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The sleep of reason

Introspection is always an delusion. The mind cannot fold back on itself. We know ourselves only as far as we consciously create and re-make ourselves (by entering the orbit of a hero), or by recognizing something of ourselves in a work of art made by another. This is something that most people find only while young, and only in songs or stories. The song, its subject or style, becomes a mirror in which they see themselves: it is assimilated and becomes part of the mental equipment, recalled or physically replayed as the mind's mirror. The story is absorbed to become the model and index of experience. It is a strange phenomenon, for it must be someone else's work (it may be your own only if so old that it is practically someone else's—for even after abstracting part of parts of yourself, you cannot get a good look at them.)

I have had this experience only once, and then it was a picture. No other image, and no other phrase, haunts me like Goya's Capricho no. 43, El sueño de la razon produce monstruosThe sleep of reason produces monsters. I return to it over and over like a regretful lover to a hidden photograph. They run through my head, those words, over and over, like a strain of music, like a formula of prayer.

At times it has meant to me everything worth standing for. When I first saw it, it frightened me: I had a faith in watchful reason which I had never imagined might sleep. I was a child, so it was not me, but all I wished to be that I saw slumped on that table, and in the thronging night-gaunts overhead was all the barbarism I feared in and for the world, and all the weakness to be dragged along from without or swept away from within I feared in myself. Very little suprised me growing up. I figured out for myself and thus cushioned with the pride of precocity that virtue could go unrewarded, merit unnoticed; good could lose to evil, books could be burned and libraries—darkness could win—love be in vain, hard work for nothing—but this I had never thought, this came as a shock: reason could sleep. Reason could be asleep and helpless. I remember the first time I saw it, a little thing in the margin (the words illegible, the caption reproduced beneath it), and a feeling in my eyes like a hand on a hot stove, and a compulsion to come to terms with it which I have yet to fulfill or exhaust.

Goya has been mistaken for an ally of the Enlightenment; now he is being mistaken for a collector, along modern lines, of the freakish and disturbing. Goya, it is true, did not investigate and illuminate the corners of society and the mind with reforming intention; but he also did not look just to see—he looked to understand. He sought not the curious, but the representative. He entered in as the detachedly eclectic modern cannot. He was a great artist; he was restless and attentive; he had a strong stomach—these qualities suffice to explain him, without foisting a project or a pose on him.

The roots of this picture have been sought in essays of Addison's—a sub-series of The Spectator, "The Pleasures of Imagination"—and in a frontispiece of Rousseau's. I have not read the one, nor seen the other; but I am satisfied that there was nothing in Addison's polish or Rousseau's defiance capable of giving on to this vertiginous depth. There was not enough rope in either of them to even fathom this picture.

A contemporary glossed it: "Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders." It is tempting to think of reason as the directing principle which harnesses the energies of the wild unconscious. So, in many ways, it is: but you will not harness these monsters. You cannot master them; you cannot cage them; you can only wall them out, and wander in the narrow streets of the ever-embattled city of reason.

I always balk at efforts to betray the overall impression of a picture by a tunneling attention to its nice details, but I must point out that the sleeper is not being attacked. The cat poised on the back of his chair, the owl on his back screeching for his attention, indicate it; the great cat seated to his left, composed, even protective, confirms it; and the owl to his right explains it. It imperiously extends to him one of his own porta-crayons. The monsters are not the issue of the sleeper's diseased imagination; he is not their victim and not their radiant center; they are emissaries, come from elsewhere to the sleeper to compel and to rule his work.

It was made as the introduction to Los Caprichos, but it could make for an introduction to The Disasters of War, itself an introduction to, and a catalog of, the stirrings of the age of horror to come: the trench and the machine gun, the tank and the bomber, propaganda and secret police, stage-managed orgies of hate, idols in uniforms or suits and their political cults, revolutions and purges, the atom bomb and the world for fifty years of cold war in the throne of Damocles, frenzied to forget itself. What reason made by day—science, industry, democracy, mass culture—became by night the instruments to realize old nightmares of the world's ending—but worse, because the world lingered through the tides of blood and the overthrown cities and the sacrificed generations and the slaughterhouses of the ensouled and through one anti-Christ after another. The sleep of reason produces monsters. And there are more dreams to come. We declared an age of reason; we left behind the dark woods; but the open sky has its own monsters our philosophy cannot name to warn us against—and what is worth watching for here out in the open is seen too late. The sleep of reason produces monsters. I do not know if it is a warning, or a curse, or a doom.