The Place of Places - Fresno High School, 1922
Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we doze off during class at Fresno High School, 1922.
Saroyan struggled with traditional schooling, as many of his stories and memoirs attest to. Instead, he used the public library to understand the world better, at his own pace and according to his own interests. Fiercely independent, he never did well with authority. Specifically, he battled with many of his teachers, who probably didn’t have the training or bandwidth to address the needs of every child who struggled in school.
He begins this chapter, “’Please stop dreaming,’ a teacher at Emerson School once said to me, and I replied, ‘I am not dreaming, I am thinking.’” Saroyan was having trouble staying awake at school. He was aged fourteen and working the night shift at the Postal Telegraph Company, which was 4pm to midnight. He would fall asleep at 1am and have to be up for school in the morning. With only four or five hours of sleep, teenage Saroyan would frequently fall asleep during class. But, he tells us, “I wouldn’t have given up my job at the telegraph office for all the sleep in the world. The job had the first importance in my life. It was everything to me. And I took pride in being the best messenger at the office...”
Perhaps it was because of this disruptive schedule for a growing boy that he had a special relationship to sleep. He only got a few hours of deep sleep per night, and his days were filled with half-sleeps, which often can bring about the most vivid dreams. Throughout his career we see him address the concept of dreams and the dream-state within sleep. The crux of this chapter is in that first sentence: “I am not dreaming, I am thinking.”
This chapter isn’t really about Fresno High School, but about the “there-ness” of sleep. He explains, “But sleep is a place. It is both a simple and a mysterious place. It is where a good amount of the private or personal experience is lodged and recorded, as well as an even greater amount of family, race, group, or collective experience is stored. When a man goes to sleep, he does go – it is a departure and an arrival.”
He goes on to tell us that the sleeper travels and experiences new things wherever he goes in that state. That as a child, he would dream that he could play the piano only to wake up disappointed that he still didn’t have that skill. This description of sleep as a form of travel pops up in many of his works.
In Rock Wagram, he writes, “A man is a traveler, a dreamer traveling the highways of sleep, a crusader on his way to the grave and the holy grail: around the clock, around the calendar, around the open eye of the wink, around the red-brick church, around the town, around the block, around the world.” Saroyan equates sleeping with traveling on another plane of existence. In this way he can remain swift in any form of consciousness.
In Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, he writes, “At my best I knew whole seasons of great health, such as a full summer, during which my only illness might be said to have been exhaustion, as when I was a telegraph messenger, and worked too hard. Even in sleep, I continued to work, I continued to race my bike all over the city, out to the packing houses and loading sheds from whence the fruit of the valley was packed and shipped to the big cities of the country. And yet in the morning, after perhaps one hour of deep sleep, and three or four of fitful sleep, I would find that I was eager for a big breakfast, and impatient to get back to work.” In his writings, Saroyan’s sleep is never peaceful, even in his story titled “Sleep in Unheavenly Peace.” He struggled to fall asleep and to get any restorative sleep his whole life. But it is in the moments of restless dozing that he dreamed.
For Saroyan, the dual meaning of dreaming as a form of aspiration and also of unconscious processing were interchangeable. He illustrates this in Rock Wagram, writing, “Day-dreaming on the airplane, morning-dreaming, afternoon-dreaming, night-dreaming, sleep-dreaming, life-dreaming, death-dreaming…” With his characteristic rhythmic style here, he is almost recreating a repetitive breathing cycle akin to alpha brain waves just before falling asleep. But he is also making the point that we are always dreaming in one way or another, our thoughts constantly imagining the past, future, and present. This is also a feature of The Cave Dwellers, where the character of the Queen is always sleeping and experiencing her life in the past rather than facing the present and the future. She also encourages others to sleep as escape.
Like dreaming, he blurs the line of sleep, often describing a half-sleep that joins his interior essence with exteriority around him in a way purer than conscious and purposeful communication. In Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, he writes:
“Night-driving is another thing, especially West to the great open lands, especially over a highway with little or no traffic. To begin with, it’s extra driving. In order to be night-driving, the driving must take place after the driver has driven more than enough, after he has known deep tiredness, has forgotten it, and is now exhilarated, and must go on. It isn’t simply driving at night, it is going on, possibly foolishly, to find out what’s out there now, not so much along the highway, in the terrain, under the sky, but in the interior geography of the driver himself. Is he driving out into his sleep, wide awake? Into the sleep of the land? Moving in silence with the sleeping rivers moving, companionate with all sleeping, and all sleepless? Into the sleep within the sleep of the old time, the time of the generations of the animals alone, moving into, through, and out of their cycles of coming, hunting, having, eating, begating, hiding, and going, suddenly caught by the other hunter, the unknown stalker, there goes my soul? The creatures of fang, tooth, talon, paw, tail, and jaw, waiting to catch or be caught but never knowing which is to be?”
