Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jealous paranoia cannot distinguish between dreaming and waking in one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest works.

There are several reasons why “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has generally been considered one of Shakespeare’s minor plays.  It’s an absurd, bawdy farce set in an English country village around 1600, bereft of any epic characters, grand locales, or soaring lyrical speeches.  Revolving around the rakish antics of Sir John Falstaff, the play comes across as an entertaining trifle filled with sexual puns, slapstick comedy, and a variety of ridiculous schemes, disguises, and deceptions.  This may all be true, yet it overlooks an interesting element of darkness in The Merry Wives, an element that elicits the only references to dreaming in the play.

Master Ford is the husband of one of the two wives of the title, and there is very little merriment about him.  On the contrary, he stands out among the other characters for the intensity of his one driving emotion—jealousy.  Master Ford also stands out for his moral rigidity and insufferable pompousness, but it’s the jealousy that really defines him and motivates his behavior.  He says as much in a brief soliloquy, after meeting the other wife, Mistress Page, and hearing her talk about Falstaff.  Master Ford immediately concludes that both his wife and Master Page’s wife are having romantic affairs with Falstaff, and he criticizes Master Page for failing to keep close enough watch over his faithless spouse: “Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure, they sleep; he hath no use of them” (III.ii.26-28).

Master Ford decides that, despite other people’s doubts, he will wake everyone up by revealing the true sinfulness of these “revolted wives.”  He will appear suddenly at his house and catch the lecherous Falstaff in the act: “There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go” (III.ii.42-45).

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Kelly BulkeleyIn the next scene a supremely confident Master Ford brings a group of companions to his house to apprehend Falstaff.  His wife, in the midst of sending out the dirty laundry, denies that Sir John is there.  Master Ford contemplates the laundry basket, which is about to be sent out for “buck-washing” (a traditional means of laundering clothes by soaking and rinsing them repeatedly with lye, ash, or urine), and utters some strange lines: “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck—and of the season too, it shall appear” (III.iii.155-157).

Several sexual allusions are compressed into Master Ford’s odd little speech.  Unfortunately for him, while he is fixated on the multiple meanings of “buck,” the laundry basket containing the hidden Falstaff is taken out of the house.  Now Master Page turns to his companions and makes a bold declaration: “Gentlemen, I have dreamed tonight. I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers; search, seek, find out. I warrant we’ll unkennel the fox” (III.iii.158-162).

His use of “dream” here, the first mention of the term in the play, is meant ironically.  It seems unlikely that Master Ford is referencing an actual dream; rather, he’s playing with the term, to enhance the impressiveness of his ultimate victory.  Master Ford is framing what he believes will be his triumphant discovery of Falstaff as a prophetic dream: last night he dreamed of something that will be revealed to his companions when they find Sir John, the implication being that Master Ford foresaw the infidelity in his dream, and now his companions will see tangible proof that his dream has come true and he was right all along.

But there are at least a couple layers of deeper irony to his “dream” that Master Ford does not seem to recognize.  First, his companions do not find Falstaff in the house, so his allegedly prophetic dream fails to come true as he so grandly predicted it would.  Second, the certainty he feels about this dream, and about his wife’s sinfulness, is actually based on his own vain and substance-free fantasy that he assumes is as solid as the earth itself.  And third, if he had not been so absorbed in his resentful musings (“buck, buck, buck!”), he might have noticed that Falstaff was in fact right in front of him; so Master Ford’s dream did come true, but he was too captivated by his jealousy to realize it.  By making the self-aggrandizing claim that he had received a miraculous dream revelation of Falstaff’s illicit presence in his house, Master Ford only magnifies the humiliating mockery he feared would be the result of his efforts to unmask the sinners all around him.

Perhaps Master Ford would have let it go at this point, but then he hears Falstaff (who is himself thoroughly deluded about what’s actually happening) brag that he has already enjoyed the delights of Mistress Page and is planning to return to her house as soon as possible.  This seems to confirm Master Ford’s worst fears, and his jealousy heats to a full boil.  In another brooding soliloquy right after Falstaff leaves, Master Page repudiates sleep and dreaming and forces himself to face what he thinks is a damnable reality: “Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole made in your best coat, Master Ford!”  (III.v.137-140)

Again, the irony is that by forcing himself to “awake,” he is actually descending even further into his jealousy-fueled fantasy.  By rejecting dreaming, he is rejecting something that could in fact provide him with accurate insight into the perception-warping effects of his violent passions and emotional insecurities.

The production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the actress K.T. Vogt as Falstaff, a brilliant piece of casting that breathed new life into the old rogue and his errant codpiece.  Master Ford was played by Rex Young, an OSF veteran whose evocation of fragile male pride was strong enough to drive the plot forward, but not so strong as to overwhelm the delightful antics of everyone else.  The aesthetic design of the OSF production was shaped by the giddy, gaudy 80’s, with pastel clothing and bouncy music, and in Master Ford’s second soliloquy, which ends with an angry pledge to fight back against his tormentors (“I’ll be horn-mad”), the musical accompaniment is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads—a perfect touch for the dramatic moment.  Master Ford is indeed committing himself to the darkest of purposes, and yet he does so to the beat of an irresistibly danceable song.

