Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Thematic: Reality and Its Alternatives

Trajectory of a Dream

Why do dreams, aside from those that prove uncannily prophetic, not befit our biography—whereas intentions, ambitions, even madness, do?

S.D. Chrostowska

Landscape from a Dream, 1936–38, by Paul Nash (1889–1946); Asar Studios/Alamy Stock Photo.

I recently lost both of my hands. I had neither the experience nor memory of the actual amputation. I simply found myself without hands, already fitted with two rubber prostheses, several shades darker than my own skin and hanging limply from my arms, mitigating somewhat my despair, for which there was every reason.

Resigned to my new handicap, aboard a half-empty night bus, I noticed a forgotten plastic bag wedged between two seats. In it, I discovered what I had lost—intact, both of them.

The next thing I knew, I was walking into the waiting room of a small hospital with hopes of getting my hands reattached. It had, after all, been only a day since they were severed. The female doctor on duty was ready for me, having no other patients to attend to. Besides, I could hardly imagine a greater emergency than mine.

The treatment room was spotless and calm as in a field hospital during a cease-fire. The serenity of the attending nurse comforted me as I watched her prepare to cut away my prostheses, in which I had already begun to experience sensation, whose fingers I was already able to move slightly—as if regaining my grip was a matter of time innervating whatever hugged the hideous stumps about to appear beneath the surgical saw. For a brief moment I grew faint-hearted, and even considered keeping my bionic substitutes. But the nurse encouraged me, and her optimism about reviving my real hands was enough to convince me to go through with it. “You will probably want to look away now,” she said, as she positioned her instrument. I did as she suggested.

The pain of the faux amputation was negligible; I bore it sans anaesthetic. In the harsh light, my artificial hands again became foreign objects. The first one done, the second (the right) came off almost by itself. It remained to clean and prime the stumps and remove any scabs that had formed on them, to maximize bonding. To my surprise, my old hands had, miraculously, not decomposed at all. The folds of skin on their wrists were snug as a pair of gloves around my truncated limbs, joined so seamlessly that afterward I could scarcely tell the exact site of the trauma. There was no need for stitches, and no sign that an intervention had taken place. The only trace of my injury was a difference in skin tone, my forearms now being appreciably lighter.

No sooner was the operation completed than I could move my own fingers with ease. I was thrilled and relieved. The nurse and doctor wanted to know how I had fallen victim to my misfortune. I explained that I had been attacked by a drug dealer on the way back from an all-night grocery, yet this story, far from establishing my innocence, only raised eyebrows. I was now suspected of buying drugs, of voluntarily straying into an unsafe part of town and courting calamity. Everything I said to clarify what business I had there at that late hour merely deepened the shadow of suspicion. I left the hospital resolved to act as if nothing had happened, so that things might return to normal.

Some time later, I found myself on the terrace of a seaside hotel where, among dozens of strangers, my European friends were slowly gathering. Spotting a familiar face, I made my way over to boast of my recent ordeal. I narrated the story as we walked arm in arm above the beach. “And all for a sack of potatoes,” I concluded, recalling what I took to be the motive for maiming me, and proudly pulled up my sleeves to show where I had been struck. But by then my skin had quite healed, the only reminder of my fleeting dismemberment being a nuance in tone, as though the rest of me had simply gotten no sun. These hands I held up against the sky: removed in shady circumstances, now fully restored to me with the mark of sunlight on them, as proof of my…emancipation!

Practically Innocent

I carried a vivid memory of the dream with me for days. Fascinated and uplifted, I began recounting and consciously making it a part of my life story, or at least making it sound like something that had happened to me, rather than something my mind had concocted while reason slept. So I would talk about my time away, how my teaching was going, and my dream in the same breath, sparing the listener all qualification save that I had dreamt it.

Were my travels over the previous months inherently more interesting than this nightmare (of sorts)? I no longer thought so. The “inherent” interest of our experiences is one part relative and two parts expectation of interest. This expectation we and others have of our life stories derives from our efforts, rich and reliably selective, to narrate them. Most experiences are not interesting without some editing, abridgment, abbreviation. Not even we have the time or patience for a full account of what we ourselves did or underwent, unless the story itself lies in the details, or we indulge the teller, or feel we can learn something by hearing all of it. As a rule, our accounts are brief and grow briefer with time, though we may keep different versions of the best stories in our repertoire for different occasions or audiences.

