World of Our Dreams

We may not have a way to prove the meaning of dreams, but the bizarre, beautiful, and frightening world of dreams is worth paying attention to.

Last night (12/3/21), it was cubes of sour candy. Each cube had words imprinted on it. The words formed jokes, and when you took a piece of candy out of the bag you were supposed to tell the joke to whoever was standing next to you, even if they were a complete stranger. This trend has swept the nation. The consensus in the press was that these were some of the funniest jokes ever written, even though they had been produced by an algorithm.

I was standing in a large, warmly-lit classically-designed opera house, with a bag of the cube candies. I was taking them out of the bag one by one and placing them on the seats so that patrons could enjoy them when they returned from the intermission. A friend from long ago stood watching, and we argued over whether the jokes had actually been generated by an “algorithm.”

“They pull the words out of a hat at random. That isn’t an algorithm. That’s pulling words out of a hat,” said my friend, with an unusual degree of bitterness in his voice.

“You’re not just arguing with me,” I replied. “You’re arguing with the New York Times.” 

The dream continued for some time afterward. But that is all I can recall. 

I have been keeping a dream journal since 2013, and writing down everything I can remember, massaged into prose. I never embellish the dreams, but I am certain that the process of writing them down imposes an order or logic onto them that was not present in the actual experience. The diary is, however, as close as I can get to an accurate record of what went through my mind at night.

People to whom I have shown my dream diary are sometimes dubious that it could really be what I remember. It is too clear and detailed. But I write it immediately after I wake up, and I have found that when one writes the dream down, the immediate focus on trying to “save” the dream from dissipating makes it possible to preserve fragments that would never normally be recollected. Other dream diarists, too, have produced similarly vivid and specific accounts of what they have gone through in the “zoo of the mind” that is the dreaming experience. As Sidarta Ribeiro writes in the wonderful The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams:

“The task will seem impossible at first, but quickly an image of a scene, even if it’s faded, will come to light. The dreamer must cling to this, mobilizing their attention to increase the reverberation of the memory of the dream. It is this first memory, albeit perhaps fragile and fragmentary, that will serve as the initial piece of the jigsaw, or the end of the ball of yarn to be unrolled. Through its reactivation, the associated memories will begin to be revealed. On the first day this exercise may produce no more than a few scattered phrases, but after a week it is common for whole pages of the dream diary to get filled up.”

Indeed, unrolling a ball of yarn is exactly what it is like. The night before last, the first thing I remembered was that there had been an airport. Then I remembered that in the airport, I had been instructed to take a “special” flight, one only accessible through a vertical tunnel made of ropes. Then I remembered that as I clambered up, children who could not handle the height tumbled down past me. I remembered what happened when I got to the top, which was that a gate agent informed me the flight would only take cargo, and handed me a hoagie as “compensation.” Those who say they do not remember their dreams should try the exercise of writing them down; they may preserve more than they expect.

One of the main questions about dreams that interests people is: what do they mean? Across many civilizations, dreams were seen as prophecies or instructions. A visit in a dream could tell a person what to do, and they would take it as a direct instruction to be followed seriously. It’s easy to see why dreams could be taken for divine inspiration—their sources are so mysterious. Even contemporary neuroscience struggles to produce good explanations as to the purpose of dreams. They are a deeply weird phenomenon: bizarre, disjointed, impossible images that parade across our mind as we sleep. They must have some kind of meaning, they must make some sort of sense.

Oneirologists (those who study dreams) have collected endless dream reports documenting the dreams of people across cultures. It is said that there is nothing more boring than someone telling you about a dream they had, but diving into dream databases can be fascinating. There are some common “plots.” The anxiety dream (showing up to take a test one hasn’t studied for), the falling dream, the teeth-falling-out dream. Extreme pleasure (finding something more wonderful than anything one has ever seen in real life) or extreme terror (being more afraid of something than one has ever been in real life) are common. So is the fruitless pursuit of a goal, such as trying to get somewhere or open something or recover a lost object, or traveling through a building with endless doors.

