Updated: May 11, 2021
THE NIGHTMARE IN LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
by Elizabeth Faris
Wolkengespenster (Cloud Spirits) 1897 - by Richard Riemerschmid
“… yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me”
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Pains of Sleep’ (1803)
To lay one’s head upon the pillow every night is to engage in a ritual of submission. For who can know for sure that this is not the night the crowd of fiendish shapes comes clambering up from the pit of our unconscious? It is the irony of our existence that, while sleep is our bodily sustenance, nasty dreams are no less fundamental to the balance of our brain. Our inherent vulnerability in the face of the nightmare is a reality for grudging acceptance, though perhaps not bedtime contemplation.
Etymology, meanwhile, is a subject more benign. We therefore begin our discussion of the nightmare with a probe into the origins of the word itself. The first thing to note is that, while the use of mare in nightmare is somewhat obscure, it is by no means incidental. It made its debut in Old English, most likely having derived from antediluvian root mer (meaning either 'to crush' or 'to harm'). Over time, it acquired the connotation of incubus, which is defined by the OED as “a feeling of oppression during sleep, as of some heavy weight on the chest and stomach.” This, of course, is entirely in keeping with the hideous sensation of paralysis we sometimes suffer in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing dream. Unnerving, yes, and yet nothing preternatural. It is simply the brain mediating with the muscles to keep us from acting out the more unsavory impulses of the unconscious. In short, nature has a way of saving us from ourselves.
All of which still begs the question of how we got from mer (to crush) all the way to mare (female horse). There is indeed a connection, and it lies in myth and legend. If we dig deep into the folklore of our Germanic forbears, we find mare being used as a noun as far back as the 13th century. In the Norse Ynglinga Saga, it denotes a witch-like entity notorious for riding on a sleeper's chest through the night in a such a spirit of unbridled frenzy as to emerge panting and sweaty by morning. And the vehicle of her conveyance? Why, a horse, of course! Thus, the legendary mare is the original incubus as characterized by the OED’s alternate definition: an “evil spirit or demon [that descends] upon persons in their sleep.” Nor is she exclusive to European culture, but rather, manifest as broadly and variously as the phenomenon of incubus is felt: in Turkey, she is karabasan, in Iran, baxtak, in Mexico, subirse el meurto, in Romania, moroi, and on the eastern seaboard of Canada, the hag or hag-rider.
The symbolism of incubus as embodied in the mare was famously captured in the art world by Henry Fuseli in his 1781 painting The Nightmare. It depicts a vulnerable female draped on her back over a bed with a demonic creature perched smugly on her stomach, while a horse looks on, beady-eyed, from behind an adjacent curtain. Edgar Allan Poe alludes to this image in his grim telling of The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). His first-person narrator compares it to a painting on the wall of his moribund host, describing how, when he first beheld it, "an irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.” Indeed, many a character cast in the throes of nightmare has appeared in just such a posture of corporal compromise. In The Withered Arm, for example, Thomas Hardy's covetous milkmaid utters a reckless curse upon the competition, only to wake during the night to find it crouching on her chest in diabolic incarnation:
The pressure of Mrs. Lodge’s person grew heavier; the blue eyes peered cruelly
into her face .... maddened mentally, and nearly suffocated by the pressure, the
sleeper struggled; the incubus, still regarding her, withdrew to the foot of the
bed, only however, to come forward by degrees….
Unfortunately, the milkmaid's skirmish with the mare turns out to be one of such intensity as to spill over into waking reality, ultimately comprising the source and substance of her defining conflict.
Yet for all the nightmare's reputation for practicing upon our peace and quiet, it has long been regarded in the world of psychology as a kind of undercover ally. Rather than dread it, analysts have come to embrace it as nature’s mechanism for releasing the powerful subliminal energies that would otherwise either consume us or erupt in behaviour incompatible with the general good. These volatile forces are contained in what the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung called the personal shadow: the internal repository for all our repressed instincts, emotions, desires and fantasies. He contended that a conscious effort to comprehend and cooperate with this elusive aspect of ourselves is fundamental to individuation -- that is, the process of becoming whole and fully functional beings.