Perhaps “The Merry Wives” seems like a minor work because the shadow elements are limited to one character and never become so intense that they overwhelm the lighter elements of love, laughter, and play.  But those darker energies are there, and are a significant part of the story.  Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the seemingly illusory experience of dreaming provides a portal into hidden realms of emotion and desire that reflect the deepest and most honest realities of human life.

The final scene of the play is a festive forest spectacle in which the main characters disguise themselves as a troop of mischievous fairies and “moonshine revelers” in order to scare the poor Falstaff out of his wits.  This scene includes an evocation of sleep and dreaming that seems to reflect contemporary folk beliefs about the magical wonders and dangers of the night.  When Falstaff sees what he thinks are fairies coming, he falls to the ground and covers his eyes, because of the legend that fairies will kill those who look upon them without permission.  A moment later the first fairy (the parson Sir Hugh Evans) arrives and issues the following command to the other fairies:

“Where’s Bede? Go you, and where you find a maid

That ere she sleep has thrice her prayers said,

Raise up the organs of her fantasy,

Sleep she as sound as careless infancy.

But those as sleep and think not on their sins,

Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins.” (V.v.52-57)

Some versions of Shakespeare have “Bead” instead of “Bede.”  To me, “Bede” makes more sense as a reference to the 8th c. monk Bede and his famous work of astronomy The Reckoning of Time.  In Shakespeare’s time Bede was still considered an authority on lunar events and the impact of the moon on earthly life.  I don’t know what “Where’s Bead?” would mean in this context (there’s no reference to a character with that name), but “Where’s Bede?” could mean something like, “Where’s our authority on the moon, because this is certainly a realm under a strong lunar influence?”  It’s the kind of thing an Elizabethan might typically say upon first entering a beautiful moonlit glade at night.

The rest of the passage suggests a sharp religious dichotomy: prayers and spiritual humility can protect against fairy attacks and prompt restful sleep and inspiring dreams (“raise up the organs of her fantasy”), while people who do not pray or “think on their sins” will suffer sharp pains all over their bodies during sleep. This scene has strong echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written a few years earlier, and of other plays in which sleep and dreaming are presented as eternal battlegrounds between competing supernatural beings fighting over our souls.  This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s personal view, but it does reflect widely held beliefs among his culture and the members of his audience.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly BulkeleyTo be a king, one must give up sleep and dreams in favor of the ruling duties of waking life.

This is the grim truth that animates much of the action in Henry IV Part II.  The second chapter of prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V contains two of the most vivid references to sleep and dreaming in all of Shakespeare’s works.  Hal’s father, King Henry IV, suffers from an agonizing inability to sleep, prompting him to exclaim the famous line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  At the climax of the play, the newly crowned King Henry V publicly humiliates and cruelly disavows his old friend Sir John Falstaff, comparing him to a foolish dream—“but, being awaked, I do despise my dream.”

Below are all the references to sleep and dreams in the play, with brief comments.  The play is currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.  The outstanding cast includes Jeffrey King as King Henry IV, Daniel Jose Molina as prince Hal, and G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff.

 

I.ii.45

Falstaff: “Well, he may sleep in security; for he hath the horn of abundance, and the lightness of his wife shines through it…”

Sir John Falstaff is appearing here for the first time in the play, and he immediately becomes angry that a tailor will not accept his “security,” i.e. his pledge to pay his debts.  Falstaff cannot provide the security the tailor demands, so instead the old rogue pivots to a different meaning of “security,” insulting the tailor by suggesting he’s a cuckold (with horns), unaware of his wife’s infidelity (lightness) while he sleeps in apparent safety and ease.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

I.ii.111-113

Falstaff: “This apoplexy, as I take it, is a kind of lethargy, an’t please your lordship, a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”

The Chief Justice has just entered the scene, and he demands to speak with Sir John about his criminal behavior.  Falstaff avoids the question by asking the Chief Justice about the health of the king, Henry IV, who is reportedly ill with “apoplexy.”  The king has been losing his vitality and energy through a “kind of sleeping in the blood,” and Falstaff wants the Chief Justice to focus on what will happen when the king is dead—prince Hal, the good friend of Sir John, will ascend to the throne, and he will not look kindly on the mistreatment of his closest pals.  Falstaff’s medical diagnosis of the king is a thinly-veiled threat against the Chief Justice.

I.ii.153-154

Chief Justice: “But since all is well, keep it so. Wake not a sleeping wolf.”

The Chief Justice does not press the point, but he gives Falstaff a warning of his own.  The proverb suggests that a prudent person will recognize the benefit of allowing a violent beast to remain in peaceful slumber.

II.i.76-77

Hostess: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his. But I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o’nights like the mare.”

Falstaff: “I think I am as like to ride the mare, if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”

Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern, complains to the Chief Justice about the money Falstaff owes her and refuses to pay.  Having no other recourse, she threatens to harass the old rogue in his sleep like a nightmare.  Sir John deflects her anger by transforming the nightmare curse into a bawdy invitation.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

II.ii.86-88

Bardolph: “Away, you whoreson upright rabbit, away!”

Page: “Away, you rascally Althaea’s dream, away!”

Prince: “Instruct us, boy; what dream, boy?”

Page: “Marry, my lord, Althaea dreamt she was delivered of a firebrand; and therefore I call him her dream.”

Prince: “A crown’s worth of good interpretation. There ‘tis, boy.”

