George Prochnik's I Dream with Open Eyes: A Memoir About Reimagining Home, is a bookend to Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return, the 2022 book written by his wife, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, about their decision to move with their teenage son from New York City to London in the summer of 2018. But where Mead's book focuses most of its attention on her reabsorption into the native land she'd left 30 years earlier, Prochnik chooses to wrestle with the moral dilemma of what it would mean to continue to live in a country that could elect Donald Trump as its president. The result is a thoughtful, if sometimes challenging, journey through that process.
Prochnik begins with an election night party he and Mead hosted in the brownstone they'd occupied in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood for more than two decades. What was to have been a quietly festive evening quickly turns grim as the smug expectation among this liberal coterie of a comfortable Hillary Clinton victory crumbles, and the realization that the "solipsistic master vandal-cum-predator" Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States hits home.
That cataclysmic event launches Prochnik on his exploration. While the intellectual tapestry he weaves is complex and variegated, the life and work of Sigmund Freud is one of its central themes. At the core of the memoir is an account of the early 20th-century debate between Prochnik's great-grandfather James Jackson Putnam, a distinguished psychologist and neurologist from Boston, and his mentor, Freud, which pitted Putnam's "idealistic faith in human nature" against Freud's "dark, worldly view, which despaired of humanity en masse and its respective experiments in civilization." As he has throughout his life, Prochnik finds himself "torn between these disjunctive perspectives" with increasing urgency
Prochnik (The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World) is a literary and artistic omnivore, whose previous books include a study of Gershom Scholem the scholar of Kabbalah. Whether he's dissecting Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents or analyzing Titian's 16th-century painting depicting the myth of Diana and Actaeon, he trusts that his readers possess the fortitude to follow him down some demanding trails.
Ultimately, Prochnik admits, his comfortable life in the U.S. came to feel "like a space capsule cut off from the mothership, hurtling through the darkness in freefall." The circumstance that proximately caused his departure turns out to be far more prosaic than the inspiration provided by any of the writers whose works inform his thinking, but that fact doesn't undermine the integrity or value of his quest. While the internal landscape many Americans traverse certainly will differ from his, with critical elections looming in 2022 and 2024, the decision he faced may become an equally pressing one for others. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer
Shelf Talker: George Prochnik ruminates on his family's complex decision to abandon New York City for London following the 2016 election.