Saturday, 22 February 2014

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

“Supper, sir, and tonight's movie. I'm sorry, sir, it is another Doug McClure.” By which I mean to say, more today on Finnegans Wake. Only in the middle eight though. Little bit at the end. Read it, you’ll enjoy it and you’ll learn something. Read on, MacDuff

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

We are such stuff as dreams are made on: our little life is rounded with a sleep
                                                                                              The Tempest act 4, scene 1

I love sleep. One of the many reasons why I never really took drugs (certainly not ‘uppers’) is because I can’t imagine anything I’d less like to be doing than taking drugs and stay out all night clubbing. Yawn! All things considered, I’d rather be reading. That and getting an early night.

I say an early night, but my sleep patterns are so notoriously off when not engaged is regular servitude (I mean employment, sorry, sorry, my bad – attitude) that I can be getting up at anything from 4am to midday to midnight. I can easily sleep for anything up to fourteen hours at a time, often staying awake for a day or more just to try and reset my body clock. It usually works, at least for a couple of weeks.

To sleep, perchance to dream1. As I sleep, I dream. I have friends who claim to never dream or to not remember their dreams. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like. I have four, five dreams a night and usually remember all of them. They have regular plots, themes and moods, like episodes of TV series.

There are the post-apocalyptic zombie dreams, the escaping from government agents or criminal mastermind dreams (same difference, am I right?), the dreams where real life locations miles apart are connected by shortcuts through the woods or under the M61. Whenever I leave a job, a house, a town or a relationship, I have dreams of being back there for months afterwards. My father died of cancer eighteen years ago and yet every other month I still dream that he turns up alive and no one but me seems suspicious at him not being dead, even though we had him cremated.

I have dreams where I’m running, but move more like a marionette, feet never quite connecting with the ground because the mind can’t accurately reproduce the sensation of running (or, more likely, because I rarely felt the need to run and so have no stored experience of what that’s like). I have dreams I am on bike, struggling to get up one of the monstrous hills that surround this village. I dream of being on boats all the time, steam boats on Russian lakes and speed boats on canals and some version of my fictional sailing ship, the Anna Livia Plurabelle, zipping around the oceans of the world. And if I’m not actually on water, then I’m walking along the bridal way of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Except, it’s a dream, so it both is and isn’t the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

I have dreams that I am in the United States and, most bizarrely of all, I have infrequent dreams about being in Vienna or Saltsburg, though I haven’t been to Austria or have any great desire to travel there.

Whenever I have spent all day reading or writing then the story continues as I sleep and my dreams are filled with nothing but a typed page that I read, except the narrative proceeds in the kind of fucked up way for which dreams are notorious. If that sounds strange, a friend of mine once had a dream that consisted entirely of a can of baked beans on a table. Static image, no panning or tracking shot or anything. Just a can of beans on a table. In the land of dreams it is the ordinary that is fucked up.

I also have a lot of anxiety dreams. I have dreams where I have run away from work or friends and am hiding, but regularly emerging from my hiding place to taunt them and run away and hide again. I used to have frequent dreams where I’m in an elevator that starts to get smaller as it ascends. Or works like an elevator in Star Trek, moving sideways and between buildings like a monorail system. I also have dreams that I’m in Star Trek, Deep Space 9, Red Dwarf, Community or The Office, depending which show I’ve recently been watching in marathon sessions.

In fact, the one dream that I can’t seem to remember is the one that I’d most like to able to recall. It is a recurring dream and a recurring nightmare from when I was very young. I can only remember it in snatches. It’s a disjointed dream. There are some grave diggers, which I know for certain come from seeing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid. Something involving the army moving into position or something, but as so often with dreams, it’s the sense of unease and terror that the dream used to instil in me. It was the sense of time slowing down to a crawl. Where the sound of speech is in slow-mo and lowered pitch. I would get these sensations in waking moments too, of the world running at half speed. It used to freak me out, but now I’d kill to be able to recapture that sensation. I’m 41. I could do with some extra hours in the day. I had the dream once in a flu fever when I was fourteen, but other than that, I’ve not had in since I was five.

Oh! là! là! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvés!2 Given such a broad range of dreams, it is perhaps not unsurprising that I would become obsessed with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a novel which takes place during the course of a dream. When Joyce was writing, it was the theories of Sigmund Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that held sway. Both men died long before the discovery of Rapid Eye Movement (REM), first described in 1953, and it was at the time assumed that dreams progressed in something like real time during the course of sleep. Today we know that dreams happen in bursts of activity during the night, identified by REM. What can appear in the dream world to last for hours actually happens in fast forward and often only takes minutes of real time. Perhaps this accounts for my feelings of temporal dislocation as a child.

