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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


1. [Plate 43]
The Sleep of Reason Produces Nightmares

Midway in life's journey, a man who might have been Dante or might have been Goya himself (on this the record is not clear) went astray and found himself alone in a dark wood. Never saw he so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Alas for him that he was an artist, and susceptible to such influences. Alas for us all that he fell asleep!

The Noösphere is the ocean of thought within which we all live, dream, make love, and sometimes aspire. It is purified by reason. It is polluted by war and madness. And, like a river so badly polluted it catches fire, the Noösphere in times of war and madness can be a dangerous thing.

In a time of war and madness, the man who might well have been Goya fell asleep, and his dreams caught fire. They congealed and took form and entered the physical world. As cats and owls and bats and less wholesome creatures, winged, furred and fanged, they leaped into the night, and filled the skies with their keening presence.

One flew off with a child's jacket. Another swooped down and bit a hole in the lord mayor's ear. A third put on a uniform and led the French armies into Russia.

A thousand ills poured from the dreamer's troubled sleep. The Siege of Leningrad and the Trail of Tears. Andersonville and total warfare. The Paraguayan War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Bataan Death March. Pol Pot, Baba Yar, Jack the Ripper. Mercury poisoning, thalidomide babies, mustard gas and trench warfare. Lynchings. Black Thursday, Black Friday, Black 47. September Eleventh. The Rape of Nanking, the occupation of Tibet, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Beria and the Soviet Terror and the relocations and the gulags. Krystalnacht, and then the camps: Chelmo, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Maidenek — the names roll by like cattle cars in an endless train. The Jewish Holocaust, the Native American Holocaust, the Romani Holocaust, the Armenian Holocaust… Why go on?

Around the world, men and women of reason do what they can to purify the Noösphere. Poets and writers and artists and philosophers, when they dream, can sometimes see the sleeper. Always they try to rouse him from his sickly sleep. "Wake up!" they cry. "Wake up, arise, banish your nightmare thoughts!" While behind them, all the agonized world adds its screams in their support. "Wake up!"

And still the dreamer sleeps.


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This is the first of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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