The Land of Nod

WHEN I read about other people’s dreams, I am often impressed with the idea that these narratives are not dreams at all, but the work of a waking imagination filling in with more or less unconscious artifice the vague outline of the real dream structure.

For dreams — and here is the secret of them — do not always lend themselves honestly to translation into the language of the daytime. At least, mine do not. A few words, a sentence or two, may stand out vividly as I start to regale the family at the breakfast table the next morning; but I almost always have the sensation of having forgotten the gist of the matter, and of trying to supply the lack by logical deductions from the fragments which remain.

This happens even when I dream whole dreams, composed entirely of words — that is, when I have dreamed with my ears, hearing the words pronounced as by some inner voice, without accompanying visual images. Occasionally the words make sense, but more often the sense creeps into them as they are related afterward. For dreams make liars of us all, and nobody is willing to confess how little he really remembers when he can so easily set everything right with a bare invention.

Let me try to tell a real dream, without retouching or filling in. I dreamed it last night, and this is what I now recall.

A sense of lounging on the ground beside a man who is talking — lecturing, apparently, though the impression is one of semidarkness, relieved only by an uncertain, fitful illumination as of a bonfire, and I do not see any audience. We appear to be out of doors, and yet under cover. Certainly there is something above us — oh, ever so high! A roof? Rocks? I knew then well enough, for I still have the feeling of having known. But unquestionably it is bare ground, and not a floor, beneath us.

The man says something about letting another one fall. Another what? I have no idea. In a sort of lane or aisle, — it is something like a path and something like a vista in a cave,— just at my left and at quite a distance, I hear a thud, not very loud. It has fallen. I am conscious of surprise that there was not more noise, for the others were not so heavy.

I begin to climb, and arrive at an immense height, where they start from. Here is another man. He appears to be shoveling them in. Into what? I have forgotten, and am tempted to say that it was into something like a car or tank; but as soon as I get to the word ‘in,’ I can go no further without supplying an idea out of my waking thoughts. Let it go as I remember having dreamed it — he appeared to be shoveling them in. Whether ‘them’ refers to logs, to earth, or to lumps of iron, it is impossible now to say, though the words taken together seem to have a sort of appropriateness. Again comes the signal. This is a yet heavier one. It falls, and the crash this time is awful — beyond all words to describe. He begins to fill again. I am mortally afraid. I want to get down before this, the heaviest of all, is let loose.

That is all. I don’t know what the lecturer was lecturing about, or what lesson he drew from these repeated falls of heavy masses. But they had a relevancy, and this relevancy lay in their sound.

What a stupid, incoherent dream! Yes; but is there not something suggestive in its incoherencies, something which makes you think of a cablegram made unintelligible by errors in transmission? Already we have made some progress, simply by following an honest report of what arrived at the receiving station, without attempting further to falsify it by guesses. Let us take a second example, dreamed just before the other one.

There were very many examples of something — I won’t say of explosives, because I do not know. One of them was coarsely powdered. Cast on shallow water, it grew fine and sank. When it reached the bottom, the country blew up—faire sauter, to make to blow up, was the way I first recalled it; in French, just that way, in the infinitive mode.

What amazes me is that learned doctors of psychology will take reports like this, or even those much more seriously garbled, and discuss their peculiarities as if they were the peculiarity of the dreams and not merely of the reports. Freud, for instance, in order to account for the grotesqueness common to such narrations, has invented a personage whom he terms the ‘dream censor,’ and has then thrown wide the gates of ‘interpretation’ by admitting the principle of ‘symbolism.’ That is to say, he tells us that what we dream is not really what we meant to dream, but an allegory. The original, it would seem, is nearly always something which we have good reason to be ashamed of, even while we are asleep; so we clothe it decently from the wardrobes of our unconsciousness, and sneak it past our (still slumbering) consciousness, for the sole pleasure of mischief.

This, I think, is an unnecessarily elaborate theory to account for such a simple thing as the weakness of a sleepy memory and the ready perverseness of the human tongue. But Freud seems to assume that the tales related by the patients at his clinics are made of genuine dream-stuff, intermingled with no dross which cannot readily be detected and removed. Vain assumption. Nod has strict customs-laws, not unlike those in vogue in many European countries at the present time, which forbid the exportation of precious metals. And how easy it is, during our passage through the waters of Lethe, in which is submerged that undiscoverable country from which no traveler ever returns with his wits about him, for the douaniers to rifle our baggage and substitute trade dollars for our hoards of the lawful coin of the realm. Nevertheless, I once heard a Freudian tell a dream and vouch for its authenticity, even though it happened to be the dream of another person. When one gets as far as that, naturally all problems are solved.

