The Prophetic Dreamer

The Prophetic Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyOn May 25, 1590, by direct order of King Philip II, the Spanish Inquisition arrested a young, uneducated woman from Madrid named Lucrecia de Leon on charges of heresy and treason.  She was brought to a secret prison in Toledo, interrogated, and tortured to make her confess her guilt.  The evidence against her was overwhelming.  She had been caught conspiring with known rebels, publicly slandering the king, defying direct orders from the church, and stirring up dissent against the imperial government.

Most damning was the collection of Lucrecia’s dreams, carefully recorded by a group of priests interested in apocalyptic omens who came to her house each morning to transcribe what she had seen the previous night.  The dreams were filled with scandalous political and religious imagery, and Lucrecia had been openly sharing them with people at the highest levels of Spanish society.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case.  The Inquisition had dispatched thousands of heretics to their eternal fate based on far less evidence than this.  And yet, Lucrecia’s trial did not end quickly.  It dragged on for five years, one of the longest trials in Inquisition history, and the final verdict against her deviated in several ways from the normal process of punishment.

Why did the Spanish Inquisition, at the height of its brutally oppressive power, struggle for so long to resolve Lucrecia’s case?

Because her dreams had come true.

The hand-written journal compiled by the priests proved it.  The Inquisition judges in Toledo had before them a document showing that Lucrecia’s dreams accurately predicted the fate of the Spanish Armada.  The Armada was Spain’s invincible navy, the most powerful military force in the world, which King Philip planned to use in launching an invasion of England in 1588.  Lucrecia’s dreams in 1587 and early 1588 repeatedly warned of impending disaster for the Armada, and that was indeed the unfortunate result of the attack.

This put the Inquisitors in an excruciating bind.  The evidence of her treasonous and heretical behavior was undeniable, and should have been sufficient to put her to death immediately.  And yet the predictive accuracy of her dreams forced them to pause.  Given the intensity of their Catholic faith, the Inquisitors could not help but wonder if Lucrecia might actually have some kind of prophetic gift.  If this were true, then perhaps it might contrary to God’s will to persecute her.  Indeed, in that case they would be the heretics, not she.

But how could a divine gift like prophecy be granted to a foolish girl from a lower-class family who could barely read and write?  This question seemed to vex the Inquisitors more than anything else. They looked for every possible way to discredit Lucrecia, and they relentlessly pressured her to admit she was a fraud and had made up all the dreams.  For five long years, she refused to do so.

At its core, the trial of Lucrecia de Leon is a story of a young woman defiantly dreaming truth to power.  She could have avoided all of this.  She had many off-ramps along the way, many opportunities to veer off, stay out of trouble, resume her normal life, and escape the Inquisition’s wrath.  She was violently threatened numerous times by church officials, and also by her own father, who ordered her in the clearest possible terms to stop.  “Dreams are only dreams,” he told her, “and if you believe in them I will give the order to have you killed.”

Despite all of this opposition, Lucrecia continued dreaming and sharing her dreams, literally putting her life at risk in the process.

The question of why she did so is the reason I wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer.  What was it that gave her the courage to defy the religious, political, and parental authorities for so long?

Even though she lived more than four hundred years ago, Lucrecia’s story can teach us important lessons about the extraordinary powers and potentials of the dreaming imagination. Using research from religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science, I take a naturalistic approach to the prophetic features of Lucrecia’s dreams.  Her experiences reflect the sleeping mind’s ability to simulate highly realistic visions of future possibility.  Lucrecia evidently possessed an unusually intensified capacity for these kinds of dreams. Other people in various places and times, including people today, have experienced similar phenomena.  Perhaps everyone has the potential for such dreams, given the right circumstances.

 

Note: this post first appeared on the Stanford University Press Author’s Blog, 2/23/18.

 

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in “Oklahoma!”

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly BulkeleyA brilliant exploration of the dark psychological depths of sexual desire appears in an unlikely place—a country musical from the 1940’s.

Oklahoma! was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the duo who went on to write many of Broadway’s most famous mid-century musicals.  A new production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival promises to stimulate new interest in this classic theatrical work through innovative casting, staging, and choreography from director Bill Rauch and choreographer Ann Yee.

Oklahoma! offers a surprisingly complex portrait of dreaming, desire, and the unconscious mind, and I plan to write a more detailed appraisal once the OSF production opens in April.  To set the stage, as it were, I wanted to start with an overview of the traditional production, which opened in 1943 and has since been performed in thousands of other venues in the US and around the world.  An Academy Award-winning movie adaptation appeared in 1955.

Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s friends.

The play both opens and closes with the joyfully optimistic song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and the action unfolds in the space created between those two happy moments of dawning light.

