Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation

Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation by Kelly Bulkeley


I’d like to illustrate some basic principles of dream interpretation by telling a story. It’s a very old story, one you may have heard before, but I’d like to tell it again because even though it’s “just a story” it highlights the real perils that come when these dream interpretation principles are overlooked.

The story has to do with the meeting of Odysseus and Penelope in Book 19 of The Odyssey. In many respects this encounter is the point of greatest dramatic intensity in the entire poem, and at the heart of the scene is a dream-Penelope’s dream of the twenty geese that are suddenly slaughtered by a mountain eagle. Odysseus, after leading the Achaean army to victory against the Trojans and after enduring a seemingly endless series of trials and adventures, has returned at last to his island home of Ithaca, where he has found a mob of rude noblemen besieging his palace. The crafty warrior has disguised himself as an old beggar in order to gain entrance into the palace without being recognized, and he is plotting violent revenge against the men who would steal his throne. Penelope, who for many years has desperately clung to the hope that Odysseus would someday return to her, has invited this strange wanderer into her private chambers to ask if he can tell her any news of her husband. The beggar fervently promises the Queen that Odysseus is very close and will return very, very soon. Penelope replies to the beggar’s story by saying she wishes his words would come true, but she doubts they will. She then asks her old servant woman, Eurycleia, to bathe the stranger and arrange a comfortable place for him to sleep. The Queen steps away while the old nurse washes the beggar’s feet. Then, before parting for the night, Penelope returns to the beggar and says (all quotes are from the translation of Robert Fagles, 1996, Viking Press),

“My friend, I have only one more question for you….
[P]lease, read this dream for me, won’t you? Listen closely….
I kept twenty geese in the house, from the water trough
They come and peck their wheat-I love to watch them all.
But down from a mountain swooped this great hook-beaked eagle,
Yes, and he snapped their necks and killed them one and all
And they lay in heaps throughout the hall while he,
Back to the clear blue sky he soared at once.
But I wept and wailed-only a dream, of course-
And our well-groomed ladies came and clustered round me,
Sobbing, stricken: the eagle killed my geese. But down
He swooped again and settling onto a jutting rafter
Called out in a human voice that dried my tears,
‘Courage, daughter of famous King Icarius!
This is no dream but a happy waking vision,
Real as day, that will come true for you.
The geese were your suitors-I was once the eagle
But now I am your husband, back again at last,
About to launch a terrible fate against them all!’
So he vowed, and the soothing sleep released me.”
(The Odyssey 19.575, 603-621)

The disguised Odysseus immediately replies,
“Dear woman,….twist it however you like,
Your dream can mean only one thing. Odysseus
Told you himself-he’ll make it come to pass,
Destruction is clear for each and every suitor;
Not a soul escapes his death and doom.”
(The Odyssey 19.624-629)

Penelope’s response to the beggar is this:
“Ah my friend, seasoned Penelope dissented,
Dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
Not all we glimpse in them will come to pass….
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
One is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
Are will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
Are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.
But I can’t believe my strange dream has come that way,
Much as my son and I would love to have it so.”
(The Odyssey 19.630-640)

So, what has just happened here? What is going on between Odysseus and Penelope, and what is the significance of her dream and their exchange about its meaning? The traditional interpretation of this scene, shared with near unanimity by scholars from antiquity to the present, is this. Odysseus has heroically controlled his desire to rejoin Penelope and hidden his identity from her for two reasons: one, to test his wife’s fidelity during his long absence (remember Agamemnon and Clytemnestra), and two, to pick up information about how to destroy the hated suitors. Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese is a straightforward prophecy, whose true meaning the disguised Odysseus instantly recognizes. But Penelope, who has shown a stubborn skepticism throughout the story, refuses to accept the dream’s obvious meaning. Indeed, perhaps she unconsciously enjoys the attention of the suitors and does not really want Odysseus to come back.