Nightmares can be more unsettling than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. One dream report tells of a realistic “amputation assembly line” in which people lined up to have their limbs lopped off. I myself once dreamed I was among a group of prisoners being taken to be pulverized by a colossal hammer hundreds of feet tall. Knowing that everybody is in danger but being unable to act is common. So are grotesque images, like looking into the neighbor’s pool to find a tiny doll next to a decomposing baby, or opening the front door to find a friend covered head-to-toe in live grasshoppers. What makes nightmares even more upsetting, though, is that they are often deeply personal. Examples from dream report databases include a person impersonating the dreamer’s mother trying to kill them by inserting long pointy fingers into their ribcage, and watching one’s child be killed or maimed and being unable to do anything about it (e.g., seeing one’s son getting on a plane and then watching the plane blow up). The dream, unlike a film, is first-person, and so with horrors like “being attacked by an amorphous dark thing,” “finding a glowing stranger in one’s bedroom with a terrifying smile on their face,” or “watching a friend blow up like a parade balloon,” we feel like we are really undergoing the experience in question. I dreamed recently of being trapped in my bed and unable to move, and I was convinced that I had woken up from the dream and was still trapped, creating a sensation of extraordinary terror, before finding out upon waking that this first sensation of “waking up” had only been another layer of the nightmare.

Dream Diary excerpts

Police Officer Training Corps:

I am a trainee police officer. The other officers do not respect me, because I am the only one in our contingent who refuses to wear pants. Sometimes I wear a tracksuit, which my colleagues insist is also inappropriate. We are divided into two groups. Half of us will be Death Squads, half of us will be Parking Enforcement. I am Parking Enforcement. “Hello, my prestigious friend,” says a Death Squad member to me. I look at my naked legs in shame. Despite all of this, I am confident I will eventually solve the Mystery.

Egg Dream:

The filing cabinet is full of eggs. Each egg is a personnel file. If you smash it, the person dies.

The Vine Dream:

I keep feeling a single long hair growing from my back but I cannot see it in the mirror. I ask my mother to yank it out. When she pulls it, it turns out to be a large vine growing from me. When she pulls harder, it is revealed to have deep roots in my body, and a number of my organs come out with it. Fatally disemboweled, I hold the plucked vine in my hands and run my fingers over it. “Looks kind of like a stalk of wheat,” I murmur as I die.

A Free Country:

“Do you know what the definition of a free country is?” the speaker asked, pointing at me. I mumbled that I did not. “A free country is one where you can jerk off thinking about anyone you like. Even Stalin.”

Dreams can also be sources of extraordinary inspiration. They are capable of producing deeply upsetting horrors, but also of showing us incredible shapes, architecture, and music. Because they take our existing thoughts and put them together in novel ways, even scientific insight can come in dreams. Mendeleev saw the arrangement of the periodic table of the elements in a dream, Niels Bohr saw the structure of the atom, and Friedrich Kekule discovered the structure of benzene after a dream of snakes swallowing their tails. Elias Howe is said to have perfected the sewing machine needle after a dream in which he was about to be eaten by cannibals—their spears had tips with holes in them, which inspired the design of the needle. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all came in dreams. Paul McCartney dreamed “Yesterday”—it is common to dream of a beautiful song that nobody has ever heard before, but when McCartney woke up and remembered it, he was convinced he must have plagiarized it from somewhere. After searching endlessly and realizing the song must have sprung from his own mind, he recorded the hit that became the most covered pop song in the world.

On Twitter, people sometimes post attempts to recreate strange memes or products that existed in their dreams. One user had a dream in which people ate a food called “King’s Hand,” a “hollow [human] hand made of M&M cookie, filled with Greek salad.” He chronicled his exhaustive quest to recreate the (disgusting) dessert, which other users replicated. (The “King’s Hand” now has its own Wikipedia entry and was featured on the Today Show.)

Dream report databases show that many people experience the same kind of anxieties in their dreams. Many these days are COVID-19 dreams, in which someone’s relatives suddenly become sick. But even when the underlying emotions are shared, each individual can have totally unique nightmares that show the mind at its most creatively unsettling: thinking a man is going to cut your fingers off, trying to turn on a faucet that is covered in ants, discovering that one’s damask curtains are really demons, floating on one’s bed in the middle of an ocean and killing a fish—only to discover that the fish was in fact a beloved pet.

