Bert O. States
Seeing in the Dark: Reflections on Dreams and Dreaming
Yale UP, 1997


This book is concerned primarily with the transit of waking experience into dreams, and secondarily with the relationship between dreams and fictions written in the light of day. But one of my assumptions is that whatever fictions do with our experience was done first in the dream. By this I mean simply that the dream and art, in all its varieties, are manifestations of the same biological need to convert experience into structure, and that dreaming, in all likelihood, preceded art-making in historical priority. If the structures produced are different, in either case, the differences have to do mainly with the conditions of creation. These chiefly involve the physiological differences between sleep and the waking state and the personal vs. social ends served respectively by dream and art. In any case, the need to produce both dreams and art seems to me biologically based.

This is a notion I hold with some deference to biologists because I am a literary theorist by trade, albeit one with a lifelong interest in science. But all of my reading suggests that we have kept biology and literature apart unnecessarily long and that there is much to be gained by seeing what biological theory may have in common with aesthetic and literary theory. The best, or at least most enduring, explanation that literary people have made for the purpose of art is that it is "useful and pleasing," utile et dulce, a doctrine that originates mainly with Horace and can probably still be considered the on-going received theory. Usefulness, when it is defined at all, normally implies a more or less educational function whereby we learn to be better persons through our experience with art; pleasure usually implies that we enjoy being moved by the images of art and, in the worst versions of the idea, that art is a kind of sugar-coating that makes the lesson of the pill easier to swallow.

Yet the world does not seem to have got any better over the centuries and one can't even make the claim that people who are exposed to a great deal of art are morally or ethically or in any other way better than people who aren't -- more sensitive to the nuances of experience perhaps, but it would be hard to defend even that claim. A few years ago the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine announced "that 20 minutes of listening to a Mozart sonata raised the measurable IQ of college students by up to 9 points" (Los Angeles Times, Thursday, October 14, 1993, p. 1). This is certainly good news for Mozart lovers and eventually it may have deeper implications for art at large. Unfortunately, the boost in IQ lasted only ten minutes, so the jury is still out on the usefulness of art, at least in the measurable sense.

I don't think the utile/dulce theory is wrong; I think its basis has been insufficiently examined and this is where biology seems to me to enter the picture as a helpful corrective. I take the position that art and dreaming are, in principle, the same activity in that they involve the same or highly similar, mental processes (the production of images and narratives based on human experience), and that making art is no more elective, or voluntary, for the human being than dreaming. By this I certainly don't mean that everyone is biologically compelled to paint pictures, write stories or compose music but that we are all drawn, to one degree or another, into "using" our imaginations, creating symmetries and designs or in various ways refining our world beyond the needs of pure utility. If nothing else, we all day-dream and draw doodles on napkins and these are forms of story-making that must be doing something for us at a fairly unconscious level. So we all have some innate stake in "the beautiful," and in this we are apparently different from other species. Maybe.

But to come back to the point: dreaming is plainly a biological activity because it is virtually universal among all species, mammals at least, and it occurs at a distinct level of consciousness with distinct physical characteristics. Like animals, humans are complex adaptive systems that process the information of daily experience, converting it into memory that can be used to insure suitable behavior for our survival. Memory, as the neuroscientist Steven Rose tells us, "is not only about learning, but also about subsequently recalling that memory, retrieving it" (1993, 316). And "each time we remember, we in some sense do work on and transform our memories; they are not simply being called up from store and, once consulted, replaced unmodified" (91). Memory, in short, is a dynamic process of up-dating what we already have in mind, not simply a storage-house for what has already happened. It is only a hunch, but it seems to me that dreams may be our clearest window into this whole process of on-going conversion of experience into patterns that help to maintain order in the system; that the dream does its work without the least awareness that we, as dreamers, are looking in on it all and that the dream is finally beneath our understanding in any more than the self-evident sense in which dreams do reflect our concerns, fears and needs. Beyond this it is anyone's guess as to what is going on in dreams or why such a mechanism is biologically necessary; but for various reasons I will claim that the purpose of dreams has little to do with keeping us self-informed, as if dream-work were an interior alter ego, whispering messages and giving progress reports to the dreamer from some mysterious clearing-house. I invite the reader, rather, to think of the dream as a part of consciousness that, owing to the peculiar conditions of sleep, has the astonishing property of appearing to us as if it had originated as an exterior reality. To some extent this is also true of daydreams and other forms of memory recalI in which we can momentarily become "lost to the world." But in the dream, where the influence of external stimuli is minimized almost to the zero degree and there is no inside-outside division, we are experiencing the revision of memory itself as if it were taking place in a first and only time. I think of the dream as a process which we, as dreamers, can observe from only one limited point of view -- its veridical quality as experience -- and not as the natural processing mechanism that it is.