But suppose one had no interest in narrating one’s travels because, aside from personal details that (for one reason or another) one could not share, there was nothing to write home about. Suppose one found it more exciting to recount one’s dreams—and not just because they were lifelike, not only because, unrecounted, they would evaporate, but also, and perhaps above all, because one could savor their juicier details without consequences. The interest of dreams lies in their particulars—outlandish, opaque, and practically innocent. If they are shared, they can usually be shared unexpurgated, in toto. Had without witnesses, they are unverifiable, and though their telling makes them public, we are not—at least not yet—held to account for them. Dreaming, we are not responsible—a dissociation that largely protects us from shame over their content.

The most buried things about us, apart from our self-deceits, our dreams are what we nevertheless do not shrink from sharing with strangers. They remain for us the strangest and most fascinating things about ourselves. We share them because of their striking originality, of which we hesitate to claim authorship.11xThe dreams of the famous somniloquist, or sleeptalker, Dion McGregor (1922–94) impressed his biographer Steve Venright as being “as vividly macabre as Lautréamont, as decadently vicious as Sade, as comically absurd as Jarry, as sensorially deranged as Rimbaud, as eccentrically inventive as Roussel, and as charmingly splenetic as Baudelaire.” Venright quoted in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, “À propos de Dion McGregor,” in “La Société des rêves,” ed. Anamosa, Sensibilités 4 (2018), 88, (translation by the author). Despite such comparisons, McGregor apparently had difficulty taking credit for his work, and even evinced some embarrassment at his inability to control it. But we also share them in another sense, and for almost the opposite reason: The broad outlines, if not the details, of our unconscious are willy-nilly what we have in common. As such, dreams have long been fodder for superstition, folklore, entertainment, and art.

Yet dreams are significantly not life. They are and are not real. It is a fact that we dream, but what we dream is not fact. The Latin title of Aristotle’s treatise on dreams is De insomniis, its lexical ambiguity (the prefix in- can express either privation or inclusion, or in this case of/in sleep) well suited to their paradoxical nature: illusions of being awake conjured from the depths of sleep. To us moderns, dreams seem, rather, like the product of an involuntary background process, one the mind runs nightly to update and integrate waking experiences. According to some dream scientists, ignored and banished thoughts rebound when we dream. Explained away, dreams themselves are banished to the edges of life, where we rarely reach for or revisit them.

It was thus that the problem of dreams and life, dreams and biography, first presented itself to me. Did the unreality of dream experiences effectively exclude them from the sphere of experience? William Blake placed “A Dream” in his poem collection Songs of Innocence; the words “I dreamt a dream! what can it mean?” introduce the dream state as “contrary” to consciousness and the loss of childhood innocence.22xWilliam Blake, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789, 1794), William Blake Archive, accessed December 13, 2018, at, respectively, http://www.blakearchive.org/work/s-inn and http://www.blakearchive.org/work/songsie. Curiously, in some surviving copies of the combined Songs, “A Dream” was moved to the “Experience” section. The poem “The Angel,” from which my citation here is taken, first appeared in the complete Songs of Experience printed in 1794. Borrowing its title from Blake,33xMartin Jay, Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005). Martin Jay’s sweeping intellectual history of modern Western ideas of experience passes dreams over entirely, giving no justification for their exclusion.

Why do dreams, aside from those that, ex post facto, prove uncannily prophetic or betray some repressed truth about us, not befit our biography—whereas intentions, ambitions, things that befall us, even madness, do? Not even dreams that influence the course of our lives, coloring our moods and relationships, affecting important decisions, helping us solve problems, make the cut. (Neither, for that matter, do most daydreams, which bridge our waking and sleeping, but which are generally too naive, morally impure, or otherwise irreverent.) Must the dream diary forever remain a separate category of journal, when the vast majority of details making up “life experience” are no less minor and evanescent than dreams, and no easier to stitch together into a coherent whole?