The gateway that allows his unconscious to take the wheel and communicate on a more astral plane also leads down a separate road: Death. He ends this chapter, “Death is called the Great Sleep. It is a good idea. But it is probably Life that is the Great Sleep. There is not yet any mortal way to know what Death is. Other than what it seems to be, that is. Sleep is a living thing. It has no connection at all with non-being.” But he also writes about meeting and speaking to his father in his dreams. Again, there is some ambivalence here in Saroyan’s writings, where sleep is both an alternate dimension to be alive and also a gateway to the land of the dead. “The best thing we have is sleep, of course, and what is sleep except the putting aside of everything tentative for another interval of final and everlasting truth? Sleep isn't dying, but it is certainly keeping in touch with it” (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who).
Interestingly, his father, Armenak, wrote in his journal in 1906, “Like one throwing himself quite senselessly into the bosom of death, I fall asleep. My dreams carry me to my loved ones.” (Armenak Saroyan, August 6, 1906). To read Armenak’s translated journal and poetry next to his son’s writings is an exercise in awe seeing the similarities between the two men who barely knew each other in life.
Saroyan again makes the connection to an afterlife or spiritual beyondness in Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, writing “But the language of sleep certainly doesn't seem to be connected to the mortal. It certainly isn't language in words, or in numbers, or signs, or conditions, although it is made out of all of these things as well as out of a good many others, most of them unknown, and for which there is no word.” Considerations of the sleep state were present in Saroyan’s early writings, as well. This was also the time that his writing took on its most spiritual dimensions. In the story, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” he writes, “He moved swiftly down the stairs to the street and began to walk, thinking suddenly, It is only in sleep that we may know that we live. There only, in that living death, do we meet ourselves and the far earth, God and the saints, the names of our fathers, the substance of remote moments; it is there that the centuries merge in the moment, that the vast becomes the tiny, tangible atom of eternity.”
Soon after that, in “A Tipped Hat to the Lamp Post,” from Inhale and Exhale, he writes, “In sleep alone shall you find the hidden universe: the place of your reality.” This is the center of Saroyan’s conversations on sleep and dreaming. It is a sort of separate dimension to be yourself totally, straddling the line between the demands of life and death. He is certainly not the first to imagine this spectrum where sleep sits between life and death. It is seen in ancient mythologies, modern stories, and even in scientific studies that have found that people who report having “near death” or “out of body” experiences tend to also have interrupted REM sleep. It’s even possible that Saroyan’s inability to sleep soundly, his sleep cycle dysfunction, throughout his life, led to philosophical feelings about the sleep state.
In Obituaries, a book devoted to the death of others and coming to terms with his own mortality, Saroyan writes, “I asked myself: Is wakefulness a violence upon sleep? How many hours a day of sleep does it take to make us repudiate wakefulness? Why is sleep so attractive when it is time to get up? Well of course these questions are other questions as well, obviously, and especially the one question: Is life some kind of violence? If so, upon what? Absurd, absurd, stupid and ridiculous, how can anybody ask such a question? Unless I have it wrong, and I very frequently do.”
With Saroyan’s notorious high energy and penchant for writing deep into the night, it may be surprising to some readers to see the topic of sleep delved into so often throughout his body of work. But as we’ve seen in the latter chapters of Places Where I’ve Done Time, consciousness and the lack of consciousness were subjects that consumed Saroyan’s thoughts. Living, sleeping, and dying were all of the same ilk to him, and this might be considered the major thread of his career. Even his titles, The Time of Your Life, Not Dying, Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, Obituaries, and countless story titles illustrate a top-level interest in these themes.
In these late chapters, as we learn more about his interest in metaphysical themes, we can gain a new appreciation for the rest of his writings, and we can read them with a different angle and in a new way. The gift that keeps on giving.