This scene starts with prince Hal and his disreputable companion Poins discussing the king’s illness, and Hal’s unwillingness to show his true feelings.  Then Bardolph and the young Page arrive, two bumbling fools with a message from Falstaff.  Poins makes fun of Bardolph’s red face (discolored from drink), and the Page reveals that Bardolph was recently with a prostitute.  The furious Bardolph chases after the Page, who calls him “Althaea’s dream.” Prince Hal takes interest in this, and asks what the boy means.  The Page responds by mistakenly combining two classic mythological tales.  Althaea was an ancient Greek queen who killed her own son by burning a brand (piece of wood) that, so it was prophesied at his birth, would cause his death if ever consumed by fire. Hecuba was a Trojan queen who had a dream while pregnant that she gives birth to a firebrand; the child she bore from that pregnancy, her son Paris, was the impetuous warrior who abducted Helen, sparking the war that led to the destruction of their city.  Several other Shakespearean plays make accurate references to the story of Hecuba, so it seems likely the Page’s conflation of the two stories is intentional and not a mistake of Shakespeare’s.  Does prince Hal know or care if the Page’s mythology is accurate?  Maybe not, but the prince does appreciate a fine display of wit.  Hal plays along with the dream theme by offering the Page a small payment (the crown) for the pleasing interpretation, just as if he were consulting a diviner in the marketplace.

II.iv.200-201

Pistol: “What! Shall we have incision?  Shall we imbrue? [Snatching up his sword.]

Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!”

The Ancient Pistol, one of the rowdy soldiers who hang around the tavern, gets in a drunken brawl with Falstaff.  The notion of death as a kind of sleep is pervasive in Shakespeare, and in classical mythology.

II.iv.382-386

Falstaff: “Farewell, hostess. Farewell, Doll. You see, my good wenches, how men of merit are sought after. The undeserver may sleep when the man of action is called on. Farewell, good wenches.”

Sir John was just about to go to bed with his female companions, but he is suddenly informed that a dozen of the king’s men are waiting at the door for him.  Falstaff realizes he can no longer escape the military service that a nobleman like himself must perform.  He thus turns necessity into a virtue and presents himself to his lady friends as a man of extraordinary importance whose sage presence the king desires immediately.  The moral contrast between he draws between a virtuous man of action like himself and a slothful “undeserver” is undercut by the fact that Falstaff was just about to retire for the evening, until forced by a troop of soldiers to do otherwise.

III.i.4-17, 26-31

King: “How many thousands of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,

And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile

In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch

A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?…

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The next scene occurs in the palace, where the aging king Henry IV appears “in his nightgown,” desperately desiring to sleep and yet unable to do so.  Falstaff’s fantasy of the wakeful “man of action” is belied by the painful reality of mighty ruler who is strangely impotent in the domain of sleep.  Alone with his insomnia, the king broods over the baffling irony of sleep bestowing its gifts to the lowliest of people in the worst of circumstances, and yet denying any comfort or rest to the greatest and most powerful man of all.  These ruminations prompt the king to utter perhaps the most famous line in the play, an honest reckoning with the cost he has paid for the power he seized and hopes to pass on to his son.

IV.ii.37-42

Archbishop: “I sent your Grace

The parcels and particulars of our grief,

The which hath been scorn shov’d from the court,

Whereon this hydra son of war is born;

Whose dangerous eyes my well be charm’d asleep

With grant of our most just and right desires…”

The Archbishop and the other rebels against the king have met to negotiate with his son, prince John.  The Archbishop diplomatically suggests that the monstrous violence of war, which once set loose can grow horribly out of control, may be “charm’d asleep” if the king will simply grant their legitimate grievances.  The prince seems to agree.  But it soon turns out he was in fact charming the Archbishop; as soon as the rebel troops are released, the prince seizes the Archbishop and other rebellion leaders and sends them to their execution.

IV.iv.65-68

King: “The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,

In forms imaginary, th’unguided days

And rotten times that you shall look upon

When I am sleeping with my ancestors.”

On the verge of death, the king sadly anticipates the wasteful, unruly behavior of his son Hal, who will inherit the crown once the king is gone.  Even when he is on the brink of succumbing to the eternal sleep of death, the king cannot help worrying about the world he will leave behind in the hands of his degenerate child.

IV.iv.135-138

Gloucester: “The people fear me, for they do observe

Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.

The seasons change their manners, as the year

Had found some months asleep and leaped them over.”

The ailing king’s closest allies gather in the palace and speak darkly about what will happen next.  The Duke of Gloucester describes strange omens and worrisome changes in the weather that seem to foretell conflict ahead.  Here is another metaphorical contrast between sleeping passivity and waking action.

IV.iv.20-21

Warwick: “Not so much noise, my lords. Sweet Prince, speak low;

The King your father is dispos’d to sleep.”

Now, at the very end of his reign and his life, sleep briefly returns to the king.

IV.iv.26-30, 39-42

Prince: “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! Golden care!

That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide

To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!…

My gracious lord! My father!

This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep

That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d

So many English kings.”

Prince Hal enters the bed chamber of his father, where the golden crown sits on a pillow next to the slumbering monarch.  Hal is initially puzzled by this, since he knows the bitter impact of this band of metal on his father’s sleep.  But then the prince thinks his father has slipped into an eternal sleep, and he resolves himself to honor his father’s noble death by taking up the crown and devoting his life to upholding their royal lineage.

