A Watcher in the Dream: Mis-Seaming of Perception and Time in Charles Bernstein’s <i>The Sophist</i>


A Watcher in the Dream:

Mis-Seaming of Perception and Time in Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist


All lit up and no place to go. Blinded by avenue and filled with

adjacency. Arch or arched at.

                                                —Charles Bernstein, “Dysraphism”


For both of us, the desert isn’t vacancy or fear, it’s life, a million forms of witness. The fake road, its cruel deception, is what we have to abandon.

                                                —Adrienne Rich, “Incline”

Adrienne Rich’s poem title, “Incline,” has dual meanings: in one sense, it refers to the act of going uphill, against the grain, but always rising, always gaining a bird’s eye view on the world below. In another sense it refers to one’s inclination,  one’s desire to act in a certain way or the act of being internally compelled to act. And in her first sentence, she calls that “incline” not just a road but a Dreamroad, and the word’s positioning as the very first, gives it importance—marks that road as something possibly imagined or dreamt, but decidedly not real. Yet, the desert itself has a name—the Mojave—and becomes a certainty, something solid in the hand.  The road itself, forged through a desert by those who have come before us and which we expect to lead us out of the wide expanse of uncertainty, becomes a cruel deception. The desert , the named desert, in which the road is situated is, for Rich, the only truth.

 Using Adrienne Rich’s assertions as a point of access into Charles Bernstein’s ”difficult” text, I begin to see The Sophist as an examination of that dreamroad and its relationship to the desert in which the road is furrowed.  It is the word “dream” that calls out, bestowing on Bernstein’s work certain qualities of dreams. When dreaming, time is either disjointed or removed from the occasion. Day and night rapidly interchange if they exist at all. There is no certain footing for the dreamer. Perception also is changed. There is no distinct narrator. One might perceive an inhabitant of the dreamworld as a lover or a friend, and yet, his or her physical appearance in the dream is unfamiliar. In a dream scenario, a lover can just as simply become an enemy as he or she can become a stranger, an armadillo or a can opener.  There are no rules, no syntactical absolutes. And the dreamer is both a participant in the dream and a watcher within that dream, sometimes “in control” of the dream and other times powerless to affect the outcomes of such dreams. Dreams also may seem to have “outcomes” that upon waking are completely senseless and are subsequently soon forgotten. When viewed from this perspective, the idea behind “Dysraphism” or mis-seaming has less to do with using parataxis to deny the supremacy of hypotaxis (a message spoken so often throughout the work it threatens to drift into redundancy) but about using words to unravel the threads of time and perception, to break the Reader from the established mode of time passing and passing in a linear order, and to undo the need for narrative, for epiphany. The result of such mis-seaming is to place the Reader into a position as sometimes-Watcher (powerless, but observant) and  sometimes-Actor (having the ability to change—or at least take part in—the outcome). This tactic encourages the Reader to experience different interactions with the work at different times.  In “Dysraphism” we can see this shift happening transparently and observe its mechanisms.

The first endeavor of “Dysraphism” is to shift the reader/viewer from one angle of observation to another. When the Reader first accesses the poem, her expectations of narrative are seemingly met by the syntactical structure of the first few lines. The lines follow acceptable hypotactical structure with Bernstein using the word “or” as a pivot against which the two seemingly subordinate clauses are attached:

Did a wind come just as you got up or were

you protecting me from it? (37)

The Reader feels the wind and then, the or happens, and suddenly there is a feeling of relationship between the “you” and the “me.” The me is the focus, and the you is the subordinate, helpful entity(the “you” protects the “me”). Because of its hypotactical syntax, one gets the illusion of understanding (the “sleeping-sense” of dreams). But the words themselves become like the wind: mutable, hard to pin down.  The reader is considering logically, not what this sentence might mean, but how it might mean.  Is the ”me” also sitting down? If so, the wind rising up when a person stands would hit the “me” first, thus protecting the “you” from this wind. Yet, the poem indicates that the “you” is the protector. It is some time before the reader realizes that it makes no difference. This is a question, a perception of the “me”, and therefore unprovable and unanswerable. But, we have, as readers, gone further down the road that the author has left for us, finding ourselves nowhere.  The hypotactical syntax continues:

I felt the abridgement

of imperatives, the wave of detours, the sabre-

rattling of inversion.  All lit up and no place to go.

Blinded by the avenue and filled with adjacency.

