The smell of dead dreams

We take flowers to the hospital when we visit the sick and dying without reflecting on the irony that cut flowers are already dead and their scent is to shield us from the smell of dead dreams. 

A Literary History of the Smell of Dead Dreams

We see on our death bed, not our whole life flashing before us – as with a drowning man – but an endless sequence of all the things we had wanted to do and had never done. As the body shuts down, it rids itself of excess CO2, a process called acidosis, the sour stench characterising the smell of dead dreams, that sense of waiting and dissatisfaction that accompanies our half lived lives.

When my father was dying, I rushed to the hospital. He was sleeping when I arrived. I had coffee with my mother. She went to the bathroom, and I went alone to the ward. My father opened his eyes, smiled and said: Hello, son. Then closed his eyes and died. The smell of dead dreams was absent. He had lived his life without regrets. Dad had forged his birth certificate at 17 to join the Royal Navy. He travelled the world in the war and came out unscathed.

Dreams are about the future. Dad had seen boys having their future ripped from them, frozen in the Arctic seas, chopped in half by shrapnel, blown to pieces. He lived for the day. He had a kind word for everyone and seemed as he went about his day as if what was most important to him was to make other people happy. He didn’t eat healthy food, meditate or practice gratitude.

Writing the Smell of Dead Dreams

I am nothing like my father. I don’t spend my days trying to make other people happy. I spend them in front of a computer screen herding words as if they are cats or rats or flies with an innate desire to go astray. Every sentence that emerges on the metaphorical blank sheet is a challenge: could it be better, shorter, more poignant or powerful. Do we need that adverb or adjective. Does it make the point. Does the reader want to read the next sentence. The smell of dead dreams hangs about writers as the sword hung over the white neck of Damocles and that smell is the pungent, oily breath of failure, it’s approaching shadow, its cockiness and inevitability.

Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly felt it. After going to school with Eric Blair, who became George Orwell, he spent his entire life wanting to be George Orwell and instead of living his own dream he wrote the biography of the friend he envied and probably despised. Connolly is most famous for writing the epigram: There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall. But he had other sayings worth repeating: Lend a friend a fiver and you have an enemy for life. And the tawdry but sadly true line appreciated by writers: Showing someone a manuscript is like showing them your semen in a handkerchief. The words come back to me like the smell of dead dreams when I yield to the temptation. 

Connolly’s most deadly axiom must surely be: ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.’ I have an adage of my own: Writing is like taking poison and even those who can’t write but imagine they can’t wait to swallow it.

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