Last night I dreamt I was in a city, a strange city in the way that all cities are strange in dreams. It was like nowhere I’d been before and like everywhere. The buildings were unfamiliar but not improbable. It was early evening and we were heading to the top of a tall, broad building which stepped downwards like a half pyramid, curved on its longest edge. We were heading for the top floor, the highest point, a single floor which poked out above the rest of the city. We entered the building, somehow, and then entered a lift. It was a large lift, industrial in style with a single door which slid across, sliding into itself and then back out again. The light was like every lighting you’ve ever seen in a gritty detective / crime drama, that slightly sickly under-lit tone that evokes corner shadows and a morgue somewhere in the depths of the building below. The lift was large enough to take bodies on stretchers and a team of suited detectives, if you know what I mean.
When the lift door closed, that’s when I experienced my first bout of vertigo. I am a vertigo sufferer. It has grown worse as I’ve become older. It is not simply a matter of heights, in my case, but also one of layers. Layers and space and exposures. Mezzanine floors are a trial; stairwells too. Anywhere where I can see one surface and a vacant space beneath it or between it and another surface, those places make me weak at the knees.
I do not get vertigo in lifts, not even in glass ones. But in my dream I experienced vertigo. It began as the lift doors slid closed and in my mind I could see the top of the building, a balcony stretching all around the outside of the top floor with a chin-height wall and the lights coming on across the city. The sky was low-lit, the way it is once the sun has fully disappeared but the earth has not yet fully turned from the light and a slice of it still cuts through atmosphere. It was pretty, as cities are, but the vertigo killed all of that. All I could feel was the weight in my stomach, the dragging-down sensation, and my knees fizzing like pop. The lift doors were still closed.
I was outside. I don’t recall how I got outside. Somehow, despite it being the tallest building in the city, the land sloped around the edges like the building had been constructed on the side of a cliff except there was no cliff. There was no time to register the change in perspective, though it is something I picked up later, afterwards, when I was awake. A little inconsistency. The vertigo sensation was gone and then it returned. I sank to my knees, I saw myself sink as though I was watching from outside myself, from another position around the corner from where there was a woman sinking to her knees with vertigo, two men standing beside her grasping her arms. Then I woke.
It is not the first time I have experienced vertigo in a dream and it probably won’t be the last, though it is a fairly recent phenomenon. The physicality of it, the way it manifests as a palpable sensation in my body creates a sense of dissonance in my dreaming, as though the physicality makes it un-dreamlike. We talk of dreaming, of entering a dreamlike state, and we imagine a sensationless form of being, something like a shadow of the fully sensual experience of reality. We think of someone ‘dreaming’ as someone withdrawn from their experience of the external world and we know we are dreaming because the full force of our non-dreaming existence isn’t there. It is all interiority. We see it, of course, only in retrospect. When we wake we recognise the dream world as a half world, one lacking external stimulus except for those stray experiences which leak in from the outside world: the howl of the storm outside is interpreted as the sea in the dream, the cough of a lover is interpreted as the barking of a dog, the chill we feel in the dream is because the window was left open and the rain is dripping on the bedclothes, the dream of searching for a bathroom is prompted by our extended bladder. Sensation in the dream world is muted. Everything we experience lacks a physical, external stimulus. We feel fear, we feel joy, we know we are running but we don’t feel the stamp of our feet on the ground or the lactic acid building up in our thighs or the ragged, painful sensation of our breathing. Everything in the dream world comes from within, we react only to ideas and concepts. Yet it is impossible to know if this is how we actually experience the dream or simply how we recall it when waking, when we have embraced the certainty of the real.
Or maybe that’s just how I dream.
Vertigo isn’t caused by something external, this is its essential difference. Vertigo is self-generating, a matter of the mind rather than the world acting upon it. Its external component is a glitch of perception, of understanding. That is why it is possible for it to enter my dreams. Yet it manifests as a highly physical sensation. That manifestation is a kind of dissonance, a wrongness in the dream world. A breaking of the rules. Then again, everything in the real world is perceived from within. We have only our subjective experience. In this respect, what is real and what is a dream are not materially different.
Perhaps I dislike dreaming of vertigo because it reminds me of this.