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.”
My scheme (no surprise) was like the ambitions of those solitary tinkerers who invent a workable airplane or typewriter in ignorance of much better ones already in manufacture. There exists, I came to learn, an index of dream motifs; it was developed in the Sixties by Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle and is now a standard for researchers, with rules for coding content along several dimensions: Characters, Social Interactions, Aggression, Friendliness, Sexuality, Activities (walking, talking, seeing, thinking, etc.), Success and Failure, Misfortune and Good Fortune, Emotions, Settings, Objects, Descriptive Elements. A taxonomic system, in other words, even if not my own. And there is at least one gigantic database of dreams, the DreamBank at UC Santa Cruz, containing well over 20,000 dreams in precisely bundled sets — West Coast teenage girls, Peruvian men, blind adults — as well as dream diaries kept by master dreamers, some running to thousands of entries: Barb Sanders (not her real name) recorded 4,254 of her dreams over a period of twenty-four years.
The point of all this compiling is to give researchers means and matter for analysis. The maintainers of the DreamBank regard the Barb Sanders series as
extremely useful for studying subsets on specific issues (e.g., how she interacts with her ex-husband Howard, or how she reacted to an infatuation with Derek, or how she conceives of each of her three siblings and three children, or how she conceives of cats and dogs, or what happens when she is on or near bridges).
Online, you can read all the dreams in all the sets that constitute the DreamBank, but the diaries can only be searched by words they contain. I searched the Barb Sanders series for the word “suddenly.” Here’s one of the hundreds of entries that came up:
Ginny and I have an argument. She’s explaining something to me. I find it hard to listen. I then see she’s saying and doing some incredible things. Things and words and colors are coming out of her mouth like vomit. I’m scared and concerned for her and I’m also upset because these things have meaning for me, to help me. . . . Suddenly I see dazzling, sparkling blue and red colors like fireworks or prism colors on the end of my tongue. Ginny’s face goes out of focus. I am aware that I’m letting go and I’m in a different state of awareness. I talk rapidly, non-stop, and I’m vaguely aware that I might be saying hurtful things that could hurt other people’s feelings, but I know I must and it’s O.K. It spews out of me unchecked.
I chose “suddenly” because I was more interested in what kind of dream constructor Barb was than in what she dreamed about. Interpretative schemes that are not overarching abstractions like the Hall–Van de Castle index tend to assume that dreams are about something, something that’s not in the dream but in the dreamer or the world. Psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and dream-workers who attempt to transfer these meanings into propositions that are usable in waking life somewhat resemble literature teachers in high school classrooms who ask “What is this author trying to say?” as though the writer had struggled through elaborate metaphors, invented incidents, and other masking devices to express something that could be stated in a sentence. If dreams are to be similarly interrogated, then it has to be asked why we would produce the cloud-capped towers, the fruitless adventures, the imprisonments and frustrations, the water journeys, the talking dogs, only to get from ourselves simple or obvious advice, notice of our familiar dilemmas. What should I learn from my dream of rowing down the Hudson with a profoundly saddened Michael Jackson, assuring him that I can help him with his screenplay? What is this person, myself, trying to say?
Like fictions, dreams are pregnant with meaning; they are in a sense made of meaning and nothing else. The colors and things that came out of Ginny’s mouth have meanings for Barb — meanings that could “help” her, Barb says — but what those meanings are she doesn’t or can’t say. An article in the social-psychology journal Dreaming (another resource I had not imagined existing) describes Barb as a dreamer “who often rode horses in dreams but not in waking life, which was thought by the dreamer to be metaphorical in nature.” Well, yes: but a metaphor for what? Perhaps a metaphor for riding horses. Far away, on the other side of the Internet, a website quotes Montague Ullman, a cosmic dream researcher and parapsychologist, asserting that “our dreams are the only part of us that can’t stray from the truth.” But this is also Philip Sidney’s claim for poetry: “Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth . . . though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not.”
Within our sleeping consciousness there seems to be not a Freudian dream-censor, rapidly encoding forbidden lusts and angers into hats and houses, but rather a dream poet or producer, who rewrites as she goes, choosing the comic or the ghastly for reasons the sleeper can sometimes suspect but never query. Lucid dreaming, in which the conscious self takes over the course of dream events like a choreographer instructing the corps de ballet, seems to be the talent or practice of a few. But aren’t we all sometimes conscious of our dream team — that is, ourselves — in its rolling negotiations to make the shifting events of a dream come out right, or, just as often, get outrageously worse and worse? We wake and think, What was that all about? and find no answer but wonderment, revulsion, hilarity, or dread, which are generated apparently for their own sakes. If instead of striving for interpretation (or, for that matter, classification) we were to respond to dreams as we respond to art — that is, as though they constitute an independent realm of noncontingent creativity, one that can sometimes mimic or resemble our experience of waking life but that is more supple, variable, free, and startling — we might find ourselves explicated only in the way we are by encounters with art: described but not reduced, and unable to say just how.
Dreams, like works of art, are social facts as well as private experiences, and it’s appropriate to employ on them the tools of analysis and technology. But dream typologies, taxonomies, and motif indexes can only be provisional essays in the study of what is and will remain a universal mystery. Human dreaming is an act of pure creativity, and one that is — the DreamBank archive suggests it — far from the sole property of those who are recognized as creative and talented when they are awake. The greatest makers of dreams may be people who would not think of creating imagined worlds and stories in the light of day, but who each night produce the most peculiar, moving, horrific, and elaborate tales on earth, lost to them at dawn and to us forever.