Some Reflections on Dreams

Photo by Simon Migaj from Pexels

In the middle of the night last night, I woke up from a dream that wasn’t exactly a nightmare — it was an action movie. Not exactly a trailer, but a spoiler reel. All the plot points in 30 seconds.

It took place on a stretch of forest that looked a lot like one of my favorite trails near my home in Portland, where I went hiking just a couple days ago. In the dream this trail was shown on a similarly gray, damp morning and it had a look of decay about it.

A man, muddy and looking exhausted, sitting on the ground, tells the pretty woman next to him, “looks like my past is catching up to me.” He has an Eastern European accent of some sort. We understand he had some shady dealings with organized crime.

Distant gunfire. Now half the forest is on fire. We understand the man, her husband, has been murdered. It’s a different scene, and the woman is now aiming a handgun over a corroded steel fence at a different man, who looks beat-up and filthy. She shoots him once in the head, once in the neck, crying. He falls to the ground and fires his weapon uselessly in the air. I think this must have been one of her husband’s several assassins. I got the feeling she wouldn’t be catching up with the others, but they’d be catching up with her, in time. Can anybody say “sequel”?

It was a dark dream, but I woke up feeling amused. I don’t even watch movies like that, and never really have, because in my opinion they are a silly waste of time. If I saw this trailer before a movie I’d laugh at its obviousness and declare “hard pass.” Yet this genre of story and imagery is so deeply embedded in my psyche that when dreamtime comes, it might come up for me with no further suggestion than the creepy appearance of a certain bend of trail I noticed on a recent hike, and the terrifying photos from the Camp Fire, which had been blazing five hundred miles south just a week or so before.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about ancient history. Namely, I’m about halfway through the famous History of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan.

In the wakeful half hour after I woke up from this action movie sequence in my head, I looked at my phone and saw the most recent podcast episode still on the screen, and that got me wondering what dreams might have been like in an era before media of any kind. What kind of dreams did ancient Romans have? How did they experience them? Because for sure nobody was watching lame action movies in their sleep yet.

In ancient days dreams were often regarded as portents and prophecies. That was the impact they could have. If you had a vision in your sleep, you’d better pay attention: it just might be a god trying to get a message over the transom.

But there must have been a huge number of dreams that everybody disregarded. The content of dreams is largely drawn from everyday life and everyday worries, so the border between waking life and dreaming life must have been a little fuzzier than it is now. I wonder how people decided when a given dream was “just a dream” and when it amounted to a message from the gods. Maybe it was the amount of quotidian detail in your dreams. If you were a blacksmith and dreamed of blacksmithing, I have a feeling you’d probably dismiss it without further thought. On the other hand, if you had dreamed that you forged a sword of fire, that might mean Thor was anointing you for a special destiny. Either that or it meant that you belonged in a fantasy novel instead of 13th century Bavaria.

A couple thousand years later, Freud put forth the hypothesis that dreams are the language of repressed emotions, sexual, violent, and otherwise. Not too surprisingly, given the vague and open-ended nature of dreams, he found a lot of evidence. As Freudian theory and practice developed offshoots (including the pseudo-Jungian New Age practice of interpreting “dream symbols”), and spread throughout Europe and America, people started paying intense attention to their dreams. They began to regard them as the key to understanding desires so deeply buried in the mind that they weren’t even aware of them. If I have a dream about a man sleeping in a bathtub, then the man is me and the bath is a womb and sleeping is obviously a metaphor for death, therefore I must want to climb back into a womb and stay there forever until I die.

Well, fair enough. I do make my bedroom pretty dark and warm at night and do tend to pull the covers over my head when the alarm goes off. If that’s not the best simulation of a retreat into the womb that I can make at present, I don’t know what is. But I have my doubts that my dreams are really telling me anything I don’t already know. And I’m honestly not too sure how distant this kind of thing really is from regarding your dreams as potential prophecy.

Interpretations of dreams derived from Freud still have a lot of currency, but there are many other hypotheses out there, including one where dreams are just a side effect of your brain’s normal garbage collection and purging processes.

The truth is, nobody yet knows what dreams are really for.

All these reflections still left me with little insight into what dreams were like before media of any kind. So I thought back to my earliest dreams and the intensity of the impact they had on me then. If I had a dream that a girl in my class was my companion, that was enough for me to believe we were destined to be together — for a few days, anyway, before I realized I didn’t actually like her all that much. But the memory of the dream itself has persisted long after my failed attempts at making conversation with her, over a couple days in 1988.

The dreams that I still remember today without referring to my dream journals have certain things in common. Several of them are like the one above — a simple dream about being in a certain place with certain person and feeling like we have a certain connection. They have a luminosity out of all proportion to their significance, very like the memory of a single deep conversation with a person you never saw again.

But most of them are haunting images of something drawn from my everyday life at the time, that I might not otherwise ever think about now. The stretch of road I lived on and walked down almost every day when I was 12 years old, seen in a dream as deserted at twilight, and suffused with a feeling of potential. The chain link fence looking onto a field of brown grass outside my grammar school when I was about 8, in that dream early summer and the middle of the day, and I was waiting for somebody. A vision of a boat at dusk on the still waters of Tomales Bay when I was in my mid-30s, a dream that had such an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness about it that it inspired me to write a piece of music. In fact, all the music on my most recent album is inspired by similar dreams.

That’s the kind of dream I’m hoping to have more of now. Fewer lame action movies, more peaceful visions filled with a sense of meaning and portent.