Reading Remedy: books to help make sense of your dreams

Life in lockdown is giving many of us strange night-time visions. How can we understand what they may be telling us? Literature has a few suggestions.



They say there’s nothing as boring as other people’s dreams, but when has that ever stopped anyone on Facebook? Social media is awash with reported spikes in strange nocturnal visions, as everyone’s unconscious flounders to adapt to life in lockdown. I’m no Sigmund Freud, but it does seem to follow that, deprived of much variety in daily stimuli, our brains are going into overdrive at night.

I’m no Sigmund Freud but one man who was is, well, Sigmund Freud. In 1899, his book The Interpretation of Dreams laid the foundations of how we now think about the subject. Skirting over Freudian theory is one of the most common crimes of Western pop culture, but here goes anyway: the good doctor believed dreams are usually expressions of ‘wish fulfilment’, whether you’re consciously aware of said wish or not. 

'A dream led to the invention of the sci-fi genre'

‘My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed – my dearest pleasure when free,’ says Victor, Shelley’s snivelling protagonist who makes a ‘hideous progeny’ out of body parts before rejecting it, becoming an allegory for every hubristic scientist or neglectful father to walk the earth thereafter. If you were lucky enough not have Shelley’s novel ruined for you by your own undergraduate essays, as I was, then treat yourself to a slice of melodramatic gothic delight that went unequalled for almost 200 years until Brad Pitt turned up with long hair and some dodgy contact lenses in Interview with a Vampire.

Speaking of Lord Bryon, let’s alight for a moment on one of his fellow early 19th-century ‘rock star’ poets – the Pete Doherty to his Harry Styles: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While Bryon was gallivanting around the world, Wordsworth was weeping through the Lake District and Blake was seeing angels in his garden, the other Romantic poet (apart from poor sickly Keats) was smoking a lot of opium and having some fairly whacked-out dreams. Like Frankenstein, Coleridge’s most famous work, “Kubla Khan”, is said to have come to him at night after he dozed off while reading about Xanadu, the palace of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. The erratic but sumptuous three stanzas that flowed the next morning constitute one of the finest explorations of the nature of imagination in literary history, and one of the finest poems to come out of the period full stop. Not bad for someone with a hangover.

'Dreams have functioned as plot devices, metaphors and a handy excuses for pushing boundaries'

The list of literary classics in which dreams play a pivotal role goes on and on. Alice ends her nonsensical trip through Wonderland by waking up, in what remains one of the most widely pastiched final scenes in storytelling history. In 1984, Winston counts getting in trouble with the Thought Police for his dreams as one of his many legitimate anxieties; the final frontier, perhaps, of state intervention. ‘I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what / dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about ‘expound this dream’ says Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, to assuage audiences after all that crazy stuff in the woods. Dreams, then, have functioned as plot devices, metaphors and a handy excuse for pushing boundaries – useful, in other words.

But what are we supposed to do with them? Emily Bronte was an author who made expert use of dreams to create moods, foreshadow events and give us deeper insight into her characters. She also, in Wuthering Heights, gave us this beautiful line:

‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’ 

Catherine Earnshaw believed dreams can be powerful enough to shape the course of your life if you listen closely enough, and Bronte’s message is perhaps that we should spend less time analysing the content of our dreams and pay more attention to the feelings they conjure in us. At present, the whole world feels a bit like a terrible fever dream from which we’re hoping to wake up. Sadly, we won’t get our Lewis Carroll moment. But we might be left with some indication of what we must do next.

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