The dream of modernity
It is commonplace to regard the long-term intellectual and social development of modern society as inimical to dreams. For modernity, established on the basis of a number of decisive oppositions, apparently champions the cause of the objective, rational and real against the subjective, irrational and illusory: and nothing seems more evident than to characterise dreams as subjective, irrational and illusory. It is not a matter of defining dreams by reference to a scale of ‘more’ or ‘less’, for they belong unambiguously and completely to the degraded ‘other’ of every evaluative polarity whose exalted upper element is claimed to be the unique invention of modernity. There is, consequently, something detached and alien in the dream; and unlike the state of irrationality from which children have not yet emerged, the succession of ephemeral and detached dream-images do not yield to the growth of ‘reason’. The unreasonableness of the dream for the modern, rational and wide awake individual hinges on the enigma of personal responsibility. A distinguished commentator remarks that:
The mystery of the dream originates in the fact that this phantasmagoria over which the sleeper has no control is at the same time entirely a product of his imagination. When it is unfolded before him without his consent, he can hardly believe himself responsible.
(Grunebaum and Caillois 1966, p. 51)
For modern society, thus, if it is viewed as nothing but the liberation of reason from the constraints of ignorance and error, the dream is rejected as a residue of an unenlightened age.
Yet, today, such assumptions need only be stated to make evident the ambiguity which is the real foundation from which, at one time, sprang an over zealous condemnation of dreams. Indeed, it is no longer possible to state the case without recourse to moderating terms—‘apparent’, ‘seems’—and the equivocation of inverted commas. Looking back, however, to a culture dominated by intellectualism and rationalism dreams were, at best, curiosities. The entire process of enlightenment, in terms of the progressive conquest of nature by scientific means and the associated decay of religious and magical worldviews, legitimated a profound self-confidence and sense of superiority over previous periods of history and other still barbaric or primitive societies which could be characterised, among other childish attributes, by an uncritical valorisation of dreams. It is now all too easy to look back on such optimism with an equally unfounded sense of our own superiority; albeit one which displays itself as a sly relativism. In any event as confidence in modernity was shaken by the persistence of economic crises, war, disease, superstition, death and, in spite of everything, the continuation of a heedless longing for happiness, it became more difficult to claim that modern society had awakened from a long sleep; or to construct from the routinised drudgery of factory production, bureaucratic administration and earnest scientific endeavour an inspiring image of progress. And, perhaps even more significantly, as the programme of scientific rationalism foundered upon the irreconcilable contradictions thrown up by equally essential but incompatible images of nature, it became less necessary to dismiss dreams as uninteresting and meaningless psychic débris.
The rehabilitation of dreams might be viewed, then, as a rough measure of our disenchantment with modernity, and of our unwillingness to accept a wholly rationalised conception of life; or, rather, with the civilisation of nineteenth-century Europe which is, somewhat narrowly, the implicit point of reference for many now contested notions of the modern. Of course, for some, the emergence of a modern oneiric science, which is one of the most evident symptoms of this rehabilitation, clung to an older conceit and sought, through explanation of the origins, functions and forms of dreams, to extend the empire of rational self-control.1
There is more to this than a fashionable inversion of modern western prejudices. Certainly, it is no longer obvious that reality must be placed above appearance, or that we should cling to being rather than abandon ourselves to becoming, or that either is more likely to be encountered in the crystallised actuality of objects rather than in the fluid potentiality of subjects. Nor is it surprising that, in the light of such radical revaluation, dreams have been accorded a new prominence within all forms of self-understanding. More significant is the extent to which dreams become subversive of all such organising polarities. Rather than reclaim neglected and degraded aspects of existence for a generously redefined human domain, dreams place a question mark over all these evaluative certainties and, indeed, over the very acts of distinguishing and judging. The playful character of dreams, so obvious to every self-observation conditioned by a reading of Freud, reproduces within itself, albeit it in a different order, all those distinctions through which reality is defined for the non-dreaming observer. The dream, so to speak, contains its own world; its own inner-sense of subject and object, reality and appearance, being and becoming. To dream is to enter this other world; rather than to experience a specific segment of what, when awake, we imagine to be a singular reality. It is just this radical difference, the separateness and self-sufficiency of the dreamworld, that is productive of so much ambiguity. It is as if in sleep we paradoxically awake to the peculiarities of a reality which has an equal claim on our credulity. The problem of the dream, thus:
is no longer the question of a single consciousness powerless to distinguish between illusion and reality, but of two beings from two different realms.
(Grunebaum and Caillois 1966, p. 50)
As all distinctions reemerge within it, the dream itself has no defining opposite. The dream is an inclusive term and exhaustive of its own reality. It is both a world apart and a world to itself; so that ‘to dream is not another way of experiencing another world, it is for the dreaming subject the radical way of experiencing its own world’.2 ‘Sleeping’, rather than ‘dreaming’, is the opposite of ‘waking’ and, as a broader context reveals, it is only relatively recently that dreaming has been exclusively associated, though not identified, with sleep. And even now the ambiguity of dreams is evident in our often thinking of them as located in some kind of intermediary and indeterminate zone between waking and sleeping.
