From The Desk Of Ann Magnuson: Robert Louis Stevenson And His Magic Brownies

At her funniest, musician/actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson skewers pop and celebrity culture like nobody else. And there’s a lot of that skewering on her new album, Dream Girl, Magnuson’s third LP following the strangely underrated The Luv Show and Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories. Magnuson will be guest editing all week. Dream on.

Magnuson: I was obsessed with monster movies as a kid and even had a subscription to the magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland. One of my favorite and most worn issues had a feature about Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. There were great film stills from all the various movie versions in the pictorial, but I was even more excited to read that the story’s author, Robert Lewis Stevenson, literally dreamed up the story while asleep. That stuck with me.

Dreams are not only great for one’s own psychological analysis, but they are instant material. Writer’s block need never be an issue as long as you simply transcribe the dream events as they occurred.

No one knew this better than Robert Louis Stevenson, and he wrote about the process in 1892 in an essay for Scribner’s magazine called “A Chapter On Dreams.”
Short of funds, the author desperately needed a story that would sell. He had to have a “hit.”

Stevenson writes: “For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. All the rest was made awake, and consciously, although I think I can trace in much of it the manner of my Brownies.”

Just as Jungian dream analyst Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz asked “Who Makes The Dream?” Stevenson posed the same question and got an answer: Brownies!

“And for the Little People, what shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! Who do one-half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. That part which is done while I am sleeping is the Brownies’ part beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show the Brownies have a hand in it even then.

Brownies were elf-like mythological creatures known for helping around the house. (They could also be very devilish, so caution was required around the angrier of the bunch.) Stevenson’s “Little People” were his enthusiastic co-authors.

My Brownies are somewhat fantastic, like their stories hot and hot, full of passion and the picturesque, alive with animating incident; and they have no prejudice against the supernatural—and have no morals at all.

Stevenson’s description of his Brownies remind me so much of Terrence McKenna’s psychedelic machine elves, who were always so thrilled to see him during his frequent DMT trips.

Having had a brief (but memorable) encounter with these self same “machine elves,” I can attest to their excited playfulness. But trying to describe them or the bizarre objects they insisted I look at is tough. The two worlds, theirs and ours, do not and cannot share the same language. How many of us have read the profound revelations written down while “peaking” on some plant medicine only to be stymied by the gibberish the next day? A lot gets lost in translation.

Maybe that’s why dream are told in the only language we know? Puzzling puzzles constructed from the psychic odds ‘n’ ends we vacuum up during the waking hours. Maybe this is the only way whatever is on The Other Side can get through to us, by using what we already know to get us closer to what we don’t. Or don’t want to know. After all, not all of us want to be intimately acquainted with Mr. Hyde!

While there have been many a memorable Hyde on screen (Frederic March and Spencer Tracy among them), the best, in my opinion, was the brilliant John Barrymore. Maybe it’s because his was a silent interpretation, and silent films convey the dream world so much better than sound pictures can. Above is a taste of Barrymore at his 19th century best, revealing the beast within.