Freud’s theories seem to us naive, even idiotic at times, but no theory is ever entirely wide of the mark and some of what he has to say is still valid. His theory that some dreams are nothing but wish fulfilment holds true. A child sees a toy in the shops that they wish to own and that night they dream that they are playing with the toy in question. I’d be willing to bet that in these days of consumerism, self-entitlement, arrested development and the cult of celebrity that more people have wish fulfilment dreams than ever before.

For Freud, all phallic or quasi phallic objects represented the penis and all womb or quasi uterine objects represent the vagina. Sex, sex, sex, that’s all that Freud ever thinks about. Joyce employs some of the same imagery in the Wake. It seems to me that in studying Finnegans Wake, which contains allusions to a great many works of fiction, non-fiction and mythology, some fall into the trap of assuming that just because Joyce references something, it must mean he thinks of it as being worthy.

The Wake makes great use and reference to Giambattista Vico’s The New Science, which contains Vico’s theory of history moving through repeating cycles. Yet anyone who’s ever read The New Science should know that while it might have some interesting theories about history and the etymology of certain words, it is for the most part a poorly conceived piece of fundamentalist, misogynist tripe, which tries to prove the literal truth of the Biblical stories, especially the bit where Noah’s three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth travel out after the Great Flood to the three known continents and singlehandedly repopulate each continent by impregnating the race of giant women who survived the rising waters.

Perhaps I give James Joyce too much credit, but most of what I have read that was written by him or by the people who knew him leads me to believe that he ultimately came to see Vico’s theories as being as misogynistic as I do, especially once he’d read James George Frazer’s counter theories in The Golden Bough. The phrase, ‘a commodious vicus of recirculation’ contained in the opening sentence of Finnegans Wake seems to me to be Joyce calling out Vico’s theory as a vicious recycling of the same old misogynistic shit. Similar denunciations occur throughout the Wake.

The same is true with Freud and with psychoanalysis in general. Joyce’s own daughter, Lucia, muse to Finnegans Wake, suffered from what today would be probably diagnosed as manic depression and simply treated, but then, in the dark ages for feminism and psychiatry, was ministered to extremes and left languishing in mental institutions for forty years after her father’s death. Only Joyce kept faith in Lucia that she was not disturbed, but took her to see the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. The consultation was not successful, especially after Jung tried to get Joyce himself to undergo psychoanalysis. The conversation and Joyce’s witty retort is replayed in the Wake:

I can psoakoonaloose myself any time I want (the fog follow you all!) without your interferences or any other pigeonstealer.

At one point in the Wake he refers to ‘Jungfraud’ to describe just what he thought of psychiatry. He believed that Vico had anticipated the work of Jung, Freud and others, but often the language of all three men in the Wake seems to be used as a weapon to strike back at them. The fall of man at the Garden of Eden and all the subsequent falls and returns, deaths and rebirths that play out through the Wake use Freud’s phallic dream symbology to symbolise sexual excitement and release. Death in the Wake is really la petit mort, the little death which is said to occur after ejaculation. Once the giant HCE has shot his load into his wife, ALP, he will sleep and she will be left unmolested until he is priapically reborn to rule over her once again.

Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?3 Today there are two competing theories on the purpose of dreams. One is vastly more woolly headed than the other, but neither quite catches the essence of the landscape of dreams. The prevailing cognitive scientific view is that dreams don’t really mean anything. Dreams are simply what happens when the governing conscious mind is suspended through sleep and neurons in the brain fire to trigger random memories that have no higher-self to give them direction. Freud said that every image in a dream is based on something that the senses have recorded in the real world, whether we consciously remember it or not.

The other theory on dreams come from the New Age community (New Age is such a fine example of Orwellian language: nothing even slightly new about any of it). Here, the theory holds that every symbol and image in dreams has some very definite meaning, as if all dreams are a Renaissance painting or a Modernist novel. Here’s a few of random examples from a fairly typical online resource:

To dream that someone is hacking into your computer or files symbolizes your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The dream may be a way of telling you that you need to work on building up your self esteem.

To dream that you are eating macaroni symbolizes comfort and ease. The dream may be trying to bring you back to a time where things were much simpler.

To dream that you have rotting or decaying teeth implies that you may have said something that you shouldn't have. You may have uttered some false or foul words and those words are coming back to haunt you.

Sometimes satire writes itself. I’m sure that there must have been some evolutionary advantage to dreams, probably developed when our ancestors still lived in the trees. I don’t imagine our ancestors dreamt about their computers being hacked very often. The middle quote is so inane as to require no further comment. I often dream about my teeth falling out but that’s because I have rotten teeth. As Freud never actually said, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. New age dream analysis, from the school of thought that brought you astrology.