Between Dream and Reality

Our lives end up as stories we or others tell of us, and so part of the reason for our neglect of dreams may lie in storytelling. The narrative form that dreams take, if we bother to write them down, is typically lean and understated. If the dream récit is a genre unto itself, this is its distinctive feature, one that must in great measure be attributed to the fragility of dream material and our poor recollection of it. Yet dreams themselves also moderate prose narrative excess, as if to offset their own poetic extravagance. When we decide they are worth preserving, we do not feel compelled to mine their minutiae, fill in gaps, and embellish our imaginings, as we do automatically when recounting something that really happened to us, more often than not to compensate for its ordinariness. When they are elaborated (especially when elaborate to begin with), dreams tend to drag on. They lose their eccentricity. Interest wanes as soon as they ring false. Storytelling takes its toll. Only the economy of the fragment, in which the symbolic draws on the figurative and every word counts, sustains dreams’ enigma and singular charm.

This “straight” way of narrating dreams, however, might actually conceal our resistance—whether on account of what they might reveal about us, or because of their irrationality, apparent uselessness, or proximity to lived experience—to interpreting them. We are not in the habit of interpreting our own lives and actions, only those of strangers. If in dreams we are strangers to ourselves, it is still we who dream them, and unless we are into psychoanalysis or dream dictionaries, we deny them the meaningfulness that incites interpretation and changes how we retrospectively understand or go about our more consciously lived lives.

The style used for dream journals thus differs from that used for autobiographies. In the latter, life is given shape and acquires an arc, and subjective experience is fashioned into an adventure meant to leap off the page. The dream narrative, in contrast, has something of the wispiness that, in fact, also characterizes waking states, in which we are drowsy, “sleepwalking,” head in the clouds. Certain indigenous peoples, exploring (with or without the aid of psychoactive substances) the passage between the physical and spiritual realms, maintain a fluid boundary between dream and reality. Belief in such permeability may have existed among the first cave painters, whose parietal art recorded dream visions and real occurrences on one plane and continuum.44xIn Le Temps sacré des cavernes [The sacred times of the caves] (Paris, France: Éditions Corti, 2016), Gwenn Rigal synthesizes theories of the significance of prehistoric rupestrian painting. In her conceptualization, dreams fall under the shamanism hypothesis, along with trance visions and hallucinations: They provide access to the supernatural world (223). “For our ancestors,” wrote William James, “dreams, hallucinations, revelations, and cock-and-bull stories were inextricably mixed with facts. Up to a comparatively recent date such distinctions as those between what has been verified and what is only conjectured, between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived.”55xWilliam James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York, NY: Dover, 2002), 495. Without overstating the case, these distinctions might have seemed less obvious or important underground. In a 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog brought this purported dreaminess of the life of prehistoric man to the silver screen in three dimensions.66xWerner Herzog (writer, director), Cave of Forgotten Dreams [motion picture] (Orland Park, IL: Creative Differences Productions, 2010). Modern cinemagoers must equally be forgiven for questioning the solidity of the wall erected by Cartesian man between reality and fantasy, at the place where historical reconstruction ends and begins the magic of the Dream Factory.

There is no question that dreams enjoyed greater prestige in the first decades of the twentieth century than they do in the twenty-first. Their currency rose with that of film, the medium for which they provided so much raw material. If cinema’s pioneers, the Lumière brothers, hewed closely to reality in their actualités, the voyages into pure fantasy of Georges Méliès, the wonky landscapes of Robert Wiene, and the phantasmagorias of Louis Buñuel, Hans Richter, and Maya Deren, paved the way for Hollywood as a place not only where dreams could make money, but where money could “buy” dreams, or make them come true. Dreams streamed from movie houses into the everyday lives of spectators, for whom the dreaming mind became comparable to a private cinema (as it once did to a theater stage).

Everyone has heard of lucid dreaming, though most will never experience its most lucid form: exercising control over the course and content of our dreams, expanding our range of experience and even making our dreams come true in them. The discoverer of this phenomenon, Léon d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, was also the inventor of the method of dream-directing. His 1867 book Les Rêves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and how to direct them) became the first practical guide to colonizing dreamland. Had he lived just a few more years to witness the birth of motion pictures, he might have anticipated developments like Dream Reality Cinema (DRC), a Hungarian outfit founded by philosopher/cyberneticist Sándor Lengyel, selling meditation and visualization techniques that promise to “turn your dreams to reality”:

Did you know that your brain cannot distinguish between what occurs in your waking life versus a lucid dream? For every obstacle overcome while lucid dreaming—be it physical, emotional, or intellectual—your brain will record the experience straight down to the muscle memory, as if it had occurred in real life. Thus, what you manifest in the conscious dream state results in transferable knowledge that may be used in waking life, bringing you closer and closer to manifesting the reality you’ve always wanted.77x“Manifest Your Dreams,” Dream Reality Cinema, accessed December 13, 2018, https://dreamrealitycinema.com/.

