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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

the mystery of dreams

I awoke in the middle of the night from dreams. As I got up in the dark to go to the bathroom, I had a thought that I have had many times: we take dreams too much for granted. The significance of dreams is greatly underestimated.

By "significance" I don't mean merely what we think the dreams might mean to us, what their symbolism might be. I mean that we take the very phenomenon of dreaming too much for granted; we don't consider what the existence of dreaming might imply about the world, about reality.

I had this thought: If you were an all-powerful god, about to create the universe, would you think to include dreaming among its phenomena?

I'm sure I wouldn't have. I have always paid relatively close attention to my dreams, and have studied the meaning of dreams for most of my life. But I doubt that even as an all-powerful god I would have thought up the very idea of dreaming. The universe I would have created would have been the dumb, literal place that we generally imagine our own to be.

Dreams don't come with instructions or explanations. They seem to be standard equipment for sentient beings of a certain level of development--although, who knows, maybe for all sentient beings. Do oysters dream? Why not? My guess, and rule of thumb, would be: if it sleeps, it dreams.

Dreams, I believe, are the ultimate warrant of stories and storytelling: they are the natural phenomena from which storytelling takes its inspiration, just as our visual impressions are the basis of painting. Dreams are the original and still ultimate form of story, the form in which we experience ourselves as protagonists and undergo adventures that are in every way real--until we wake up. The sensual and emotional intensity of dreams can be greater than that of life. I believe I have experienced my strongest emotions in dreams.

Dreams, as stories, are made up of events--not of thoughts or words. Occasionally we may remember only an image or a sound from a dream, but a true dream, remembered fully, is always a series of events. A dream has a setting, a cast, and a thread: something that you are trying to do, or a problem. There comes a crisis. If the crisis is big enough we wake up--can't face it in the dream. Or we stay with it, and it resolves for good or ill. We're defeated and griefstricken, or joyful and happy. All story.

In the ancient world dreams were considered one of the main ways in which the gods communicated with people. At the temple of Aesculapius in Rome a sick person would make an offering, then stay overnight in the temple in hope of receiving a dream in which the god would give the cure. In ancient India they recognized that dreaming, which creates a seemingly other universe in addition to the one we know by day, could be described as arising in "subtle matter"--just as our daylight world arises in "coarse matter". For where are those objects of dream-perception, and of what are they made? The stuff of dreams.

Dreams point to the mysteriousness of life. For a life that contains dreams cannot itself be less meaningful or mysterious than they are. The work of art--that is, the story--is a public dream.

Hmm...almost enough to make me think about getting back to writing my own...



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