That said, I can’t quite bring myself to fully endorse the scientific view either, because it fails to take account of the human dimension. Whether or not dream imagery is just random neurons firing in the brains neglects how we as humans interpret the world. It’s like looking at the slide show on someone’s computer screen saver. To the objective observer, the images may seem random, but every single image will be of significance to the person that put the slide show together. The same is true of dreams. We as human beings find meaning in random patterns, as you see from every tortilla chip or toasted cheese sandwich that is said to bear the image of Jesus Christ (funny that he always looks like a white European, never Middle Eastern or Jewish).

The scientific view of dreams has as much wrong with it as the New Age view, because both fail to take account of a personal interpretation. Look at night terrors, where people wake up during sleep, but are still also dreaming. Sleep paralysis, which stop us acting out our dreams during sleep is still in effect, rendering people helpless and they start to hallucinate figures in the room. What form those shapes take is entirely predicated on their personal belief system. Some people see alien abductors, other see the devil. An ex-girlfriend used to say that vampires were sucking her energy, because she reads Anne Rice novels and watches too much True Blood. My mum see angels, because she’s a New Age type and her house is covered in angel trinkets. We see in dreams what is personal to us.

Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?4 Dreams take any significance we chose to place on them. They can be mere entertainments or the revealers of great personal truths. Some nights I go to bed with as much excited anticipation as sitting down to watch a new episode of Community. Other nights I don’t want to sleep at all. Clearly dreams are more than just memories randomly doing as they please while the conscious mind sleeps. The conscious mind never completely relinquishes its control, as evidenced by wish fulfilment and anxiety dreams.

I have yet to experience lucid or directed dreaming, the Holy Grail of the dream world, where you are conscious as you dream and able to affect your surroundings. However, I have had semi-conscious dreams, semi-night terrors, where I dream that I am alone in a room but aware of some other presence being there. I take the view that what I am aware of is my own conscious mind removed to a distance from self and I believe that this is where our idea of a higher power comes from. God is really just ourselves. It’s like when any politician or schizophrenic (same difference, am I right?) tells them that God speaks to them, I think, no, that’s just your inner voice, we all have that, because it was evolutionary beneficial to have some part of you to shout, “Hey! Lion!” than go through the process of conscious recognition and evasive action taking. It just takes a different form when we sleep. Same with night terrors. They’re probably just unconscious substitutes taking up occupancy in the bit of the brain usually inhabited by the conscious mind.

As with dreams, so with Finnegans Wake. I have a personal interpretation of the Wake, probably as shaped by my own views on the nature of the world as anything else. Yet what Joyce intended to say in writing the Wake is to a certain extent irrelevant. Given that it describes an event that is to a greater or lesser degree subconscious, it is reasonable to assume that a good deal of the Wake was written by Joyce’s unconscious mind. Any writer will tell you that there are times when they are compelled to write something in a particular way and only later, when reviewing their work, does the significance of what they have written become apparent.

As Joyce was writing the Wake his eyesight was failing. He wrote in gigantic letters to be able to see what he was doing and had a series of secretaries (including a young Samuel Becket) to help him transcribe the streams of word in his head. Much of the Wake he never saw written down, only spoken, and so even he may have missed much of the significance of his own masterpiece. Yet by virtue of that fact that it hovers somewhere between the Freudian/New Age and the scientific version of dreams, the Wake succeeds in sketching out an accurate version of the dreaming world. It may not get it right all time, but hey, see impressionism, pointillism, cubism or futurism and tell me they are less valid artistically for their inaccurate interpretations of the world. Go on, I dare you (<my dreaming self seeping through).

I would close by wishing for all of your dreams to come true, but I wouldn’t want my zombie dreams to come true, nor that recurring dream where I’m wondering around town in my pants, wrapped in a quilt, trying to masturbate in public without anyone noticing, so I will merely end by wishing that you dream interesting dreams. Dreams rock. I’d take my own dreams over 95% of the shit that’s on TV any day. Listen to what they are trying to tell you, but don’t take them too seriously either. There’s no hard and fast method for working out what dreams mean. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. Sometimes a dream is just a dream.

[wakes: Whoa! Hey Babe, I dreamt I wrote this amazing article on dreams. Ah shit, how did it start again?]

1Hamlet, act 3, scene 1
2Ma Boheme (fantaisie) - Arthur Rimbaud (‘Oh, of what splendid loves have I dreamt’)
3A Dream Within A Dream – Edgar Allen Poe
4The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci Volume 1

Get it done.

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