The bizarre, unexpected, and primal qualities of dreams appear to be present across many different societies. A database of dream reports from an Amazonian Indigenous people, the Mehinaku, recorded in the 1970s, shows that, while their dreams are constructed out of the material of their social world rather than ours, they are not unrelatable. The reports are brief, but include dreams like: “frightened by sight of rectum of a spirit,” “cradled and nurtured bird,” “eaten by a giant spirit-fish,” “searched for piqui fruit with comrade,” “wanted to have sex with a girl but had no eyes to see her,” “had sex with a woman whose flesh was rotten and breaks open during intercourse,” “learned that son of distant kin will be eaten by spirits,” “removed penis, washed it, put it back on,” “bitten by tocandira ant,” “pursued by ghost of dead mother, cannot escape,” “refused food and therefore stung by stingray.” The same plots we see in Western dreams (running frightened, being anxious, being attacked by animals, becoming mysteriously sick, drowning, having sex) turn up in the dreams of the Mehinaku.

Plant Dream:

Each note you strike on the grand piano causes a different plant to sprout. The plants themselves are the symphony.

Corporate Dream:

I suddenly find myself having to explain why my corporation has lost billions of dollars. I did not even know I had a corporation.

Starting around 2016, people across the United States began to have dreams about Donald Trump. This wasn’t unexpected, since dreams are made from the stuff of life, and as Trump was in the news a lot, it was natural that he would make his way into people’s dreams. (There were a lot of Obama dreams in 2008, and plenty of Ross Perot dreams in 1992. I myself once had a dream in which Bernie Sanders confessed he did not wish to run for president, and planned to run away from his campaign to hide in a tunnel. “Nobody can make you be president,” Dream Bernie told me. “Not if you don’t want to be. It’s a free country.”) New York psychotherapist Martha Crawford has compiled thousands of Trump dreams, and categorized their content (e.g., “Dreams of Hubris and Inflation,” “Dreams of Humiliation and Hair,” “Dreams of Caretaking and Infantilization,” “Dreams of Impingement and Intrusion on Daily Life,” “Dreams of Psychopathy and Violated Norms,” “Dreams of Propaganda, Double-speak, and Surveillance.”) What is remarkable is not that Trump shows up, but what the dreams show about people’s feelings about Trump, and how as a result the dreams often end up producing amusing political satire.

Some examples of Trump dreams:

  • The dreamer is watching Trump give a speech and is the only one who can see that behind the podium, Trump is masturbating onto a copy of his speech. The dreamer is secretly filming Trump doing this and intends to take the story to the press, but is frustrated afterward at how uninterested the media is in revealing it to the public.
  • A common dream involves Donald Trump stealing food off a person’s plate: “We were eating McDonald’s with Trump. Trump took one bite out of all the chicken nuggets so that no one else could have them.”
  • “I had a dream that Donald Trump made olives illegal because he thought they were ‘weird.’”
  • Trump in a shiny sequined dress asking if he looks better than Hillary Clinton.
  • “Trump blew up Philadelphia to build a statue of himself.”
  • “At a party [Trump] was mixing different types of taco seasoning to pour into a beer.”
  • “Trump slapped me across the face and I yelled ‘You hit me?!’ And he immediately said  ‘No, I didn’t.’”
  • “Donald Trump had decided that to be a well-respected president, he had to come up with a really good Public Service Announcement. The result was an advert featuring a group of people dressed as human organs, led by a pancreas, walking in slow motion, all cool and stuff, down a wide corridor while the altered Eagles lyric “warm smell of Colitis, rising up through the air” played. Suddenly everyone— Democrats included—was praising Trump for calling attention to a tragic disease that affects millions, while I was the only one screaming ‘THAT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE ANY SENSE!!!’”
  • “i had a vivid dream the other night about Donald trump somehow brainwashing ppl through a stage show/play/movie thing to eat everything and think everything was a sweet/candy? and ppl died bc they were eating furniture.” [sic]
  • “Trump gave me a million dollars but they were fake.”
  • “I had a dream that the White House wouldn’t let Trump actually work so everyday he would just make himself a paper crown and go to the mall to get a Wetzel Pretzel.”
  • “Donald Trump was my father and secretly faked an assassination attempt on his own life so that my siblings and I would learn to love him better.”
  • Trump announced National Donald Trump Day, introducing a new currency with “a grotesque caricature of his face on it, and the motto was ‘Everyone Can Dream.’”
  • “Dreamed that we won a Trump-brand cruise to Italy and when we got there, we realized they’d driven us in circles and dropped us off at an Italian restaurant down the California coast, and I turned to Blake and sighed, “I don’t actually know what I expected.”
  • “Trump was mad NASA wouldn’t turn the Hubble Telescope around to spy on immigrants.”
  •  The dreamer describes a scene of Dickensian poverty in which Donald Trump, attempting to appear philanthropic, is handing out food to the poor. When the dreamer gets to the front of the line, Trump hands them two cold potatoes.
  • A frequent dream-type among students involves discovering that Donald Trump is one’s teacher. An example: “had a dream trump was my social studies teacher and at the end of every class, he gave us all fucking PORKCHOPS to take home to our families.” Another: “Trump was my English teacher and I was failing the class because every time we got an essay assignment I would write ‘This Man Is Horrible’ all over the fuckin paper.” Another: “dreamed Trump was the headteacher and he wouldn’t let me study feminism because he said feminists are witches.” Trump has guest-taught Bible study and psychotherapy classes in people’s dreams. One person found themselves in a class about Trump in which the syllabus had been written by Trump Himself.
  •  “I dreamed last night that Donald Trump was dying and I was called to the White House to provide spiritual direction to him in his final days, but I couldn’t get him to pay attention to anything I was saying. He kept saying he wanted to take me out to eat Trump steaks.”

The dreams are not always whimsical. Some involve disturbing accounts of being assaulted or raped by Trump, occasionally with Trump dressed in a manner that makes the experience even more disturbing (e.g., clown mask). One reported a traumatic dream in which they remembered Trump had molested them as a child. Others report strange dreams in which Trump is kind to them or validates them, such as by telling them they are good and loved or praising their handicrafts.

Sometimes people dream that Trump is an infant child they have been tasked with taking care of. (“I applied a MASSIVE nicotine patch to Donald Trump’s back while he slumped over my knee like a giant, clammy baby.”) Some have dreamed that Trump has tweeted out maps of their houses, causing them to receive death threats.

The Wires Dream:

A doctor—or possibly a mad scientist disguised as a doctor—removes the left half of my face, leaving a giant hole. I stare into the hole and realize my skull is mostly hollow, with a few internal wires and electrodes here and there. I become depressed about having an empty head. “I am just a machine like any other,” I scream. “I am nothing!” “Wires are not nothing,” the doctor replies.

Some of these dreams could happen with anybody who happened to occupy the Oval Office. Dreams are, after all, bizarre, and in the 1990s plenty of people surely dreamed that Bill Clinton was their teacher. But what is remarkable is how many of these reports effectively parody Trump’s particular character traits. His gluttony, his self-absorption, his bullying, his tackiness, his shameless implausible lying—all of it is hilariously satirized in the unconscious mind. The dream of the potatoes captures well Trump’s pseudo-philanthropy through the corrupt Trump Foundation. The dream in which Trump creates a PSA about colitis and receives bipartisan acclaim for it not only satirizes Trump’s questionable sense of the public interest, but the tendency of Democrats to be so eager to reach across the aisle that they will do it in the name of an absurdity. In dreams, Trump makes up new words to the national anthem, or takes credit for ending the Boer War, or crashes the dreamer’s wedding. But Trump has actually crashed a wedding—he wandered unannounced into one at Mar-a-Lago, took the microphone, and gave a bizarre speech about Biden and China.