My dissatisfaction with this widely held interpretation centers on its strange depreciation of Penelope’s intelligence. This is a woman whom several characters have praised for her unrivalled perceptiveness, cunning, and guile; this is the woman who devised the famous ruse of the funeral shroud, by which she successfully deceived the suitors for three years. All of the evidence in the poem makes it clear that Penelope is not a fool: she is extremely perceptive and capable of remarkably subtle deceptions. So why, when we come to Book 19 and her meeting with the “beggar,” should we now forget all that and regard Penelope as a pathetically unwitting dupe in the vengeful scheming of Odysseus?

Here is the moment when careful reflection on Penelope’s dream can open up new horizons of meaning. The Iliad and The Odyssey together contain, up to the point of Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese, four major dream episodes: Agamemnon’s “Evil Dream” from Zeus (2.1-83), Achilles’ mournful dream of the spirit of dead Patroklos (23.54-107), Penelope’s reassuring dream from Athena (4.884-946), and Nausicaa’s arousing marriage dream from Athena (6.15-79). Viewed in this context, Penelope’s dream is unusual in at least two ways:

  • One, this is the only dream that occurs “offstage,” out of direct view of the audience. We do not “see” the dream while it is happening; we only hear the dreamer describe it, after the fact.
  • Two, this is the only “symbolic” dream, with its meaning encoded in stylized imagery. The dream thus poses a riddle, which must be accurately interpreted for the true meaning to emerge.

I believe these two details suggest a very different reading of the encounter between Penelope and the disguised Odysseus. Could it be that this is not a “real” dream at all, that in fact Penelope has made it up? Could it be that Penelope is deliberately using the riddle of her dream as a test to find out the intentions of this man, whom she consciously suspects is Odysseus? Could it be that while he thinks he’s deceiving her, she’s really the one deceiving him?

This would not be the first time in Homer’s poems that dreams have been used to deceive and manipulate others-in fact, it would be the fourth time: Zeus sending the “Evil Dream” to Agamemnon, Athena sending the “marriage dream” to Nausicaa, and Odysseus (at the end of The Odyssey, Book 14) making up a story about the “real” Odysseus making up a dream in order to steal another warrior’s cloak on a cold, windy night (14.519-589).

Why would Penelope make up such a dream? The answer emerges if we think carefully about what is happening at that crucial moment when the old nurse Eurycleia is washing the beggar’s feet. Penelope has removed herself and is standing alone, after a long and intimate conversation with a man who has detailed knowledge about Odysseus, who looks and sounds very much like Odysseus, who insists with passionate certainty that Odysseus will return to the palace the very next day. The question could hardly not arise for this most intelligent and perceptive of women: is this stranger Odysseus himself? If he is, then why isn’t he revealing himself? Penelope has just poured her heart out to him, saying how terribly she has suffered over the years-why won’t he drop his disguise and reunite with her this very moment?

When Eurycleia finishes washing the beggar’s feet, Penelope returns to him and says she has one last question-what is the meaning of her dream of the geese and the mountain eagle? The disguised Odysseus eagerly agrees with the words of the mountain eagle in the dream: the dream means “destruction is clear for each and every suitor.”

Penelope, however, disagrees. Her “two gates” speech that follows is a subtle but unmistakable way of saying “I don’t think so” to the beggar’s interpretation. She cannot agree with him for a simple reason: the mountain eagle and the beggar have both misinterpreted the dream. There are 20 geese in her dream, but more, many more than that number of suitors in the palace. As we learn in Book 16.270-288, where Telemachus tells Odysseus who all the suitors are and where they come from, there are a total of 108 men besieging the palace. Penelope’s refusal to accept the interpretation of the mountain eagle and the beggar is not due to stubborn skepticism, pathetic ignorance, or unconscious desire-she rejects the interpretation because it is wrong. The true meaning of the symbol of the 20 geese is surprisingly easy to find if we do not automatically assume that the mountain eagle and the beggar are right (that is, if we do not automatically privilege the hermeneutic perspective of Odysseus). The 20 geese symbolize the 20 years that Odysseus has been away fighting the war at Troy and journeying through the world. The exact length of Odysseus’ absence, 20 years, is mentioned five separate times in the poem, and most significantly the beggar himself comments to Penelope a few lines earlier in Book 19 that Odysseus has been gone for 20 years.

