In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I must have read Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” as a teenager, because it was in the anthologies that I read cover to cover. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Adam Roffman mentioned it in a teaching at Shearith Israel in Dallas that I returned to it, and I have reread it many times since then. Each time I teach it to my students, I admire the language and imagination all over again: the movie theater, the young man watching a grainy, clumsy film of his parents before they got married, the narration in the present, taking us in semi-snapshot style (the snapshots are moving, but not much) from one moment to the next, both on the screen and in the theater itself. I won’t give away the second half, since some of my students are reading it now. But here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, at the end of the third part:

My father and mother go to the rail of the boardwalk and look down on the beach where a good many bathers are casually walking about. A few are in the surf. A peanut whistle pierces the air with its pleasant and active whine, and my father goes to buy peanuts. My mother remains at the rail and stares at the ocean. The ocean seems merry to her; it pointedly sparkles and again and again the pony waves are released. She notices the children digging in the wet sand, and the bathing costumes of the girls who are her own age. My father returns with the peanuts. Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it. The boardwalk is full of people dressed in their Sunday clothes and idly strolling. The tide does not reach as far as the boardwalk, and the strollers would feel no danger if it did. My mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean. 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. My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says, “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” but I look up once more at the terrifying sun and the terrifying ocean, and being unable to control my tears, I get up and go to the men’s room, stumbling over the feet of the other people seated in my row.

The description of the waves reminds me of the Coney Island footage that makes up the video of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Kétezerhúsz,” but beyond that, it sets up a situation where the narrator’s mother and father are watching the ocean, the narrator is watching the ocean and his parents (who have not yet given birth to him), and the reader is watching them all, wondering, and then understanding, why the narrator bursts out weeping. He sees what his parents do not; he sees the force of ocean and sun, he understands that these forces are stronger than us, stronger even than our awareness of them. His parents are participating in something they do not even notice. The lady says to him, “all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” not knowing that the opposite is the case. It is far from “only” a movie; it is happening right now, the sea and sun and forces, and each of us came into the world through others’ oblivion.

One of my students began speaking eloquently and effusively about the story, as we read the first three parts aloud in class. It brought so much to his mind. Others picked up on details. But the story, even at the end, leaves me unsettled, and that’s how I think it is meant to be. It has a message, yes; its strangenesses get somewhat resolved, yes. But it leaves me with the feeling of the movie theater, of sinking into the darkness and watching something unfold that is more true than I can stand, and that I want to protest but can’t, because I am part of it, even without appearing in the film. The protest is not just that of an immature young man. The protest is everyone’s, because much of life we do not see until art, or some other convulsion, brings it right in front of us, and then we’re alone with it while the others gaze absently past it or say, “there, there, all of this is only a movie.”

Photo of Coney Island courtesy of Wikipedia.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

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