The Eagle Dream:

The auditorium was filled with students for the end-of-term celebrations. Many pompous administrators gave long-winded speeches. When it was my turn to speak, I told everyone I had something rather special to show them. I directed their attention to a pair of hundred-foot stepladders that I had placed side by side, with a tiny platform across them, just shy of the ceiling. I began climbing one of the ladders, with a microphone in my hand and a live eagle tucked under my arm. When I got to the top, I held up the eagle. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said into the microphone, “this is a bald eagle, symbol of America. It has a beak, as you know.” I kissed the eagle’s beak. The eagle began to look alarmed. “What we are here to do today is to show how clever this eagle is, and how well it can fly. Now, you all know that if I dropped the eagle from this platform, it would not fall to the ground, but would simply fly away.” The audience did not react, but stared at me in awed silence. “But what,” I continued, “would happen if we replaced the eagle’s wings with Muppet wings?” I began to remove the eagle’s wings. “It is my position,” I declared, “that the spirit of America is so strong in this bird that it would fly even with useless wings.” The eagle struggled against me, but I managed to pop the wings off. Into the bird’s empty sockets I placed “muppet wings,” felt wings that looked like they had come from a Muppet instead of a real bird, which were decorated all over with green tinsel. “Ladies and gentlemen, as further proof that this eagle will fly, let me inform you that this eagle is Jewish. He thus has thousands of years of noble history to give him strength. Now, fly!” I move to the edge of the platform and drop the frightened eagle. It plummets to the floor with a splat. The audience instantly erupts in anger and begins moving toward the platform. I make a rapid descent before they manage to channel an electric current through the ladders. When I reach the bottom, I cannot figure out how to turn my microphone off.

Dreams often capture certain emotional truths. A remarkable book called The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation (1933-1939), collects reports of dreams that people had during the early days of Nazi Germany. A Jewish journalist, Charlotte Beradt, took them down before she was forced to flee the country. They are often strange Kafkaesque “bureaucratic fairy tales.” For instance, a man dreams of a new “Regulation Prohibiting Residual Bourgeois Tendencies.” A Jewish woman dreams of trying to find her apartment and being told it no longer exists, another dreams of trying to be verified by a “Bureau of Aryan Verification.” One woman dreams “of a snowy road strewn with watches and jewelry. Tempted to take a piece, she senses a setup by the ‘Office For Testing the Honesty of Aliens.’” Interactions with prominent Nazi officials were a frequent dream subject, such as this from a middle-aged male factory owner:

“Goebbels was visiting my factory. He had all the workers line up in two rows facing each other. I had to stand in the middle and raise my arm in the Nazi salute. It took me half an hour to get my arm up, inch by inch. Goebbels. Goebbels showed neither approval nor disapproval as he watched my struggle, as if it were a play. When I finally managed to get my arm up, he said just five words—’I don’t want your salute’—then turned and went to the door. There I stood in my own factory, arm raised, pilloried right in the midst of my own people. I was only able to keep from collapsing by staring at his clubfoot as he limped out. And so I stood until I woke up.”

The dreams of war survivors show that traumatic violence does not just affect people in their waking life, but condemns them to a life of reliving that violence in their sleep. One database collects a series of dreams from a Vietnam veteran, many of which involve being bayoneted, castrated, or bombed. A frequent theme in his dreams is starting in a mundane place (his apartment, a golf course), only to hear the sound of helicopters and be back in Vietnam. A few of the veteran’s dreams:

  • I am in my apartment in the Bronx, sleeping. I hear noise in the foyer. Two dolls, hanging from a door knob, have come to life. I speak to the male doll and the female doll and feel happy. I have made two friends. Then we are outside in a country at war. The terrain is hilly and partially wooded. Helicopters appear and fire rockets which explode in a suppressed manner. On impact the force of the blast shoots out to the left and right. We begin running. A fighter plane appears overhead. I expect it to strafe us. Unexpectedly, it pulls up from a power dive and on the upswing drops a cloud of white powder or gas, which we run from. We are spotted or captured by police.
  • I have done something for a man who seems to be in some sort of trouble. I am somehow like a spy. I go with another person and we demand to be paid. In fact I am quite adamant. I say ‘You will pay me now!’ I am given a great sum of money. I am aware that others want to get me and take the money. Therefore, I must escape. I am running. I am found. The ones who seek me begin to shoot at me. I dive behind a big machine gun and fire back. A star of David, as if superimposed, descends upon the scene.
  • In Vietnam, as a witness, I view war at close range. The first thing I see in the crowded street is an AK-47, stuck into a wall by its bayonet. There are angry words written on its stock, but I cannot remember them. All around, Vietnamese men are frantically fighting, shooting back over a wall or barrier. I am lying on the top of a bunk bed, sorting through the belongings of someone. This person, apparently dead, had collected stamps. Paging through a small album, I see many American air mail stamps I recall from my youth. Suddenly a man nearby is shot and falls. I see the bullets kick and sting the dirt near him. Two nurses, wearing red and white striped dresses, come to his aid. They are completely vulnerable, turning their backs to the enemy. I am amazed at their bravery or foolishness. One nurse in particular attends to the man, who is mortally wounded.
  • I am on a great snowy mountain with someone else. Two trained horses must run down the mountain as if it were an obstacle course or test. They perform tricks and must endure hardship. They are very powerful. They do not hesitate at the unexpected, but immediately improvise.

Weird dreams, such as the one with the horses, cry out for interpretation. Why these animals? Why this scenario? The most well-known dream interpreter was Sigmund Freud, whose mammoth 1899 The Interpretation of Dreams is a foundational text of psychoanalysis. Freud claimed he could “prove that there exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted, and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state.” He promised to “explain the processes which give rise to the strangeness and obscurity of the dream, and to discover through them the nature of the psychic forces which operate, whether in combination or in opposition, to produce the dream.”

Illustrations by John Biggs

The Interpretation of Dreams is highly unsatisfying in achieving its stated objectives. Freud’s interpretations of his own dreams and those of his patients are often ridiculous and unpersuasive. Freud being Freud, he often finds a way to make it about sex. When an unmarried male patient dreams of revulsion at putting on his overcoat, Freud explains that the overcoat is in fact a condom, because a condom is a kind of overcoat, and if it is too thin, it is in danger of bursting, thus an unmarried man has reason to be anxious about bursting condoms, which is clearly what the patient was dreaming of. In another passage, reporting on a female patient’s dream in which she fell down on a Vienna street, Freud explains that “when a person of the female sex dreams of falling, this almost regularly has a sexual significance; she becomes a ‘fallen woman,’ and for the purpose of the dream under consideration this interpretation is probably the least doubtful, for she falls on the Graben, the place in Vienna which is known as the concourse of prostitutes.” When Freud brings up a woman who dreamed she broke a candlestick, one already knows that he’s going to explain that it is about male impotence.

These sorts of speculative, unfalsifiable interpretations, which Freud offers without giving a way to determine how to test if they are “true,” are part of why Freud’s status as a serious psychologist suffered over the years. But while it is easy to make fun of Freud, and his specific dream interpretation method (which we might call “figure out how this is really about a penis”), he deserves credit for taking dreams seriously and trying to show why they might tell us something meaningful and be something other than arbitrary. Freud’s quest to find a particular “meaning” of each dream was an attempt to do the impossible, but he was right that dreams often reveal preoccupations and anxieties that are clearly on our minds even if we have shunted them out of our conscious thoughts.

Sometimes it is clear where we are getting the stuff dreams are made of. If we go to see a horror film about a severed hand that chases people, and then dream that night of being chased by the hand, it is easy to see how our day provided source material for our nightmare. The ex-soldier who dreams of Vietnam has a stockpile of traumatic memories that can be recycled into new unpleasant experiences to haunt him at night. But others seem to come from nowhere. Why are there jokes printed on the candy in my candy-jokes dream? Why are there ants on the faucet in the ant-faucet dream? I have a recurring dream in which I am driving along a bridge across the water in Florida, and I see that the bridge has a gap in it ahead, and I try to drive quickly enough to make it across the gap, but I inevitably fail and fall into the water. Does this mean anything? It could. But does it? Sometimes the dream does seem like it’s trying to tell us something; the Goebbels dream quoted above, for instance, could easily be taken to mean that one would struggle in vain to satisfy the Nazis, and the only thing one would get for one’s effort would be humiliation. But is this a “real” message or just something projected onto it?

