The Dreams We Dream For Each Other
In a lecture Jorge Luis Borges once gave on the subject of dreams and nightmares, he said “dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the earliest aesthetic expression” of our species. Borges’ insight has been abundantly supported by recent studies in history, archeology, and anthropology, all pointing to the universality of dreaming as a primal source of human cultural creativity. Some of the earliest written texts in China, Egypt, and India are catalogs of dream symbols. Myths originating in ancient oral traditions tell of dreams that helped to create the world (e.g., the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime). Shrines and temples around the world are devoted to deities who visit their worshippers in dreams to provide healing, guidance, and inspiration. At least some of the cave paintings of Paleolithic Europe, long celebrated as revolutionary expressions of unprecedented symbolic creativity, are believed to be portrayals of dreams experienced by early homo sapiens engaging in the ancient practice of dream incubation, or seeking a dream.
Dreaming may inspire creative activity, but a dream is not the same as a work of art. The moment we wake up, we leave the pluralistic world of the oneiric imagination behind us, and our minds are quickly restructured and reoriented by the sensory demands of the consensual social world. Given the radical nature of this existential transition (which, significantly, is genetically hardwired into the basic neural functioning of the human brain), any effort to remember and/or communicate our dream experiences is inevitably colored by our waking life interests, desires, fears, and conflicts, not to mention the vastly complex web of cultural traditions shaping our apprehension of the world. Just as we must reject the scientist who claims to capture “pure” specimens of dreaming in the sleep laboratory, so we must reject the artist whose work purports to be a direct transmission of dream experience. In both cases what is forgotten is the inescapable partiality of our waking encounters with dreaming. Again, Borges: “The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams….If we think of the dream as a work of fiction—and I think it is—it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.”
My impression is that most artists do not believe their works are direct replications of dream experience, but rather are carefully crafted transformations of images, moods, and themes from the world of dreaming. To be a dreamer is not necessarily to be an artist; experiencing dreams and knowing how to express them as art are two different things.
Still, the connection between dreaming and aesthetic creativity is not spurious. The powerful inspiration provided by dreaming derives, in my view, from a fundamental impulse in dreams toward communal expression. Dreaming provokes greater consciousness—in both the personal and collective spheres. This wonder-working power is most evident in the vivid memorability of certain dreams that burn themselves into people’s minds and absolutely demand to be acknowledged and expressed in the waking world. Jung used the term “big dreams” to describe such experiences, which he called “the richest jewels in the treasure-house of psychic experience.” Whether by virtue of their hyper-realistic imagery, strong physiological carry-over effects, or revelatory existential insights, certain dreams literally cannot be forgotten; they force their way into waking awareness, prompting an urgent need to share the experience with others—“Listen, I had a dream….”
In many cultures around the world this impulse toward communal expression is celebrated as a valuable resource by which dreaming contributes to collective well-being. Dream-sharing among family members is the norm, and collective decision-making (e.g., about hunting, war, legal disputes) includes dreams as useful sources of information and guidance. Anthropological literature is filled with examples of communities, both historical and contemporary, in which dream-sharing is an integral part of broader social, political, and religious processes. One of my favorite examples comes from the Iroquois people of Northeast America. For hundreds of years they have performed “the Dream-Guessing Rite,” a three-day ceremony held in midwinter, when the nights are long and the opportunities for dreaming abundant. It begins with the members of one moiety house walking over to the cabins of the opposite moiety and asking to have their dreams guessed and fulfilled—with the dreams being proposed to the assembled group in the form of riddles. According to anthropologist Harold Blau, “these riddles are stylized and are clues to the assembly as to the subject of the dream. Clues may be understood more readily if one is familiar with legendary accounts of various societies and spirit forces. Single sentence riddles are proposed: ‘It whistled in the wind’ may refer to a corn husk spirit. Likewise, ‘It has holes, yet it catches’ may refer to a lacrosse stick net.” The groups Blau observed took great pleasure in the guessing process, and once the dream is revealed, the person who made the correct guess promises to present the dreamer with whatever appeared in his or her dream. Then the roles are reversed, until everyone has had the opportunity both to guess someone else’s dreams and share a dream of one’s own. It can easily be imagined, I think, that a community that provides such a stimulating public space for dream expression would benefit from a vastly deeper sense of mutual understanding, respect, and cooperative spirit. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that the earliest Christian missionaries to visit North America were horrified by the Iroquois’ idolatrous reverence for dreaming, and one young Jesuit wrote a letter to his superiors back in Europe to say he was worried one of the natives might dream about murdering him and might then try acting out the dream in waking life. (Of his own dreams, the young missionary said nothing.)
We are living in something of a golden age in the historical and cross-cultural study of dreams, with several excellent books and articles appearing in the past few years. For our purposes, the key point in these works is the widespread belief that dreaming is not simply a private affair with exclusively personal relevance, but rather an experience rooted in collective realities and potentially relevant to the broader concerns of the community. Contrary to modernist prejudices, humans have long recognized the psychophysiological dimension of dream meaning and the relationship between dream content and the individual’s personal life context. Artemidorus, for example, the 2nd century C.E. Roman dream interpreter, argued that the meanings of dreams can vary depending on the dreamer’s gender, age, health, marital status, social position, etc, while Hindu medical texts analyzed dreams for diagnostic indicators of the individual’s physical health. What current historical and anthropological studies have shown is that many cultures have also recognized collective dimensions of dreaming as well, dimensions by which the dreamer is connected to his or her family, to other people, to the land, to the planet, and to various trans-human powers and realities.
To speak of such collective dimensions of dreaming may sound scandalous to those of us influenced by Western psychological thinking. Freud, as ever the ideological pioneer, claimed that all dreams, no matter how politically relevant they appear on the surface, are in fact nothing more than disguised fulfillments of repressed childhood wishes. In The Interpretation of Dreams he describes one of his own dreams in which he encounters a notoriously reactionary Austrian politician, Count Thun, whom Freud had actually seen that day at the train station. Freud confesses that in waking life he felt “insolent and revolutionary ideas” after seeing Count Thun. But his interpretation of his dream ignores all that and reduces the possible meanings to just one, a symbolic reference to infantile megalomania. Freud dismisses any thought of connecting the political imagery of his dreams to the actual political situation of his community: “This revolutionary fantasy, which was derived from ideas aroused in me by seeing Count Thun, was like the faÃ§ade of an Italian church in having no organic relation with the structure lying behind it.”
American dream psychologist Calvin Hall endorsed Freud’s individualist/anti-political bias in his influential 1966 work The Meaning of Dreams, rejecting any legitimate interest in the communal dimensions of dreaming and insisting that the only genuine dimension of meaning involved the dreamer’s personal life: “Dreams contain few ideas of a political or economic nature. They have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs.” Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse in recent years. Nowadays prominent neuroscientists debate whether dreams have any meaning at all, individual or collective. Everything that happens in dreams can be explained (so the argument goes) in terms of automatic changes in the chemical and electrical activities of the brain as it passes through the various stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. According to Owen Flanagan, a leading voice in the reincarnated form of sociobiology known as evolutionary psychology, dreams are “spandrels of sleep,” mere epiphenomena that have no meaning, function, or value whatsoever.
This, then, is the current condition of the field of dream studies: At the same time as historians and anthropologists are discovering an incredibly rich variety of dream beliefs and practices from around the world and throughout history, leading Western scientists are denying any functional value for dreaming whatsoever.
This is also the context, or at least one of the contexts, in which the DreamingNow show is appearing. Explicitly dedicated to exploring the social and political potential of dreaming, the show is a direct repudiation of the mainstream Western psychological belief that dreams are either purely personal self-reflections or sheer neural nonsense. I don’t know if the DreamingNow curator Raphaela Platow intended to make a major theoretical statement to the dream research community, and I’m sure the artists’ works have many aesthetic virtues that escape my untrained eye. But to me what’s most interesting about the contributions to DreamingNow is the way the works evoke a vivid awareness of exactly that which is missing in the Western psychological approach—a deeper appreciation for dreaming as a source of collective meaning-making. With that in mind, let me offer some brief reflections on a few particular pieces in the exhibit.
Antonio and Isabel Aquilizan’s Dream Blanket draws the observer into an enclosed but comforting and ultimately transformative space of multiple colors, sounds, and feelings. Their collection of blankets from various cultures around the world reminds us that dreaming occurs in sleep, and sleep is both a culturally-constructed experience (each blanket has a distinctive pattern of color and texture) and a natural bodily process we share with all mammals. The fact that we humans prefer while sleeping to have a blanket to keep us warm is itself a sign of how vulnerable we become for eight or so hours every night. We lie motionless for hours on end, oblivious to the external environment, defenseless and vulnerable, incapable even of preserving our own bodily warmth. Pace Flanagan, something very valuable must happen during sleep for evolution to have preserved such a helpless condition as part of our necessary psychological functioning. The other feature I appreciate in the Aquilizans’ Dream Blanket is their inclusion of so many different dream voices, from people we too rarely have the opportunity to hear. One of the dirty little secrets of dream research is that the majority of empirical studies use mostly white, mostly middle- and upper-class college students as their subjects, with their dreams then presented as the “norms” by which all human dreaming is measured. Needless to say, this leads to a rather narrow view of the subject, with virtually no attention to the dream lives of the people from different economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. Nietzsche once said, “among all these dreamers, I, too, who ‘know,’ am dancing my dance”—that’s the expansive, liberating feeling I get from Dream Blankets.
A very different set of associations come to mind in connection with Chiharu Shiota’s installation, with its numerous single beds literally tied to each other by an intricate, seemingly random web of black thread. The web is a metaphor frequently employed by cognitive scientists to account for the fundamentally social nature of the evolved human mind (i.e., neural networks as vast interweavings of synaptic activity, in constant interaction with the neural networks of other people’s minds), and it is also used by anthropologists in the Geertzian tradition to describe the elaborate symbol systems pervading human cultural experience. Following those ideas, the web can be understood as an expression of ontological relatedness and community, both in waking and dreaming experience. However, the austere, black-and-white composition of Shiota’s installation also calls forth darker feelings, of the dreaming individual as spider’s prey, trapped in a colorless void, a prisoner of sleep, incapable of movement or escape. Shiota’s performance in one of the beds during the exhibit’s opening will undoubtedly add further dimensions of meaning to this powerfully ambivalent dream image/image of dreaming.
David Solow’s work centers on one of the most bizarre features of dreaming—its infinite potential for metamorphosis, the capacity of dreaming to mix and merge people, places, objects, times, and ideas. Morpheus, son of the Roman god of sleep, was well known for his ability to assume the shape of any person, making him ideally suited to bear divine messages in dreams. I take Solow’s work as a revelation of a different kind of divine truth, the truth that in dreaming the ordinary boundaries of selfhood dissolve, opening us to other dimensions of being and other ways of knowing the world. The naked bodies of the dreamers are illuminated in a pool of water (the classic Jungian symbol of the unconscious), and again we are reminded of the brute physicality of sleep. The naked bodies merge in and out of one another, but not sexually—indeed, the effect of the nudity in this work is decidedly unarousing. Perhaps we’ve heard enough already about sex and dreaming from Freud, the Surrealists, and David Lynch, and Solow is now pushing us to consider embodied dimensions of dreaming beyond the biological process of reproduction, beyond the binary opposition of inseminating male and ovulating female, to a place where we recognize the astonishing, glorious mutability of the human body. There is a little Morpheus in all of us, and through Morpheus there is something of you in me, and me in you.
A hint of sexuality can be inferred in Cai Guo Quiang’s work Dream, for the bed used in his installation is a double, rather than the single person-sized beds in the other pieces. Quiang’s bed is bathed in red, which might in other circumstances highlight the erotic passions kindled by two people sleeping together, but which in this case is more ominously a reference to the official color of the Chinese communist government (whose “one-child” policy leads the state to reach into people’s beds and control their procreative activities). The red lanterns suspended above the bed take the shape of weapons, cars, computers, and the omnipresent Chinese star, all forming a web-like snare that constrains the dreaming imagination and seeks to replace free-form creativity with the dominant ideology of the state. In this regard, Quiang’s work echoes the remarkable book of Charlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams, in which she recounts several hundred dreams gathered from people living in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939. Beradt’s courageous study illustrates the power of a totalitarian political regime to invade and virtually destroy the individual’s capacity to imagine, create, and envision new possibilities. In a similar way, Quiang is calling our attention to the fragility of dreaming, its vulnerability to social manipulation and political aggression. To dream well, we must be safe and free. Quiang, like Beradt, is trying to make us wake up to the oppressive social conditions that constrain our oneiric potentials.
A different kind of external influence is at work in Marina Abramovic’s Dream Bed. Her creation of a carefully structured and unabashedly visible space for sleeping and dreaming is reminiscent of the sleep laboratory, that modern Asklepion where complex technological devices are used to monitor the subjects’ sleep and “catch” their dreams for scientific analysis. Abramovic does not use EEG scalp attachments or rectal thermometers like in the sleep lab, nor does she provide freely roaming snakes on the floor as in the temples of Asklepius. Nevertheless, Dream Bed places the individual in a highly unusual sleeping environment. The rectangular box in which the participants lie is like a coffin without a lid, which perhaps makes sense given the long historical connection between sleeping, dreaming, and death. The puffy body suits (with magnets embedded in the fabric), glowing blue or red lights, obsidian crystal pillow, and exposure to the eyes of curious observers all makes it likely that whatever dreams the participants experience, they will be dramatically different from those they experience at home. From my perspective as a researcher, I’ll be very interested to see what gets recorded in the Dream Book Abramovic is providing for her participants. We already know that the artificial, intrusive, and resolutely unaesthetic conditions of the sleep lab have a homogenizing effect on dreaming, with fewer nightmares, sexual dreams, and bizarre/transcendent dreams in the lab than in a home setting. Will the same be true of the Dream Bed? Or will its explicitly artistic context, combined with the subtle influences of the crystals and magnets, stimulate a greater degree of aesthetic creativity and imaginal freedom in the people’s dreams?
Expanding on that same question, and bringing this essay to a close, I wonder how DreamingNow as a whole will affect the dream lives of the people who observe and participate in the installations. The exhibit itself is a grand incubation experiment—it creates an astonishing, reality-bending liminal space, sanctioned by a reputable cultural institution, in which people may freely explore the farthest reaches of the dreaming imagination. What new dreams will the exhibit inspire? What novel Borgesian ficciones will be woven? What fresh ideas and surprising insights will come to people as they share in the dreams of others, trying like the Iroquois to guess at subtle meanings that stir their deepest desires and speak eloquently to the broader concerns of their community? In a society that has become more sleep-deprived than perhaps any in human history, at a time when the market is booming for pills that suppress the need for sleep, DreamingNow is a necessary affirmation of the transformative power of dreaming. I suspect many of the exhibit’s observers will be pleasurably startled by the exhibit’s multi-dimensional impact on their own dream creations.
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Borges, Jorge Luis. 1984. Seven Nights. Translated by E. Weinberger. New York: New Directions.
Bulkeley, Kelly. 1995. Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey. Mahwah: Paulist Press.
———. 1996b. Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 1999. Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Winnicottian Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. In Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 1999a. Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 2002. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12 (2):61-78.
———. 2003. Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch. Dreaming 13 (1):49-60.
———. 2003. Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope. Mahwah: Paulist Press.
———, ed. 1996a. Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society. Edited by R. V. d. Castle, SUNY Series in Dream Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———, ed. 2001. Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. New York: Palgrave.
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2. (Borges 1984; Young 1999; Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966; Trompf 1990; Tedlock 1987, 2001; Stephen 1995; O’Flaherty 1984; Miller 1994; Mageo 2003; Lohmann 2001; Lamoreaux 2002; Lama 1997; Kelsey 1991; Irwin 1994; Harris 1994; Gregor 1981; Ewing 1989; Descola 1993; Bulkeley 2001, 1999a, 1995, 1996a)
3. (Borges 1984) Let me take this opportunity to mention a few contemporary artists I know who draw inspiration and guidance from dreaming: poets Betsy Davids, Richard Russo, and Tom Traub; photographer Shelley Lawrence; painters/graphic artists Fariba Bogzaran, Jennie Braman, Emily Anderson, and Tristy Taylor; musician Nancy Grace. For a discussion of the role of dreaming in the filmmaking of David Lynch, see (Bulkeley 2003).
4. (Jung 1974)
5.The likelihood of communicating a powerful dream depends in large part on cultural context. In a Native American community, for example, a big dream would be celebrated as a revelation of the dreamer’s special connection to the spirit world. In the contemporary US, where a significant percentage of people believe dreams are random nonsense, fewer people pay attention to their dreams no matter how powerful the dreams may be.
6. (Blau 1963).
7. (Wallace 1958)
See note 2.
8. (Freud 1965)
9. (Freud 1965)
10. (Hall 1966) This was the comment that spurred my interest in the relationship between dream content and politics 10. 11. (Bulkeley 2002, 2003, 1996b).
12. (Hall 1966; Hobson 1999; Hobson, Pace-Schott, and Stickgold 2000; Flanagan 2000; Pace-Schott et al. 2003; Crick and Mitchison 1983)
13. (Flanagan 2000)
14. (Beradt 1966). For a discussion of Beradt’s work, see (Bulkeley 1999).