In any event, there is a good possibility that dreams and art may be serving common purposes, whatever these turn out to be, and that they have something to do with our survival, as opposed to our edification and pleasure. What, one wonders, might be the function of having pleasure (beyond its pleasurability)? The doctrine that art is useful and pleasing, in short, ends where it should have begun. It is content to take derivatives as causal explanations. All in all, claiming that art is useful and pleasing, and leaving it at that, is rather like explaining mating and child-rearing by saying that children are fun to have and they will eventually do chores around the house.

My present goal, however, is not to explain what dreaming and art-making do for us. That is a book that would be better written by a biologist, a brain scientist, a philosopher, and perhaps an aesthetician, working in collaboration. I am concerned primarily with the mechanisms that underlie each of these imaginative activities, the ways they go about being what they are -- what they do to us, rather than for us. I am particularly interested in the problem of authorship, or how the human mind thinks up things that never happened and presents them (in the case of the dream at least) in the mode of "the real." As I write, there is a current rise of interest in consciousness theory and Darwinian evolution, both of which have influenced my own thinking immensely. The view I hold now, as a consequence, is that any comprehensive theory of dreaming or of art will have to begin at the level of consciousness, prior to the formulation of narrative, theme, and what is commonly referred to as meaning (as in the expression "What does this work / dream mean?"). In other words, we will have to begin well before the cat is out of the cognitive bag.

Another of my assumptions is that if dreams mean anything the meaning is no different in kind from the meaning that may be given to waking experience. If you want to find out about yourself or what is "on" your mind, you can do just as well examining what has passed during the day. Curiously, one rarely hears of anyone examining the day -- or even a day dream -- for its meaning. For the most part, we take each day for granted. Who has ever thought to ask, "What did my vacation in Maine mean?" But a dream about the vacation is another matter. We like to believe that dreams are "up to something," that the events they depict are deliberately charged with a significance that the real experience (the vacation) did not have.

It is understandable that dreams would be one of the things that bedevil us with questions about meaning. Dreams are, after all, events we make up in our heads without any awareness of doing so or any power to prevent their occurring; they seem to stand at once outside us, beyond reach, and deep within us in a queer way that endows them with a subversive authority. Like Kafka's fictions, dreams are dry and matter-of-fact in going about their business, however emotionally involved we may get in them. I think, for instance, of Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony" in which the prisoner's crimes are written on his body by an ingenious etching machine. So too the dream-work etches stories of our fears, desires and social practices on the body of the psyche. So it makes sense, the logic runs, that dreams express things that are secretly on our minds, things we're not supposed to know or didn't know we knew, given the fact that the dream never makes its point clear (as allegories and didactic fictions do). And of course that makes the dream all the more mysterious because it would seem to take as much cunning to avoid making sense as it does to make sense. Hence Freud's famous theory of censorship.

We say dreams express our hidden insecurity or our guilt. But it would be simpler to say that we are insecure and guilty creatures, among other things, and that quilt and insecurity (among other things) are on our minds during the day as well as the night, otherwise we wouldn't dream about them; and therefore the meaning of dreams is essentially the same as the meaning of the events of our waking life. So one of my beliefs is that the dream is really doing much the same thing that the mind/brain does during the day, only under different "working" conditions, and it is these conditions that I will examine here.

