon dragged them out, one by one, more and more, till finally, flinging down a blacker, hatefuller one, he said laughing: "There--that's the last of them!"

The gnomes laughed too; but I, as I stared at the great black pile and the empty trunk, said to the Demon: "Are you sure it hasn't a false bottom?"

--Edith Wharton


Is Wharton's last line mere anxiety? Or defiance? Reading this dream, two myths come to mind:

  1. Pandora, under all the ills of the world unleashed by her curiosity, found, in the bottom of the trunk, a gem: Hope. Wharton has reason to ask, then. She's getting even a worse deal than Pandora. All pain, no gain.
  2. Siberian shaman-trainees go on a drug-and-drum-fueled spirit journey. Ogres capture, cook and eat them, then count their bones. Successful students don't defeat the ogres, but, having endured their worst, have one unexpected bone left over; one more than a human being. And the shaman-bone's connected to the kneebone, and the kneebone's connected to the thighbone... the apprentice re-assembles his or her spirit-body, and returns a true shaman. If not, you flunk. A dreamworker has to face horror calmly and ask "OK, anything else?"
That's what I sense Wharton doing here. Despair, masochism, fear? No. Just wanting to be thorough. If it's going to hurt, let's get on with it. Now, please.

This account is from R. W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton (1975) quoted in The Oxford Book of Dreams (ed. Stephen Brook, 1983)

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: demons - treasure - life-paths - grief - bravery - self-respect - ordeals and initiations

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