Questioning dreaming

I had two blog-related thoughts in the middle of the night and can only remember one of them, more or less. Of the other I retain an outline: it seems that I was compiling quotes, and had found one that made a worthy companion to Buber’s meditation on a tree from I and Thou, which I’ve been meaning to include for some time. I did not wake up completely in either instance, but simply made a mental note to retrieve on waking. This is dangerous, given the inexact impressions of the thinking mind during sleep.

Perhaps as I grow older, I will take to imitating my father, who keeps a pen and a stack of 3×5″ slips of paper on his nightstand. When he has what seems like an important middle-of-the-night thought, he’ll half-wake up, write down a few key words or phrases on a slip of paper without turning on the light and drop it on the floor where he’ll see it in the morning. Sometimes, he says, he’ll get up in the morning and find that the stretch of carpet between bed and door is white with thought-spoor from a productive night of dreaming.

This would be a good place to launch into a disquisition on the anthropology of dreaming, but I’m missing the one really essential text: Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretation, edited by Barbara Tedlock. Also, I did a lot of research and thinking on this topic for my book-length poem Cibola the year before last, so I’m a little burnt out on the subject. (This isn’t necessarily a plug; I now regard Cibola as an artistic failure, though I still feel there’s some pretty strong writing in it – mostly in the last third – and a lot of good insights.)* The book incorporates regular sections of epigrams from various sources, both as an aid to the reader’s understanding and as a nod to meta-texuality and multi-vocalic whatnot. One of the things I quote from is George Steiner’s essay “The Historicity of Dreams” (in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995, Yale U.P., 1996).

The essay is subtitled “two questions to Freud.” It throws out a number of points worth pondering, for example: “Animals dream. Am I altogether in error in thinking that the philosophical and historical implications of this platitude are enormous, and that they have received remarkably little attention? For if animals dream, as they manifestly do, such ‘dreams’ are generated and experienced outside any linguistic matrix.” The ability to dream in other members of the animal kingdom is often cited as evidence for the view that dreaming is necessary to affix events and images in the memory. Steiner cautions, however, that “not only can we have no proof that the dreams of animals occur in such ‘imagistic-sensory’ mode, but we cannot even ‘think’ any such mode without adulterating it into verbal discourse. Man can almost be defined as a species with only exceedingly limited and falsifying access to the universe (for it is nothing less) of silence.” (Emphasis added.) **

“Did hominid species, in their intimate co-existence not only with primates but with the whole animal kingdom, dream zoo-logically?” Steiner asks. This line of speculation is interesting to me because of my own sense that many dreams are fundamentally altered by their conversion into narrative. And the possibility of hyper-linguistic dreams such as I had last night – i.e., examples of abstract thinking of the kind that are rare enough during waking hours for most of us who are not scientists or philosophers – implies to me that such conversion may not always be completely after-the-fact, upon waking, as the rest of Steiner’s study of dream interpretation assumes. Rather, an almost simultaneous translation may be going on.

Who is the translator, then? Is it the same as the witnessing “I” (eye) of the lucid dreamer? And what to make of the division between witness and protagonist within the selfhood of the dreamer? This could point in several directions. My usual anthropological interests make me want to try and trace a connection with what comparative religionist Karl Luckert refers to as the pre-human flux of mythological time among gatherer-hunters. I’m also thinking of the many ways I’ve read about in which dreaming (and other unconscious or semi-conscious states) can be developed and directed for shamanic purposes: to divine, to heal, to harm – even to kill, in some cultures.***

Steiner is sensitive to these possibilities and nuances as well: “We do not sleep at the same hours, in the same milieu, in the same psychological aura – climatic, nutritive, sexual – as did, say, an ancient Greek, a medieval serf, a Trobriand islander. . . . The dreams recorded by the royal scribes of ancient Egypt or the Bible, by Plutarch or the medieval allegorists differ among themselves as radically as they differ from those set down by anthropologists and ethnographers in the field. They differ strikingly, as well, from those cited as typical in the literature of psychoanalysis.” He goes on to ponder the great gulf between traditional dream-interpretation, in which “dreams are the momentary runes which the future inscribes on the sleeping soul,” and modern psychoanalysis, in which “dreams feed not on prophesy but on remembrance.

“The semiological vector points not to the future but to the past. The dynamics of opacity are not those of the unknown but of the suppressed.” This reorientation first came about among European “Enlightenment” thinkers of the 17th century, he says, and gathered steam with the Romantics, for whom dreams were “homecomings to the ‘visionary gleam’ of birth and childhood.” Steiner proposes several reasons for the shift. First, our conception of the future became mechanical, statistical and stochastic – i.e. “scientific.” Gradually, then, “responsible knowledge is assimilated to daylight (cf. the light-symbolism, the noon-poetics in the iconography and discursive conventions of the Newtonian revolution). Concomitantly, night and its output are assigned to the domain of illusion, of childishness, of pathology. As Goya has it, in that most haunting of his engravings, nightmares are born of the sleep of reason.”

