The dream is the greatest of all psychic phenomena, for like a god the dreamer is a creator of worlds. But what are dreams? Shadows of our waking life, airy nothings?
Perhaps not, say some who don’t mind subverting conventional wisdom. According to philosophers C.D. Broad and H.H. Price, our waking minds are immersed in an extended dream world, which continues with its business, even as we carry on in waking reality.
Moreover, there’s a flimsy partition between waking and dream reality. Dozing off at your desk or on a train ride can plunge you into another world, incongruous and unexpected, (technically known as hypnagogia). Ingest a magic mushroom or smoke some weed, and a pile of garbage may become an enchanting landscape. Nearly die and you may find yourself whirling out of your body into a strange light and meeting your dead granny and maybe uncle Harry.
What if that other world and its many mansions were interfused with our ordinary physical 3-D space? It would be easy to imagine all sorts of leakages from dream space into our tremulous waking life. Some people might have a knack for crossing the enchanted boundary and thus gain a sense for what lies behind the veil of waking awareness.
Mark Twain, for example, who wrote about his various psychic experiences, was a dream aficionado. At age sixty-three, he wrote My Platonic Sweetheart, an account of a dream adventure lasting forty-four years. This consisted of having episodic encounters with an archetypal fifteen-year-old sweetheart, sometimes called Agnes. In the dream, Twain is always seventeen. They meet about once every two years in various exotic locales; her appearance may change but her instantly recognizable soul essence always shines through.
The encounter is brief, a mere glimpse, but when their eyes meet there is mutual recognition. They gaze upon each other and melt into each other in perfect love.
In a short narrative, in part good surrealism, nicely mimicking the way events unfold in dream logic, Twain writes: “In the first moment I was five steps behind her; in the next one I was at her side—without either stepping or gliding; it merely happened; the transfer ignored space.”
Speaking of two encounters with his dream sweetheart in 1864, he remembers “the eager approach, then the instant disappearance, leaving the world empty and of no worth”. The feeling was intimate without passion, childlike but finer, more exquisite than in waking life. Twain tells of his encounter with Agnes in Athens, “not surprised to see her, but only glad”, and then he “climbed a grassy hill toward a palatial sort of mansion built of terra-cotta . . .” and goes on to describe in detail what he saw as “the richly tinted and veined onyx”, noting how it all remained so vivid in his memory for thirty years.
About the house in his dream, Twain wrote: “When I think of that house and its belongings, I recognize what a master in taste and drawing and color and arrangement is the dream artist who resides in us.” He could scarcely reproduce a likeness of common objects, he said; by contrast his dream-artist never failed to create compelling visions of reality.
“But my dream-artist can draw anything, and do it perfectly; he can paint with all the colors and all the shades, and do it with delicacy and truth; he can place before me vivid images of palaces, cities, hamlets, hovels, mountains, valleys, lakes, skies . . . and he can set before me people who are intensely alive.”
Now in the last two pages of this reminiscence, Mark Twain is either pulling our leg or announcing a philosophy like that of the two philosophers I mentioned up front, Broad and Price. In their view, we are immersed in an extended dream world that periodically overflows the boundaries of rational sense life. Again, Twain: “In our dreams – I know it! – we do make the journeys we seem to make; we do see the things we seem to see; the people, the horses, the cats, the dogs, the birds . . .”. The pain he felt when his dream love died was intensely real, “preternaturally vivid.” Fortunately, however, she re-appeared, revived in a later dream.
All these are glimpses of what lay hidden. “For everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life that is ours when we go about awake and clothed with our artificial selves in this vague and dull-tinted artificial world.” We should underscore this astonishing sentence, which in a way is a total repudiation of human existence, and subversion of common sense and (needless to say) mainstream science. Thus, for Twain, waking reality is the shadow of a greater dream reality. With Twain’s irony in full gear, our only hope then is to awaken from waking reality.
Mark Twain’s path goes against the prevailing grain when he writes: “When we die we shall slough off this cheap intellect and go abroad into dreamland clothed in our real selves . . ..” The dream then brings us closer to the real and to the abiding self than our waking selves can, constrained as they are by the “cheap intellect.” By dream alone may we meet the “mysterious mental magician,” and thus possibly learn something of its wisdom: Reality is the dream, dream the way to reality. In which case, may we all find our Platonic sweethearts!
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