In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

by Delmore Schwartz

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

The short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which lends its title to the title of this collection of prose, poetry, and drama, was apparently written over a weekend in July, 1935. Vladimir Nabokov recognized its merit and recommended it as the lead piece in the Partisan Review. Schwartz’s literary career was launched. The enigmatic title suggests that destiny is located in dreams, what Schwartz would later call in his fictional autobiography Genesis (1943) “a fixed hallucination.” The attempt to realize dreams in poetry and to acknowledge the past as prologue to the future draws its inspiration from the artistic context established by William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot—perhaps the most powerful forces to influence Schwartz’s writing.

The narrator witnesses the events leading up to his father’s marriage proposal. The narrator watches a series of six film episodes depicting Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1909, in Coney Island, New York. The climactic moment when his mother accepts proves unbearable to the eventual offspring of this union and, in the darkened, womblike theater, he screams in protest against his future birth. An authoritative usher, representing the narrator’s superego, reminds him that he has no control over his birth, and hence the outburst is futile. The scene closes when a fortune-teller predicts an unhappy marriage, ending in divorce.

The theme of the anguished child continues in the five-act long poem “Coriolanus and His Mother,” in which the protagonist shifts his allegiance from Rome to a barbarian cause. Based on William Shakespeare’s play, the drama unfolds before a boy, the poet’s alter ego, and five ghosts: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig von Beethoven, Aristotle, and a small anonymous presence, perhaps Franz Kafka, chronicler of the absurd. This “dream of knowledge” play is a parable about self-destructive tendencies—anger, insolence, pride.

The management of identity is a theme carried through many of the thirty-five poems collected under the heading “Experimentation and Imitation.” For example, rebel spirits such as Hart Crane, Robinson Crusoe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Charlie Chaplin inhabit the vaudevillian circus atmosphere of the poetry, captured in the phrases “the octopus in love with God” (“Prothalamion”), “Now I float will-less in despair’s dead sea (“Faust in Old Age”), and “the radiant soda of the seashore fashions” (“Far Rockaway”).

“Dr. Bergen’s Belief,” a short play, is a lamentation on the death by suicide of the doctor’s daughter. After meditating on the promise of an afterlife and God’s providence—“the dream behind the dream, the Santa Claus of the obsessed obscene heart,” the doctor and a second daughter leap to their deaths. Schwartz’s lurid inventiveness and capricious style conjure a world of comic shame and imminent dread. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities represents an attempt to mold commonplace happenings into mystical shapes.

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