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Long Road to Heaven

Trance/daydream/hypnogogic visions, 1920, by Edwin Muir

SOURCE: The Story and the Fable by Edwin Muir (1940), telling his childhood on the island of Wyre in the remote, timeless Orkney Islands off Scotland. But in his teens he was orphaned and struggled to survive in Glasgow. In 1919 he married, moved to London, and a few months later tried psychoanalysis and soon had wild trance-visions like this. For clarity I added a title, paragraph breaks & section headings, indented the visions/dreams, and, in Muir's dream notes toward the end, boldfaced the dream-images. -- Chris Wayan

The analysis was very painful, then, especially for the first few months; so much stuff gushed up from my dreams that the effort of facing it was a prolonged nervous and moral strain. I fell into a curious state, and had trances and visions. My unconscious mind, having unloaded itself, seemed to have become transparent, so that myths and legends entered it without resistance and passed into my dreams and daydreams. This happened a few weeks after the beginning of the analysis, and it began with a feeling that I had caught some illness; this in turn passed into a trance.

Woman in the Waves
One evening while I was still working in my office I came back at six o'clock feeling ill. I lay down on the couch in the sitting-room with my face to the wall. Willa was sitting at the table behind me, correcting examination papers for the cramming college; I listened to the sheets rustling as she turned them over, and they seemed to make a curiously loud noise in the room. Then my breathing too grew louder and--this is the only way in which I can describe it--deliberate at the same time, as if I were breathing because I had willed it, not because I could not help it: the first act or rehearsal of breath. I felt my breast rising and falling, and something pressing upon it which I flung off and drew back again. This turned into a great, dark blue wave of sea-water, advancing and receding. A dark blue seascape opened on the lighted wall before me, a dark blue sky arched over it; and as if I had slipped out of my body I was standing on the shore looking at the waves rolling in. A little distance out a naked woman was posted; the waves dashed against her, washing up to her breasts and falling again; but she never moved; she seemed to be fixed there like a statue rising out of some other dimension.
Colorless Sea
Then everything vanished and I was at the bottom of the sea, with the waves far above me. When I came up again--all this time I was lying on the couch listening to the rustling of the papers behind me--the sea and the sky were perfectly white like paper; in the distance some black jagged rocks stuck out of the stagnant water: there was no colour anywhere but black and white. I began to swim at a great speed (at this time I had not yet learned to swim) towards the nearest rock. Round me countless creatures were circling and diving, glass-coloured in the white sea: long cylinders about the length of a man, without heads or tails, mouths or eyes. I reached the rock and put out my hand to draw myself up, when one of these creatures fixed itself by the upper end, which seemed to have a little sucker, to the middle of my brow just above my eyes. Filled with rage, I kicked the creature with my bare toes; at last I kicked through it, and it fell like a broken bottle into the sea. All this time I had no fear. I pulled myself to the top of the rock.
Crying its Eyes Out
After this my memory of the dream is fragmentary for a while. I think that it must have been an unbroken sequence, but the pictures followed one another at such a speed that I could not catch some of them. All that I remember next is wandering through a rough woodland country interspersed with little brown rocks, where there were troops of low-browed, golden-haired, silent creatures somewhat like monkeys, and seeing in the distance a procession of white-robed female figures slowly passing as if to silent music. I wandered there, it seemed to me, for a long time. I remember coming to what I thought was the green, mossy trunk of a fallen tree; as I looked at it I saw that it was a dragon, and that it was slowly weeping its eyes into a little heap before it: the eyes were like brooches, ringed blue and red and white, hard and enamelled, so that they tinkled as they fell. All this seemed natural to me; each pair of eyes as they fell appearing to be pushed out by other eyes behind them.
Deep-Sunk Palace
Here there was another break in the dream. The next scene was quite different. I was in a wild, rocky place, treeless and shrubless, and in the middle of it I came to a great white palace. The walls were high and windowless, and there was only one small door. I went up to it and pushed. The door opened at once, but when I took my hand away shut again, and would not open a second time. Then I saw a small opening, about three feet square, just beside the door. Creeping through it, I stepped on to the balcony of a great hall. Looking up, I could see the roof far above me; but downward the hall went farther than my eyes could follow, and seemed to sink deep into the ground. This lower part was covered with wooden scaffoldings, and was obviously under repair, though no workmen could be seen; the place seemed to have been deserted for a long time. I climbed on to the balustrade, raised my hands above my head, and dived. I had fallen head downward for a great distance, when my hand caught a beam of one of the scaffoldings, and I began to climb upward again, hand over hand, at a great speed, with the ease of an ape. I did not stop until my head was touching the ceiling and I could go no farther. Again I was filled with rage. I beat my head against the ceiling, which was thick and decorated with fine mouldings, and broke through it. Above there was a broad terrace lined with cypresses; night had fallen, and the dark blue sky was glittering with stars. Tall, robed men were walking with melodramatic stateliness along the terrace, under the trees.
Sun, Snakes, Sphinx, Soul
There was another break here, and when I caught the dream again I was standing beside a little mountain pool fringed with rushes. The sky had the whitish bruised look which it sometimes has before sunrise. As I looked at it I saw two little clouds like scraps of paper slowly floating towards each other, and for the first time I was afraid, I could not tell why. The two clouds met, blazed up, and turned into an angry sun. The sun began to revolve across the sky. As it revolved two serpents, one red and the other yellow, broke through its crust and began a furious locked battle. Still revolving, bearing the battling serpents with it, the sun burst into flames and in a moment turned to ashes. Black now, it went on wheeling across the paper-white sky. Then it stopped; its periphery trembled and quivered, and I saw that it was legged like a centipede. It began to come down diagonally towards me, walking on an invisible thread like a spider. As it came near I saw that it was a fabulous creature with an armoured body and a head somewhat like the prow of a sailing-ship, the head being partly that of a woman and partly that of a bird. Its body was jointed in the middle, and looked like two enormous tortoises one on the top of the other. I saw now that I was naked and holding a great sword in my hands. I lifted up the sword, swung it over my shoulder, and struck the creature on the brow. The blow made no alteration to it. I raised the sword again and struck harder, but the stroke merely pushed the head back. In a fury I thrust the sword into the beast's side at the joint of the armour; then it turned its head and smiled at me. This inflamed my fury past all bounds; I twisted the sword round and round; the mail burst open; something with white wings, robed in white, fluttered into the sky; and the creature drew its torn mail round it like an umbrella shutting, thrust its beak into the ground, and shot out of sight.
I think there was another break here, though not a long one. The next I remember is seeing countless angels flying high up in the air, going through absurd and lovely evolutions, looping the loop, hiding behind the edges of clouds: the whole sky was filled with them. I watched an ordered formation of them flying over a still stretch of water, so that I could see them reflected in it as they passed above me in their flight. Then I was in the air, and when I was a little distance up some one took my hand: it was my wife. We flew up, now and then dropping extravagant curtsies to each other in the air, with a wide and light sweep, keeping our wings still. After a while I noticed that the wing on my shoulder next to her had fallen off, and looking at her I saw that the wing on her corresponding shoulder had disappeared too, so that we were mounting the air on two wings. After we had flown like this for a while we looked down and saw a great crowd ranged in concentric rings beneath us, and in the middle of it a gigantic figure clad in antique armour, sitting on a throne with a naked sword at his side. We flew down and settled on his shoulders, and bending behind his neck kissed each other.
When this waking dream, or trance, or vision ended I was quite well; all my sickness had gone. I astonished Willa by telling her about it; we discussed it for a long time, and then I wrote it down in my notebook along with my other dreams.