Is it here, perhaps, that we realize the author is laughing at us? Possibly having stood at a suitable distance, watching us pick our way through the path of his syntax, struggling to see over the rises and pocks in the road, to glimpse our destination?  Imperatives, Bernstein says, laughing to himself about how we blindly follow the maze of our language like trained rats. The wave of detours, the sabre-rattling of inversion. Ha ha ha. All lit up and no/place to go.  We are, he suggests, blinded by the road, stumbling over the commas and gerunds and the or he has intentionally placed there to deceive us, opening like a door revealing only a brick wall behind it. But here again is the same argument other language poets have made: that without hypotaxis, we are struggling to determine what relationship the words have to one another. We are trying to make meaning out of those relationships and possibly we cannot help it because we are social beings. It is in the very structure of our bodies to attempt to make these relationship connections. His is not a diabolical laughter: he gives us a chance to begin again:

Arch or arched at. So there becomes bottles,

hushed conductors, illustrated proclivities for puffed-

up benchmarks. Morose or comatose.

Now returns the “or” but this time out of syntax, though still the fulcrum between two ideas. First the arch, either a verb or a structure, but static, not moving. Then, it becomes a verb. The road is no longer the subject, but the “me” is. The subject unnamed, but the Reader drawn into him or herself. Am I arch, or am I arched at? Does the Reader enjoy being the subject of the poem? When the Reader reads, is it to say, how is this about Me? (Traditional narrative structure may seem to indicate as much. But, does the hypotactical formation of most narrative actually give Readers power? Or does it make the Reader a slave to the already-formed and immovable story?)The reader expects a mirror, but instead is greeted with a bottle.  These “benchmarks” these standard measurements of progress, are “puffed up”, they are “hushed,” and the result is a lack of desire or an inability to act. Bernstein’s challenge is here: continue following the road, or step off it. After all, “Life is what you find,” he says. After the initial joke is made, after we are off our guard, unsure what it all means, we begin to see that Bernstein is interested in neither the road or the desert, but in who put the road there in precisely that spot in the first place. His ear hears certain clichés and morphs those clichés into different meanings:  “endless strummer” for example, or “This growth of earls.”  Without the listener, the words have no meaning, they are simply floating around in the air waiting to have something made of them. In this way, we are isolated from our own speech. We require others to present us with speech and meaning, but ironically, we can only divine a meaning internally. Understanding is an act we must do alone. With only this one subjective window into understanding, we can never trust our own view. Thus, we seek the road that was already carved by others. We look for similar benchmarks and landmarks to assure us we are on the “right” path.  Clearly, Bernstein takes issue with the descriptor “right.” Perhaps he sees dysraphism as necessary to “save” us Readers from a story that has stripped us of all our power.

Through “dysraphism”, the mis-seaming of syntax, Bernstein has set us on a different course, one where there is no clear destination and no recognizable landmarks. In his view, a lake might be just heatwaves glistening from the hot pavement and the distant hill might be the curve of a woman’s thigh. This is what gives Bernstein’s work a dream-like quality. The content of our dreams is not immediately recallable. We might remember a fraction of it, or an image, or a thought: but when the morning comes, something that made sense to our dreaming mind is utterly unintelligible to our waking one.  This idea is made more clear by Bernstein’s “The Last Puritan.” Here, Bernstein returns us to the syntax of which we are so fond; but this syntax is dream-like and disjointed from any actual reality. Syntactically, the words come in the right places, subjects before verbs, verbs before objects (“but there, too, everything made a rumble in his head”). Fragmentary shards that litter the poem have no context within sentences, but they are not necessarily out of order(“his bare legs” and “goggles seemed”).  The arrangement of the lines—with visible separators—act like the varying scenes in a dream, where we see our loved ones, but they do not look like themselves,  though we know who they are. We can often fly and often fall, and emotions that feel real to us in sleep often carry over into waking, though the dream-scenes may not. More importantly, the syntax and arrangement of “The Last Puritan” puts us outside the dream, watching, while mysterious scenes unfold before us. We are not excluded from the piece because its “proper” syntax includes us. But we are not active participants, either.  We are there, but we are not sure what we are seeing. The dream is playing out before us with no thought to us. Perhaps it is still our “narrative hangover” that causes us to ask, after we have been yanked from the visible path of hypotactical poetry and into Bernstein’s paratactical universe, “So what? What now?” Is it our desire for epiphany and closure that causes us to wonder for what purpose we have been brought here?  As in Rich’s “Incline,” we Readers may still expect to be able to look down, now that we have come this far, and see the reasons for this erratic, often disruptive and difficult journey. For this, Bernstein has only one tongue-in-cheek answer:


journey is

far, the

rewards inconsequential (38).