Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.7 Hudson

Rowland seeks to elevate Roderick’s social status by teaching him how to perform great feats of art without making visible the effort behind it. During their first encounter in New England, Rowland assures Roderick that artistic genius is the result of unconscious action: “I read in a book the other day that great talent in action—in fact the book said genius—is a kind of somnambulism. The artist performs great feats, in a dream.” Rowland compares creativity to the oblivion of sleepwalking—of one’s body functioning outside of consciousness. James’ may have derived Rowland’s observations from his reading of Frederic Henry Hedge’s “Characteristic of Genius," published in the Atlantic Monthly.

In his 1868 essay, Hedge likens the genius to a somnambulist: “What somnambulism is to ordinary sleep, that genius is to ordinary waking,—a conscious clairvoyance, as somnambulism is an unconscious one. It is a higher waking; it dissolves the dream-band, which in ordinary men interposes between the subject and the object, lifts the heavy lid, and informs with new and sincere perceptions the quickened sense” (155). This description reinforces the perpetual wakefulness that underlies Roderick’s artistic efforts. True genius requires that one to dissolve the “dream-band” and lift the “heavy-lid,” all maintaining a “quickened sense.” Rowland’s interpretation of the genius-somnambulist metaphor by comparing the genius act of creation to an unconscious sleep-state. After sharing with Roderick his interpretation of genius, he warns: “We must not wake [the artist] up, lest he should lose his balance."

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