A continuing series on NYR Daily
Most dreams of writers aren’t about dead people or writing, and—like everyone else’s dreams—they aren’t very memorable. If you keep a dream journal, your mind will obligingly supply you with more dreams and shapelier ones, but you don’t always want that, nor can you necessarily make any sense of what you may have so vividly dreamt. Why, for instance, did I dream I had surged up through the lawn of Toronto’s Victoria College and clomped into the library, decomposing and covered with mud? The librarian didn’t notice a thing, which, in the dream, I found surprising. Was this an anxiety dream? If so, which anxiety?
You can’t fight it. It happens. The dreams come on. They’re part of what we do. I had a theory once, which I also put in a novel, that many nightmares were caused by a common physical need: the need to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Out of the stochastic stew that sits cooling on the stovetop of our sleep-softened consciousness, a couple of images would be ladled out in a bowl and sprinkled with a special neural Pickapeppa Sauce that made them seem frightening, so as to wake us up. All our subconscious was trying to do, I thought, was to help us by saying, Friend, your bladder is overfull and you should get up and relieve it.
On a gray September morning, I awoke from uneasy dreams to find a strange sentence fully formed in my still drowsy mind: “No one in the history of the world has ever universalized both the game given and the god given.” I didn’t remember anything else from the dream that had produced these portentous words, nor did I have a clue what they might mean. I couldn’t even make out the syntax, since the last two words could mean either an inherited capacity, like a god-given talent for tennis, or, instead, a god who is “a given.” And what in the world might it mean to “universalize” such things?
I hate dreams. I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off. Pretty much the only thing I hate more than my own dreams are yours.
I used to keep a dream diary when I was in my twenties and still under the spell of a boyhood ingestion of Jung, perhaps, or a cheap excitement about the dark. I stopped when I noticed that all the time and energy I was spending transcribing my dreams in the dead of night, before I’d properly woken up, was detracting from my daytime activities; the night was claiming me full-time, to the point where I could no longer do my conscious work.
One day in 1842, the thirty-eight-year old Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook: “To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.” Indeed. From the first dream of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago on to our time, Hawthorne’s observation proves to be right. Something in the retelling of a dream, however haunting and however true, lacks the peculiar verisimilitude of dreams, their unique vocabulary and texture, their singular identity.
For a period of two or three years during the late 1980s or early 1990s—it’s difficult, now, to recall exactly when, but I know it was while I was a graduate student—I repeatedly dreamt the same terrifying dream. Once a week sometimes, sometimes every other week, sometimes twice a week or more, it would (as I then thought) be waiting for me as soon as I dropped off, identical each time in every detail: the open gate, the familiar headstones, the sudden sunset, the missing graves, the dead I knew so well but who didn’t seem to know me any more, chasing me, the gun, the embarrassing horror-movie detail of the silver bullets.
In 2006, despairing of doctors and official medicine, I went to see a shiatsu practitioner. The shiatsu man heard my story, invited me to lie down on a futon, took my right foot in his hands, contemplated it for some time, then having chosen his spot, pushed a thumb in hard. Immediately a line of tingling pain lit up between foot and bladder. It was extraordinary. The line was sharp and continuous—oddly electric—but faded away the instant he removed his thumb. The “water meridian,” he commented, as an ordinary doctor might say, Your appendix, your kidneys. Then he said, “I suppose you dream a great deal about water.”
Everyone has dreams. Some remember theirs, far fewer recount them, and very few write them down. Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)? I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.
Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life. Kafka never tells us what Gregor Samsa was dreaming when he awakens as a giant insect, except that the dreams were “uneasy.” Likely they were not as uneasy as the morning he wakes into. By the end of the first paragraph of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor has noticed his arched, dome-like brown belly, his numerous waving legs. “What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.”
In a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out. For example, many years ago I dreamt that I was on stage during the performance of the opera Aida about to sing the famous aria “Celeste Aida” in which Radames, the young Egyptian warrior, voices his hope for victory in a coming battle and proclaims his love for Aida, the Ethiopian slave. I wear some kind of helmet that is about to slide down and cover my eyes, hold a lance in my hand, and worry about what will happen next, because although I know the melody, I can remember only the opening words and figure that I’ll have to fake the rest by making up words that sound Italian. I do that, but I now have another fear, a high note that awaits me toward the end of the aria that I’m sure I won’t be able to hit—so to avoid it, I sing the opening over and over again like an old LP record that’s skipping. Thankfully, I awoke and in due course became aware that I was lying in bed in a motel just outside Buffalo, New York.