IV.iv.73-74,

King: “Is he so hasty that he doth suppose

My sleep my death?…

For this the foolish overcareful fathers

Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care…”

After the prince leaves his father’s bed chamber, the king briefly awakens and worries that Hal has greedily snatched the crown before the king is even dead.  This fear sets up their final deathbed reconciliation, and Hal pledges that once he becomes King it will be time “to show the incredulous world the noble change that I have purposed.”  Reassured by his son’s promise to rule wisely and well, King Henry IV dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V.

V.v.52-56

Falstaff: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

Prince: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.”

Falstaff assumes his greatest wish has come true—his criminal protégé, the young prince, has become the new king, and he will surely give Sir John total freedom and license to indulge his many, many appetites.  This has been Falstaff’s plan and expectation since the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, and now at the end of Part II, he celebrates the rise of his “sweet boy” to the throne.  But this turns out to be the moment when Falstaff’s wishes are not only dashed but utterly annihilated in five cold, cutting lines of verse.  The newly crowned King repudiates everything having to do with Falstaff, using language that echoes a famous biblical warning against dreams in Psalm 73:20: “They are like a dream when one awakes, on awaking you despise their phantoms.” (RSV)  This particular psalm asks God why He allows wicked people to prosper in the world, and the psalmist concludes that God will eventually cause them to fall into ruin and be swept away, just as wispy dreams disappear in the light of morning.  The new king casts Falstaff in this biblical mold, and in so doing he both rejects Sir John and identifies himself as a traditional, righteous king who is a vigorous man of action, not a dreamer.  Even though he admits that this man has been a long-time presence in his life, Henry V is now focused entirely on his duties to the future.

As the play ends, I cannot help asking: will the new king suffer the same deep psychological damage, the same painful alienation from his sleeping and dreaming self, that plagued the old king?

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about a new book, Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought, by Sharon Sliwinski, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Sliwinski approaches dreaming as a powerful resource for political theory and action, especially in times when basic human freedoms are most at risk. That we today are living in such times has become impossible to ignore.

But throughout history, in times of collective crisis, people’s dreams have often responded with a surge of imagery, emotion, and insight that help people respond more effectively and creatively to the pressing challenges facing their group in waking life. This is also true in the modern era, as Sliwinski’s fascinating and beautifully written book makes clear.

As she explores the political sociology of the dreaming imagination, Sliwinski’s main guides are Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Michel Foucault) and Hannah Arendt. It is the deep dive into Arendt’s philosophy that gives Dreaming in Dark Times its inspiring vision and potent timeliness. Arendt was a twentieth-century political theorist born in Germany who fled the Holocaust in World War II and lived in the United States until her death in 1975. Her writings focused on such topics as totalitarianism, freedom, authority, and revolution. Sliwinski draws her book’s title from Arendt’s notion of “dark times,” which Sliwinski describes as follows:

“Dark times are turbulent political moments in which the public realm has been infected with a kind of black light… [Arendt] marked these eras by a certain kind of suppression of speech and public declaration, and simultaneously, by an all-too-public display of evildoing. In dark times, social and political violence is both overtly visible and yet oddly difficult to recognize… She noticed that human speech becomes divested of its power to represent and transmit the truth during these periods. A kind of perverse language emerges instead that tends to serve those who wish to prolong the distorted political situation… This kind of language is designed to obfuscate reality, thwarting the citizenry’s capacity for thought.” (xviii)

I cannot think of a more apt analysis of the current American political environment. But the frightening realization that we are indeed living through dark times is immediately tempered by Sliwinski’s inspiring appeal to the potency of dreaming:

“This book aims to show how dream-life can serve to reanimate a world that has been flattened by dark times. Dreams are a crucial resource for regaining a measure of freedom in our thought and speech, serving as a vital landscape to recover our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world.” (xix)

I encourage not only dream researchers but anyone concerned about current politics to read this book and study it closely. I will have more to say about it at the upcoming online conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, September 25.

Here, I’d like to mention four other writers and journalists who are trying to make sense of today’s frightening political and cultural trends by using dreams and dream-related modes of thought and reflection. I want to give an admiring tip of the cap to those who are pushing back against the flattening and dehumanizing effects of dark times, and doing so in ways that emerge organically out of human dreaming experience.

1. Kathleen Parker’s op-ed column on August 1, 2017, begins with this:

“Insidious is the force that causes us to dream of things we wish (or don’t wish) were so. Thus, on the eve of this column’s creation, I dreamed of Donald J. Trump. We were seated at a dinner table for eight, but the other six chairs were empty. We spoke of many things, from education to globalization and the near-universal crisis of identity. The president was courtly, humble, erudite and wise. I awoke suddenly to the harsh sounds of braying asses (I had left the TV on), only to realize that I was actually dreaming of Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated presidential candidate who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in part because of his excess erudition. In today’s clever-ish jargon, he was too thinky. Mine was a dream of wishes, obviously, for we suffer no such excesses now.”

Parker goes on to contrast the brilliant, intellectually curious Stevenson with the humble, plain-spoken General Eisenhower, and she observes that Trump falls far short of both men. For years Parker has bemoaned the rise of Twitter as a means of political communication, so the new regime is truly the apocalypse for her. She worries that “civilization doesn’t seem as securely tethered as it once was,” a process of social unraveling that started decades ago (for conservatives this usually means the liberal reforms of the 1960’s), but has accelerated in recent years because of technology and the chaotic pace of modern life, with damaging effects on people’s cognitive capacities for sustained attention and clear thinking.