Among the program’s many purported benefits are heightened creativity, expressed in “colorful, intense, fun-filled experiences and a pleasant half-dream state of mind, which becomes increasingly more memorable with a strong positive impact on the active, wakeful state as well.” In other words, we can trick the brain into learning experientially when dreaming, just as it does when we are awake. Subliminal “sleep-learning,” or hypnopedia, first appeared in the 1920s and has been peddled ever since as a scientific method of, among other things, acquiring a foreign language. The innovation of the DRC instructional program is that instead of being passive, unconscious listeners to recordings, the gullible amongst us become semiconscious agents of Technicolor dreams. But even assuming we succeed in dreaming lucidly, the experiences open to us will be unlike real experiences—with the line between them clearly drawn—in that we can steer them at will, directing them like a private film.

The final reason I can think of for why dreams do not mix with life experiences is that, in dream states, we revert to childhood: All innocence and credulity, we take their illusion for reality even when it does not fulfill our wishes. Those with much experience who still dream are thought fortunate by those who no longer do. In dreams, our capacity for wonder, which waking life files down to the quick, is undiminished. As Novalis has the titular character of Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800) (who famously dreamed of a blue flower) observe, “Dreams…break up the monotony and even tenor of life, to serve as a recreation to the chained fancy. They mingle together all the scenes and fancies of life, and change the continual earnestness of age, into the merry sports of childhood. Were it not for dreams, we should certainly grow older.”88xNovalis, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance (1802), trans. anon. (Cambridge, England: John Owen, 1842), Project Gutenberg, accessed December 13, 2018, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31873/31873-h/31873-h.htm.

Our sleep visions, then, enliven our imagination when the latter slackens with age. Recollected and taken down when fresh, as dictation from a barely conscious mind, they bypass the faculty of invention, where they could be intercepted and altered, earnestly cast into a mold. Like a book that writes itself, as long as one keeps dreaming, they are the stuff of an alternative, fictive autobiography. Sheltered against the flow of time, they resist its normal, deleterious effect on the creative powers of the psyche. The experience they offer is of a different order. It is no surprise that dreams should be accorded the special status of bulwark against reality in periods when everyday life would become, individually and collectively, too oppressive, hard to cope with, and even to live.

Dream Internationals

Bulwark against reality was, at any rate, the eminently creative and experiential role the surrealists envisioned for dreaming beginning in the 1920s, making surrealism the greatest collective experiment in life along the frontier between oneiric wilderness and mundane reality. For Paul Nash, a surrealist painter and photographer, this was a matter of recognizing that “the divisions we may hold between night and day—waking world and that of the dream, reality and the other thing, do not hold. They are penetrable, they are porous, translucent, transparent; in a word they are not there.”99xPaul Nash, “Dreams,” undated typescript, Tate Archive, accessed December 13, 2018, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paul-nash/room-guide/international-surrealist-exhibition.

Participating in the surrealist movement transformed one’s everyday experience. Those who still adhere to it today—long after the official dissolution, in 1969, of the original, Paris group—recognize the transfigurative value of dreams, decrying their exploitation and monetization. The sought-after experience of le merveilleux, the marvelous, of which dreams are a major source, continues to imbue art with the spontaneity of life and life with the inspiration of art. The manifestoes of surrealism (1924, 1929, and counting) were inseparable from activities aiming to raise the unconscious to—and even above, sur—reality. Grasping early on the movement’s revolutionary potential, Walter Benjamin credited it with reviving a “radical concept of freedom,” to be enjoyed “unrestrictedly,” and with joining this anarchic ecstasy to “poetic politics,” which could lead to a “revolutionary discharge” and make good on the promise of the Communist Manifesto.1010xWalter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume. 2, Part 1, 1927–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 207–21.

