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The Sleep of Reason

Introspection is impossible. There is no geometry that lets the mind fold back on itself. We can know ourselves in only two ways. If we consciously re-create and re-make ourselves, then we know who we have become, because we know who we set out to be. And we can recognize ourselves, unchanged, in someone else, or in a work of art made by another. It cannot be be your own work: even after abstracting parts of yourself, you cannot get a good look at them. A song, a story, its subject or style, becomes the mirror in which you see yourself: it is assimilated and becomes part of the mental equipment, recalled or replayed as the mind’s mirror.

In my case, 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 monstruos – “The 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.

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 surprised 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 the feeling in my mind like a hand on a hot stove, and a compulsion to come to terms with it which I have yet to exhaust.

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 to an edition of Rousseau. But I am satisfied that there was nothing in Addison’s polish or Rousseau’s petulance capable of giving on to this depth. There was not enough rope in either of them to 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 pace the narrow streets of reason’s city forever besieged.

As a rule, I balk at efforts to betray the overall impression of a picture by a tunneling attention to its details, but I must point out that the sleeper is not under attack. 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 source; they are emissaries, come to the sleeper to compel and to guide his work.

It was made as the introduction to The Caprices, but it could make for an introduction to The Disasters of War, itself an introduction to the age of nightmares 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 the old nightmares of the world’s ending – but worse, because the world would not end. Through the tides of blood and the overthrown cities and the sacrificed generations and the slaughterhouses of the speaking and through one anti-Christ after another – the world would not end. 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 out here 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 judgment.