was the day for seeing my analyst; I handed the notebook to him, and there was a long silence. At last I asked him what he made of the dream, and told him that I had been awake the whole time, conscious of the light of the lamp and the rustling of the papers behind me. He said something about its being a myth of the creation, and warned me that my unconscious was far too near the surface for my comfort and safety, and that I should hurry to put something substantial between myself and it. The advice seemed sensible, but not of the slightest use to me; I knew of no substance which I could suddenly improvise as a buffer against myself; I might as well have been told to add a cubit to my stature.

We agreed that it would be best not to analyse the dream, after I had tentatively suggested that it seemed to point to immortality, and he had retorted, "Aha! That would flatter your vanity nicely, wouldn't it? Very nice to think that a revelation has been specially arranged for you!"

And he indicated the sexual symbolism of the dream, which by this time I could read for myself: the tubular animals, the two-handed sword, the dragon shedding its eyes. Yet these things, though obvious enough, did not seem applicable to the dream, which was unearthly, or rather unhuman, and so in a sense unsexual.

I tried to give him an idea of the vividness and rapidity of the pictures more exhilarating than any I had ever found in actual life or in poetry, each detail perfectly fmished before it melted in an instant into the next. I could not tell him how long the dream had lasted; it might have been half an hour, it might have been no more than a few minutes. But I felt that it took up far less time than the time required to put it into words.

It was decided, then, that we should not discuss the dream and the curious circumstances in which I had dreamt it: this might be more fitting at a later stage of the analysis. But similar dreams or waking trances followed, especially when I was about to fall asleep. There are not many of these, for I soon discovered that I could stop them or let them go on at will.


[Muir's 2nd example, Fall from a Star, deserves a full page of its own]

Some of my remaining dreams were not so flattering.

In one I was in a primitive boat with two other men somewhere in the Far North, and we were fending off a grotesque, roaring sea-beast, half fish and half animal. I struck at it with a clumsy oar, but it snatched the oar in its teeth and pulled it out of my hands. My terror broke off the dream at this point; my last picture is of the boat and the three of us in it with no weapon against the enormous beast but our hands.
Another of these waking dreams, a mere picture, was still more terrifying.
I saw myself standing at the entrance to a pass in mountainous country, and a group of men standing round me. I was unarmed and they were armed, and there was no pity in their faces. The sun was setting; the spears glittered red; and I knew that this was my last hour.
All these waking dreams I took to my analyst, who was now growing concerned about me. I told him again that I could let them go on or stop them, and asked him what he advised me to do. He strongly advised me to stop them. I did as he bade me, and my waking dreams ceased at once, and have never come back again. I doubt now whether I was right in stopping them; I feel that if I had let these visions continue they would have ceased at their own time, instead of at mine. On the other hand, I may have been too close at this stage to the border-line between sanity and insanity; but I do not for a moment believe it. The analyst was concerned for the health of my mind, he was trying to bring me back to normality, whatever that is, and I do not see what other advice he could have given me.

