Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 9”

Before I get into the issue proper, I wanted to note a thing that I just read before I sat down to work on this post which I think gets at the heart of the distinction between Dream and Destruction.

It’s the difference between voting as taking responsibility and voting as preserving purity by avoiding complicity. The former is our obligation — legally as well as ethically. The latter is an illusion — a form of self-deception.

Fred Clark

Clark is discussing here the distinction between two attitudes regarding voting in a political sense, but it struck me how well the concept maps onto Dream and Destruction’s personal philosophies of power.  Dream, for all the messed up stuff he does (and he does some really messed up stuff), always, always honors his obligations no matter the cost because he believes it’s a core part of his character to do so.  Destruction, in contrast, is so caught up in his idea of avoiding culpability that he refuses to exercise any of his power, even when it means that his inaction allows innocents to suffer.  Granted, the perspective of Dream and Destruction is supposed to be much larger and complex than what any human can understand, but as ciphers for a human scale version of this difference, Destruction’s philosophy appears much more problematic.

But that’s to do with last issue.

Chapter 8 ended with Destruction taking off for parts unknown and Dream and Delirium being left to figure out how to go back to their lives, and while Delirium, through the extensive mercy of her madness, is able to accept the fact that she failed and move on, Dream is left to deal with the consequences of his actions.  Multiple people were killed or injured by Destruction’s warning system and Dream and Delirium’s search, and Dream, being the responsible sibling of the three involved in this particular story, does what he can to make things right.  Perhaps the biggest dangling thread that Dream has to resolve is the meeting with his son Orpheus, who told him where to find Destruction in exchange for a boon.  Orpheus, being an immortal severed head whose wife died and family abandoned him many millennia ago, has requested that Dream kill him.

For such a momentous event in the series, Gaiman doesn’t dwell on it for too long.  The actual death occurs on the fifth page of the issue after a brief recap of the dinner at Destruction’s villa across the strait from Orpheus’s perspective and one last conversation between Dream and his son.  The vast majority of the issue is more concerned with examining how Dream copes with what he’s done.  There’s a strong contrast in this issue with #42 where we had half the book devoted to Dream’s very public, very dramatic display of grief over his recently ended relationship.  That issue is all about the way Dream enjoys performing a certain kind of persona even in circumstances that are supposed to be emotionally trying, and this one is all about showing how Dream reacts in a situation where his grief is deep and genuine (while there’s no doubt that he’s broken up over his break up, it’s pretty easy to suppose that getting dumped just doesn’t compare with having to kill your own son).  In this case, Dream chooses to keep his mourning as private as he can manage.  Besides the rest of his family, Dream doesn’t discuss Orpheus’s death with anyone (he does send Orpheus’s old guardian Andros a dream explaining what’s happened and that he and his family are free to do as they wish now, but that reads pretty solidly as a bit of necessary business).

It’s important to remember, as we’ve been discussing, that Dream is possessed by a rather single-minded devotion to keeping his responsibilities.  Concluding his business with Delirium, he immediately busies himself with getting things in order back in the Dreaming.  Besides sending the dream to Andros, he also has Lucien dispatch messages to the surviving people from Delirium’s list to let them know the danger’s passed.  Even as he’s telling Lucien that he’ll be taking the rest of the day for himself, he focuses on the number of responsibilities he needs to attend to the next day.

This entire sequence is incredibly poignant.  Dream’s doing everything he can to try to present a front that nothing is wrong, but the entire staff notices (except for Merv Pumpkinhead, but he’s always presented as remarkably oblivious).  The castle gatekeepers fail to recognize Dream for a moment; something ineffable has changed about him even though he appears the same as always.  Nuala is startled to find that Dream, who was previously terse with her when he encountered her dancing when she should have been cleaning, takes a moment to have a conversation with her and shows a bit of kindness.  Lucien, though he has enough tact not to say anything to Dream, clearly recognizes that something bad has happened.  It speaks to the affection Dream’s staff feel for him that they notice something off even when he’s trying so hard to appear unaffected by his trip.

Oh, Dream. (Art by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, & Daniel Vozzo)

Even as the staff’s responses are heartwarming, I really empathize with Dream’s perspective here.  As one of the Endless, Dream has very few peers, and he certainly has none among his servants.  Being in a position of authority, he has to maintain a certain distance from all these people, even as he’s grieving.  It’s a remarkably uncomfortable position.  When he finally gets alone and washes his hands (they’ve been coated with Orpheus’s blood for the entire issue, but Dream’s kept them hidden since returning to the Dreaming), Thompson’s art does a remarkable job of illustrating his gradual sinking into mourning.  We leave Dream alone in an armchair.

The last couple pages of the issue (and of the arc) are devoted to reminding us of all the people who were impacted by Dream and Delirium’s adventure.  The mortals who survived the experience all come through with various levels of mental and emotional damage, many of them directly affected by their brushes with the Endless.  It’s a nice echo of Dream’s more immediate grief, and does an excellent job of hammering home Gaiman’s themes around the nature of life and regrets.

Next time we get a one and done story about an ancient city of wonders.

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