Freud tried to come up with explanations, ways to make sense of the seemingly arbitrary, and we can see easily how an “interpretive” approach would be applied. Take, for example, this dream from a seventh-grade girl:

“I am walking home at night through a dark alleyway and I look back and someone is following me. I can’t tell who it is, so I am scared and I start walking faster. The person behind me starts walking faster too. Then I start running and the person following me starts running. Then I see a light up ahead and I run to it and stop. Then the person also stops in the light, so that I can see who it is, and it was my friend David (he is one year older than me and he was my boyfriend for a little while). So when I saw it was him, I said to him, “Oh thank God it’s only you.” And then he says, “Why are you glad it’s me?” and he pulls out a knife and stabs me.”

The interpretive approach would try to figure out why it was David in particular who stabbed the girl. Does she secretly distrust him? Does he represent something she fears? But attempts to glean insight like this are doomed. We don’t know whether there is something about David that made him secretly the murderer. Perhaps it is that she trusts and likes David so much that the most terrifying possible thing her mind could come up with was a betrayal by David. Because there is no way of testing any proposed interpretation against any other, the exercise is doomed.

Are dreams useless, then? Not at all.

Palms Dream:

To punish a waiter, the patrons do the Dance Of The Palms, turning the entire restaurant into a forest.

Tortoise Dream:

The ocean is being overrun with copper sculptures of tortoises. They are the “new climate change.” If we do not stop them multiplying there will be no sea next year. 

Birds Dream:

The road is filled with tall, spindly golden birds. Like herons. They are almost translucent. All of them are dying slowly.

Ribeiro, in The Oracle of Night, concludes with a strong case that dreams are essential for offering guiding visions, because they allow us to see things that are very different from reality, as if they were real. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a “dream.” Ribeiro says that facing the challenges of the 21st century will require those who take their dreams seriously, who try to remember them and find guidance and possibility in them. Ribeiro even sees a role for the nightmare. The nightmare allows us to see vividly what could be; like the tour of Christmas future offered to Ebenezer Scrooge, it offers one a way to truly feel what could be:

“In order to avoid our cultural ratchet proceeding uncontrollably toward global collapse, we need to broaden our perspective. We must urgently recover the capacity to imagine the worst consequences of our most ingrained habits. The science of biologists, chemists, and physicists needs to walk arm in arm with the wisdom of shamans and yogis, not to be massed against it. The lucid dream, in its vastness, has the potential to be the mental space that will allow us to imagine solutions to the most challenging problems, from the destruction of the water sources to the dichotomy between mind and brain, from the accumulation of microplastics to the devastation of Amerindian peoples and Black populations by COVID-19, from persistent police brutality to persistent male supremacy, from an epidemic of suicide to the accelerating deforestation of those unspoiled lands that remain, from extreme inequality to widespread corruption, from the most destructive addiction of all—money—to the carnage of the breeding and cruel slaughter of animals, from predatory capitalism to the end of almost all jobs, very shortly, when the robots conclude their triumphant arrival.”

The dream is mind-expanding and breaks us out of existing ways of thinking and seeing, allowing for new connections, new insights. We see relationships between things and people we hadn’t thought of before, we unearth feelings we had that we didn’t know we felt, we enter a world of the beautiful, mysterious, terrifying, and unexpected. To dream is to end each day by entering an alternate reality where anything is possible and nobody knows what will happen next. While I have had my fair share of nightmares, and while my dreams often contain a sense of futility and humiliation (I try to explain my politics and fail, my employer is upset with me for sending them photographs of cowboys instead of the tests I was supposed to grade), I would not want to live a life without dreams. To step into this strange realm each night is a privilege. I have seen things there I will never see in my waking life. I have felt things I will never get to feel, become things I will never become. Anyone who does not wish for things to always be exactly as they are now should regularly wander through the world of dreams.

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