I recently came across this article by Michael Chabon about why dreams suck, both in general and as a literary device. He is not the first person I have heard express this sentiment.
It has been said that dream sequences in literature (and, to a lesser degree, film and television) are evidence of lazy writing, or worse, a cop-out– a way for the writer to sidestep troublesome plot development and resolution.
I couldn’t disagree more.
The crux of the article for me was this paragraph:
Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original story, never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that.
Um . . . I do, actually.
I’m sorry your dream life is so dull as to not warrant a place in either conversation or fiction, but that is not the case for everyone. While I agree that, by and large, dreams should be reserved for sharing with only our nearest and dearest, they are certainly worth incorporating into art. Freud said that whether we intend it or not, we are all poets, so perhaps Mr. Chabon is simply not viewing his nighttime experiences through the right lens.
Dreams provide an invaluable source for imagery and scenarios—they are a part of life, after all, and shouldn’t all aspects of life be considered worthy for artistic examination? The average person spends one-third of their life asleep, which means, we spend a substantial part of our lives dreaming. Should we dismiss such robust cerebral activity? We share dreams with all vertebrate animals, so it could also be said that dreaming seems to be something significant as a primal cognitive function, an experience we’ve shared up and down the evolutionary ladder.
I mean, yeah, dreams are frustrating. I get that. Our dreams speak to us in riddles and fortune cookies; they chuck non sequiturs at us. Nobody can seem to agree on why we dream, or how much. And yet, there are people who are capable of lucid dreaming. Particularly potent dream images stick with us for years.
My dreams are integral to my creative process—but, in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it.
Far more illustrious examples of dream scenes in literature include:
- The Bible, (yes, I’m treating it as literature for purposes of this essay)
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- The Iliad and The Odyssey
- The Dream of the Rood
- Shakespeare (sleep and dream motifs are common in his plays, most notably, Macbeth, Richard III, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest)
- Paradise Lost
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- “Kubla Kahn”
- Innumerable fantasy, horror and science-fiction works
- Children’s literature
- The majority of Kafka’s works
- Finnegan’s Wake
To name a few.
In addition to works that have dreamlike settings and subjects, there have been many major works that have been inspired by the artists’ dreams, such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Of course, dreams are frequently utilized in TV and film, and thank God for that. Would you want to live in a world without the dancing dwarf on Twin Peaks? Without the cheese guy from Buffy? Without Tony Sopranos’ visions of talking fish and Annette Benning? I know I wouldn’t. These images are provocative, iconic. They are defining moments in the artistic and pop cultural landscape.
It goes without saying that dreams play a significant role in the visual arts as well—we all know the nightmare tableaux of Bosch and Dali. There are the works of William Blake, who is considered by some to be the greatest artist Britain ever produced, and whose dreams are rendered not only in his poetry, but in paints, watercolors, and intaglios. Where would modern painting styles be without dreams—without the emphasis on the variance of human perception? We would have no impressionism, no cubism, no surrealism.
If we rule out dream sequences, does that mean we must also ban depictions of madness, hallucination and drug trips? Because I sure do love Homer Simpson’s Guatemalan Insanity Pepper trip, and Hunter S. Thompson, and Trainspotting.
Dreams help us explore the nature of perception and reality. Where would philosophy be without dreams? There is the famous quote from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” To explore realism, perhaps it is necessary to plunge into nonsense. More modern works blur the lines between reality and fantasy. The very nature of creative nonfiction acknowledges the inherent unreliability of all human perception, which is reflected very nicely in the shenanigans our sleep-selves get up to.
There is also the factor of religious visions, which verges into the non-fiction territory. Again, Chabon asserts that people should not share their dreams. But if they did not, we would be without significant portions of mystical and spiritual accounts, such as St. Teresa of Avila’s or Carlos Castaneda’s. We would also be without a significant body of psychological literature. Carl Jung chronicled his dreams for sixteen years, recently released by his heirs as The Red Book. Jung referred to it as his “confrontation with the unconscious.” It seems to me that it’s actually the other way around—dreams are the subconscious’ confrontation with our waking selves, forcing us to examine topics (indeed, immersing us) in subjects that our waking selves would perhaps rather not face. It is the original virtual reality experience, dumping us into the deep end of the pool and daring us to swim.
In narratives, dreams are extremely useful vehicles for foreshadowing and flashbacks. For character development, they can depict wishes, motivations and emotions, sometimes with visceral immediacy, sometimes with much-needed levity as the narrative requires.
Chabon goes on to say that, “If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head.” That’s all surfaces and reflections. Dreams live somewhere underneath the surface. They are the undertow.
The tendency to read too much into dreams is undeniable. It’s easy to regard them as omens—and once you start doing that, you start to see signs everywhere. Part of the dubious appeal of dreams is their ability to seduce and deceive. They can mean everything, or nothing. For the sake of politeness and sanity, sometimes it’s best to choose nothing.
But not in art.