This may be an accurate analysis of Enlightenment prejudices, but it’s hardly a new trope. Sufis, Buddhists, the Kogi Indians of Columbia and others have long used not only the image of enlightenment for the ideal/natural state of the thinking mind, but also the analogy of waking from sleep to describe its experience. But of course Steiner must know this; it doesn’t invalidate his argument, simply re-situates it within a truly global hermeneutic of unconsciousness compared with which modern psychoanalysis seems infantile indeed.

Our guide continues with a brief discussion of the reevaluation of childhood during the Romantic period, which is obviously still very much with us (and very much worth celebrating – especially now in this “Seusstennial” year!). A third possible factor in the shift is “that of the internalizations of experience which come near to defining modernity itself.”

“Such conjectures are,” Steiner hastens to add, “too vague, too portentious, to be of real use.” I beg to differ! What he calls vague I prefer to think of as suggestive.

The remainder of his essay is devoted to rebutting the “arbitrary naivety” of Freud in regard to poetics. (“The phenomenology of dreaming is embedded in the evolution and structures of language. A theory of dreams is also a linguistics or, at the very least, a poetics.”) His own, relatively safe and highly provisional conclusion about the relationship of dream interpretations to waking life is that they reflect and transmute not only individual but shared experiences. And, he implies, they may be predictive in at least the limited sense that one’s unconscious mind can be open to aspects of the larger social and historical milieu ignored or blocked by the waking intellect.

My mother is sometimes prone to dreams that seem vaguely prophetic or clairvoyant. Her only moment of true clairvoyance was many years ago, when she knew the exact moment of her beloved grandmother’s death. I had a similar experience two years ago, when I had a very vivid dream about an old acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen or even much thought about in several years, at what turned out to be the approximate hour of his death. In my dream, he was getting out of a van right next to me in a parking lot, but seemed not to recognize me when I called his name. In fact, as it turned out he had been driving a van when he careened off the highway and was killed. But I am not sure that these dream-visitations occupy the same order of reality as predictive dreams.

My mother included in her book Appalachian Autumn a dream which she had not herself considered to be prophetic. Interestingly, her editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press wanted to take it out – she found its inclusion irrelevant and a little melodramatic, apparently. Before reading the manuscript, based only on my mother’s telling of it and knowledge of the proximate events (which I had not been at home to witness), I felt moved to make a poem out of it. Thus innocently and inadvertently I stumbled upon what seemed to me and to her to be a logical reading. The only part I fudged here, obviously, is the suggestion that she “remembers her dream” a week later, during the event it seems to have foreshadowed. I can’t recall if the part about the guy swallowing his plug of tobacco was my invention or not; it was a later addition to try and offset the high drama with a touch of humor.


It shook her out of a sound sleep, she says,
it seemed so real: the catamount
with all four feet dug into her flesh
riding her back like a demon in an old folktale.

Was it the lion’s voice or her own
she heard as she tried to turn
& couldn’t, couldn’t look,
doubled under that unearthly weight?

One clear autumn morning a week later
she wakes to the roar of a lumberman’s bulldozer
& remembers her dream. The man looking
down from his nest of gearshifts

must wonder at this gray-haired woman
who faces him from the other side
of the blade with hands
half-clenched. He reaches for the switch

& it shudders into silence. Don’t worry,
, he says, eyes watering (no doubt
from swallowing when he should’ve spat),
we’ll cut well above your line.

This Cat is yellow & its teeth and claws are steel.
It lays the wooded spine of the mountain bare.
My mother runs to the far field
to flee the chainsaw’s scream.****

As for the thought I had last night, it was neither prophetic nor especially profound. I’m sure it’ll worm its way into a blog post at some point; I’ll keep y’all posted.

But I think that’s really why I do my blogging first thing in the morning, preferably beginning well before dawn: to take advantage of the lingering impressions from my dreams, which I otherwise rarely make any particular effort to remember. I consider myself a pragmatist on the question of dream-interpretation. For the writing mind too enters a mild state of trance; the self-conscious ego is forced into a temporary retreat. Whose dark words are these, then, with which I am so presumptuously attempting to map the via negativa?

*A pdf version of Cibola is available here. Be advised that there are no page numbers (for no better reason than my very incomplete mastery of Pagemaker at the time of composition) so anyone wishing to print it out should be careful to keep the pages in order.
**I love that “almost”! Steiner’s caution as a thinker is one of his most attractive attributes to me. Without it I would probably be completely intimidated, given his immense erudition.
***See Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) – the rare example of an anthropological page-turner.
****Included in Spoil (another pdf), p. 32.

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