I am, they tell me, a person having a ‘low threshold,’ by which I understand a disposition that is not ashamed to dream of anything. If I should have an ‘inhibited impulse,’ say, to strangle my great-aunt, I should, I have been assured, dream just that, my ‘censor’ knowing that it would be unnecessary to obscure the meaning of the plot by ‘distorting’ it so as to spare my feelings. Perhaps I should dream just that, but I doubt if I should remember it just that way. And as for distortions, what I experience is less like distortion than the vague inconsistency of shapes breathed upon glass, and rapidly disappearing as the sunlight dries them off. Queer outlines and strange vacancies undoubtedly exist in all true dream-patterns, but they seem to be sufficiently accounted for by this simple forgetting of the connecting links and this fading away of the margins. The copy may be little more than a blur. Is that any reason for thinking that the original may not have been a masterpiece of cogency and clearness?

I once had the habit of sleeping with a notebook and pencil by my bedside, making it a point to turn on the light, and write down whatever I dreamed, the instant I was sufficiently awake to be conscious of having dreamed at all. Thus it happened that I jotted down many notes while I was yet half-asleep, and these were by no means as inconsistent as the dream-tales one usually attempts to palm off upon a credulous world at the hour of toast and coffee. Whether it was that I suceeded gradually in penetrating deeper and deeper into the unknown, or that my ability to prevaricate while in a semisomnolent condition gradually improved, I cannot positively say; but eventually I succeeded in catching a complete short story, on the wings of sleep, so to speak, and in publishing it — not as a dream, but as a bit of fiction, almost without altering a line. And it is a curious proof of the faintness of our memory of dreams, even when they have been reimpressed on the mind, that I have now completely forgotten this literary trifle, as well as the magazine in which it appeared. But I have an idea that its atmosphere was weirdly mysterious, that it owed its success to its very lacunæ, the plot with gaps being then very much in vogue.

Another dream-story, written at this period but never published, remains with me thus.

There is a window. I am outside a cottage that is little more than a hut. Gray, weather-beaten boards. The roof slants this way. A feeling of the importance — the blessed importance — of the moment, and of something found and solved.

When I say the roof slants ‘this way,’ I mean, I suppose, that it slants toward me, and that I am standing under the cottage eaves and not under one of the gable ends. But ‘slants this way’ better expresses the vagueness that envelops the situation — a sort of fourth-dimensional quality, as if one might be standing in two places at once, or conscious of the roof through some other sense than that of sight. If I knew how, I would make the expression less definite still. For this was not a worddream, but a dream in feeling and images.

Perhaps it was a toy cottage, and I, a child delighted by the gift, embracing it and thus able to feel all sides. Why can I not remember? My memory is good enough in other directions, and this dream was actually written down and read several times by daylight. But everything having even remotely to do with dreams seems drenched with the certainty of oblivion.

In this slant of the roof, which I feel but do not see, is to be found, I think, yet another reason for the seeming lack of coherency in dreams. The optical and auditory centres are not the only ones which bestir themselves while the terrible, oppressing ego is asleep. We dream not only sounds and sights, but odors, touch-impressions, tastes, and even pure emotions. Dreams are often like music. They give us feelings without any reasons which explain them. We seek for explanations, and immediately we invent. Thus to the difficulty of remembering is added that of translating from one sense to another; of groping back from effects to causes; and, above all, of giving articulate expression to inarticulate things.

Anyone who cares to make the experiment of looking for it will soon discover that there is always an inarticulate something back of the words he uses even when he is awake. Phrases, sentences come to the mind, but the thought that they are to express was there some fraction of a second before. And during this interval the idea lay naked upon the threshold of consciousness, perfect, undeformed by the clumsy machinery of language which afterward took it up, crushing it to the form of conventional symbols.

Who knows if, save in the instance of a word-dream, this machinery operates at all during sleep? It may be that the wordless space, prolonged, gives us for once the chance to possess the thought or feeling itself, in all its entirety, before its semidestruction between the jaws of verbs and nouns. It may be this which gives to dreams their precious vividness, so sharply in contrast with what we can truly say about them — a vividness which often lingers like an aroma after everything else is gone. Words, at their best, are but approximations to the things we mean. To tell a thing is to dip into general experience, — the trimmed and use-worn experiences of other people, — and with types of this metal to try to set up a line not too crudely at variance with that which is within us.

A dreamless sleep is possibly an entirely dreamy one. Only as we retire from the coasts of Nod, do we begin to realize that we were ever there. But the voyage is rough; we are like fugitives fleeing from an island suddenly submerged. If there were only time to pack and make a comfortable journey, what treasures might we not bring back! Usually we arrive at Wakefulness suffering from the amnesia of a violent jolt. In the rarer case, we do what slowly migrating peoples do when they repeat the songs of the country of their origin in an ever-changing language, until finally the first sense is altogether lost, or survives only in new phrases having none can say what relation to the old. Nursery tales are soon all that is left of once magnificent myths dealing with suns and the gods — poor ruins, seeming only to refer to Puss in Boots, or to Jack the Giant-killer.

Ah, that treacherous memory, which refuses to burden itself with what goes on within us while we sleep! What lost paradises do we not owe to its lack of retention —and what lost terrors, too. For is there any horror like the horror of a dream? Any bliss like the felicity which never was on land or sea, yet was ours in the forever unchartable land of Nod?