Discoveries after Six Months of Writing Down Dreams

I’ve sometimes heard that the most uninteresting thing one person can tell another is his dreams. I think this is probably correct, but I’m not convinced that it has to be. One of the main problems seems to be that people relay the dream badly, failing to draw out the real substance (the insightful juxtapositions, the reflections and commentaries, etc.). But I think, when organized carefully and transcribed in deliberate prose, other people’s dreams can actually be engaging, surprising, and insightful. The surrealist writers Michel Leiris and Georges Perec both kept records of their dreams, and the resulting books make for not-at-all uninteresting excursions (Theodor Adorno did, too, but I haven’t read any of his.) For example, one of Leiris’s dreams goes as follows:

I am going on a trip, so I have to move all the books in my library from one room to another. Since the occasion calls for me to show off one of my manuscripts to some of my friends, I go down to the street, rip what appear to be streetcar tracks from the pavement, and go back up to the apartmen, dragging meters of rails behin me that bang on the stirs with every step I take. I then realize that this load is in fact made up of a series of large glass objects similar to t those coasters that used to be placed under the feet of the piano in middle-class living rooms to protect the carpet or the floor. Because this is indeed my manuscript, I am fairly annoyed. But I manage to console myself, given the fact that my arrival provokes the following comments: “He’s quite something, that Leiris! You ask him for a manuscript, and he drags up rails from the street.” – from Nights as Day, Days as Night, p. 56.

Since June, I have been trying to write down whatever I can recall about my dreams. I’ve adopted a few rules for myself. I must not embellish any part of the dream; each word must refer to something I remember experiencing. If I quote somebody, the quote must be precise. If I cannot remember it precisely, I must summarize rather than quoting. As a result, some of my notes begin with sentences like “She turns to me,” without introducing what is going on or who I am speaking of, since I cannot remember. The result is fragmentary and often jarring, but it’s very accurate. Obviously words can never fully capture sensations, but I’ve done the best I can.

I’ve posted the results to this blog, which I will continue to update as I continue to dream. I’ve concluded a few things through this project. The first is that dream interpretation is often a relatively simple matter. Most of my dreams are straightforward musings on things that have happened to me recently. For example, one day I was speaking with a friend about this video, in which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver shows some children how chicken nuggets are made. The children shout “Ewww, gross” when they see the raw chicken-parts, but when the parts are transmuted into familiar deep-fried ovals, these same children have no problem finding delicious what they were horrified by minutes previously. My friend commented that it was strange for children to suddenly find enticing what they had only just described as revolting. The night of our discussion, I dreamed I was afraid of a housecat that had been painted like a tiger. I knew it was a housecat, but could’t keep myself from being afraid. I knew instantly upon waking that my dream had intended to rebut my friend’s point. One can know the “tiger” is actually a housecat, but reason cannot overcome instinct through mere willpower. Even though I have proof the chicken nugget is made from discarded cloacas, I cannot escape the associations that make me want to eat it.

Next, I have learned that a number of recurring themes seem apparently preoccupy me. The most prominent is the failure of the West to adequately reckon with the Holocaust. I have had a large number of dreams that touch on the Holocaust in various ways. Several have been set in World War II Berlin. One, which was too disturbing to include in this blog, involved watching a friend be carried off by stormtroopers. A dream in which a professor asks me to contribute to a Holocaust awareness fundraiser seems to suggest the contemporary trivialization of the tragedy’s meaning. The State of Israel, too, figures prominently, though usually in a relatively apolitical way. (These themes are surprising mostly because I am not Jewish and have never visited either Germany or the Middle East.)

Several anxieties repeat themselves. I am an awful lawyer. I do not understand my PhD work. My politics do not make sense. One worrying aspect is that my dreams do not make me out to be a very comfortable person. In them, I am inevitably ill-at-ease with society. I am constantly being told off by lifeguards or librarians. I am being put in prison, or sniffed unexpectedly, or asking a question that everyone in the room already knows the answer to but me. They do not seem to be the dreams of a satisfied man.

Mostly, though, I have found they make strikingly clever connections that I would never have come up with in ordinary life. A character in one speaks the line “I have two political beliefs. The first is that education is important, and the second is that 9/11 didn’t happen.” I can’t imagine a better illustration of the tendency for sobriety and madness to sit side-by-side in one human mind. It is also surprising to me that lines like this can be formed somewhere in my sleeping mind, not only refracting my own feelings but refining them, clarifying them with a sense of humor.

As an exercise in self-knowledge, then, attempting to translate one’s dreams into prose would seem to bear useful fruit. But a caution label, Do Not Overinterpret, should nevertheless be affixed. Even as my dreams lead me to conclude that I am a deeply anxious person, I worry about how firm I can be in this judgment. Georges Perec stopped his dream diary because he realized that his writing of the diary was influencing his new dreams; knowing that he was taking notes, they performed too self-consciously. The content they yielded was no longer buried treasure, but was manufactured for consumption. I worry about this loop myself. By recognizing the themes, I may reinforce them, and thereby assure their eternal recurrence.

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