Perchance to Dream
Dreams. Where do they come from and what do they mean? If we can say anything about them at all it would be that they are irrational, inexplicable, ineffable. In our night time dreams often quite ordinary events are placed side by side in an improbable collage so that the seemingly real becomes surreal. Are they code or prophecy? And our daytime dreams, are they doomed fantasy or exuberant hope? Or some strange combination of both? Prose cannot begin to describe or explain dreams to the dreamer but perhaps poetry and music can. The renowned Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska returned often in her work, to the landscape of dreams:
Defying knowledge and the teachings of geologists,
mocking their magnets, graphs and maps—
a dream in a split second
piles up before us mountains stone solid
as if in real life.
And if the mountains, then also valleys and plains
with full infrastructure.
This is a landscape of strange improbability where anything is possible.
But perhaps our ordering and understanding of what we take to be reality is equally improbable. Edgar Allen Poe writes in his poem A Dream Within a Dream
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
That the seemingly tangible fabric of our waking life and the workings of our rational minds are no less strange than Syzmborska's magnet-mocking mountains, casts an interesting slant on the people, places and situations that inhabit our dreams. A. R. Orage encapsulates the thoughts of his mentor, the 20th c mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff when he writes:
How can we prove to ourselves at any given moment that we are not asleep and dreaming? Life circumstances are sometimes as fantastic as dream circumstances; and change with the same rapidity. What if we should wake up and find waking life a dream, and our present sleep and dream merely dreams within a dream?
Our waking dreams may spin doom-laden stories but equally can be grandiose, full of hubris. In Walter Mittyish style, we may fancy ourselves adventurers and heroes as in James Thurber's Don Quixote-inspired 1939 short story:
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!”
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. “You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five."
Meanwhile our sleeping dreams often evoke, if not outright fear, at the very least a mild anxiety related to the unlikeliness of their juxtapositions. It seems that the collage nature of dreams, that quality of inexplicably juxtaposing unrelated ideas, is at the heart of their power. Dreams are nothing if not creative. They point to another intelligence working within us.
In the same way that myth points to truth through allegory that is subject to individual interpretation, dreams seem to direct us to some knowledge or insight which, though it can never be corroborated, may lend to us a moment of epipany.
If our dreams often seem to us as a kind of shorthand or convoluted code, offering an explanation of emotions we may not even have noticed we were experiencing, what of dream as visitation, as prophecy? In the Bible, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon
had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. So he summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.
None of them could interpret his dream. But the
mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.
Daniel goes to the King and explains the meaning of his dream which, he says, is a prophecy of the future.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.
If our sleeping dreams have important information to convey to us, perhaps our waking dreams do as well. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell often said, we must follow our bliss. And our bliss is surely excitement surrounding what we are not yet, but what we may become.