They were all discombobulating dreams. I would wake up and wonder why I had to endure the panic of a lost foothold or a missed grasp, and the free fall through a murky void. Someone who pretended to a deep understanding of dream symbols told me that a fall was really a sexual act, the slide representing a sinking into another body. I could not fathom why an ostensibly pleasurable act should leave me with the breathless agony of an unfolding disaster.
There is doubtless an element of truth in Freud’s theory. When I have lost a close friend, and rued that I would never see him again, on occasion he has appeared in a dream. It felt like he had reappeared as a form of solace. I love my daughters and I loved the time they were children and filled my heart with joy. Sure enough, they have appeared as little girls in my dreams.
Yet there are many strange dreams for which there is no easy explanation. More than once I have found myself in a large building, where a conference is going, and lost my way. Yes, I have attended a lot of conferences, but I have never been lost. Maybe it reflects not my being lost, but my fear of being lost.
I have also dreamed of being in planes and trains. In truth, I have traveled a lot. But I don’t understand why so many of my travel dreams are associated with some anxiety. Maybe, I wonder, many of those travels had an underlying tension of which I was not aware at the time.
It is the mystery of dreams that fascinates me. Don’t forget how long we have been trying to understand dreams. Egyptians recorded their dreams on papyrus 2000 years before Christ. Indians, a thousand years after that, in a remarkable anticipation of Freud, wrote in The Upanishadas of our secret desires appearing in dreams. Antiphon, the Athenian orator, possibly wrote the first book on dreams and Hippocrates, the great healer, thought we reproduce at night the images we gather during the day. Why this preoccupation with something so ephemeral as a dream? The answer is simple: people thought dreams were important.
Exactly opposite is the notion that our dreams are, not a distillation of the past, but an augury of the future. Widespread in many societies is the idea of dreams that foretell what is to come in our lives. The Talmud exhorts Jews to heed the lessons of their dreams and Samuel, the Hebrew prophet, slept in the Temple of Shiloh to better receive such lessons.
The third idea is that dreams are a direct message from God. The Old Testament recounts stories of dreams of divine inspiration; evangelists urge believers to listen to God’s message in their dreams. Saint Augustine believed himself redeemed by heaven-sent dreams. Against this, many Middle Ages priests thought of dreams as the devil’s temptations and Martin Luther spoke of dreams as messages of Lucifer. Even in Islam, Iain Edgar points out, dreams are key, for they are the main vehicle for conveying God’s instruction since the passing of the last prophet, Mohammad.
Regardless of where dreams come, God or the Devil, what titillates us most is what they mean. An extraordinary number of people have come up with interpretations that focus on the symbols you see in a dream and their meaning. Many of them are interesting, some of them are plausible, but none of them have any empirical basis. There are only two things one can say about dreams. First, that dreams have some continuity with our normal waking life. The concerns that agitate us during the day turn up at night in our dreams, though often in a bizarre or incoherent way. Second, even when dreams seem quite ‘discontinuous’ with our life, totally unreal and unconnected to our normal existence, they yield metaphorical or figurative insights that have a link to what is happening inside us. One day we may really be able to uncover those insights.
I have had highly erotic dreams. I thought they were certainly from God. I have had nasty dreams too, of getting lost or falling from a cliff. I put them down to the devil’s handiwork. Saint Augustine or Martin Luther may have a different point of view. I am reasonably content with the variation and would dearly like to know if any of it is ever going to come true.