In a present as disenchanted (in Max Weber’s sense) as ours seems to be, it is easy to forget surrealism’s enormous international appeal at its apogee, circa 1935–36. In a letter from the field, André Breton recorded its “triumphal” reception in Prague: “five photographers at the station, banquet and exhibition ‘in our honour,’ gifts of paintings, etc.,” a conference with 700 attendees, meetings with the Left Front, students, the German community; in short “a success without precedent.”1111xAndré Breton, Jacqueline Breton, and Paul Eluard, letter to Benjamin Péret, March 30, 1935, in André Breton and Benjamin Péret, Correspondance 1920–35 (Paris, France: Gallimard, 2017), 39. The first International Surrealist Exhibition, held in London in 1936, is said to have attracted about 23,000 visitors.

Many such exhibitions later, Breton’s legacy, though a niche interest, survives thanks to a loose global network, with new surrealist groups still cropping up from time to time. In North America alone, five are currently active—in Chicago, Ottawa, Montreal, Portland (Oregon), and Denman Island (British Columbia)—plus a number of individuals in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto running reviews and blogs. Repeatedly interred even by some of its own adherents, the spirit of surrealism is far from dead.

Anyone who visited Times Square between July and December 2017 might have noticed, on one of its iconic screens, the banner “The Dreams of International Surrealism Now, A Project by the Acclaimed Painter Santiago Ribeiro.” Surrealists on three continents rallied to denounce the ad (featuring the said painter’s “oedipal” daubs) as a tawdry self-marketing stunt to turn surrealism into—quelle horreur!—a global brand. The individual behind it, wrote the Paris Surrealist Group in a widely circulated statement,

explicitly rejects all of Surrealism’s ethical and critical foundations: he openly upholds religion (“My art is bathed in the old atmosphere of crucifixion”), does not hesitate to appeal to church painters, to declared militarists, and makes no secret of acting in opposition to the founder of the very movement to which he loudly claims to belong (“A Surrealism based on Breton’s principles does not present any interest to me in the current circumstances”).… Surrealism Now, his so-called surrealism for our time, is neither surreal nor current; it is a genuine intellectual swindle such as is practiced in every age.1212xParis Surrealist Group, “Do Ribeiro ao Esgoto / Du ruisseau à l’égout / From Stream to Sewer,” Surrealismo Internacional, January 25, 2018, https://surrint.blogspot.fr/2018/01/.

Another threat (or stimulant) to the surrealist cause came straight on the heels of the last US presidential election, when Merriam-Webster chose surreal as its 2016 word of the year. It was, to be sure, a year “surreal” in the lay sense of being “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.”1313x“‘Surreal’ Is Our 2016 Word of the Year,” Merriam-Webster, accessed December 13, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/woty2016-top-looked-up-words-surreal. Things get surreal where the real resembles the dreamt and when a dream persists after one awakes. Something is definitely not right when experience becomes marked for more than an instant by oneiric intensity. Although surrealists do not appreciate the vulgar acceptation of surreal, and cheer when dreams and waking life intersect, they do not wish, any more than do you or I, for the real to be “surreal” indeterminately. For them, surreality is reality that is subversive, droll, extraordinary—a defense against overwhelming uniformity, drudgery, and pain. It is not a matter of denying what exists, but of adding to it. “The dream,” as Gérard de Nerval (one of surrealism’s great precursors) put it, “is a second life.”1414xGérard de Nerval, Aurélia, or the Dream and Life, trans. Monique DiDonna (Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer, 2001), 45.

It might seem odd, then, that after plunging down the rabbit hole of Trump-era geopolitics and the loss of consensus on fact-based reality, a group of academics, professionals, amateurs, and artists would turn to dreams for an antidote to what’s wrong with the world. Among the myriad of topics discussed at the thirty-fourth annual conference of the self-billed “world’s premier dream organization,” the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), held in Anaheim in 2017, were a few that caught my eye: “Dreaming as a Fundamental Experience in Being,” “Dreaming of Disneyland: What Dreams Tell Us about Our Cultural Identity,” “Sleep and Dream Patterns in Relation to US Politics,” “The President-Elect Is a Shadow Figure in People’s Dreams,” “The Professional Dreamer: How and Why Dreamwork Is Good for Business.” An unrecognized public mental health issue was also deemed worthy of consideration: the “silent epidemic of dream loss.”1515xInternational Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference programs and other literature can be found at http://www.asdreams.org/. In addition to presenting papers, participants led workshops on “Shared Dreams and World Change,” “Collective Dream Expansion” (open to intermediate to advanced dreamers), and “Dreams in Addiction Recovery,” to name a few. The sessions in group dreaming brought to my mind the hypnotic-oracular sommeils, or collective “slumbers,” animated by French poet Robert Desnos in the prelude to surrealism.

