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Another existence

11 April 2014


SOME of us have dreams of such complexity that they might keep a shrink going for months. For others, dreams can be as subtle as a whack over the head. Josie Long, a comedian and the presenter of Short Cuts: Waking life (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), is among the latter. She admits to dreaming about a former partner's getting on a coach, and telling her that she could not join him because she had "too much baggage". You can save yourself a great deal of money on therapy with dreams like that.

Similarly obvious was the premiss for this sequence of anecdotes about dreams: that "sometimes the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred." And some of the neuro-bilge that we encountered here - notably the item on the brain chemistry of love - were as clichéd as a cheap Valentine's card. In contrast, the item featuring Dr Moran Cerf, a scientist from the California Institute of Technology, showed how the boundaries between science and celebrity can be blurred.

In 2010, Dr Cerf and his team wished to promote their research on brain activity during sleep, and in particular a machine that could display electrical patterns while a subject was asleep. Many news channels reported not only that Dr Cerf had created a dream-reading machine, but that the FBI were using it to create a database of people's dreams.

The film director Christopher Nolan, promoting his film Inception at the time, wanted Dr Cerf to be his scientific back-up; and when Dr Cerf protested, Mr Nolan told him: "People see you as the dream-recording scientist now." To his credit, Dr Cerf chose scientific status over celebrity status.

It is the blurring of boundaries between dream and reality that lends Dante's Divine Comedy so much of its appeal; and Stephen Wyatt's excellent adaptation, for the Classic Serial strand (Radio 4, Sundays), preserves as much of the real-life score-settling and politicking as the visionary fantasy.

Told as the recollection of an older Dante, embittered by his exile from Florence, the tripartite series opened with the author's consigning all his former enemies to various delicious tortures; and an opportunity for Wyatt to linger on characters who have a particular contemporary resonance: bankers and financial cheats in particular.

It is hard for an hour-long audio journey through the nine spheres of hell to avoid all unintentional humour; there were a couple of episodes which sounded as if they were lifted from an episode of the Andy Hamilton-scripted radio comedy Old Harry's Game, and there was something hilariously banal about a character, made to suffer the most abject punishment, declaring: "This is a hard price to pay for liking sex with men."

The greatest challenge must surely be to keep up some semblance of dramatic tension as, led by Virgil, the action moves from the excitements of hell up to the highest levels of the cosmos. The older Dante, played by John Hurt, is deployed as a framing device, reminding us of a narrative arc that takes us through a spiritual and psychological regeneration. Whatever Virgil charges for his time as a therapist is money well spent.

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