When I was living with E & J, we’d talk at breakfast about our dreams. Since we did it so often, we got good at remembering our dreams, and so we always had something to talk about, and it got to feeling ordinary in a way, a kind of “So, honey, how was your night?” kind of thing. I was also in therapy at the time, so I had even more incentive to remember my dreams, though I worried sometimes if talking beforehand with E & J would compromise the psychoanalytical benefit of the dream as therapeutic content, make it less raw and more rehearsed and hence censored. Of course, it didn’t really matter, but I didn’t know it then.
I wondered some times if this habit of talking about dreams, both at breakfast and in therapy, influenced in turn the way I dreamed, if there wasn’t some kind of strange feedback loop in which the dramatic retelling and interpretation of the dream made me dream more dramatically. And the more epic the dream, the greater significance I’d attach to it, which then made me dream even more dramatically, to the point where I was dreaming of swimming through strange stone cities (yes, I was more aquatic than avian in my greater flights—or, rather, glides—of fancy) and falling from a narrow mountain path to my death on a massive hieroglyphically inscribed stone disk.
I didn’t know about Hobson’s paradigm-bending theory of dreams back then, his proposition that dreams are the result of the forebrain trying to make sense out of the noisy input generated by relatively random signals in the brainstem. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t. It might have punched the magic out of therapy. And we would have had to start to actually read the Boston Globe that arrived at our doorsteps every morning.
But I like this idea of the brain working to create narrative out of chaos. I like the notion of this imperfect pattern-maker and storyteller who pieces together isolated feelings and events, interweaving memory, attributing motive, providing sequence, identifying cause and in the end generating as best as it can a text which, if not entirely coherent, can at least be ‘read’ and followed.
I think this act of transforming the intermittent and incongruent into a story is somewhat similar to what we do consciously whenever we recount our own history. We give this autobiography the illusion of linearity, if not fate, connecting (some of) the dots of the things we’ve done and the people we’ve met with the markers of time, result, concession and purpose. And then it gradually emerges! The outline of a recognizable I.
Granted, the firings are not entirely random. There’s already a deeper pattern inscribed in our choices that is not a matter of will. The landscape of possible outcomes is constrained by the geology of character, childhood and trauma. And each significant event in our lives increases or decreases the likelihood of another event happening later, including those that have already occurred. One can never truly revisit the forks in the road one has taken. But the act of interpretation is an integral part of how and why we talk about ourselves.
If that’s true, then talking about dreams must be a particularly hermeneutically dense meta-discourse. It’s a recounting—and hence an attempt to make sense—of a not wholly coherent synthesis of seemingly random events. An interpretation of an interpretation. And that’s just at breakfast.
But I have two problems with this activation-synthesis theory of dreams (researchers in the field, of course, have others, including William Domhoff and his “The Problems with Activation-Synthesis Theory”)
One is how to explain recurrent dreams, of which, to quote Job, there is no end. I ask myself, is it the same set of synapses misfiring or is my forebrain narrator stuck in a rut, repeating itself in stock characters and hackneyed plot lines? Am I really that pedestrian?
The other thing this can’t explain is the appearance of threatening or negative elements in dreams. I’m pursued by monsters and bitten by rabid ferrets. I run through a smoldering cemetery as a volcano erupts in the city. I die in a car wreck. I miss examinations, show up in public naked, wind up in jail. Admittedly it doesn’t happen a lot. More often it’s my house: the roof is torn away, walls leak, strange plants devour the balcony, and drug dealers take up residency on the terrace. I wonder if my narrator is a pessimist, a writer of darkness as my friend Natalie would say, and then think what that says of me, although I don’t think of myself as a particularly morbid person, even if I do have my moments.
A few of these dreams themes repeat themselves, as in the case of the toxic ex-lover who moves back into my house to commandeer my space and life. Not always in the same way, but the basic scenario is the same.
It makes me wonder what exactly is twitching that needs to be translated into narrative, that asks for a face and a storyline. The well-trodden pathway of accumulated if unexpressed anger, perhaps?
This motif of recurrent toxic dreams seems an apt metaphor for what is happening to us inGreece. Or happening to me. The country seems to be dreaming the same thing, again and again: a bleak future of failed reform (if even attempted), deeper recession, and harsher austerity. Dreams in which the same mistakes are made, again and again. The firing impulses of the need to reform is interpreted in the same old narrative and quieted in the accommodation to special interests.
It’s sad and infuriating. Two years after the issue was first broached of opening up the trucking and taxi cartels, legislation is being presented to Parliament. The Minister of Infrastructure has chipped away at the initial draft to delay the liberalization of the trucking industry (which makes it more expensive to ship goods from the north to the south of Greece than it does to ship them across the Adriatic Sea) and to ensure that taxi drivers will have first dibs on the licenses for the new leased mini-vans. The recently appointed Minister of Education is blocking—for the sake of the politically connected interest group of university rectors—the implementation of legislation recently passed that would for the first time introduce assessment of public universities. It’s as if our political leaders’ sense of what is possible–apart from the vicious across-the-board salary and pension cuts and tax hikes (for those who actually pay taxes)–is an only half-disguised attempt to do what we’ve always done. The sense of a future that it’s just a blurred copy of a corrupt past. Plus ça change.
I live in a city shrouded in a Colossus of anxiety rising from the recurring dreams of ordinary women and men who worry that they will lose their jobs or who have already lost them and are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and feed their families, the hundreds of thousands of people in the private sector who, with the new measures contained in the cooperation pact with the troika, will lose 25% of their salaries in the year ahead.
Ok, it’s not all bleak. There are some voices of reason in the chaos. Isolated and faint, but they’re there. New ideas. Grass-root initiatives like Δημιουργία Ξανά (“A Fresh Start”) that seem to be genuinely committed to reform.
Despite charges from psychoanalysts of reductionist determinism, Hobson didn’t see any inherent contradiction between his activation-synthesis theory and creativity. On the contrary, he maintained that dreaming could be a source of innovative ideas:
Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted
One hopes it will be for us, too.
Image: Wolfgang Mattheuer, Der Koloss II, 1970