Thus, the first part of Penelope’s dream symbolically, and very accurately, describes her emotional experience of what has happened between them: Odysseus, by going off to fight in someone else’s war, has destroyed the last 20 years for her. What should have been the prime years of their marriage, the wonderful years of raising a family and creating a home, the years that Penelope would have “loved to watch” and care for, have been slaughtered by Odysseus. The second part of the dream expresses Penelope’s fearful perception of Odysseus right now, still standing apart from her in the disguise of a beggar. He doesn’t recognize her, and what the last 20 years have been like for her; all he can see are the suitors and a galling challenge to his honor. By posing this dream riddle to the beggar, Penelope is in effect asking if her suspicion is true: is the “real” Odysseus as blind to her feelings and as obsessed with killing the suitors as is the “dream” Odysseus? When the beggar agrees with the mountain eagle’s words in the dream, Penelope knows the unfortunate answer.

The mysterious poetry of Penelope’s two gates speech becomes all the more powerful when it is understood as a response to Odysseus’ failure of the dream interpretation test. To his reprimanding words, “twist it however you like, your dream can only mean one thing,” Penelope replies that dreams are always difficult to understand, and they do not always come true. The danger is that we will allow our desire to cloud our perception-taking as divine prophecy what is merely human fantasy. But some dreams, she goes on to say, do have the potential to come true-though only “for the dreamer who can see them.” That is precisely what Odysseus has failed to do. He has failed to see past his own desire for revenge.

I am reluctant to finish with this story, because there is so much more to be told (and so much more to be questioned, if you happen to disagree with my admittedly unorthodox reading of this scene). But I will close by reflecting on the interpretive principles guiding this approach to Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese. First, I chose to privilege the perspective of the dreamer, listening to her words, looking carefully at her experience, asking critical questions of her motivations, and ultimately grounding the dream’s meaning in the conditions of her waking life. Second, I focused special attention on the details of the dream, particularly on the exact number of geese, 20. Third, I located the dream in the context of broader cultural patterns, focusing in particular on how Penelope’s dream deviates from the narrative structuring of other Homeric dreams. And fourth, I tried to look beyond the seemingly obvious and self-evident to discover the new, the surprising, the unexpected.


A Dream Before Dying

Life’s profound problems often get resolved in the sleep  that comes before the final rest, these authors say

By Anne Underwood
Newsweek Magazine
July 25, 2005 issue

As a hospice chaplain for 10 years, the Rev. Patricia Bulkley confronted the raw emotions of the dying-their terror at the approaching end, their unresolved family problems, their crises of faith. They were people like Charles Rasmussen, a retired merchant-marine captain in his mid-80s who was dying of cancer. He was consumed by fear until, in a dream one night, he saw himself sailing in uncharted waters. Once again, he felt the thrill of adventure as he pushed through a vast, dark, empty sea, knowing he was on course. “Strangely enough, I’m not afraid to die anymore,” he told Bulkley after that dream. Death was no longer an end, but a journey.

As Bulkley reveals in a slender but powerful new book, “Dreaming Beyond Death,” many people have extraordinary dreams in their final days and weeks. These dreams can help the dying grapple with their fears, find the larger meaning in their lives, even mend fences with relatives. Yet all too often, caregivers dismiss them as delusional or unworthy of attention. Not Bulkley, who often discussed dreams with patients at the Hospice of Marin in California. Her experiences were the inspiration for the book, which she coauthored with her son Kelly Bulkeley, a past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. It is the first volume devoted to the (paradoxically) life-affirming power of pre-death dreams. And though the research is still preliminary, the authors inject level-headed analysis into an arena often dominated by seekers of the paranormal.

Accounts of prescient or meaningful pre-death dreams span religions and cultures, from China and India to ancient Greece. The last dream that psychologist Carl Jung was able to communicate to his followers, a few days before his death, was of a great round stone engraved with the words “And this shall be a sign unto you of Wholeness and Oneness.” To Jung, it showed that his work in this life was complete. Socrates and Confucius also spoke of significant dreams they had shortly before their deaths.

