Perchance to Dream

In a 1982 column, former Maroon editor (and current New York Times columnist) David Brooks envisioned a life without Pac-Man, the Brady Bunch, and freedom of movement.

By David Brooks

Tom Tian / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

March 10, 2009

Note: This column originally appeared in the April 6, 1982 edition of the Maroon.

I have been having a nightmare of late, which I suppose is not uncommon among students forced to make career decisions at pseudo-prestigious universities like this one. It always ends the same way, though the beginnings are different: I’m sitting in a very small room in front of a rickety desk with an old typewriter and books and papers on it in disarray. My hair is gray and disheveled. I wear a ragged beard and a brownish jacket twenty years out of date with grease stains on the lapels. Around my ankle is an iron shackle which rubs against the skin. From the shackle, a thick chain runs under my chair, across the room behind me, and up the back wall to a piece of parchment which hangs framed on the other side of my meager office. It reads: “The University of Chicago does hereby announce that David B. Brooks is condemned to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the field of Ninth Century Latin American Linguistics and that he shall bear this burden as long as he shall live.”

The chain which binds me to the diploma does not permit much movement. I can go to the dusty classroom across the hall. I can visit the men’s room. And I can, if I strain, make it over the colloquium room to listen to the lecture on Nicaraguan Statical Developments, which has been delivered daily for the past 20 years by a wheezy old emeritus.

My luxuries are few. A Betamax sits next to my bookshelf, but my only video cartridge is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Occasionally, an apathetic student comes into my office asking for an extension on a paper or an incomplete, but not too often. It’s a rare treat indeed when somebody signs up for one of my classes.

My only company are the four gargoyles which adorn the corners of my diploma. They smile at me sinisterly.

As I say, this is how my nightmares always end. How I get myself into this sorry state is always different. Like most people, I don’t remember my dreams too well, but I do remember three of the nightmares which led to the imprisonment described above.

In the first, I am walking through the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at the beginning of the last quarter of my senior year. I’m happy to be buying books for the last time, and just get enough so I can pass my courses. Suddenly the lights dim and I notice that except for the people who work there, I am the only one in the store. And they are behaving very peculiarly indeed: Their eyes are glazed over, and they march woodenly, like zombies, slowly toward me, each one carrying many thick books. One by one, they approach me and pile their volumes onto the ones I am carrying. Soon the burden is too much for me, and I fall under the weight of the books, but they keep coming, an endless parade, piling more and more books on top of me.

“Stop! Please!” I shout. “I can’t read all these!”

“Oh, but you can,” one of the zombies replies in an evil voices. “After all, this is what you’re going to spend your life doing.” And they begin laughing menacingly, echoing louder and louder until I’m finally crushed under the weight of the books, and I wake to find myself in the small office, chained to the degree.

In the second dream, I find myself sitting in my cubicle on the fifth floor of the Reg, putting the finishing touches on my B.A. paper. As I finish my work, I feel that supreme sense of accomplishment. I try to get up to celebrate, but I find that I can’t move. I’m somehow stuck in the cubicle. The only part of my body that can move is my hand, and I find that it moves independently of my mind. It’s writing in my notebook, and I can’t stop it. I find it’s writing about Latin American Linguistics, and for every page it writes, another fresh page appears at the back of my notebook. I sit there for years. My hand writes an M.A. paper, then a dissertation of several thousand pages, then articles and then long tedious books. I try to stop it, but it is too powerful. It writes and writes, for months and months and on and on, pouring forth this pretentious prose. The world disappears except for the writing. It consumes me, and finally I pass out. But alas, when I awaken I am trapped in my little office, my manuscript in piles on the floor.

The third nightmare starts out innocently enough. I’m lounging in my bedroom at home playing Pac-Man and watching TV when a strong-looking man with a German accent comes into my room explaining that he has to wallpaper the room. He says I need not trouble myself, that he can work while I watch TV. I go back to the Brady Bunch and don’t look up until a half-hour later, after Greg and Cindy have apologized to Bobby for stealing his skateboard. I notice the wallpaper is very strange.

Instead of the floral print I had expected, the guy is pasting up copies of Critical Inquiry and the American Journal of British Philology and The Annals of the Conference on Latin American Linguistics. When the walls are covered, the man leaves without a word. I notice that the room seems to be shrinking, the walls coming in on each other. When I turn around, the TV has disappeared, along with the stereo and all my other pleasures.

The room is quite small now. There is nothing to my world but me and these scholarly journals. The air is quite stuffy and claustrophobia is setting in. But the walls keep shrinking. Finally, there’s just enough room to crawl up in, and I’m getting paper cuts from all the journals pressing in on me. There’s not air circulating in. And eventually I pass out from lack of fresh air. I wake up in that little office with the chain and shackles.

This kind of dreaming can get a guy pretty worried. I thought I should try to get some help. So last Friday I went to a psychology professor I know to see if he could give me some advice. His office is on the fourth floor of the Classics Building. I knocked and went in. There he sat: with disheveled gray hair, a ragged beard, and a jacket 20 years out of date with grease stains on the lapels. I glanced down and sure enough, a shackle hung from his ankle. I screamed and ran out of the office and down the hall. I kept running and running, but the hall was so long, I just couldn’t quite make it to the exit.

David Brooks (A.B. ’83) is a columnist for The New York Times. We contacted him to get his thoughts on the article, but Brooks came up blank. “Weird. I have no memory of that piece,” he said.