Another part of the mystery is that dreams are largely about uneventful things: I am teaching a class (sometimes brilliantly, sometimes poorly: about fifty-fifty), I am trying to unload a refrigerator from the bed of a pick up truck, I am shopping for a shirt, I am talking to my friend Dan who is riding a unicycle. These are trivial things in the sense that they don't seem to "go" anywhere; they don't lead to climaxes and they aren't climaxes of something that came before them. They are very much like the things that happen in daily life, except that something about the way they appear in dreams is different from the way we perceive them in the waking state. And in this respect dreams have as much in common with art as they have, in another way, with unmediated waking reality. The dream wipes away all the excess of automatic waking behavior and "selects" (to use a metaphor) only what can be charged with affect: if you were bored in a dream, you would be vividly bored, precisely as a painting depicting a bored person (an Edward Hopper, for example) might be a thrilling thing to look at. If you seem to be going on a long walk in a dream, the dream will shorten it, just as the novelist does ("Charles walked through the fields for hours, but at length he arrived at the manor."). We accept this as a natural feature of dreams, as we do of the novel; yet what agency in the dreaming brain has so rapidly abbreviated the plot in order to avoid self-duplication of affect and how did it know where to go next? This is a question I approach from several directions.

Dreaming and art-making, then, appear to share a "technique" of purification of waking experience. They are essentializing processes, as aestheticians say. For example, take off your sock and look at your foot. Nothing interesting there. Now look at Michelangelo's sketch of a foot. It's the same foot, more or less -- except that his foot isn't repulsive to look at. What has he done to the foot? He has taken it out of the world of anatomy and put it into the world of resemblance. He has caught the foot's way of being a foot by slightly enhancing certain foot-like features. As Heidegger might say, he has "deconcealed" the foot (1975, 39); he has taken the sock of familiarity off the foot. What he has done to the foot is essentially what the dream does to the experiences of your waking life, and it does it without thinking about it.

This is of course what art is all about: it asks you to look at things you haven't been seeing -- Cézanne's rocks, Monet's lilies, Hopper's country gas stations. Cézanne once said that he wanted above all else to paint the "world's instant," a wonderful phrase for what the world becomes when you look at it in the phenomenal, or "thingly" mode. In my view, dreams are also a record of these instants, though highly personalized and undeliberate: they drain things of their inconspicuousness; relentlessly, it seems, the dream ransacks the day, passing (usually) over big events, dramas that advance or undo us, without noticing them, alert only to the small sin, the odd accident of behavior or the visual event that somehow catches the world committing one of its habits: mother being perfectly herself, my friend Paul saying something Paul-like, Mr. Sherk nervously bouncing chalk in his hand during a chemistry lecture from my high school days. During the day you see someone with stained imperfect teeth set off against an otherwise healthy complexion and that night the teeth will show up on someone's face in a dream, a propos of nothing, or at least nothing you know about. The teeth are of no more use or symbolic value than Michelangelo's sketch of the foot (though psychoanalysis will tell you otherwise), but they caught your attention, if only subliminally. And they showed up in the dream as precisely right, perfectly imperfect teeth. So you are a Michelangelo of sorts.

I'm not suggesting that this remarkable power is something the dream does deliberately, in order to give us the pleasure that art gives us. To speak of the dream as being "clever" or "cunning" or as "choosing," (as I will be doing) is strictly a form of metaphorical shorthand: dreams do not have human qualities or drives. The dream does these things to empirical experience because the conditions of dreaming can only deal with experience in that way. You can't ask why the dream does it, unless you put the question at the neurological level. Why? is an inappropriate question to ask of the dream because it presupposes a conscious or unconscious motive, a person in there somewhere, and there is no proof that dreams have motives of any kind. Dreamwork is no more a volitional mechanism than any other function of the body. However, one might ask what the possible relations between dream-making and art-making might be; or one might even ask whether artmaking is necessarily a more deliberate act for the species than dreaming.