Yet there has been little systematic study of such dreams in modern times. The inherent difficulties are obvious. You can’t enroll people with a week or two to live in formal studies-and they’re hardly going to walk into a sleep clinic and volunteer. By default, hospice workers and family members have collected more of these stories than dream researchers. No one even knows what percentage of people ultimately experience such dreams. Still, scientists recognize that they can be deeply meaningful.

There are certain overarching themes that emerge-going on journeys, reuniting with deceased loved ones, seeing stopped clocks. Often the imagery is straightforward. In one woman’s dream, a candle on her hospital windowsill is snuffed out, engulfing her in darkness-a symbol of death that scares her, until the candle spontaneously relights outside the window. A man struggling to find meaning in his life dreams of a square dance in which the partners leave visible traces of their movements, like ribbons weaving a pattern. “There really is a plan after all, isn’t there?” the man asked Bulkley after that dream. “Somehow we all belong to one another.”

But not all pre-death dreams are comforting. They can also frighten the dreamer, who imagines being chased through crumbling cityscapes or hurtling in a driverless car toward a freshly dug ditch or entering the sanctuary of a cathedral, only to have a tornado break through the roof and suck the visitor up into the whirlwind. “I’ve had patients who woke up pounding on the mattress, very agitated, struggling with the idea that they’re going to lose this battle,” says Rosalind Cartwright, chair of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. These dreams are warnings of unresolved issues. But by forcing attention to the underlying problems, nightmares may ultimately help the dreamer find peace. “Ignore them at your peril,” says Cartwright.

It is hardly surprising that pre-death dreams are more urgent, more vivid and more memorable than the run-of-the mill patchwork of dreams. “Throughout life, at acute stages of crisis and transition, the need to dream is intensified,” says psychologist Alan Siegel of the University of California, Berkeley. The more dramatic the event, the more the dreams cluster around solving related emotional issues. Pre-death dreams can be so intense that the dying mistake them for waking reality-especially when the dreams feature dead relatives.

Yet despite the power of these dreams, caregivers often miss the opportunity to explore their meaning. It’s a loss on both sides, according to Bulkley. Talking about end-of-life dreams can give family members a way to broach the uncomfortable topic of death, she says. For the dying, discussing such a dream can provide a simple way to articulate complex emotions-or, if the meaning of the dream is unclear, to fathom its purpose. And to the extent the dying person finds comfort in any such dream, so do surviving relatives. “These are the stories that get repeated at funerals,” says Bulkley. “They become part of the family lore.”

The authors resist the notion that pre-death dreams prove the existence of God. Yet the dying often interpret them as affirmations of faith. On her deathbed, a female cancer patient of Bulkley’s was stricken with doubts about the nature of God. For three nights in a row, she dreamed of huge boulders that pulsated with an eerie blue light. To her, they represented a divine being that was unidentifiable, but very real. “I don’t need to know anything more than that,” she told Bulkley. “God is God.” But she had one final dream. In it, the boulders morphed into steppingstones. In the distance a golden light glowed. “It’s calling me now, and I want to go,” she told Bulkley that morning. She died the next day-at peace.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005

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Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

(Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams 2003,
vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 49-60)

Abstract: This essay explores the influence of dreams and dreaming on the filmmaking of David Lynch. Focusing particular attention on Mulholland Drive (2001), Lost Highway (1997), Blue Velvet (1986), and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), the essay will discuss the multiple dream elements in Lynch’s work and how they have contributed to the broad cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreaming and movies in contemporary American society.

More than perhaps any other contemporary director, Lynch draws upon dream experience as a primal wellspring of his creative energy. Dreams and dreaming suffuse every moment of his approach to filmmaking. The disturbing impact of watching Mulholland Drive and his other works (especially Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and the television series Twin Peaks) derives in large part from his uncanny skill in using cinema as a means of conveying the moods, mysteries, and carnivalesque wildness of our dreams. One of his biographers, Chris Rodley, puts it this way:

“The feelings that excite him most are those that approximate the sensations and emotional traces of dreams: the crucial element of the nightmare that is impossible to communicate simply by describing events. Conventional film narrative, with its demand for logic and legibility, is therefore of little interest to Lynch…. Insecurity, estrangement, and lack of orientation and balance are sometimes so acute in Lynchland that the question becomes one of whether it is ever possible to feel ‘at home’…. If Lynch could be called a Surrealist, it is because of his interest in the ‘defamiliarization’ process and the waking/dream state—not in his frequent use of the absurd or the incongruous.” (Rodley, 1997)

On a first viewing Lynch’s works seem baldly psychoanalytic in their emotional preoccupations, almost to the point where there does not seem to be anything for a latter-day Freudian or Jungian to interpret. All the great passions of the unconscious are right there, out in the open, without any disguise, repression, or arcane symbolism. Although I do believe psychoanalytic film criticism has its uses, that is not the path I want to follow in this essay. My interest here is both more focused and more expansive. First, I want to identify and describe several specific means by which dreaming is woven into Lynch’s approach to filmmaking. These include the use of dreaming as a narrative structuring device, the inclusion of scenes in which characters experience a dream, the inclusion of dialogue in which characters discuss dreams, and the use of Lynch’s own dream experience as an inspirational source for his creative work. After that, I want to reflect on the role these multiple dream elements have played in the broader cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreams and movies in contemporary American society, and at the end of the essay I will suggest the common nickname for Hollywood—the “dream factory”—is not merely a figure of speech but is in fact an accurate description of the profoundly interactive influence of films on dreaming and dreaming on films. It is this mutual interplay of dreams and movies that ultimately interests me, and my hope is that this essay will open a new path toward a better understanding of that dynamic relationship.

Dreams and dreaming play several different roles in Lynch’s filmmaking. The following summary of the most prominent of these roles is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Indeed, a complete accounting of these roles would require a detailed review of Lynch’s whole body of work. But even the limited description I am offering should be sufficient to prove my basic point, which is that dreams and dreaming play an absolutely central role in his filmmaking process. Is there any director who does more than Lynch to integrate dreaming and filmmaking? Perhaps so; I would enjoy hearing someone try to make the case. For the present, I offer the following analysis not to prove Lynch’s superiority to other directors, but rather to illustrate the dream-inspired artistry of one particular director who has made, and is continuing to make, a substantial contribution to contemporary attitudes toward the dream-film connection.

Dreaming as Narrative Structure. For many viewers the most striking feature of Mulholland Drive (2001) is the abrupt rupture in the narrative about two-thirds of the way through the film. Although there are several other story threads woven in and out of Mulholland Drive, the main narrative follows the experiences of Betty (Naomi Watts), a pert young blond who has just arrived in Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress but who instead finds herself caught up in a dangerous mystery involving a dark-haired woman with amnesia (Laura Harring) who adopts the name “Rita” from a movie poster (among other things, Mulholland Drive is a wicked satire of the ultimate emptiness of “Hollywood dreams”). Betty and Rita find a little blue box that matches the strange blue key they found in Rita’s purse, but just when they go to put the key in the box, Betty all of a sudden wakes up—and even though it’s still her, it soon becomes clear that it’s not her, at least not the same person whose life viewers have been following for the past hour and a half. This Betty (now her name is Diane Selwyn) is darker, angrier, and full of bitterness and despair. Likewise, many of the same people from the earlier scenes are still present, but they are different, too, with different names, personalities, and relationships to one another. Confronted with all these sudden changes, viewers are forced into a radical reconsideration of their understanding of all the preceding scenes in the movie. Each new scene that follows this profound shift in the narrative takes on an added layer of meaning in its retrospective revelation of what was happening in the earlier scenes, and this in turn creates a mounting sense of inexplicable foreboding as the story builds to a climax. (A similar narrative rupture occurs in Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director the same year as Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Mulholland Drive. The different use of this narrative device in the two films is a good measure of the difference between mainstream Hollywood movies and Lynch’s distinctive, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” brand of filmmaking.)

When the film finally ends, with Betty’s/Diane’s horrific suicide, viewers are still left with several open questions about the precise relationship of the various scenes to each other. It is plausible to think of the “second” Betty as the “real” one, who was having a dream that involved the fantasized experiences of the “first” Betty (the image of a red pillow frames both ends of the “first” Betty’s scenes). But even that interpretation does not account for everything (e.g., how exactly does the willful director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) fit into the dreaming/waking interaction?), and in the end it seems contrary to the spirit of the movie to insist on any one explanatory framework.

