Since before I can remember I’ve always had terrible dreams. Actually, these nightmares were pretty fantastic, because when in your waking life can you escape from the end of the world, battle shadow wizards and grey-faced aliens, or go on adventures through rose-strewn labyrinths, and live to tell about it? The subconscious is filled with the most incredible stories. But it took a long time to appreciate and welcome the depths of my imagination; when I was young the horror of my dreams developed into a pretty chronic case of insomnia.
Fortunately, my father would tell me bedtime stories, some that he made up, but also chapters from the classics. And among these were stories about dreams. As a graphic designer, my father admired the early animations of Winsor McCay—most famous for his early 20th century comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland”—as well as the collages of Dave McKean—who designed many of the covers for Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic series, which my father collected and shared with me. At some point he must also have been on an H.P. Lovecraft kick, as one day rooting in the ruins of my father’s studio I came upon a hidden library of sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks, including Lovecraft’s weird oneiric novel, “The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath.”
How I loved to ride on airships with Nemo and Flip, journey through hell and history with the King of Dreams, or rescue zombies and small black kittens with the mad dreamer Randolph Carter! These dream fictions taught me that it was okay to revel in the fantasies of the night, but also that sharing our dreams does not have to be an embarrassment but a true creative act, which can speak to the most basic and powerful human experiences. In dreams we learn to love, to confront our demons, to spread our wings and literally fly. Dreaming generates a sense of possibility and wonder that is necessary for human survival—after all, even when you don’t remember, everyone dreams every night. The images in dreams are not all detritus left over from the day. But then again, neither are the images found in fiction and art.
Growing up on these dream stories inspired me to pursue the art of creative writing. For the last decade I’ve drawn directly from my dreams as a source of inspiration for my fiction and poetry. My dreams have often generated scenarios and characters that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with in my waking thoughts (or when I do consciously invent something, it turns out I dreamt about it years before). Over time, attending to dreams has given me a broader imaginative palette, a clearer sense of my artistic concerns and symbols, and more precise attention to visceral details—necessary tools for creative writers and artists. Even the act of writing down one’s dreams each morning can serve as the basis for a daily writing practice, as well as force one to hone the ability to apply precise language to seemingly inarticulate visions. How can you hope to create the “vivid waking dream” if you can’t give voice to what dreams vividly feel like?
Unfortunately, writing fiction or creating art that is set in or inspired by dreams is no common thing in an age and culture that is skeptical of, if not outright hostile to, the art of dreaming. When I was a creative writing undergrad I constantly had writing teachers tell me that you can’t start (or end) a story with a character waking up from a dream, “advice” echoed everywhere on the internet. One professor who otherwise enjoyed my work admitted that he didn’t like reading about dreams because his own were so banal—why would he want to bear witness to the too-personal inanities of someone else’s internal life (he was never able to convince me, though, that quotidian realism was anymore interesting to read)? While many authors utilize dream sequences in their books and films, these are often poorly written, not capturing the peculiar intensity and illogic of real dreams, but mainly serving as thinly-veiled, amateur attempts at short-cutting character development. Though re-popularizing dreams for the modern world, Sigmund Freud inadvertently managed to consign them to being a psychological litmus test for taboo desires better left unsaid.
Perhaps the biggest (or at least most vitriolic) recent attempt to nail shut the coffin of the contemporary subconscious is Michael Chabon’s rant against dreams in the “New York Review of Books.” For Chabon—a post-modern novelist in the McSweeney’s crowd—dreams are “the Sea Monkeys of consciousness: in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust.” Chabon hates (yes, hates) dreams because the act of recounting them forces us to interpolate and distort our memories, to find imaginative language for our visions, and, perhaps, because dreams evade the rational genre boundaries of quotidian realism. “Dreams in art either make sense, or they make no sense at all,” states Chabon, “but they never manage to do both at the same time, the way dreams do while we’re dreaming them.”
Personally, I take Chabon’s words as a challenge—rather than cling to the constructed logic of realism and false sanctity of memory, how can we learn to tell stories that make a different kind of sense through the power and implications of their symbolism (which is, after all, the sense found in poetry)? A well-written dream reads like a mesmeric prose poem. I am not left, on waking, with so much vain dust, but with a treasure trove of images and ideas that fill my writing—and my life—with richness and wonder. I certainly would love to hear what Chabon actually dreams about.
The irony, of course, of the modern distrust toward dream narratives, is that dreams have served as the inspiration for and subject of some of the most powerful and beloved pieces of literature and art throughout history. Famous monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s creation, and the dual-faced Jekyll and Hyde, which have become lynchpins in the cultural imagination, all originally came to their authors during dreams. Fantasists from Lewis Carroll to Jorge Luis Borges, as well as realists from Tolstoy to Ralph Ellison, have effectively deployed dream scenes in their stories (not to mention Shakespeare and the authors of The Bible). Dreams have inspired artists such as Goya and Dali, musicians from Tartini to Paul McCartney, filmmakers like Maya Deren and David Lynch, and political leaders like Abe Lincoln and Sitting Bull. Dreams have even solved problems of scientific and technological advancement: Kekulé’s discovery of the Benzine molecule, Nils Bohr’s illustration of atomic structure, and, more mundane but just as essential for modern life, Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine.
The oldest known piece of literature (that is, a narrative not used for religious purposes), “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was particularly concerned with the art of dreaming and dream interpretation. First told in ancient Sumer roughly 20,000 years before Freud and Chabon, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” contains nine individual dream sequences, each of which is integral to the story’s plot, and that reflect a culture in which dreams held extreme cultural significance. Seen as direct messages from the gods, ancient Sumerians would sleep in dream incubation temples in order to determine when to plant crops or where to build the world’s first cities. The majority of manuscripts found along with “The Epic of Gilgamesh” in the ruins of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s library were records of dreams. In that age, dreams—and mankind itself—did not yet have the personal, psychological significance that we grant them today: it may have been through Gilgamesh’s dreams that the Sumerians were first able to articulate a sense that mankind has individual, autonomous agency over against being mere lumps of animated clay.
While today we worry what our dreams might tell us about ourselves, it is perhaps only through our dreams that we have a self at all and are not just Sea Monkeys for the gods. On top of which, centuries of shared dreams have generated the immense wealth of stories and images in the cultural imagination that, in an age of violent warfare and environmental destruction, may be one of the few redeeming features of humanity, which could show us a way toward ever more fantastic futures. If we confront our nightmares about the end of the world, maybe we won’t have to live through them.
In my own life, attending to my dreams has certainly enabled the development of my character (what depth psychologist Carl Jung called the individuation process), to the point that I sometimes joke I’ve had twice the experience as those who don’t remember their dreams. Who’s to say that my nightly adventures aren’t just as real, if not more so, than the repetitive experiences of everyday life? As my father recently said, dreams allow us to go to places we dare not go in waking. If anything, dreams can certainly be more exciting than the quotidian habits of going to work and doing the dishes, and offer more sense of agency than watching the news. And, I imagine, if you opened yourself to all the imaginative, non-rational possibilities of the night, your dreams would also be worth dreaming and sharing. In fact, I suspect they already are!
It is with this dream in mind—backed by the global history of dreamers unafraid to follow and share their dreams—that I’ve decided to start The Rapid Eye, a literary and arts dream journal aimed at countering the contemporary hesitancy toward dreams through giving writers, artists, and other dreamers the freedom to share their dreams as high quality aesthetic products, valid and valuable for individual and artistic growth, as well as indispensable for the advancement of human culture and the imagination.