Obviously, not all events in dreams are trivial. Occasionally, we are chased by a huge beast and partially eaten, and of course this isn't trivial, though it is usually painless. Or now and then I am teaching a class in my underwear (though no one seems to notice). But this isn't really the main menu of dreams -- my dreams anyway. I am much more likely to spend an entire dream trying to perform an impossible task, trying to find something I've lost, or being lost, or trying to get home on my bicycle with night approaching. In short, the matter of daily life raised to the tenth power: getting and spending, being embarrassed, being late, being caught in (or out of) my underwear, being overjoyed, or being overlooked. Most tedious of all, being forced to perform the same mundane task over and over.

On the most obvious level, dreams are a form of time traveling, though one never knows this in a dream. For instance, in a dream I go back to the schoolyard of my boyhood, not as a boy but as the self that has simply endured as the center of presence I call my self. I am neither old nor young -- I am always the "same" age in dreams -- even though everybody else normally appears as I remember them. This is the queer thing about consciousness. It doesn't age, it has no age. The octogenarian geezer is a teen ager in thought -- one of the great frustrations of life! Experience, maturity and wisdom have no more effect on consciousness than what you can see through a window affects the window itself. Maybe an aging consciousness forgets more things, or sees things differently, makes fewer mistakes of a certain kind or more of another, but the window itself doesn't change. Consciousness is what is always around, the one thing that is immune to the flux of time -- until, of course, it flickers and goes out.

The common factor of all thoughts in and about time, as Saint Augustine says in my favorite discussion of time, is that each 'time' takes place in a present: the present of things past (which Augustine calls memory), the present of things future (expectation), and the present of things present (sight). This is wonderflly simple, but it is the bottom line of what can be said about time. There is, indeed, nothing else but the present, and of course "it" is always traveling, always coming and going, poised on the knife edge of this specious now that even philosophers cannot grasp or define to our satisfaction. Witness Augustine's frustration with the whole question and his finally tossing it all back in God's lap.

Augustine could as easily have used the word consciousness instead of time itself. For without consciousness time does not exist. We could think of consciousness, using his terms, as the presence of a present -- or, if you will, being present in one (or all) of these three sorts of presents. That is what it seems to me dreams are: the triumph of consciousness over the various kinds of waking time; thought, as Augustine would say, wandering "amidst times," guided only by the transcendent lure of free association, which is nothing more than the confusion of times caused by lines of resemblance extending through the events of memory. In this, dreams behave like a vacuum. In a vacuum a lead ball and a feather fall at the same speed. So too a dream, like a vacuum, is empty of chronological and spatial "friction." It knows no distinctions in nearness or farness (in time or space) or in weight (importance, size). In dreams all objects (images) fall at the same rate of speed, precisely as any square millimeter of a Cézanne canvas is as important, expressive, or as near/far as any other. The painting does not get more important as it nears the face of its subject. So too, all dream objects are drawn into existence by the same gravity of association.

What a great satisfaction it was recently to come upon a passage in Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, in which Eco is exploring the mysteries of the imperfect tense in our grammar. It is "a very interesting tense," he says, "because it is both durative and iterative. As a durative, it tells us that something was happening in the past but does not give us any precise time, and the beginning and the end of the action are unknown. As an iterative, it implies that the action has been repeated. But one is never certain when it is iterative, when it is durative, or when it is both." And he adds that "it is the ambiguity of [the imperfect] tense that makes it the most suitable for recounting dreams or nightmares" (1994, 12-13). One is left to conclude that dreams themselves are the essence of "imperfection" in just this double way of putting us "amidst times," of condensing duration and iteration into one. And it seems reasonable to think that if our grammar needs the imperfect tense as a sort of 'et cetera' tense to account for temporal ambiguity, we have been given the dream -- though no one knows to what end -- as the complementary alternative to unambiguous waking life in which time is told by the clock. It seems almost as if it were biologically necessary that the body/mind that is pinned down in the strict space and time of daily life (where you can get killed by a flying object) should require an instrument by which it could wander without restriction through a world of pure possibility. Maybe that isn't why nature gave us the dream, but it's an awfully nice dividend to have.