I don’t entirely agree with her account of how the 2016 election was won and lost, but that doesn’t matter because the heart of her column, and I suspect the concern left in her mind after her dream, came in the final paragraphs:

“But what now? In just over six months in office, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, shatter our international standing, demonstrate no leadership ability or essential knowledge, fire or replace people in key positions, and exacerbate global tensions with his lack of discipline, maturity and self-control. Who can save us from ourselves? There are still plenty of deep thinkers out there, but who is listening? Who is reading? Who among those who can contemplate the future — as opposed to retweeting this-just-happened — is even willing to lead? And what, finally, is leadership in an era when centuries-old institutions are failing and commonly shared beliefs are no longer common or shared? Well, somebody. Someone who has consulted history to understand present and future challenges, who understands the role and risks of technology — and who can help people understand the daily chaos with the erudition of Stevenson, the humanity of Eisenhower and the wisdom of one we’ve yet to know.”

If we take Parker at her published word, her strangely wishful dream of Donald Trump and Adlai Stevenson prompted her to write a searing cry of political conscience and a prophetic call for true leadership in a time of gathering darkness. For other conservatives who claim to care about preserving traditions and promoting moral character, her dream is a direct challenge to their continued support of someone who is clearly intent on tearing all of that down.

2. In “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’” economist Robert Shiller examines a problematic shift over the past few decades in the cultural meanings attached to the hallowed phrase “the American Dream.” At the time of its earliest documented usage, the phrase evoked the ideals of “freedom, mutual respect, and equality of opportunity.” But in recent times the emphasis on freedom and equality has diminished, and in its place has arisen a singular material focus on purchasing real estate and owning a private home, a trend the Trump regime has strongly promoted. Given his long expertise as an academic analyst of the housing industry, Shiller’s stern warning against this approach is worth taking seriously: “One thing is clear: bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest.” Instead, Shiller calls for economic policies guided by the original, dynamic sense of the American Dream as “a trajectory to a promising future.”

3. A review by Chris Richards of Lana Del Rey’s new album “Lust for Life” takes the phenomenology of dreaming as an interpretive key to understanding not only artistic creativity but also the political cross-currents of a radically destabilized world. Richards’ review, titled “Lana Del Rey Suddenly Sounds Like the Poet Laureate of Post-Truth,” initially takes Del Rey to task for the insular, detached dreaminess of her previous work (i.e., “the old stuff, which only ever made Del Rey sound like she was dream-journaling on Xanax”). But now, Richards suggests, the head-spinning surrealism of modern society has reached a point where Del Rey’s dreamy, free associational songs are surprisingly relevant. I don’t know her music very well, but I do appreciate Richards’ final words, which seem consistent with Del Rey’s aesthetic: “Parsing our dreams teaches us how to separate what’s real from what’s unknowable. As imaginative beings, exercising that literacy is one of life’s great pleasures. As citizens, it’s suddenly become one of our greatest responsibilities.”

4. An op-ed by Charles Blow, “America’s Whiniest ‘Victim’”, catalogs the various ways in which the new President has complained about unfair treatment by others. Blow is a relentless and passionate critic of the President, and the intensity of his language may seem extreme. But in the final third of the column Blow makes reference to the psychological process of projection, a process quite familiar to anyone who works closely with dreams. Suddenly, using this concept of projection, Blow’s insights come into sharp relief. He says Trump is “a projectionist: He is so consumed by his insecurities that he projects them onto others… The flaws he sees are the ones he possesses.” This isn’t a dream analysis per se, but it illustrates the power of using concepts and methods honed in the study of dreams to analyze political and cultural realities.

Note: this essay first appeared on HuffPost, August 24, 2017.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming

 Enlightenment philosophers helped to spark the scientific revolution, but they were not always accurate or justified in their assumptions about dreaming.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) played a vital role in promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  These ideals included a trust in human reason, a corresponding distrust in authority and received opinion, and a demand that people who make theoretical claims about nature, society, the mind, etc., must offer empirical evidence to back up their assertions.

These powerful principles of the Enlightenment set the stage for the scientific and technological revolutions that have changed the world over the past few hundred years.  The digital technologies we use and enjoy today have emerged directly out of this cultural lineage reaching back to Locke and his contemporaries.  Unfortunately, many Enlightenment philosophers made false and misguided claims about dreaming that have also shaped the lineage of our digital world.  If we want to create a healthy ecosystem for technologically enhanced dream exploration, we have to make sure we accept and trust the philosophical assumptions built into that ecosystem.

In his greatest work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690), Locke explains how the mind works and the process by which humans gain true knowledge about the world and themselves. Early in the book he delves into the topic of sleep and dreaming, because he recognizes that the functioning of the mind while awake is quite different from the functioning of the mind while asleep.  Locke is here confronting a key question that many philosophers before and after him have tried to answer: how does mental activity during sleep relate to mental activity while awake?

Unfortunately, Locke makes two false assumptions about human dreaming experience right at the outset, false in Locke’s own sense of being contradicted by empirical evidence.  These assumptions allow Locke to make several other claims that do not square with actual scientific research on sleep and dreaming.  I will address those further claims in a later post; here, I want to focus on the first two missteps, to see as clearly as possible where Locke initially goes astray.