The film Lost Highway (1997) also involves an unexpected rupture in the narrative. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician plagued by the fear that his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is being unfaithful to him. When she is found horribly murdered in their home, Fred is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death, even though he professes his innocence. While Fred is sitting despondently in his prison cell, something strange happens—and suddenly it’s not him any more, but a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sitting in the cell. The baffled authorities have no choice but to let Pete go, and he returns home to his parents and girlfriend. Viewers are naturally at a loss to explain what has happened, and whatever initial expectations they may have formed about where the story was going have been abruptly dashed. Funny things start happening to Pete, and soon he meets a beautiful, vivacious woman whom viewers immediately recognize as the same woman as Fred’s wife, even though she says her name is Alice Wakefield. Pete and Alice fall in love, but their torrid affair soon leads to violence, betrayal, and death. When Pete’s life has finally collapsed into ruins, when Alice has abandoned him and he realizes that his life has been completely destroyed, he suddenly disappears—and Fred is back. Dazed, Fred gets in his car and speeds away down a dark highway. The police are right behind him with flashing lights and red sirens, and the film ends with Fred becoming consumed by a violent physical frenzy.

So what was happening during the interlude with Pete? Was Fred having a dream? Did Fred really murder his wife (something hinted at by one of his dreams—more on that later), and in his abject despair did he fantasize being an entirely different person? And in the end was the fantasy not strong enough to escape the gravitational pull of the agonies of his “real life?” I am reminded of the famous painting called “The Prisoner’s Dream” in which a downtrodden young man is sleeping in a jail cell, while an ethereal version of himself lifts off from his body and soars through the metal bars at the window, out into the freedom of the air and the light. The painting testifies to the power of dreaming to relieve people’s suffering by imagining different and better lives for themselves. Freud’s notion of dreams as disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes is based on this power, and even though Lynch is reluctant to endorse any psychoanalytic interpretation of his films he does grant that what happens to Fred in Lost Highway could be considered a “psychogenic fugue,” i.e. a form of amnesia involving a flight from reality. He says he had never heard of that mental condition before making the film, but appreciated learning about it later—“it sounds like such a beautiful thing—‘psychogenic fugue.’ It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality. I think it’s beautiful, even if it didn’t mean anything.” (Rodley, 1997)

Does it mean anything, then, that Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive end ambiguously, tantalizing viewers with unanswered questions about the basic narrative structure of the films? If nothing else, this had the perhaps predictable consequence of stimulating widespread criticism from viewers who accused the films of being too hard to understand. In the eyes of many viewers, Lynch had failed a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to tell a coherent story. According to critics, either he didn’t know how to present a comprehensible narrative, or he didn’t want to because he was more interested in self-indulgent artistry than in communicating with an audience.

The modest box office returns for both movies underscores this failure to attract or satisfy a broad public audience. In appraising Lynch’s films it must be noted that they have always earned more critical than commercial success, indicating that the appeal of his work may be very intense for a limited group of people (he has a remarkable number of passionately devoted fans) but does not extend very far into the general population. Although I would grant the criticism that some of his films are more emotionally effective and aesthetically powerful than others (for example, I would argue that Blue Velvet is a better film than Wild at Heart), I believe it misses the point to condemn Lynch’s films for their failure to provide clear, conventional narrative frameworks for their viewers. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway remind me of certain Hindu myths in which people become so entangled in each other’s dreams and dreams-within-dreams that readers cannot help but feel confused about the basic existential question of what is real. For example, the Yogavasistha, a philosophical treatise written sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries C.E. in Kashmir, tells the story of a hunter meeting a sage in the woods. The sage telling the hunter a story about how the sage once entered the dream of someone else and lived in that person’s world until it was suddenly destroyed by a flood at doomsday; then the sage thinks he wakes up, but another sage comes and tells him they are both characters in someone else’s dream. This makes the first sage wake up again, and he now realizes he needs to get back to his real body. He isn’t sure how to do this, however, and the story ends with no clear-cut resolution to his dilemma. Commenting on this myth, historian of religions Wendy Doniger says

