Dreams in Literature, Literature on Dreams
Warning: This page may lead the reader toward compulsive book purchases.
Robert Louis Stevenson famously told his wife of a bizarre dream he had one night. “You really ought to write that down, dear,” she said, turning over and hoping her husband would go back to sleep. He actually did write it down, and strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was born. Yep. Came right from a dream, it did. There are those who scoff at Coleridge’s report that all of Kubla Khan, and several hundred more lines were composed in a dream. Even his friend /poet Robert Southey said, “Coleridge had dreamed he had written a poem in a dream.” But whether he dreamed he wrote a poem, or wrote a poem about a dream, it is still a remarkable piece of imagery.
Tales of literary inspiration in dream are too abundant to enumerate fully here. But the debate about whether one can indeed “analyze” a literary dream has become an outdated litmus tests for the uses of psychoanalysis. Modern dreamwork rests more on the authority of the dreamer to accept or reject meaning posed by others – even learned professionals. For instance, someone may have a dream about a large black dog. It may mean something different to a Doberman owner as opposed to someone who is afraid of dogs. Or it may contain a metaphor or a play on words if the dreamer has been “working like a dog” or is “dog tired,” or if her boss has been “dogging her” about a project. Or the dreamer may have simply seen a black lab in passing, or in a magazine. Carl Jung was very emphatic about the association process, warning against a reductionist view of dreams that an image means this one thing, and nothing else (nicht als). Even Freud, especially in his early days, emphasized the use of free association. Now if a character in a book has a dream about a black dog, there may be enough context to “interpret” that dream, which is more a form of literary criticism than psychology.
Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences… sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
– H.P. Lovecraft, from “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Dreams of Terror and Death (Del Rey, 1995)
I have dream journals from the late 90s that detail several hundred dreams over a three year span. Lovecraft’s comment that it is a “truer life” sounds right to me, in that the dreams include seemingly innocuous day residue – things I would not have thought to write in an ego diary – and also conjure up dome compelling emotional and biographical material I would not be anxious to immortalize in an autobiography. I agree totally – a dream diary is a more accurate history that a conscious journal.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol contains abundant possibilities for the discussion of Dreams and Literature. Early in the story, Ebenezer Scrooge encounters the ghost of his long dead partner Jacob Marley and attributes the dream to indigestion. This is a profound and enduring belief about nightmares; that they are caused by what we eat. But as Norman Holland notes in the Foreword to The Dream and the Text (Suny, 1993), “Even if Marley’s Ghost is a dream and even if Scrooge is right and the dream is caused by a crumb of cheese, Scrooge has still not explained why he dreamt of Marley of Christmas Eve. He has not exempted himself from the guilt that drives his nocturnal education” (p. xi). So writing off the visit of Marley as a dietary problem divorces Scrooge from self-examination. By the time the “Ghost of Christmas yet-to-come” has visited, Scrooge is bargaining with the apparently immutable course of history. He wants to know if he can avoid the desolate, painful future his life has wrought so far. This is an important passage, for many people see their dreams as necessarily prophetic, and that dreaming of a bad outcome means it must be so. On the contrary, my work with others – and my own dreams – suggests we dream about such outcomes not because they are already determined, but rather to avoid the behaviors that lead to outcomes we do not wish for ourselves and others.
Speaking of literature, I’ve been known to show off by discussing my German 351 class at Sewanee. Makes it sound like I was well versed in Hessian, or at least Hesse. Actually, it was a class on Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, and other 19th and 20 century German writers, cross listed as Religion 312 and taught in translation. Since I missed 26 of 39 classes (am I bragging again?) it’s fair to say much of my grade rested on a term paper I wrote on a dream or hallucination. Like Coleridge, I cannot swear I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating when I wrote it. The main character of The Magic Mountain was stranded in a blizzard when he experienced a dream of particular horror, representing the stagnation Hans Castorp experienced in the book. I marveled at how someone could craft a dream as literature, using creativity in writing in an attempt to mimic the psychology of the Great Dreamweaver. Then again, Freud was taken with the dream theme in Jensen’s Gradiva and Jung wrote extensively about the uses of dream in biblical literature, so I’m in good company in my awe in consideration of this type of craftsmanship.
Flash forward to the 21st Century, and Depth Psychologist Ginnette Paris has an interesting take on all of this. [Paris, G. (2007). Depth psychology after neuroscience: Wisdom, psyche and the humanities. East Sussex, NY: Routledge.] Dr. Paris (pron. Pa°reé) advocates that psychology needs to shake loose from medicine, managed care, and the medical model and dive back into literature and myth for solution to life’s ills. She states:
I find it more fruitful to work toward an acceptance of the fact that depth psychology is not a natural science, never was, and never will be. It was, and is, and shall remain a part of the humanities. . . . Theories that borrow the language of science but without the rigor of the scientific approach are useless as science and useless as literature (p. 85).
So what this allows is for literature and myth to be the answer to malaise. This would, of course, threaten to take the ‘scrip pad right out of depression. And it means that real dreams can be approached with metaphor and with as much literary deconstruction as might, say, a passage of a dream in a novel. Instead of treating mood disorders with anti-depressants, one may begin to approach depression as a healthy response to an untenable life situation. And the dream that appears in the depression might actually have textual significance in diagnosis and the treatment of the depression – without side effects. For if we treat only the symptom – the biochemical response to trauma or to substance use or to neglect – then we have not really done anything other than to play chemistry set with the human brain. Paris argues that if we approach psychological fragility as recognizable myth, we can have therapy that restores humanness instead of a model that sees every sad client as someone born with a Prozac Deficiency.
Aizenstat, S. (2004). Dreams are Alive in Depth Psychology: Meditations from the Field. D. Slattery, Ed. (Daimon).
Arvio, S. (2013). Night Thoughts. (Knopf).
Barrett, D. (2001),. The Committee of Sleep (Crown).
Paris, G. (2007). Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology After Neuroscience. (Routledge).
Rupprecht, C.S., (2003) The Dream and the Text (Suny)
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