Literary insights - 30: The Terrors of the Night

Day 30, book 30: Nashe's pamphlet on dreams is, for marketers, an early treatise on the extent and power of our irrationality.

Literary insights - 30: The Terrors of the Night

The flowering of English literature in the 16th century is most famously associated with Shakespearean verse, but in today’s book, The Terrors of the Night, by satirist and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe, we explore the Elizabethan psyche through the exuberant power of prose.

The pamphlet (or ‘little book’ as its Latin etymology suggests) became a popular self-publishing platform during the second half of the 16th century. The literate and enquiring mind, now with affordable access to a printing press, began blogging their way into the public debate over 400 years before Tumblr.

The Big Conversation (satirical use of upper case) of the day was religion, and the Elizabethan blogger tended to be politically engaged. The pamphlet had been a treasonable instrument in the first half of the 16th century, with anti-clerical bloggers being condemned as heretics during the dangerous early stages of the protestant reformation.

Perhaps because there was in those days rather more at stake than retweets, the language of pamphleteering developed along quite self-conscious lines. Even in its less inflammatory, secular form, a pamphlet was an act of social criticism and a veil of satirical ambiguity was more than a stylistic affectation – it was a deliberate act of self-preservation.

Combine this occupational hazard with the linguistic verve of the Elizabethan literati, and what you have in the pamphlet is some of the most energetic prose ever written. In this particular work, that energy is applied to a wide-ranging – at times rambling – discussion of the fears and superstitions that bedevil our frail subconscious minds.

The rambling is itself a fitting feature – this is a stream of consciousness that explores the unknowable workings of the subconscious mind. Theme and form converge in a literary apparition of over-vivid prose. It is worth reading just for this, but marketers will find in Terrors of the Night an early treatise on the extent and the power of our irrationality.

Nashe uses the night – with all the darkness, solitude and introspection that the unlit hours induce – to represent the time when our minds are most vulnerable to malign suggestion. He links nightly thoughts to nightly deeds through the idea of the guilty conscience. He distinguishes between the thoughts that are sewn in our subconscious minds by the wrongness of our actions, and those that are put there by those seeking to exploit our basic human gullibility.

Palmistry, mountebanks, dream-readers, peddlers of proverbs, augur merchants, herbalists – Nashe provides a scathing catalogue of those who would have us doubt ourselves and follow false hope or superstition. 

Dreams are the focus, and whilst on the one hand Nashe ridicules our need to find meaning in them, on the other hand he offers his own sub-scientific explanations for the way that dreams occur. On the one hand he is satirizing the superstitious sensibility of the 16th century, and on the other hand he is himself an intellectual prisoner of his age.

The power of language allows his own views to triumph, but the argument is profoundly irrational on both sides, and we are left knowing only one thing for certain – that we will always seek to explain the mysteries of the mind, because we will always insist on finding meaning in our experiences.

The drive to decode what life puts before us, the mind’s self-defeating quest to read the mind, and the fact that our psyche is defined as much by its heroic flaws as by its deductive victories – these are all immutable features of the human condition and wherever we build the mental real estate of brands, we build on sand; and the structures we build are held together not by the tensile strength of logic but by the eternal need for meaning.

Giles Hedger is the chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett London & Worldwide.
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