Sweet Dreams

Christopher Reid

  • The Oxford Book of Dreams by Stephen Brook
    Oxford, 268 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 19 214130 9

‘I dislike the cult of dreams,’ Sarah Ferguson declares. ‘They should be secret things, and people who are always telling you of what they have dreamt irritate me. Nor do I like hearing psychological discussions between those who do not really know what they are talking about. There is something soft and messy about such people.’ Sarah Ferguson was previously quite unknown to me, but this passage from a book called A Guard Within (1973) is one of the 450 or so literary specimens to be found in this curious anthology.

The spunky, philistine tone of Sarah Ferguson’s outburst (one wonders how she was driven to it) makes it safe to assume that she would dislike this new Oxford Book cordially. Her ironical appearance in it follows immediately after that of Arthur Machen. Here the author of The Children of the Pool (1936) gets hot under the collar on the subject of psychoanalysis:

From the simplest and most obvious dreams, the psychoanalyst deduces the most incongruous and extravagant results. A black savage tells him that he has dreamed of being chased by lions, or, maybe, by crocodiles; and the psycho man knows at once that the black is suffering from the Oedipus complex. That is, he is madly in love with his own mother, and is, therefore, afraid of the vengeance of his father. Everybody knows, of course, that ‘lion’ and ‘crocodile’ are symbols of ‘father’. And I understand that there are educated people who believe this stuff.

Nor is this the only snubbing Freud and his followers receive. Two pages later we find Nabokov, in the persona of Humbert Humbert, poking supercilious fun at the class of people he terms ‘dream-extortionists’. Nabokov’s loathing of Freud – the ‘Viennese quack’ – appeared to intensify as he grew older and he seldom allowed the opportunity for an anti-psychiatric jibe or leg-pull to pass unheeded. Compared with later efforts in this vein, the few sentences from Lolita printed here are fairly gentle.

Freud himself has four entries in The Oxford Book of Dreams: they comprise one aphorism (‘Dreams are often most profound when they seem most crazy’), two analytical descriptions of dreams, and one rather dogmatic passage laying down the law on dream symbolism. It is a measure of Stephen Brook’s easy-going editorial attitude that Freud and his detractors are given equal house-room. His anthology is, deliberately, a miscellaneous compilation, containing, in addition to passages of the finest writing – the work of poets, playwrights, novelists, diarists and biographers – its balance of the ridiculous.

The most frequently appearing author, with 16 entries to his credit, albeit mainly very brief, is one of whom few readers will have heard: Astrampsychus, whose Oneirocriticon, a collection of ready-to-use dream interpretations, survives from the fourth century. ‘To behold oxen in dreams is of evil tendency,’ and ‘To see a black mare is a thoroughly bad sign,’ are typical of his peremptory style. Brook also includes a passage from Napoleon’s Book of Fate which, current in about 1860, shows the perennial appeal of this sort of charlatanry, depending as it does upon a manner of awe-inspiring assertiveness. ‘Bomb’, we read here. ‘If a fair maiden should dream of seeing a bombshell, she must look out for a brave artilleryman coming to ask her to be his bride.’ Many a young girl must have been glad of the warning.

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