The first comes in Book II, chapter 1, section 14, when Locke is discussing the nature of ideas and the issue of whether people can dream without remembering it.  In this section he asserts, “Most men, I think, pass a great part of their sleep without dreaming.” He then mentions a scholarly friend who never dreamed until he was in his mid-twenties, after a fever.  Locke goes on to say, “I suppose the world affords more such instances: at least everyone’s acquaintance will furnish him with examples enough of such, as pass most of their nights without dreaming.”

The empirical reality is more complex than Locke suggests.  Modern sleep laboratory research flatly contradicts his claim.  If someone sleeping in a laboratory is awakened at certain points in the sleep cycle, the chances are extremely high that the person will recall some kind of dreaming content.  Research on “non-dreamers” by James Pagel has shown the proportion of such people appears to be very unusual in the general population.  Dozens of studies have shown high levels of regular dream recall people from all demographic groups, all across the social and cultural spectrum.

Locke is right that many people rarely remember their dreams. But he is wrong to suggest that such people are somehow typical or normal, and he makes a major mistake in dismissing from his philosophical theory the mental activities of other people who do remember their dreams frequently.

It might seem unfair to judge Locke’s 17th century claims using 20th and 21st century research.  But he did mention, as evidence for his claim, the experience of one of his friends, which means he did at least this much investigation on his own.  Did he ever talk with anyone else about their sleep and dream experiences?  Did his circle of acquaintances include anyone who was a vivid dreamer? Apparently not, because Locke offered no other empirical support for his assertion than this one friend.  That strikes me as a weak foundation for building a larger argument about the nature of the mind.

The second assumption comes in section 16 of the same chapter, in which Locke describes the rational workings of the soul, which he insists occur only in the waking state:

“‘Tis true, we have sometimes instances of perception, whilst we are asleep, and retain the memory of those thoughts; but how extravagant and incoherent for the most part they are; how little conformable to the perfection and order of a rational being, those who are acquainted with dreams, need not be told.”

Locke offers nothing to support this claim; he suggests it is self-evidently true to anyone who is “acquainted” with dreams.  The assumption that dreams are characterized by rampant bizarreness continues into the present day, despite there now being several decades of solid empirical research showing that most dreams are, in fact, rather mundane and non-bizarre.  Most dreams, it turns out, revolve around familiar people, familiar places, and familiar activities.  Many dreams are indistinguishable from people’s descriptions of ordinary events in waking life. Of course there are strange and outlandish things happening in dreams, too, but research on dream content shows that such bizarre elements are not a pervasive and overwhelming quality of dreaming as such.

Again, Locke could have gained this insight if he had taken the time to talk with a few different people about their actual dream experiences.  It would not have been difficult for him to reach the empirical conclusion that dreaming includes a mix of both bizarre and non-bizarre elements. But Locke evidently felt his philosophical ideas required him to mute or eliminate entirely the possibility of significant mental activity in sleep, and so he did his best to discourage any further attention to this realm of the mind.

The irony is that this topic of bizarreness is actually an excellent example of where dream researchers have put Locke’s principles into practice, to wonderfully liberating effect.  Empirical studies of thousands of dream reports, using careful and systematic methods of analysis, have produced results that have overturned an authoritative but irrational assumption, transforming a false opinion into true knowledge.  Locke’s powerful method is an excellent means of refuting Locke’s weak assumptions.

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Note: all the references to research findings are cited in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Keeping a Dream Journal

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyFor anyone interested in learning more about dreaming, I have a simple piece of advice: keep a dream journal.  Record your dreams on a regular basis, track their themes and patterns over time, and you will discover through your own experience many of the key psychological principles that shape the general process of dreaming.  

Beyond that, you may find your journal becomes a unique personal treasure—an invaluable source of insight into your most important concerns, activities, and relationships in the waking world.

You can start a journal at any time by making some retroactive entries.  For example, write out the earliest dream you ever remember, even if it was just a tiny fragment or wispy image.  There it is, the beginning of a dream journal!

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyHave you ever had a dream of flying, or being chased, or having an intense sexual experience, or seeing someone who is dead appear as if they were alive again?  Write those out, too.  Do you remember any recurrent dreams?  That’s very important to note, because recurrent dreams provide one of the best points of entry for a study of the long-term themes and patterns in your dreaming.

Recording especially memorable dreams from the past can be a good way of initiating a dream journaling practice going forward into the future.  Regular journal-keepers typically place a pad of paper and a pen next to their bedside, and when they wake up with a dream in mind they immediately write it down.  Because these bedside notes are often scrawled in semi-legible form, people will usually transcribe their dreams later in the day, into either better handwriting or a computer word processing system.

People today may want to use voice-to-text programs on their cell phones, which can be just as effective for those who know how to manage the technology.  Whatever method is used, the main goal is to set up a smooth, friction-free process to record as much of the dream as can be remembered, as soon upon awakening as possible.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyIt is worthwhile to include information about one’s sleep patterns in the journal, since the conditions of sleep often make a significant impact on the dreaming process.  Ideally, each entry has the date, the location where you are sleeping, the time you go to sleep, the time you wake up, and a subjective assessment of the quality of your sleep (e.g., good, fair, poor).  If you do not remember any dreams for that night, at least you have gathered some useful information about your sleep.