The history of dreams, and the history of the interpretation and explanation of dreams is, then, more than a scale of changing values. The reality which constitutes the dream and dreaming itself changes. This can hardly be otherwise when, throughout the development of western society, to say nothing of the variations observed in non-western societies, the mode of defining and grasping reality has undergone such profound changes. The centrality of Freud’s writings to contemporary understanding of dreams can hardly be overestimated. In spite of sporadic efforts to reinstate a nineteenth-century scientific disdain of dreams, Freud’s influence is now so pervasive as to be almost invisible. Yet Freud is rarely read in terms of the larger context which, it seems, provided the impetus to, if not the inspiration for, his own interest in dreams. It is worth beginning, therefore, with the inception of a distinctly modern discourse on the character of dreaming.
DOUBT AND DREAMS
Many of the most intractable (and fascinating) difficulties thrown up by the modern discourse on dreams were clearly stated at its outset by Descartes. For Descartes the enigma of dreaming (he rightly avoids the casual objectification in referring to a ‘phenomenon’—the dream) poses fundamental problems for our understanding of the world and of ourselves.
The illusory character of dreams, which is so much more impressive and general than the accident of waking perceptual error, is taken for granted by Descartes and appealed to as a stimulus to the metaphysical doubt which is the real starting point of his reflection. For the problem of knowledge dreams are important first of all as exemplary instances of deception, and, retrospectively, arouse the scepticism Descartes wishes to extend to other kinds of perceptions. He declares, thus, to have:
resolved to pretend that all the things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams.
(Descartes 1985, p. 127)
The distinction between dreams, which are seen as self-generated images occurring during sleep, and waking perceptions, does not seem initially to pose a problem. Descartes assumes everyone is willing to admit that, however unreliable the testimony of our senses, they provide us with some information about the outside world in a way which our dreams never can. But he would like to argue that, contrary to a philosophically naive view, our senses are much more deceptive than is generally assumed:
every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake.
(Descartes 1984, p. 53)
More interestingly, he also argues that by standards that might be applied to our sense impressions, our dreams often appear equally as truthful, rather than equally as false. This raises for him the more difficult question of whether or not we can reliably tell whether we are asleep or awake. The deceptiveness of dreams, in other words, goes deeper than at first suspected:
As I think about this more carefully, 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.
(Descartes 1984, p. 13)
Disconcertingly he suggests just such a criteria—‘to feel dazed’—at the very moment of denying its possibility. But this apparent contradiction can be resolved on the assumption that ‘to feel dazed’, while it may be some sort of vague indication of being asleep, can never amount to the ‘sure sign’ which he is seeking. The kind of certainty for which Descartes is searching, and in which he hopes to anchor philosophy, is found exclusively, he contends, in ‘clear and distinct ideas’. This, in fact, presents a new difficulty, because it is in our dreams that we frequently conceive just such clear and distinct ideas, which, by virtue of their clarity and distinctness, ought to be true. Thus, in spite of ‘feeling dazed’, Descartes insists that ideas coming to us in dreams are often ‘no less lively and distinct’ than those we have when awake. It must be remembered, however, that the criteria of ‘clear and distinct ideas’ refers to the Truth, and not the verisimilitude of ideas. It might be said that, in dreaming, we often experience clear and distinct images but not lucid ideas which, abstracted from sensory images, have a purely intellectual content.
It now seems that Descartes can unambiguously characterise dreams as internal images devoid of genuinely rational interconnection. At the close of the Sixth Meditation he reports that, between dreaming and waking:
I now notice that there is a vast difference between the two, in that dreams are never linked by memory with all the other actions of life as waking experiences are.
(Descartes 1984, p. 61)
This seems compelling, but does not in the end lay to rest the doubts engendered by his scattered remarks. His various comments have been made from the perspective of someone who believes himself to be awake. But it is just a characteristic of waking experience that we feel, when awake, that ‘we cannot doubt whether we are awake or dreaming’. The difficulty lies in a fatal asymmetry between the two states. The notion of experience through which these distinct states are joined is by no means the same viewed from the perspective of each. It is only when we are asleep that we may doubt whether we are dreaming or not; wakefulness carries with it, as it were, is its own guarantee. Thus, while in a wakeful state we may clearly distinguish between, on the one hand, the rational interconnectedness of our own thoughts and their appropriateness to the world around us, and on the other, the disconnected and uncoordinated images of a recollected dream. But, when asleep, nothing strikes us as odd, and the most absurd images may appear perfectly natural and rational. Descartes quotes the example of a man who dreams of a clock striking ‘one, one, one, one’ and sees nothing odd in his reacting with the thought that the mechanism had ‘gone mad’ because it had struck ‘one’ four times, rather than striking ‘four’.
Nor is Descartes alone in this profound equivocation. His contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, is hardly more sanguine. For him, mental images were simply the result of the ‘agitation’ of the senses, and when asleep, these could be stimulated by the movement of ‘the inward parts’ giving rise to dreams which were indistinguishable (as images) from the pictures of the external world that we formed when awake. And he concurs in his judgement of the asymmetry of our relationship to the perceived world in the waking as compared to the dreaming state:
it is a hard matter, and by many thought impossible, to distinguish exactly be...