Friday, 6 March 2015

On not being the subject of one's dreams

As I’ve got older I have been increasingly aware how my ‘take’ on the world is mediated by emotions. When I was younger, it seemed that such a ‘take’ was purely epistemic. I’m now sure it wasn’t but that is how it seemed. Then I wouldn’t have needed to use a dreadful word like ‘take’ to describe what was surely merely having the world in view. Now I reach for that odder word to allow for the possibility that more is going on: a blurring of my emotions and the external facts.

Pushing perhaps the limits of what I want to record on a public blog, let me record a disturbing dream. I’ve realised that because my parents will not live on in nursing care I will, much to my surprise, inherit a little money. Perhaps, I fantasized as I fell asleep this week, it would be possible to buy a small run down flat above a shop in my favourite town, Keswick, in the North Lakes, a possibility that would have pleased my parents. In my dream, both of them were alive although frail and ill, dying in my mother’s case. As the action of the dream began, we had been having tea and scones, a very occasional formal Sunday event, and had clearly been discussing this possibility. My mother asked me when, if we’re possible, I might buy such a place and I realised, in the dream, that this presupposed or anticipated her death. In the sense that one sometimes has about the narrative of a dream that it has been designed to present a particular moment, this was the moment of the dream.

(I sometimes have the sense that a dream is akin to the creationist idea that the earth’s dinosaur history is a myth and that the whole of time is really a brief instant: there is just a single moment and fake memories.)

(I seem to recall that I have reason to believe that the construction of a moment was how Ian McEwan used to write. Wanting to write a scene about what it was to saw up a body, lose a child in a supermarket, let slip a balloon, he would construct a narrative that allowed this to have been written. That certainly seems a way to think about the Innocent. But I may have dreamt this idea.)

In the dream, I struggled with what to say and ended up saying, awkwardly, "Well I will have to inherit some money". I woke with the burden of working through my real responses to thoughts and emotions with which I had merely been saddled. As my ex IAS Durham colleague Bill D remarked, dreams raise questions of authenticity and responsibility of the subject, the dreamer. Sometimes, though perhaps not as often as might happen, I dream of doing or saying dreadful things. If my own experiences can be generalised, waking from such dreams presents the ex-dreamer with something which is more disturbing than seeing a film presented as though from the (visual) perspective of a subject or agent who acts in ways we, the viewers, would disavow. (Though even that is rather a disturbing phenomenon.) It is as though some responsibility carries over from the first person perspective of the dream to the now awake subject. Or rather, the memory of the dream seems to suggest this and the task of equanimity is to feel as well as think the rejection of this.

After a discussion of Freudian dream work at Wednesday’s MMU workshop, in response to a paper by Dr Lene Auestad (University of Oslo), the question if whether we could understand the deviant ‘logic’ of dreams was raised. A possible contrast was between being given a list of the kind of swaps and inversions as a method then to decode dreams without seeing any intrinsic sense in the code versus having a more direct grasp of why the code works as it does. Understanding is not endorsement of course (as UK politicians never seem to have grasp in discussions of trying to understand terrorists). But it does require, I think, a kind of internal response in a way that explanation does not (cf explanations of the quantum mechanical word). On one picture, that comes only with the results of the decoding in particular cases. In the other, the code itself has a kind of graspable meaning, an intuitive logic. On both, the dream is itself understandable.

But it now seems to me that there is an extra complication. I could easily make sense of why the subject in my dream felt saddled with his/my embarrassment. But whereas the subject in the dream had been monstrously tactless, that hadn’t actually happened. So awake, I ought merely to have had a contingent understanding: had I been so tactless then I would feel terrible. But the dream pushed an unconditional version: having done that, I did and do feel terrible. A proper reaction to this unbidden thought seems the opposite of understanding: a willed resistance to the identification that comes naturally with the dream’s subject.