If you do remember a dream, the key is to record it in as much detail as you can manage, including aspects of your internal experience (e.g., what you were thinking or feeling during the dream).  When people narrate their dreams they typically leave out numerous details that seem too trivial or obvious to mention.  Yet it is precisely these seemingly worthless details that often become highly significant in later explorations.

Take your time when initially recording a dream, and don’t worry if some aspects of the dream are vague, fragmentary, or impossible to describe.  Just write them out as best as you can.  All of these fragments can be sources of unexpected significance when you look at the dreams over time.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyAlong with the dream report, a journal will typically include thoughts, memories, and associations that come to mind in relation to the dream.  These comments can be brief or very extensive, depending on your time and inclination.

I find it helpful to give each dream a title, as if it were a poem or short story.  It’s a way of crystallizing in a phrase or image something important about the dream.  The titles also make it easier to refer back to the dreams and sift through the series for recurrent threads of meaning.

One of the greatest values of a dream journal is the way it grows in power and depth over time.  The ever-expanding pool of dreaming experience creates an evolving network of meaningful connections.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyCarl Jung, one of the pioneers of Western dream psychology, proposed back in the 1930’s that a series of dreams can provide an extremely useful means of exploring an individual’s life.  In his essay titled “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” he presented his analysis of “over a thousand dreams and visual impressions coming from a young man of excellent scientific education.” (116) Jung described his method in these terms:

“[H]ere we are not dealing with isolated dreams; they form a coherent series in the course of which the meaning gradually unfolds more or less of its own accord.  The series is the context which the dreamer himself supplies. It is as if not one text but many lay before us, throwing light from all sides on the unknown terms, so that a reading of all the texts is sufficient to elucidate the difficult passages in each individual one… Of course the interpretation of each individual passage is bound to be largely conjecture, but the series as a whole gives us all the clues we need to correct any possible errors in the preceding passages.” (119-120, italics in original)

Jung’s insight has been actively explored by many people who study dream series over time, and in a future post I will say more about their findings.

For now, I will leave you with this thought: keeping a dream journal is a priceless gift to your future self.

 

Reference:

C.G. Jung, Dreams (trans. R.F.C. Hull), Princeton University Press, 1974.

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 27, 2017.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content?

A word search analysis of a five-year selection from my own dream journal reveals the same consistent patterns of content in both shorter and longer reports.

I’ve been wondering about this question for a long time now.  Are shorter dreams different in any fundamental way from longer dreams?  Some people naturally remember only brief dream fragments and images, while other people can remember extremely elaborate and detailed dream scenarios.  Most researchers prefer to analyze reports in the “Goldilocks zone,” not too short or too long, just right in the middle.  That is a reasonable methodological choice, but it still leaves unanswered the question I’ve been pondering.

To continue developing the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), I really need to get some clarity on this point.  The frequencies of word usage identified by the SDDb tools vary a great deal depending on whether the dreams have a smaller or larger number of total words.  Is this a problem, or not?

I also have a personal reason for wanting to explore the question.  In early 2015 I began a new approach to my own dream journaling practice, which has led to at least one remembered dream every night for more than two years.  This is approximately double my recall rate for the previous several years.  The 2015 dreams were also shorter on average (74 words) than the dreams from previous years (all averaging 100+ words).  This made me wonder about possible changes in the content patterns of my dreams before and after 2015.

With all of this in mind, I started by tabulating the distribution of my dreams over a five-year period of time (2012-2016), separating them into four categories of word length (less than 50 words, 50-99 words, 100-149 words, and 150 words or more). Here are the totals for each year in the four categories, from shortest to longest:

2012: 41, 67, 50, 43 (201 total)

2013: 68, 83, 51, 50 (252 total)

2014: 51, 54, 40, 41 (186 total)

2015: 145, 120, 56, 31 (352 total)

2016: 91, 134, 64, 77 (366 total)

As I already knew, the increased recall in 2015 happened at the shorter end of the word length spectrum.  My new approach to recall seemed to yield a lot of short dreams that I might not have remembered or recorded in previous years.  Then the 2016 dreams shifted again, with a more even distribution of word lengths, closer to the previous years but with higher total numbers.

Dividing the dreams into these subsets makes it possible to address the main question: what are the content differences between dreams of different lengths?

For each of the 20 subsets of dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 word search template to determine the frequencies for 40 categories of word usage, organized into 8 classes (Perceptions, Emotions, Characters, Cognitions, Social Interactions, Movement, Culture, and Elements).

The results of this analysis suggest that shorter dreams are not dramatically different from longer dreams in terms of the relative proportions of their word usage.  The raw percentages of word usage do rise from shorter to longer dreams, of course, but the relative proportions generally do not.

Consider the following excerpt from the analysis, which shows the four subsets of dreams from 2013, and the results of searching these reports for references to “Perception” words, from shortest to longest reports.  The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category.

Vision: 24, 54, 69, 76

Hearing: 1, 6, 18, 22

Touch: 1, 6, 16, 26

Smell/Taste: 1, 2, 0, 6

Color: 21, 42, 31, 56

The longer dreams have more references to “Touch” than do the shorter dreams, but the longer dreams also have many more references to “Vision” and “Color” than to “Touch,” which is the same pattern found in the shorter dreams.  It’s this kind of pattern—the relative proportions between the various word categories—that remains consistent regardless of the length of the dreams.