As I say, this fact is entirely lost on the dreamer -- another frustration! The poor dreamer misses the uniqueness of dreaming while the dream is going on and she loses the wonder of dreaming when she wakes up. And here indeed is another deep paradox of dreaming: each moment of a dream co-exists as both a recollection and an original event, as a detemporalized past reappearing as a never-before-experienced present. At the bottom, then, every dream is a conflation of times. You say at breakfast, "I dreamed of mother last night," scarcely thinking that mother is dead and that what you saw and talked to in the dream was a lifetime of mother-memories sharpened into a single image about whose edges, however clear otherwise, there is a faint halo of unreliability. However clear and vivid the dream, mother was both uniquely actual and imperfect, in Eco's double sense of being a duration and a self-repetition. The frustration is that one becomes so used to the dream world, or so accommodated to the futility of grasping it, that it finally becomes as pedestrian as the spacetime of waking reality. Only when you wake up, still within the penumbra of the dream, do you think about it at all: but there is no way to get it back, or to understand what it is or what it means. Finally, you end up saying "I dreamed of mother last night," with a slight ironical smile, and letting it go at that, as if there were no point in telling the dream but it ought somehow to be said aloud that you dreamed it, before the fact is swallowed in the urgent and unambiguous business of the day.

A brief statement about "methodology" is in order. The evidentiary problem in writing about dreams is notorious. There is no artifact that can be shared, no direct means of examination, and no way to prove a hypothesis -- including the claim that we actually experience our dreams (I examine this problem in Chapters 3 and 9.). In short, the object of inquiry does not exist. The only hope is that the memory of having dreamed will serve as a verifier of the experience and that intuitive agreement might be achieved by the study of sample dreams that can be reflected against the reader's own experience. As a consequence, the "argument" of my book does not proceed in interlocking stages, each chapter building on the previous one, to a summarizing conclusion. Indeed, the book closes with a chapter that is as close to memoir as it is to theory or hypothesis. I take some comfort in the precedent that a good deal of phenomenological description flirts with autobiography; that is, it relies on first-hand intuitive experience as the source of its evidence, and in doing so it engages in what Maurice Natanson calls "methodological solipsism" (1974, 243). While my perspective, in the main, is phenomenological, it is so in the loose sense that poetry can be considered a species of phenomenology. The business of poetry, as Shelley puts it in the Defense, is to compel us "to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know." The poet "purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being." This passage may seem dated, but it is effectively what Victor Shklovsky was saying about art in his famous essay of 1917 on "defamiliarization" (1965). To put it another way, phenomenology, as Bruce Wilshire says, is "the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious" (1982, 11), and I think much the same thing could be said about poetry, if not all art.

Few human experiences are, in one sense, as "obvious" as the dream; unmasking the dream in objective scientific language may be possible, but I doubt that the result would be of much interest to dreamers. Anyway, I find myself continually resorting to the figural and analogical techniques of poetry as a means of bringing the experience of dreaming to what clarity I can for my imagined audience -- readers who might have wondered about the same questions respecting their own dream life. Though the chapters could probably be read in almost any order without serious confusion, they do build on each other in complementary ways. Thus by the word reflections in my title I refer not only to my own thoughts on each subject but also to the reciprocal way I hope they reflect on and enlarge each other. I think of the book as being cubistic in design, rather as if one were looking into a room through various windows and seeing the same interior from different points of view.
Works Cited

Eco, Umberto (1994). Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heidegger, Martin (1975). Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York:   Harper & Row.

Natanson, Maurice (1974). "Solipsism and Sociality." New Literary History 5, 237-44.

Rose, Steven (1993). The Making of Memory, From Molecules to Mind. New York et al: Doubleday.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1890). A Defense of Poetry. Ed. Albert S. Cook. Boston: Ginn and Co.

Wilshire, Bruce W. (1982). Role Playing and Identity: the Limits of Theater as Metaphor.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.


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