Waking Life

Lorissa Rinehart in Lapham’s Quarterly:

It was no coincidence that the world’s introduction to industrialized warfare determined the shape of Johan Varendonck’s opus on daydreams. Varendonck himself didn’t expect daydreaming to be the subject of his only book; his studies began in a different field. But World War I—and Freud—intervened. Born in 1879 to a Belgian schoolteacher and his wife, Varendonck hadn’t done much to distinguish himself by the time he turned thirty-five. Following in his father’s footsteps, he took up a career in education, becoming a lecturer at Ghent University, just eleven miles from his hometown of Zelzate. He eventually enrolled in a pedagogical doctoral program in Brussels, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war on July 28, 1914, interrupted his graduate studies and pursuit of a better life.

Academic ambitions notwithstanding, Varendonck volunteered for armed service the moment Kaiser Wilhelm sent his army marching to France via Belgium. His passable command of English earned him a post as translator for the British Royal Naval Division stationed in Antwerp, where the Allies hoped to stop the German war machine before it got up to speed. The Allied commanders had reason to believe they might succeed. In the past, Antwerp had proved nearly impregnable, ringed by a series of earthen and stone fortresses collectively known as the National Redoubt.

But when the Germans arrived in August 1914, their Big Bertha guns effortlessly vaulted Antwerp’s medieval defenses. Bomb-laden zeppelins sailing far above defenders’ bullets dropped their payload on the city’s center. By September the Allies’ chances looked bleak. Things were not that bad for Varendonck, all things considered. His post kept him far from the front while most of the people he was tasked with translating for were occupied with battle, leaving him time to finish his original pedagogical thesis. By early October Varendonck’s scientific investigation of educational processes in Belgium was ready to send back to his advisers. Unfortunately, Antwerp erupted into chaos before he had a chance to put it in the mail. The city’s defenses collapsed on October 10, 1914. German artillery fell like a hailstorm, igniting oil tanks and apartment buildings until the entire city was one enormous conflagration. Civilians poured onto the docks of the Scheldt River, clamoring to board anything that would float. Hoping to fight another day, the Belgian army hastily retreated west, toward the Yser River.

Amid the pandemonium, the pages of Varendonck’s thesis disappeared.

More here.