Sweet Dreams

Christopher Reid

  • BuyThe 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.

In fact, if he had wished, Brook could have found examples in this line closer to our own time. Zadkiel’s Dream Book, of which I have a copy, bears no date of imprint, but it has a between-the-wars look. Its author displays a wonderfully pedantic cast of mind: ‘To dream you are eating marmalade alone, portends personal sickness. If you dream you are eating it with other persons, it indicates that you will meet with many kind friends who will ever be ready to comfort and cheer you. To dream that you eat marmalade with only one person ... ’ And so on. Stuff like this must still be available over the counter, if only one knew where to look.

The utterances of Astrampsychus and his colleagues are scattered throughout The Oxford Book by way of light relief. It appears to have been Stephen Brook’s plan to make his collection representative of every kind of writing on the subject of dreams, not excluding codswallop. This comprehensiveness is, in theory, praiseworthy, but it does have snags. Astrampsychus is good laugh value and easy to put to the back of one’s mind as one passes on to more serious things, but there are other writers – dull, pretentious, long-winded, disingenuous – whose contributions, because they stand for this or that way of treating the subject, need to be included, but hog considerably more space than they deserve.

The Oxford Book of Dreams probably looked an altogether more coherent proposition at the planning (or reverie) stage than the chill light of publication shows it to be. A miscellany of writings on dreams, of accounts of dreams taken from poetry, fiction and biography, of comments and speculations and pontifications concerning dreams, assembled from the literature of all ages – the idea is promising. Such a volume ought both genuinely to break new ground and to supply a handy alliterative companion to the Book of Death put out by the same publishers a few months ago. Furthermore, pace Sarah Ferguson, almost everyone is interested in dreams – their own first of all, naturally, but other people’s next – and so there should be no problem about finding a market, if the job were done well.

But can such a job be done well? Stephen Brook appears to have been both hardworking and imaginative in his pursuit of anthologisable material. There is plenty here that will be new to all but the most esoterically-primed reader. The indulgent browser, the person who would just as happily leaf through a dictionary of quotations, or Reader’s Digest, as give his mind to a work of art, will be thoroughly satisfied: but this is the point at which doubts clamour to be heard. For, granted that Brook has done his editorial best, arranging his findings and choosings into three distinct sections headed ‘From Birth to Death’, ‘Earthly Things’ and ‘The Dream World’, which are in turn subdivided, and granted that these classifications make sense and genuinely cover important aspects of the dreamer’s experience, the final product still looks a jumble, lacking the impulse of an argument, uneven in quality and vague as to whether it is meant to be taken seriously.

Brook himself, in the course of some prefatory remarks, is careful to make only the most modest claims. ‘This book,’ he tells us, ‘has been devised as entertainment, not as thesis or instruction.’ It is possible, however, that if he had applied a more rigorous standard of selection to certain categories of dream literature, his book would have entertained more successfully.

To take the case of fiction: some excellent dreams recorded in the novels of Emily Brontë, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Proust are included here. Nightmares, one apiece, from Wuthering Heights and The Idiot are truly horrendous, while Tolstoy’s uncanny understanding of the function and procedures of dreaming, as made clear in Anna’s dream of her being married simultaneously to Karenin and Vronsky (‘she was surprised that formerly this had seemed impossible to her, and laughingly explained to them how much simpler it really was’), is characteristic of his genius. Where Proust is concerned, one must regret that Swann’s lovelorn dream in which he believes himself to be walking with a party that numbers, among others, Odette, Napoleon III and an enigmatic young man in a fez, who surprises Swann by turning out to be himself, is omitted, as there is nothing else like it in this book: but seven selections from Remembrance of Things Past are enough to display Proust’s brilliance and variety and one is grateful to see them. Outside this group, however, there are, with a few exceptions, not many passages that make a strong impact. Excerpts from the lesser novelists tend to strike one either as written with an overweening desire to impress, which is always disastrous, or simply as flat and bathetic. Some may have been damaged by removal from the contexts that gave them their only true point, but others, it seems to me, cannot even have this said for them.

A paradoxical result of Stephen Brook’s having arranged fictional and real-life accounts of dreams in haphazard juxtaposition is that those taken from novels and short stories appear to be reduced to the status of clinical specimens, while those from diaries and biographical writings demand the literary consideration that one would normally reserve for intended works of art. Dreams are not in themselves a form of literature, although they may deludingly give the dreamer something like the satisfaction he or she would get from a book or a play while in a state of wakefulness, but literary skill of a special kind is needed if they are to be retailed convincingly.