The IASD, which, befitting its name, boasts an international membership, is living proof that the uses of dreams are many and varied. Some of us practice oneiromancy, or dream divination. Others look to dreams for a diagnosis or confirmation of social pathologies—as did Charlotte Beradt in her report, based on accounts she collected from 1933 to 1939 in Nazi Germany, on dreaming under dictatorship.1616xCharlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation, 1933–1939, trans. Adriane Gottwald (Chicago, IL: Quadrangle, 1968). Still others turn to dreams to escape reality (this was their main value to prisoners in Auschwitz, as revealed in the recently published responses of survivors to a questionnaire administered in 1973).1717xPiotr M.A. Cywiński, Sny obozowe w pamięci ocalałych z Auschwitz [Camp dreams in the memory of Auschwitz survivors] (Oświęcim, Poland: PMA-B, 2016). Why, when reality feels like a bad dream, should dreaming then not also be a method of fixing things, a solution to real problems, offering spiritual direction and guidance on how to live? It is here not a question of reality infiltrating dreams (to the point of “dictating them,” as for Beradt) but, rather, of integrating dreams so as to ameliorate an oppressive reality.

The ongoing poetic (broadly speaking) interest in dreams would seem to suggest that our time is no more prosaic than that of surrealism’s heyday. Especially after the explicit critical offensive by members of the Situationist International against the “society of the spectacle,” the surrealists recognized the extent of the media’s inroads into the unconscious. Already then, the spectacle risked overwhelming attention, imperiling the inner exploration of dreams and their rapport with the quotidian. With each year marking some technical advance in popular entertainment, dream plots and characters we can at best barely control pale in comparison with the fully immersive virtual worlds on the horizon of adaptive gaming. Where only yesterday dreams represented the last bastion of social freedom, the mind in revolt against conscious control (including the dreamer’s), the advent of multisensory experience in simulated environments spells obsolescence for what is left of its revolutionary energies.

Freud Have Mercy

It is expected of a true surrealist to dream at least once of Breton. Having spent a few precious moments with the Paris surrealists, I must have felt some obligation to produce such a dream—just as I felt obliged to participate in cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”), a time-honored game that still structures the group’s poetic activity.

Whenever the language games became too complex for me, I stayed away and later reviewed the records, regularly collected in white chapbooks and distributed to friends. Such was my reaction to the new game of dream interpretation, invented by the Paris Surrealist Group the year before and taken up with enthusiasm. Sure enough, the players analyzed one another’s dreams, paying close attention to their verbal and visual tissue, in which wordplay rules supreme. (There are, needless to say, no winners, merely the pleasure of one another’s company, and the occasional serendipitous transmutation of words on the page.) Where the game departed from standard practices among those who found dreams meaningful was in the perspective taken: The dreams to be interpreted were not just somebody else’s but—Freud have mercy!—adopted as one’s own. The challenge was to analyze a stranger’s dream as though one had dreamt it oneself, entering it the better to make sense of it, and in the process displaying not merely hermeneutic finesse but a talent for self-estrangement. The practice runs with what nowadays calls itself “dreamwork,” whose standard introduction—“If this were my dream, it would mean…”—either affirms ignorance of the dreamer’s inner life or serves, with its gentle suggestion, to overcome their resistance to the proposed interpretation.