In the very center of the play, at the end of the Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.  Other plays and musicals before Oklahoma! had included scenes of dancing framed as dreams, but no one had ever pushed the dream theme into such bold psychological territory, with so much sophistication and artistry in the choreography.  Much of the credit goes to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, who helped Rogers and Hammerstein craft what became one of the most famous scenes in the play.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly Bulkeley

In the scene just before the ballet, Jud is alone and brooding about his sexual frustration.  The pornographic “postcards” in his room excite his fantasies (“And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head”), but ultimately leave him feeling empty, deceived, and even angrier than before.  He finally declares, “I ain’t gonna dream ‘bout her arms no more!” and sets off to claim Laurey for his own.

Laurey, meanwhile, sits down in the shade of a tree in her yard and drinks a special sleeping potion (“the Elixir of Egypt”) she purchased from Ali Hakim, hoping it will “make up my mind fer me” and help her “to see things clear.”  She slowly nods off, while a group of neighboring girls sing a lullaby about flying from her dreams into the arms of the man she truly loves.  The girls disappear, Laurey falls into a deep sleep, and the dream begins.

Each of the characters in the main love triangle has a kind of dream-world counterpart or avatar, a professional dancer who performs their roles during the 17-minute sequence.  It begins well enough, with Laurey dancing “ecstatically” with Curly.  After many vigorous upward thrusts and arousing leaps through the air, they find themselves at a wedding, walking down the aisle, about to take their vows.  But at the last moment it is Jud, not Curly, who appears in front of her.  Laurey is terrified as Jud and the risqué women from his postcards take over the dream.  Curly has a gun and tries to shoot Jud, but the gun has no effect.  Jud attacks Curly and starts choking him to death.  Laurey begs Jud to stop, and promises to go with him if he will spare Curly’s life.  Jud agrees, and takes Laurey with him, as she bids a “heartbroken” farewell to Curly.

At this moment, Jud walks up to the tree in her yard.  “Wake up, Laurey,” he says, “It’s time to start fer the party.”  Just then Curly walks up to the house, too, hoping she will choose him instead.  Laurey, now fully awake, is seized with panic:

“Remembering the disaster of her recent dream, she avoids its reality by taking Jud’s arm and going with him, looking wistfully back at Curly with the same sad eyes that her ballet counterpart had on her exit. Curly stands alone, puzzled, dejected and defeated, as the curtain falls.”

This marks the end of Act I.

The provocative content and staging of the Dream Ballet was originally envisioned by Hammerstein to be “bizarre, imaginative and amusing, and never heavy.” (Carter 129)  De Mille, however, wanted to shift the tone; she suggested bringing Jud’s postcard girls into the action, and making the whole thing darker and gloomier.  Virtually all musicals try to send their audiences into intermission on a happy, buoyant note; the Dream Ballet of Oklahoma!  has the diametrically opposite effect, which de Mille felt would be entirely appropriate for Laurey’s character and situation at this point in the story.

In a later interview, de Mille said she pushed Hammerstein to make the dream sequence more emotionally realistic, more like the kinds of anxiety dreams that girls and young women actually experience: “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” (Carter 123)

Thus, the core moment in one of America’s most beloved works of musical theater is a violently realistic sexual nightmare.

The Dream Ballet is an amazing work of art.  It is also a remarkably insightful portrait of the dreaming mind.  For those who study dreams, Oklahoma! raises a number of intriguing questions that can shed new light on the play, its cultural impact, and the dreaming imagination.  I will wait to see the OSF production in late April before saying more, but these are some of the anticipatory questions and ideas dancing through my mind:

Was Agnes de Mille right, as a matter of empirical fact, that girls have a tendency to dream about “horrors” and “dirty” topics?  What might modern research on the dream patterns of young women reveal about the unconscious dynamics of Laurey’s dilemma?

Has Laurey unknowingly performed a ritual of dream incubation?  She drinks the “Elixir of Egypt,” sleeps in a special place, focuses her mind on a particular question as she drifts off, and then has a dream relating to her question.  That’s pretty much the definition of a dream incubation ritual (as per Kimberley Patton.)

Is Laurey’s dream a threat simulation, along the lines of what Antti Revonsuo has proposed?  Revonsuo focused on recurrent chasing nightmares as an instance of dreams that simulate a possible threat and rehearse our response to it, so we’re better prepared in waking life if that threat should actually arise.  Laurey has a dream of Jud threatening to kill Curly, which is indeed a realistic appraisal of the dangers in her waking life.

