Friday Takeaway by Ilan Stavans: The grammar of dreams

For Hampshire Life
Published: 2/14/2020 10:29:17 AM
Modified: 2/14/2020 10:29:05 AM

On average, a healthy person spends approximately a third or maybe a fourth of life asleep. And sleep, lest we need to be reminded, is not exactly the opposite of activity. We don’t just relax when we’re asleep; our minds are actively engaged, processing emotions and information. We dream while we’re asleep, even if we don’t always remember their content.

I never cease to be puzzled by the disregard we have in contemporary culture — by which I mean this all-confining modern Western civilization of ours — toward our dreams. Occasionally I sit in a coffee shop next to a stranger who is casually describing what sounds like a meaningful dream; but then the conversation quickly switches gears, as if narrating a dream is nothing more than a palate cleanser.

I love to dream but I seldom remember my dreams. And when I do, the moment I attempt to narrate what I saw in the theater of my mind I feel like a falsifier: words aren’t sufficient tools to express their complexity. Throughout my life I have had a few dreams that recycle themselves: same content, different format.

Describing dreams is one thing; interpreting them is another. I dislike the temptation to analyze dreams. Sigmund Freud made a name out of it. For him, dreams are manifestations of our unconscious, garbled thoughts waiting to be deciphered. They mostly showcase sexual desires we don’t allow ourselves to recognize in rational terms. That approach to me is nonsense, even more so than the illogical nature of dreams.

Dreams are much more: they are drives toward freedom; they are expression of spiritual longing; they are reconfigurations of the self. Through dreams we take vacations from rationality, which is often mercilessly judgmental.

It would be delightful if we could borrow another person’s dream, even if only once. I would love to dream Shakespeare’s dreams, for I admire no one more.

As for nightmares, I’m struck by the word in English we use to describe them: the she-horse of night. (Needless to say, this is different in every language: the word in Spanish is pesadilla; in German, albtraum; in Italian, incubo.) In Henry Fuseli’s famous painting “The Nightmare” (1781), a white horse with flashy eyes makes an appearance through a curtain while a voluptuous woman, with an incubus crouched on her chest, sleeps. The message is clear: in nightmares, we are at the mercy of demons.

Another version — not only of nightmares — is that, as W. B. Yeats believed, “in dreams begins responsibility.” We find resources while we sleep. And we achieve clarity. I myself often chose to “consult with the pillow,” as the folk saying goes, before I make a crucial decision.

In Sufism, the whole universe is perceived to be God’s dream. The moment God wakes up, everything vanishes irrevocably. We must, for that reason, keep God dreaming; it’s the only way to perpetuate ourselves. And in a particularly resonant part of the Sefer a Zohar, the most important book in Jewish mysticism, which is prone to labyrinthine structures, God also dreams Itself.

In Mexico, dreams are conduits to communicate with the dead. In part, that is what Día de los Muertos is about. The deceased are still with us, in invisible form. They guide us and advise us, mostly through dreams and spiritual communication.

In Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, dreams were seen as prophetic; that is, they foresaw the future. That quality is present in ancient traditions, from the Iliad to the Popol Vuh, and, of course the Bible. Samuel, Ezekiel and other biblical prophets have an active dream life. Maimonides, the medieval Spanish philosopher, believed dreams to be the channel through which the Almighty communicates with the prophets. In the Guide for the Perplexed (1190), he postulated Moses not only as the prophet of prophets but the dreamer of dreamers.

Some of the best passages in modern literature are about dreams: Don Quixote in the Cave of Montesinos, Alice lost in Wonderland, Pascal’s dreams, Gregor Samsa waking up after uneasy dreams to discover he had become a huge bug, the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) suffering an epidemic of insomnia.

Does the syntax of our language define how we dream? And are the dreams of childhood like the dreams of adulthood or should they be categorized differently? In the years before her death, my mother-in-law told me that her dreams were now mostly populated with people she had never seen.

Are dreams inevitably in the present tense? Is there a past or a future tense inside a dream — any dream? Likewise, I never see myself in my own dreams, yet I know the point of view in the dream is mine. Can our dreams be narrated by someone else? Can they be in the third person?

It is no doubt significant that we use the same word, dream, to describe what we see while we are asleep and what we hope for. Perhaps it’s because the future is itself a dream. Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has therefore two meanings: the ideological and the oneiric.

I conclude — how else? — with Shakespeare’s last full play, The Tempest (1611), Act 4, Scene 1: “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/ is rounded with a sleep.”

Our little life, indeed.


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