Although the conceptual apparatus (condensation, displacement, identification, inversion, oedipal complexes, etc.) was borrowed from it, the game was not lay psychoanalysis, and indeed seemed at times like a parody of Freudian seriousness. One swapped dreams as easily as one did books or vernissage invitations, without being proprietary. The original dreamer retained only nominal ownership of his or her dream while sharing it, and did not contest its analysis, which never pretended to explain anything about the dreamer. The participants took care to record what they had dreamt, their immediate impressions and associations, since all that their interpreters had to work with, the private road to another’s unconscious being inaccessible, were narratives—paving the so-called royal road. It struck me, having read a few of these récits, that dreams subjected to surrealist treatment became palpable, even equal to real events, ones that were, moreover, shared by the entire group. Through the double effort of narration and interpretation, such dreams acquired the texture of experience, becoming legitimate parts of biographies—the lives of ex-physicist and poet Claude-Lucien Cauët, harpist and poet Ana Orozco, painter Guy Girard, Marxist sociologist Michael Löwy, filmmaker Michel Zimbacca….

Manual Skills

Breton appeared in one of my dreams some weeks after my first evening with the surrealists. He wore a burial suit. I noticed him standing beside me when something—was it a coin?—dropped to the floor through what must have been a hole in the lining of his trousers, and came to rest near my feet. He expected me to pick up whatever had fallen, on account of both my youth and his eminence—eminence that, undisputed in reality, would be even harder to undercut in dreams, his natural element. As I defied the expectation, he was obliged to bend over himself for what he had lost. Thus, my own felt obligation—to dream of the founder of surrealism, as a kind of initiation—which on one level I actually fulfilled, became in the dream itself subverted. Exhibit A was Breton’s attire, clearly marking him as deceased; Exhibit B was my neglect of an apparent obligation, having dreamt him up in the first place, to aid the dead man. In this way, beyond merely fulfilling unconscious, repressed desires, dreams resist and contest reality more openly than even the most uncensored fantasies. I obviously thought the surrealists’ expectation foolish. (That was before I realized it was meant in jest.)

When I considered the dream of my amputation in this light, I could not help connecting it to my recent preoccupation with begging.1818xSee S.D. Chrostowska, “The Modern Beggar,” The Hedgehog Review 10, no. 1 (2018): 102–13. It seemed to me that the dream rehearsed my effort to think critically about mendicancy and inequality, as well as my feeling, when tackling so thorny a subject, of my reach exceeding my mental grasp. Depriving me of the use of both of my hands, the mutilation took away the possibility of both writing and begging. I did not much mind their loss and almost got on without them, which is perhaps why I got them back. Was the dream contesting the professional use I had devised for my hands to attain personal recognition? Were the hands I had lost those of a writer-mendicant, literally begging to be read? What, if anything, was the dream trying to tell me? Or what was I trying to tell myself through the dream? I had lately stopped feeling as though I had sleepwalked into a new life, and instead began to imagine I was living out a dream over which I had creative rights. One of the many reasons I like the French language, incidentally, is that, in it, one makes dreams rather than has them—one has a hand in them as one does in reality.

In homage to those surrealist soirees I did not attend, when the dream game was played, I asked the essayist, poet, and translator Joël Gayraud what he would make of my dream if it had been his own.1919xIn one of his books, Gayraud offers a historical reason for the separation of dreams from life: religion. Associating consciousness with moral conscience, Christianity “devalorized the role of dreams and relegated them to the murky and satanic infra-world of corporal representations.” Joël Gayraud, La Paupière auriculaire [The Ear-Lid] (Paris, France: Éditions Corti, 2017), 12, translation by the author. His insights might help me make it part of my life in a more meaningful way. We played the game by correspondence, and for my dream to be properly adopted and interpreted it first needed to be translated into French. The reply I eventually received identified, predictably, a deep-seated fear of castration—but incomplete (the hands were reattached) and double (the “sack of potatoes” being emblematic of the testes)—hence impotence anxiety, in the end. By an associative swerve, Gayraud took a line from Rimbaud, “The hand that writes is as good as the hand that plows,” to suggest that the impotence was “not simply sexual,” but covering also “incapacity in writing as much as in manual skills,” an incapacity ascribed by me, moreover, to external circumstances so that I might escape culpability (most likely for having made a bad object-choice)—a move immediately checked in the dream by the two women, whose reaction signified that “no one is impotent innocently.” As for the tan line, “Could one not see it as a metaphor for the changing of skin?”—the changing, on the urging of Rimbaud and Rilke, of life?

