Dreaming Myself to Death was written at the turn of the millennium by an eccentric Dutch artist named Syd Tovenaar who committed suicide in Dam Square, Amsterdam in the year 2000. The police found the manuscript, Dreaming Myself to Death, in a black briefcase that had been handcuffed to Syd’s wrist and, concluding that it was a sort of elaborate suicide note, took it into evidence. So goes the premise of this strange novel that concerns itself primarily with the idea of madness. Assuming many different perspectives, the narrator takes us through a bizarre world of psychiatric hospitals, police cells, absurd artworks, progressive churches and, in the end, to that fateful moment when he injected himself with a fatal dose of heroin as part of a performance art piece in the centre of Amsterdam. Interwoven through this general narrative are stories and tales which take the idea of madness into new and unchartered dimensions. The book climaxes in the art labyrinth that Syd builds out of his townhouse and which spills over into the streets of Rotterdam. By this time he is in a deep psychosis and looking for the door into wonderland. It is this obsession that likely led him to put that syringe in his arm on that fateful day.

It is never clear who is telling the tale and indeed it shifts from third to first person narration throughout. The overall structure thus tends to be abstract while each part is coherent and readable. Syd involves himself in a number of bizarre and political artworks for which he is locked up by the authorities in a psychiatric hospital. There he meets a number of interesting characters and must convince the authorities that he is no longer mad - a difficult thing when he is trying to convince them that his strange actions, like setting his drapes on fire, were part of a large artwork that involved a Dutch slum, police, vandals, junkies, government officials, a variety of artists, paintings, books and videotape. Eventually he is let out and soon afterwards begins to build a labyrinth in his townhouse out of furniture and an assortment of objects he purchases from thrift shops. Now in a deep psychosis he is checked into the hospital again where he experiences, this time, a hell of isolation chambers and crippling drugs. He finally convinces the judge to let him out and, still in a deep psychosis, he goes in search of medicine which leads him to a peculiar church and, finally, to a heroin den where, after falling unconscious, he is robbed of all his valuables. Concluding that this life is not for him he makes plans to dream himself into the next one even if it must involve his corporeal death.

Syd is a tragic albeit interesting figure. Driven by his profound vision, he pushed the boundaries of his art and life in a mad search for the door into other realities. If we can believe his tales, he played some absurd and nebulous roles in what we call reality. Syd’s world seemed to work on an absurd axis and many of the events related in this book confirm that Syd was, in many ways, the archetype of the mad genius. Many of the artworks that he produced in his psychotic visions no longer exist except for the documents found in Dreaming Myself to Death. A master of the arts, Syd blended his writing with painting, installations and works of a conceptual nature. And, in the end, his death too can be seen as an artwork albeit extreme and bizarre. We can only hope that, in the final analysis, he was right, and that he did step into the kaleidoscopic world of his dreams. That he did dream himself to death.

Passage from Dreaming Myself to Death

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