Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Crossposted at A Curious Singularity 

Upon the first reading, I was rather annoyed by the uncertainty of this story. The movie in costumes, the image of bad quality with dots and rays and interruptions. The weeping young narrator, as well, seemed rather annoying. And the skilful somersault at the end, when we learn that everything was but a dream.

But I felt bad to just discard the whole story. We are shown violent emotions from the narrator, and between the people on screen as well. I was startled that twice in such a short story the word “intolerable” occurs. One in a paragraph that I love because it’s so beautifully written:

The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable. They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled.

The second “intolerable” is at the end during the painful scene at the fortuneteller’s. What makes it intolerable is not really the scene itself, but the cluster of pent-up emotions and disappointments, the frustration that everything doesn’t go as the parents had imagined, and the sense of foreboding from their son, the spectator.

I was puzzled by the title. Whose dreams? Whose responsibilities? Obviously, the son has no responsibility in the dream he’s seeing, in his parents’ failed marriage, even though the usher would like him to think so. Then I guess the responsibilities and the dreams are his parents’, who have dreamt of an idyllic marriage (“to be surrounded by the calm domestic pleasures, and by delightful children”) and don’t realize that they will fail.

I would have liked to spin the story one step further. What if the father had tolerated the session with the fortuneteller? What if the fortuneteller, in her crystal ball, had shown the son in tears, the failed marriage, the awful anguish that they would cause to their offspring if they really married? Maybe then, if they believed in fate (at least they don’t believe in facts), they would part without further damage and their son would not even exist.


2 thoughts on “Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

  1. That’s very clever, smithereens. If in dreams the responsibilities begin, then the dreamer who is shown the future would certainly have to act on that new knowledge. But, as you say, that doesn’t happen here. What’s more, we don’t get a glimpse at the narrator’s future either, just his parents’ past. He’d hardly be able to shirk his own responsibilities if in this dream there was any hint of what might become of him based on actions he could still choose to take or not take. But that doesn’t happen either.

    Instead, we get a backward looking plea to undo the past. Hard to see how that’s going to provide much of a model for future behavior.

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