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Dreams, Let Up on Us!
Will Shakespeare told us, in that line always misquoted with the word "of"—even by Bogey in The Maltese Falcon—that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." If they're in fact what we're made on, it's a mixed blessing.
We know that much of Freud's work has been repudiated and disparaged by the psychiatric world. Particularly his dream symbolism. But I've seen dream analysis work. When "in treatment"—that lovely euphemism for getting your head shrunk—with the brilliant Dr. Willard Gaylin, I would come in with a mishmash of a dream and, feature by crazy feature, he would elucidate it. It was—and can we now retire this word for at least a decade, young people?—awesome.
Some people claim they never dream. There are times when I wish I were one of them.
There are two types of dream that rate, for me at least, the word "nightmare." The buggers are the Actor's Dream and the Exam Dream. If you've never endured either of these, count yourself lucky. Maybe I'm getting your share.
The question I can never find an answer to is the one that makes dreams so mysterious. When you watch a movie or read a story you don't know what's coming next. You're surprised by what happens as it unfolds. You know that someone wrote the book or made the movie.
But who in hell is the author of the dream? How can it be anyone but you? But how can it be you if it's all new to you, if you don't know what's coming? Do you write the dream, then hide it from yourself, forget it, and then "sit out front" and watch it? Everything in it is a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant. And, unlike a book or film, you can't fast-forward to see how it comes out. So where does it come from? And who "wrote" it?
(I apologize if I've led you to think I have the answers.)
What shows you the dream and at the same time blinds you to its source? The mechanism has to be ingeniously complex to pull this stunt off. But it seems that the complexity of the human brain is too, well, complex for that same brain to understand.
A nice puzzle.
I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who hasn't had the Exam Dream. (Do people who haven't been to school get this dream, or are they immune to the torture?)
There you are in the classroom, trying desperately to get a peek at someone else's paper, but they've just turned the page as you writhe in the realization that you forgot to study.
Why, this far from one's education, does one (or at least I) still get the damned dream?
Once I awoke in a sweat from it, walked around a little to shake it off, calmed down, and went back to sleep, only to be blindsided that same night by the Actor's Dream.
Every actor gets it, even people who have only been in the school play. You're backstage, about to go on, and desperately trying to find a copy of the play to get at least your first line or two, but no one has a script. How did you get to opening night and fail to learn a single line?
You're plagued with "How did I do this to myself?" and "Am I even wearing the right costume?" and "Do I go out there and try to ad-lib a part I don't know, maybe getting a few lines right by chance?" and "In a moment I'll step out there and make an ass of myself, let down and embarrass my fellow actors, and probably be fired on the spot as they give people's money back." It goes on and on and won't let up on you.
The merciful release at the much-too-late-in-coming realization "Oh, thank God, it's a dream!" leaves you limp.
Freud, "the Viennese quack" (Nabokov), is said to have pointed out that the mental agony of an excruciating dream is always far worse than the real situation would be.
Logic tells you that in waking real life you probably wouldn't get into the situation you lie there suffering and blaming yourself for. The rich variety of hateful anxiety dreams can be about anything: not having studied; having lost your passport in an unfamiliar land; getting hopelessly lost in the woods; being late for and unable to find your own wedding; having let your pet get lost; and the myriad other sleeping torture plots the mind is heir to.
The psychic pain is acute. And even if these things did happen, awful as they would be, why must the psychic pain be ten times more excruciating in the dream than it would be in real life?
Who does this to us? Who or what is the sadistic force operating on us here? It's hard to admit, but doesn't it have to be ourselves?
Then why are we doing it to ourselves? What did we do to deserve it? And does it all stand for something about us that's so awful it has to be disguised as something else in the dream?
Please have your answers to these questions on my desk by Friday. Neatness and clarity of presentation will count, and five points will be taken off for spelling.
Time for a laugh here. I just remembered that the great Robert Benchley wrote, somewhere, a piece about that aspect of dreams that's common to most of them—that nothing is quite itself as you know it. "It's my house but it's not my house. It's my gray suit but it has wheels on it."
Should you deem this subject worthy of a return visit, I'll expose the specific anxiety dreams I collected for a time from some famous people: Laurence Olivier, Rudolf Nureyev, others. (Or you can just tell me to shut up about it.)
APRIL 30, 2010
Copyright © 2014 by Richard A. Cavett
Foreword © 2014 by Jimmy Fallon