What this skill amounts to is a knack for authenticity and the courage to be honest about one’s experience of the dream in question – not always an easy thing when the protagonist is one’s own brave little ego, and the events of the dream conspire, as they typically do, to mock, befuddle, humiliate and otherwise degrade one to an ignominiously passive role in the proceedings. Groddeck’s notion that one does not so much dream, as find oneself being dreamt, figuratively expresses what every dreamer must have recognised. Would Sarah Ferguson find listening to other people’s dreams less of a trial if she did not suspect that what was generally being offered was the tidied-up or ego-bowdlerised version of events?

This tidying-up need not, however, simply be the result of amour propre or esprit d’escalier: there are linguistic problems too. The events of dreams are characterised by all sorts of lurches in logic, ellipses and overlayings, which accounts of them tend to neutralise by supplying just those conjunctions and syntactical patterns that were so distinctively absent from their original texts. This last phrase is perhaps tendentious, but it does seem to me that dream-tellers are more or less in the position of translators, whose frustrating predicament, that of having to deal with given material by linguistic means that are never quite equal to the job, must be acknowledged. From among the real-life accounts of dreams gathered by Brook, those composed by writers who, whether by instinct or through ingenuity, have recognised and resolved this problem are the most telling.

After the absurd Astrampsychus, the next most frequently represented authors are, surprisingly to me, Southey and Ruskin, each of whom has earned 13 entries. These are extraordinarily revealing: both men seem to have put down their dreams straightforwardly and with the minimum of self-conscious fuss, while Ruskin is especially impressive, recording his nightmares, many of them horrible, with a stoical grace that touches the heart. Even when Ruskin has a rare pleasant dream, the account of it is suffused with his authentic melancholy. ‘Yesterday,’ he writes, in a diary entry for 12 July 1885, ‘a most pleasant bustling dream of driving through a superb town, seeing a superb piece of 14th-century sculpture, and being introduced to the Pope, with Mr Collingwood, who sang the Pope a song in a red cap. Afterwards the Pope gave me his blessing, and on my kneeling down to receive it, knelt down too. But it is all darker and more vague than life, with me. I never dream really bright dreams unless I’m ill.’ The word ‘bustling’, the odd dislocation that brings about the phrase ‘a song in a red cap’ and the petulantly italicised ‘me’ are those innocent details (it would require a novelist of genius to invent them) that carry conviction and make the passage as poignant as it is.

Of all writers, perhaps Kafka is the one best-equipped to convey the comedy of the ego’s misadventures in dreamland: the plainness of his prose and the subtlety of his irony make it hard for the reader to identify just how he achieves his effects. The following diary entry, dated 21 July 1913, shows his mastery and is, in my estimation, the most treasurable item Stephen Brook has brought back from his researches:

Today, in my dream, I invented a new kind of vehicle for a park slope. You take a branch, it needn’t be very strong, prop it up on the ground at a slight angle, hold one end in your hand, sit down on it side-saddle, then the whole branch naturally rushes down the slope, since you are sitting on the bough you are carried along at full speed, rocking comfortably on the elastic wood. It is also possible to use the branch to ride up again. The chief advantage, aside from the simplicity of the whole device, lies in the fact that the branch, thin and flexible as it is, can be lowered or raised as necessary and gets through anywhere, even where a person by himself would get through only with difficulty.

That foolish confidence which all dreamers must have felt at some time, especially when learning to fly, the ego’s ready ‘understanding’ of, and acquiescence in, the laws of the dream world, and the ludicrous air of explanatory zeal with which we emerge from our dreams, bearing their marvellous secrets – Kafka has caught these beautifully.

‘We live as we dream – alone.’ Conrad’s sombre aphorism earns its place too. John Updike, in a passage from Couples that Stephen Brook has also collected, looks at the situation from another angle, that of the excluded other person: ‘A morning later, Nancy described her first dream, the first remembered dream of her life [about catching ladybugs]... She had told this dream to her mother, who had her repeat it to her father at breakfast. Piet was moved, beholding his daughter launched into another dimension of life, like school.’ Presumably, this is just the sort of soft and messy sentiment which Sarah Ferguson would deplore. She has a right to do so, but I find Updike’s concern – he is a rare example of the contemporary novelist who knows how to handle dreams – more honourable. Stephen Brook deserves respect as well for attempting an anthology which, in spite of shortcomings and confusions, addresses an important subject in a new and intermittently successful way.