I did not know at the time what to do with these mythological dreams, and I do not know yet; I used the trance for a poem, but a poem seems a trifling result from such an experience. I have the example of Yeats, who, after taking down in penny notebooks for two years the spirit messages which came to his wife in a state of trance, was informed by the invisible Communicator that these messages, which contained a whole scheme of being, had been sent to provide his poetry with metaphors. I do not believe that this dream was sent to provide my poetry with metaphors.

The analyst himself never returned to it again, and his theory that the dream was a myth of the creation does not satisfy me; for while the first part of it certainly points back to the beginning of things with the first large breathings, the undifferentiated creatures, and the absence of fear (as if consciousness had not yet begun, and fear with it), the last part extends beyond time altogether; and the battle with the wheeling sun, which, after running through all its revolutions, becomes the sphinx, is the last battle with Time, after which Time, having gathered its torn mail around it and vanished into the grave which timelessly waits for it, releases the spirit into Eternity. A discernible pattern certainly runs through the dream, but if it is anything it is the pattern of man's evolution and ultimate destiny, not of the creation: the whole dream is concerned with our beginning and our end.

On the other hand, there are things in it to which I can attach no clear meaning;

When I dreamed this dream I had already got over the worst of my infatuation for Nietzsche, and after a period of dismissing immortality as an imputation on earthly life and the purity of immediate perception I had tentatively begun to believe in it again. So that the dream did not actually convert me to that belief. But it very much strengthened and at the same time modified it.

--Edwin Muir


Are these dreams or waking visions? Neither--they're a third state, hypnogogic imagery (hypnogogia literally means "leading into sleep" but it occurs while waking, napping and just quietly meditating, too). Other hypnogogic dreams in the World Dream Bank have the vividness, abrupt transitions and "exhilarating speed" Muir mentions. What's unique here is their clarity--and epic scale.

His psychoanalyst (who worked with Muir for free, partly as a favor to a mutual friend, partly because Muir was clearly in need and had little money, and partly because Muir was a fascinating case) seems out of his depth here. All he can suggest are classic Freudian conjectures about motives: sex and ego.

Six-foot glassy sea-leeches messing with his third eye, and dragons crying their eyes out, are phallic symbols? Given the repeated images of things pried open (the sphinx, the half-sunken palace) in each case followed by the appearance of spirits or angels, Muir's more shamanic reading seems right. Muir is molting; his old crab-armor's too tight.
Are these delusions of grandeur? I'd call them just... grandeur. This is no madman's threadbare dream, declaring he's (how original!) Jesus; it's the rich, strange imagery of a natural poet coming to life. The analyst worries that Muir might be flipping out, when any shaman would see these as initiatory dreams of great power to be followed through--indeed, to suppress the change they herald would be risky! Freud's model grew, of course, out of studying sick patients hoping for normality; but these dreams lead Muir out of mere normality toward something more.
Muir's imagery, if not his interpretive bent, is quite Jungian. The image he finds the most baffling, the huge, half-sunken, half-repaired palace, resembles Jung's own dreams of his mind or psyche as a many-floored house. Muir's foundations go deep indeed--beyond sight! He dives deep, and finds he can clamber back to ground level without danger; a clear sign (to a Jungian) that Muir can face the depths. But ground level's not enough anymore--Muir goes on climbing, tears through the ceiling of his individual self, seeks heaven... and finds it, with Willa.

The only sexual symbol I see is Edwin and Willa's partial fusion into one angel, so they can only fly together. Sex doesn't need Freudian disguises here--the strictest God in Muir's background, Jehovah, accepts their very public kiss: the dream itself is saying Muir's root issues aren't Freudian but spiritual; is he, are we, material animals seeking only survival and a mate (as in the sea-scene, before self-awareness, color vision or even fear have evolved), or are we, as in later scenes, seeking something more?

--Chris Wayan

General: hypnogogic dreams - epic dreams - trance - heritage and inheritance - more Edwin Muir
Woman in the Waves: by the sea - nudity - guides and guards
Colorless Sea: undersea dreams - vision - light and color - leeches, worms, bugs... - You Are Lunch - anger
Crying its Eyes Out: dragons - grief and tears - puns and wordplay - crystals and gems
Deep-Sunk Palace: house and home - falling - climbing - Emily Joy dreams of breaking through, in Window in the Sky
Sun, Serpents, Sphinx, Soul: fighting - reptiles - sphinxes - self-defense - swords - souls
Heaven: angels - Paradise - God - flying - flirting - love - soul-mates - weird dream weddings

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