“As the tale progresses, we realize that our confusion is neither our own mistake nor the mistake of the author of the text; it is a device of the narrative, constructed to make us realize how impossible and, finally, how irrelevant it is to attempt to determine the precise level of consciousness at which we are existing. We cannot do it, and it does not matter.” (Doniger, 2001)

The Hindu myths, like Lynch’s films, draw upon the powerful realness of dreaming to frustrate people’s conventional narrative expectations and provoke new reflection and new self-awareness. Their dreamy visions are enticing invitations to explore experiential realms beyond the boundaries of ordinary rational consciousness and personal identity.

Dream Scenes. Many characters in Lynch’s films are shown having experiences that are explicitly identified as dreams. These scenes all include the basic elements of a character going to sleep, dreaming, then waking up and trying to figure out what the dream means. Here are three examples:

Fred in Lost Highway tells his wife Renee about a dream he had in which he comes into their house and hears her calling his name. He sees a fire blazing in the fireplace, and pink smoke coming from the hall. He walks into their bedroom and finds her—“There you were….lying in bed….but it wasn’t you….It looked like you….but it wasn’t.”(Hughes, 2001). Renee looks up at him and suddenly screams, as if being struck by something, and then Fred wakes up. Deeply shaken, he looks across the bed to the “real” Renee for reassurance. But instead of his wife he sees the leering face of “The Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), a demonic figure who haunts Fred throughout the film (In a case of life imitating art, Blake was recently arrested for the murder of his wife). Fred cries out in terror, turns on the light switch, and finds his wife right there, looking at him with concern. He lays back in bed, shaking.

Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives

Paper Presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
Berkeley, California  —  June 25, 2005


This study examines the dreams of American liberals and conservatives in order to highlight patterns that might correlate with their opposing political views. A total of 234 participants (134 self-described liberals, 100 self-described conservatives) completed a lengthy sleep and dream survey, and their answers revealed several notable patterns:

  • The liberals and conservatives in this study are not radically different species, at least when it comes to sleep and dreaming. People of both political persuasions share a common substrate of basic human sleep and dream experience.
  • Conservatives sleep more soundly, with fewer dreams. Liberals have more restless sleep and a more active dream life. Conservatives sleep somewhat longer, with better sleep quality; they recall fewer dreams, but report more lucid dreams (especially conservative men). Liberals (particularly liberal women) have worse sleep quality, recall a greater number and variety of dreams, and have more dreams of homosexuality.
  • Liberals and conservatives report a roughly equal proportion of bad dreams and nightmares. This is different from my earlier study (using dreams gathered from 1996-2000), when the conservatives had many more nightmarish dreams than the liberals. In the present study (using dreams gathered post-September 11, 2001 to the end of 2004), the conservative frequency of negative dreams is somewhat less, while the liberal frequency is much higher. It appears liberals have become more upset and troubled in their dreams, while conservatives have become less so in theirs.
  • The dreams of liberals are more bizarre than the dreams of conservatives. This is consistent with my earlier findings. Liberals have more dreams with unusual, distorted, fantastic elements than conservatives, whose dreams are more likely to portray normal characters, settings, and activities.

The similarities and differences identified here may be artifacts of my study’s small sample size. Only future research can determine that. In the meantime, any interpretation remains provisional. With that caution in mind, if we follow the research premise that dream content is continuous with waking life emotional concerns, the results of this study may be interpreted as follows:

These dreams provide an accurate reflection of contemporary American politics. The current political weakness of liberals (especially liberal women) is reflected in their troubled sleep and varied, agitated dreaming. The current political strength of conservatives (especially conservative men) is reflected in their sounder sleep and diminished frequency and variation of dreaming.

“I was friends with George W. Bush and we were working together on his ranch. I was happy to be there.”

36-year old conservative woman from Pennsylvania

“I had a nightmare that Bush had won the Presidential election by getting 80% of the vote.”

23-year old liberal woman from Ohio