In my memory I want to locate the dream in childhood, in elementary, or perhaps middle, school. A dream about an abstract concept. A nightmare about the line.

I can still see, as if captured on film, a short animated segment of the dream today. A black, horizontal line floats in a field of humming, whitish gray. I can’t see anything behind or beyond it. The line proceeds slowly, but persistently, toward me. It will not stop, and it obliterates everything in its path.

I imagine that the impetus for the dream was the cognitive dissonance I experienced trying to comprehend the infinite extension of “the line,” which “is straight, has no thickness, and extends in both directions without end.” It’s a concept that must have been introduced in Geometry, and therefore in high school, sophomore year.

Today I associate the buzzing incomprehensibility of the space of the line in my dream with Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Zone.” But I didn’t have that association then, and even now it is only an approximation. I still can’t really fathom a line that has no thickness and extends infinitely.

I woke from the dream screaming and ran down the hall and into my parents’ bedroom and climbed into their bed. And this is probably why I want to locate the dream in childhood, and not in my adolescent, 14th year. I remember that I tried to explain the dream to them, and they did not understand, but allowed me to enter their bed.

I fell back asleep between them, but the line kept coming, and it was at the foot of their bed, and we would all be obliterated together, and I was trying to kick the line back, and I woke up again screaming.

Freud suggests that the unconscious harbors latent memories of childhood experiences that the child, with its undeveloped psyche, could not fully understand. In dreams one catches refracted images of information that has not been consciously grasped.

I woke up again screaming, and my mother proposed food. She walked me to the kitchen and cut open a grapefruit and stood with me as I ate it. I remember feeling this was a strange response to my existential terror, but standing there in the kitchen light, eating the grapefruit with her, I slowly shook off the dream.

My mother can no longer eat grapefruit because it interacts with the statin she takes for her cholesterol. I rarely eat the citrus today, but when I do, I eat it standing in the kitchen. Occasionally, in the burst of the fruit’s sharp tartness, I wake to the practical care of a mother in the face of the line.


—Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“The Line” © March 2019

Header image: Ink test by Jason Logan, founder of The Toronto Ink Company, a collaborative, citizen science project.