This finding suggests the proportions among the word categories do not, for the most part, dramatically change across word lengths.  These proportions can be found in short, medium, and long dreams.  Even very short dreams preserve the basic architecture of typical dream content.

I need to do a more precise mathematical analysis of these patterns, to illuminate subtler variations that may alter my conclusions.  But I’m reassured by these initial results indicating that shorter dreams are just as legitimate as longer dreams for data-driven research and theorizing.

That’s the big picture.  Within this portrait of broad consistency, there are a few instances where the longer dreams do have an unusually high frequency of a particular word category.  The most prominent are Fear, Speech, Walking/Running, and Transportation.  These are the word categories that seem to be over-represented in longer dreams.  They are significant contributors to what makes long dreams so long.

Here is an example from the 2016 dreams to illustrate what I mean, using the Emotions class. The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category, from shortest to longest reports.  Note the dramatic rise in Fear words across the four subsets.

Fear: 3, 11, 36, 55

Anger: 2, 4, 9, 17

Sadness: 4, 2, 8, 5

Wonder/Confusion: 23, 40, 63, 75

Happiness: 11, 22, 20, 26

The shortest dreams have scarcely any references to fear, whereas more than half the longest dreams have a reference to fear.

What I think this means is that when a dream introduces a reference to fear, it heightens my awareness of what’s going on in the dream space.  It stimulates an expansion of what I notice and find significant, and after awakening this requires a lengthier report to describe adequately.

What about the unusual increase in Speech references in longer dreams?  Perhaps a dream in which people start talking with each other is more likely to deepen the interaction and extend the overall experience.

Same with the increased references to Walking/Running and Transportation: a dream in which people are moving from one place to another is probably going to include additional details about what happens before, during, and after the movement.

So here’s a more refined conclusion: Shorter dreams are mostly similar to longer dreams in their basic content patterns, except that longer dreams tend to be scarier, more mobile, and more conversational.

Looking specifically at the 2015 dreams, I found the word usage frequencies were mostly lower compared to previous years, but they generally stayed the same in terms of their relative proportions to each other.  Even though the 2015 dreams were much shorter than the dreams of previous years, they shared with the other dreams a consistent profile of relative frequencies across all the word categories.  So my increased recall that year did not significantly alter the content patterns of the dreams.

Finally, I thought it would be fun to try a “blind analysis” of my own dreams.  Now that I have identified this remarkably stable profile of my dream content over five years of time, including both short dreams and long dreams, what do the patterns reveal about my life?

If I pretend that these dreams came from a stranger about whom I have no biographical knowledge, I would predict that in waking life this person:

Is male

Is visually oriented

Often experiences wonder/confusion

Is sexually active

Cares about his wife

Cares about cats

Has equal relations with men and women

Likes running

Is not concerned about death

Has lots of interactions with cars and streets

Likes basketball

Likes music and movies

Has lots of interactions with water and earth

All of these inferences are grounded in the statistical results of the word searches, and I would have to affirm every one of them as accurate.  Indeed, this is a remarkably concise summary of my concerns, interests, and activities in waking life.

Most importantly for the topic of this essay, the content patterns that helped me generate these inferences are observable in the shortest dreams.  I would have made most of these same accurate predictions if I had only been looking at the dreams of less than 50 words.

This means the answer to the opening question is no, there is not a significant difference in patterns of content between short and long dreams.  Perhaps dreams should be conceived as having a kind of fractal quality: even at a small scale they reflect the same basic structures that shapes things at a larger scale.

I will close by noting the three most striking discontinuities between the word usage frequencies in my dreams and the concerns, interests, and activities of my waking life.  These are instances where my blind analysis predictions would have been wrong.

First, I have very few references in my dreams to “Fantastic Beings,” which might lead to the inference that I do not like the cultural genres of science fiction or fantasy.  This is not true; I have always loved books, movies, and tv shows in the sci-fi and fantasy realm.  Perhaps what I like about these stories are not the odd characters (vampires, zombies, aliens, robots, etc.) but rather the spirit of unpredictable novelty and imaginative adventure.  Putting it in those terms, my high frequency of “Wonder/Confusion” words might be a better sign of my cultural interests in this direction.

Second, I have only moderate references to “Reading/Writing,” which might suggest I do not engage much with these activities.  This is not true; I am a voracious reader and prolific writer, and have been so for several decades.  What strikes me as discontinuous is that my dreams don’t have far more references to reading and writing, given their central importance in my waking life.  Ernest Hartmann’s notion that we typically do not dream of the three R’s might be a factor here.

And third, I have very few references to “Religion,” which would prompt the inference that I have little or no concern about religion.  At one level this is definitely false; I have a Ph.D. in religious studies and I read and write about religion very frequently.  One would never know this about my waking life based only on the patterns of my dreams.  And yet, at another level this inference is surely true; I was not raised in a religious household, I do not personally identify with any official religious tradition, and I rarely attend religious worship services.  Perhaps this all makes sense in that religion is an important intellectual category for me, but it is not a personal concern.  My spiritual pursuits are more likely to be expressed in dreams with references to other word categories like water, art, sexuality, animals, and flying.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten.  The next step will be trying this same process of analysis with other sets and series of dreams.

 

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today on May 4, 2017.