It was then that my strange dream awakened a memory of something I had seen in Paris, in the Bateau-Lavoir, the legendary artists’ tenement of a century ago that today is a fashionable studio building. Scattered about in the atelier of Virginia Tentindó, an Argentinian-French surrealist, were, it turned out, molds for Dream beneath the Fig Tree, an aggregate sculpture with multiple hands, some of them open and jutting out—like cocks’ combs cocking a snook—from humanoid heads on avian bodies, atop which balanced a grinning triple amputee, a dismembered, Buddha-like torso reminiscent of the life-size female dolls created by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer—except that here the effect was solar and joyful. The hands, reaching for something, might or might not have belonged to the smiling figure. The piece was visibly not all-of-a-piece, but could be taken apart, disassembled at the joints. It was as though the artist wanted to signal that, in the process of being sculpted, the individual fragments of a dream associate as freely yet tentatively as they do in the telling of one.

I had, by that point, been living with the memory of my dream for two weeks. The sensations I felt in it had not faded. It was as though I had really lived it. I had, in a way. As with various elements and shreds of real experience (things that caught my attention, I went through, impressed me, or got to me), which returned while I slept, brought back days, months, sometimes even years later in different configurations and ensembles, to be relived, so it was with this dream, whose figments became enmeshed in my subsequent dreamlife. Clearly, I drew value and meaning from it—but neither as a creative resource nor as a key to my “hysterical misery” that would allow me to transform it into “common unhappiness.”2020xSigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies in Hysteria, trans. Nicola Luckhurst (New York, NY: Penguin, 2004), 306. Freud found most important what I saw as, at best, secondary: a dream’s latent content, the repressed wish it fulfilled. For me, however, the experience was the thing. And I have come back to it consciously again and again as one does to other life experiences, turning them in one’s mind like a piece of clay.

Dreams are volatile, as if to escape interpretation or be dissolved by it. These waking returns to my oneiric vision stabilized it (most dreams are not so lucky), giving it a solidity comparable to that accorded to real events by their recollection, and to our recollections by sleep, which consolidates memory. I know I had this dream; I know what I dreamed, if not exactly what it all meant. If I have allowed it to acquire significance for my actions, I have not done so oneiromantically, by giving it a prophetic spin. And since my confidence in my own existence is not of the doubtful, Cartesian kind, I have not fixated on the unreality of what I (“merely”) dreamed. More interesting, to me, in Descartes’s Meditations is his amazement at the power of dream’s illusion of reality, and their near-indistinction: “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep.”2121xRené Descartes, “First Meditation,” in Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. and trans. John Cottingham, rev. ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 13. Rather than seek clarity about the distinction, I have allowed a dream to have influence over my life, greater than that attributable to the vast majority of day-to-day experiences. (Come to think of it, why was Descartes—instead of entertaining the possibility that reality is a dream, is chimera, is deception, is illusion, to then dismiss it with “But I still think”—not more amazed by reality’s dreamlike quality?)

So when, one day in New York, in the gift shop of the American Folk Art Museum, I came upon rubber, hand-shaped finger puppets in two skin tones, the darker ones seemed, given my recent experience, the more appropriate choice. I bought a set, but did not go so far as to join the “Finger Hand Movement.” (Apparently it is for Millennials.) Not only do some of its enthusiasts see a match between the tiny add-ons and the anatomy of the current occupant of the White House; they also use the puppets to multiply their show of hands at public events.2222xSee “Finger Hand Movement,” Facebook post, December 27, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/FingerHandMovement. You can now buy even smaller light- or dark-skinned hands to stick on the fingers of the original ones, mixing and matching the colors without sending a transracial message. Although as a movement Finger Hand was passé from the first, being based on a toy and social media rather than a counterculture, one thing is certain: The appeal lay in sheer bizarrerie and hands-on uselessness, the puppets becoming part of experience shared eagerly with strangers.

By now, the dream fits into my waking life almost seamlessly, so that I can barely tell where the line I once drew between it and reality had been. There was of course its incongruous content, but the buildup of meaning eventually eclipsed that. The sole remaining trace of difference lies in my memory of the moment when the dream first saw the light of day, exposed to consciousness, re-experienced and, by the same token, “emancipated” from the obscurity to which its unreality would normally relegate it. This makes it stand out subjectively from the rest of the real goings-on at the time—much as, inside it, in somnio, my hands, restored and tanned, had stood out from the rest of me.