In Gothic literature, the premise behind Jung’s shadow psychology has inspired the dissection of countless incurables tormented by the shadow of themselves. Many a storyteller has been coaxed down these deep, dank corridors of character analysis, as keen to pick the brain of one whose fate it is to assume her place amid the ghastly yellow tangle of a metaphor for her madness (The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892) as to prowl along with another compelled by a single strand of light and the beat of a disclaimed heart (The Tell-Tale Heart, 1843) for an uncompromising exposé of the terrifying tumult that lurks somewhere within us all. Works in this vein have the potential to contribute in a unique way to our divers efforts towards individuation, for what better means of demystifying the private encounter with the nightmare than by projecting it outward in the realm of shared wisdom? Thus, in story after story, we see Coleridge's motley mob craning their ghoulish necks from the brink of the abyss: looming at the top of the Thane of Cawdor's table; clanking near the foot of Ebenezer's bed; rising from the mist of a Yorkshire moorland; watching from the tower of an Essex house. (Macbeth, 1606; A Christmas Carol, 1843; Wuthering Heights, 1847; The Turn of the Screw, 1898). These powerful avatars speak to us compellingly of subjects otherwise too daunting to broach: the guilt, shame, fear, longing, grief, greed, rage, envy and confusion that are common to us all.
Because the personal shadow is, by definition, private in nature and wholly subjective, it requires deft handling. For hundreds of years, Gothicists have scribbled tirelessly in quest of the ultimate means of exposing it to the light of day so that readers might be informed by it, without threat of personal implication. An unholy host of archetypes has been imagined in the attempt to contextualize the baffling insights glimpsed in nightmare, especially those associated with the shadow's reflexive attention to self and the preservation thereof. In his rendering of a hedonistic protagonist obsessed with pleasure and perpetual youth in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde delivers a stark message about the folly of sacrificing the ephemeral gift of life to a ravenous thirst for immortality. In revealing, at last, the grisly truth of the portrait, he implies that a painful, lingering decay of the spirit is the inevitable consequence. Likewise, in Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker portrays the vampire, insatiable in his lust for the life-sustaining blood of others, to suggest that seeking to satisfy the basest urges of the self at the expense of those with whom we share existence can only condemn us to a place of perpetual darkness. In other words, if we presume to own the shadow, in time it will turn and swallow us whole.
Of all the many masters of the Gothic genre, it is Robert Louis Stevenson who must be dubbed most intrepid in confronting the shadow head on. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), his tack is unequivocal. Rather than don the soft gloves of symbol or simile, he chooses instead to knock it to its knees in one bare-knuckled blow of personification. He then proceeds, unflinchingly, to acquaint us with the perfectly malignant entity his triumph has engendered. Thus, Hyde becomes the author's means of tempting us to peer into the obscurity of our own subliminal selves, even as he issues a clear warning against a presumption of dominance over forces forever beyond our grasp. For even though Hyde seems to gain entry to the objective world entirely at Jekyll's invitation, once fully unleashed, he cannot be dismissed: "I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin." Jekyll's resolve thus usurped, his conscience and scruples must follow. Hyde's ascendancy, then, is Stevenson's final verdict on the powerlessness of the conscious mind to negotiate with the shadow unconstrained. The nightmare becomes the reality. The only remedy -- self-annihilation.
In closing, such literary forays into the dead of night are more likely to stand the test of time if the reader is made uncertain of the hero's reality, just as we are of our own when seized by the pains of sleep. For true authenticity, the line should always be blurred between light and shadow, waking and sleeping, reality and fantasy, sanity and madness. Nor should we be spoon-fed fact over feeling, but rather left to draw the answers from the well of our own intuition. For deep within that roiling chasm, the truth never runs black and white. To catch a fleeting glimpse, we can hover at the rim, mindful of the drop and the fast-fading light. Or else we can wait for the mare to come a-calling - to pull our hair and box our ears and leave us in a heap. Her task fulfilled, she won't look back. She breaks her stride for none.
Check out the home page @elizabethfaris.com for more info on how to purchase my latest publication of poetry and prose: PALIMPSEST: A Book of Literary Classics Penned Again in Verse