Is her dream a sexual wish-fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud would say?  In 1940’s New York City, it’s a fair guess the Oklahoma! creative team knew about psychoanalysis and its theories about unconscious sexual desires.  Laurey certainly has a more intense and erotic interaction with Curly in dreaming than she ever does in waking.  The dream’s sexual charge only grows with the appearance of Jud’s postcard girls, who stir up even more libidinal energy, with less romance and more raw carnal desire.  And poor Curly with his limp gun…

Is Jud a shadow symbol for Laurey and the whole Oklahoma community, as Carl Jung might suggest?  From the very beginning of the play Jud is portrayed as dark, crude, rough, hairy, animal-like, stupid, and inarticulate.  He lives alone in a “smokehouse,” seething with unfulfilled instinctual urges.  He could be seen as a radical Other, in the symbolic lineage of Lucifer, Caliban, Gollum, and Darth Vader, the embodiment of all the darkness that is not allowed into the light of conscious awareness, and thus banished to the depths of the unconscious.

Does Laurey misinterpret her dream?  How exactly is her action upon awakening (choosing Jud over Curly) justified by what she has dreamed?  In both fiction and real life, people who instantly interpret their dreams usually get it wrong.  The quick response often overlooks deeper, more important meanings that the conscious mind may be all to ready to move past.  (I call this “the Odyssean fallacy.”)

Does Jud misinterpret his dream?  Same question—why does Jud think the action he takes (aggressively demanding Laurey’s affection) is justified by his arousing yet frustrating dreams of the postcard girls?  What might he be overlooking?

Finally, how will the OSF creative team reimagine this classic work for a new century and a new America?

I can’t wait to see!

 

Reference: Tim Carter, Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, Yale University Press, 2007.

Moving Dreams

Moving Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyFollowing the death a few weeks ago of Jeremy Taylor and his wife Kathy, I spoke with their daughter Tristy, and we agreed that I would take responsibility for moving, storing, and preserving his professional books and papers.  Tristy understands that her father had a major influence on the contemporary study of dreams, and his works will have an enduring historical significance for the field.  I told her that my wife and I have recently begun working with an architect to design a study and library devoted to dream research on property we own near Portland, so I can offer a place where his collection will be available to other dream investigators in the future.

In assuming this responsibility, I did not reckon with the fact that Jeremy apparently kept every single book he ever owned in his entire life.  He loved his books, and he obviously drew great inspiration from their physical presence.  However, to someone who did not share his (and my) bibliophilia, his collection appeared rather daunting.  That, at any rate, was the response of the moving company estimator.  When I met him for an initial survey of the house, he spent a couple of hours sighing, shaking his head, and measuring shelf lengths.  He finally told me he’d never seen anything like it.  There were approximately 300 boxes of books to pack up, with a total weight of around 15,000 pounds.  It would take four guys a full day to get it all ready for the truck.

15,000 pounds of books.  Seven and a half tons.

I’m going to need a bigger library.

Last Friday the packing crew arrived at the house at 7 am.  There were four guys, none of them especially happy to be up at that hour.  When they got inside the house, their momentary elation (just books, no couches or dressers!) turned to dread when I showed them the full extent of the job (oh my god, how many f***ing books are there??).  We got to work, and to be honest, it was a struggle for the first few hours.  The quarters were tight, the air was stale and musty, and the books came in all shapes, sizes, and conditions, which made the packing process much more complex than it usually would be.  Several shelves had extra shelves behind them, so it literally seemed like the books were multiplying.  The more the guys packed, the more books there were to pack.  Suffice it to say, morale was low and tempers were short.

And then something cool happened.  The books began to work a kind of magic.  As the guys settled into the rhythm of removing the books from the shelves, wrapping them in paper, and placing them in the boxes, they inevitably noticed the covers, titles, and recurrent themes.  Dreams, dreams, dreams.  Mythology from all over the world.  Tricksters.  Ancient religions.  Jungian psychology.  Graphic novels.  Science fiction.  Surrealist art.  Poetry.  Weird stuff that’s hard even to categorize.

I heard them discussing these topics while they packed, as it dawned on them what this huge and very focused collection of books said about a person’s view of the world. They asked me a few questions about Jeremy, and over the course of the afternoon I told them about his life and works, and the importance of these books to him and to our field of study.  Naturally this got them talking about their own dreams, and their personal speculations about the powers of the human mind.  I wouldn’t say they were whistling while they worked, but it did make the time pass.  Each of them seemed to find something of special interest among the dusty tomes that made them pause and ponder for a moment.

They finished the day with a burst of energy (it was Friday, after all), and before they left at 6:30 pm I gave them each a copy of Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill.  I knew this was risky—they might never want to see another book again—but if they didn’t want it, they could just give it to someone who did, and Jeremy would be happy either way.

Whether or not they keep their books, these guys were clearly moved by Jeremy’s passion for the study of dreams.  I’m pretty sure they will henceforth look at their own dreams in a different light, with more curiosity about exploring their multiple dimensions of meaning.

As they drove away and I locked up the house, I thought, if this experience were a dream… I would interpret it as a vivid reminder that Jeremy’s books still have the power to teach and enlighten.  Aha!

Moving Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley