Easy Chair — From the May 2015 issue

An Artist of the Sleeping World

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Long years ago I gave pain by saying, with the arrogance of boyhood, that it was foolish to tell one’s dreams. I have done penance for that remark since. . . . I have cultivated, so far as I care to, my garden of dreams, and it scarcely seems to me that it is a large garden. Yet every path of it, I sometimes think, might lead at last to the heart of the universe.

 — Havelock Ellis

I posed a question a few years ago to the readers of my website: do men and women both dream about interactions with famous or powerful people? The question was prompted by a dream I had about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, who was a big figure in the news and who (in the dream) had come to stay in my town to get to know ordinary Americans. He was glad to see me — apparently we had hung out before — and wanted to show me a poster he’d made for his new American-style business startup: a cigar-sales company. The company, the poster said, would be selling “broken splits” cheaply. I told Ahmadinejad that if he wanted to be successful he couldn’t use arcane cigar lingo on a poster.

I have dreamed about famous people off and on for most of my life. I missed a meeting with Dean Rusk and Ho Chi Minh to sort out the Vietnam War because I wasted too much time looking in a huge laundry basket for clean clothes to wear. I took over washing the dishes for Jimmy Carter at his summer cabin so that he could deal with more important matters. I was supposed to get a job in the Eisenhower Administration (in a dream that I actually dreamed during the Eisenhower Administration), and I waited a long time on a bus-stop bench to be picked up by the president’s limo, but no one ever came.

The answers to my survey were intriguing but hardly definitive. One woman wrote:

I do sometimes dream of writers, actors, musicians, etc. I like. Mostly the people in my dreams who set themselves up as authorities are bogus in some way. Once I dreamed about Freud, who was convinced I was actually deeply attracted to him. I found him annoying.

The gender distribution of the small number of respondents to my query skewed slightly female, though being invited to join a famous rock band seemed more common among men. (I once dreamed I was auditioning to play bass for Paul Butterfield, having never played any instrument.) But the question provoked so many sidewise responses about dreams and dreaming — they eventually ran into the hundreds — that I began to envision a homemade venture in dream taxonomy. How many types of dreams could be identified, classified, and subcategorized? Are the types universal? Once begun, how far might such a taxonomy extend?

The eternal questions about dreams have been two: Where do they come from? What do they mean? The science of sleep has made great progress answering the first question, identifying many of the physical wellsprings in the brain and body from which dreams arise. In 1953, University of Chicago researchers discovered that the eyes of sleepers are constantly in motion during certain phases of sleep and that people awakened during rapid eye movement reliably reported dreaming. This suggested the weird hypothesis that our eyes move during REM sleep to follow the movements of people and things we are seeing in our dreams. Electroencephalography revealed the alpha-beta-theta-delta fraternity of brain-wave forms. Now brain activity during sleep can be mapped in real time by MRIs. But so far no research tools can show us — except in science fiction — the little movies running in the subject’s mind.

Determining what dreams mean, on the other hand — what kinds there are and how they may be interpreted — has a long history. The Greeks decided that while some dreams could be prophetic, or at least admonitory, others were false. True dreams were said to come to us through a gate of horn, lying dreams through a gate of ivory, likely because the Greek word for “horn” is a pun on “fulfill,” and “ivory” a pun on “deceive.” Dream dictionaries, which were passed down for centuries, were less cautious; they made it easy to look up your dream and learn its precise meaning. Dreaming of green apples, says Thomas Hill’s dream dictionary (1576), means good fortune; dreaming of mustard means you might be accused of murder. Dream-book interpretations often reversed the obvious import of a dream: Marc de Vulson’s Court of Curiositie (1669) says that a dream of being hanged means that the dreamer’s fortunes will rise as high as the gibbet from which he hung. Of course, the master dream book of the modern era is Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which decodes dreams as allegories of urges and anxieties that lie a level deeper within the mind, rather than returning dream meanings to the waking world of luck and risk.

To me the interpreters and expounders of the sources and meanings of dreams, ancient and modern, somewhat resemble the compilers of medieval bestiaries, who adduced the spiritual or moral significance of animals but had little idea of the basic similarities between one kind of fish and another, how they were related morphologically. Linnaeus in his taxonomy provided a method and a system for understanding the natural world — the nested hierarchy of kingdoms, classes, orders, genera, and species — that in their objectivity and exactness formed a vital tool for later theorists of evolution. What if there could be a Linnaean taxonomy of dreams — their orders, classes, and species — to support a future theory of dream evolution? “I have obviously discovered a Crying Need here,” I exclaimed to my digital friends, “and will have to give up everything else to keep up this collection and classification. In fact we all should. We will be the Collective Darwin on the Beagle of Dreams.

On our first pass we came up with many common dream situations, like the student’s dream — finding yourself taking a test you haven’t studied for in a subject you know nothing about — and its variant, the teacher’s dream of giving a lecture in similar ignorance. Perhaps every occupation or profession has its own version. Teeth falling out painlessly but horribly was another (why is this one so common?), and the associated lost or detachable penis. Less common were metafictional dreams, in which you are engaged in desperate or romantic adventures and unable to decide whether you are experiencing them, acting in a movie about them, or reading about them in a book. Being naked in public is a primary taxon — it can be found in old dream books — but subcategories can be distinguished, such as being naked in public and hoping that no one will notice.

More interesting to me was the night-work that was unclassifiable and not replicated by anybody else. One contributor had a steady job restocking shelves at an art-supply store in dreamland; the job also involved serving

sentient fish and dinosaurs and Things I Can’t Describe. . . . The art supplies for sale include things that are improbable/illegal/probably not useful for making art. I’ve been working there for about a year, two or three times a week. . . . I really, really hope I’ll find out what they pay me.

Another built a dream-place he called the Astral Dorm, where a number of his friends had residences and which persisted across multiple dreams:

Everyone has a room and the walls are all glass, so I can see into parts of this seemingly endless structure that would be far away if I were to walk but in dreamspace seem nearer. . . . It feels sort of like a switchboard, in some ways, if you want to talk to someone in a dream, go there, and see if they are home.

The poet and novelist Tom Disch, who also posted entries, called the collection “Varieties of Oneiric Experience.” He held that hearing others’ dreams recounted can be as amusing as hearing any story, and he contributed the concept of dream production values: some dreams are big budget, with fabulous cities, parades, skyscapes, and long journeys via improbable and wondrous means of transportation. Others might be called B-movie dreams. These occur mostly in darkness, with cheap and skimpy sets and limited casts. We decided that style, setting, and format were parameters that would have to be included in our taxonomy.

It wasn’t very long before we were busily setting up a wiki and counting dreams contributed to each category (“Being Killed: 5”). But the ten thousand entries that would have been necessary for even a basic outline of types never materialized, and gradually — as in a dream — the project tattered or vanished or lost its way. “It may be,” I confessed at last, “that there is defeat built into the project — my Dark Old House not being really anybody else’s — but I persist in believing that the Night Empire can be invaded by the Republic of Day and its treasures taken for the waking.”

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