Last night I dreamt that my family was being studied by a world-famous psychiatrist (the doctor’s first name was Hannah, but that’s all I remember of her identity) and dozens of my relatives had been gathered together for the purpose, almost none of whom I recognized. Even my father — who died some years ago — showed up in a cheap brown suit and took a stroll through the crowd and then wandered back out the way he came, without saying a word to anyone.
(Personally, I would have thought the job would have required more than a single psychiatric professional — we were always a bit more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers — but I suppose my dream-insurance didn’t cover that.)
In the middle of a room full of people there was a table covered with documents: books, letters, pictures, and so on; all the odds and ends that a family accumulates over time. One large photo album had pictures of my immediate family in a variety of situations — around the table, in front of the Christmas Tree, at a barbeque — all quite normal, except that the faces were from different photos, sometimes from different ages, cut out in little squares and glued on over the existing versions: the correct faces on each body, simply taken from the other pictures. When I started flipping through the album, Doctor Hannah came over and took it from me, informing me that these materials were only for the family.
When I pointed out that I was, in fact, a member of the family, she backed off — but reluctantly, clearly suspicious, not entirely convinced.
As is often the case with dreams, other things happened that seemed significant in the context of the dream, but confusing. There were conversations, interactions, such as meeting a little boy who was both a distant cousin and a friend from my own childhood (apparently un-aged), and being rudely snubbed by an angry dark woman who looked like Maria Callas.
Toward the end of the dream, I found myself in conversation with the doctor, and she asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I told her that I was not afraid, that ghosts were my friends. She then observed that this was perhaps because I was, myself, “the family ghost”.
I woke up about this time, but, needless to say, the dream stayed with me.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — who, with Sigmund Freud, co-founded the subset of psychiatry they called psychoanalysis — believed that there were layers of images and ideas within us all that represent basic human principles, themes that we all hold in common, regardless of culture or experience, simply by virtue of our shared biology. He called these concepts “archetypes”.
Early in his career Sigmund Freud was fortunate enough to meet the woman of his dreams: she was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was fascinated by his theories, she was clearly destined to be his soul mate. What did he do? He married her dumpy and intellectually-challenged sister, and then just made everyone’s lives miserable. He and Jung parted ways over Freud’s obsession with sex as the root of all human emotion — he felt so strongly about it that when Jung contradicted his theories he would burst into tears, and sometimes faint dead away. A carpenter might find the perfect opportunity to polish his skills by living in a really old house that is in constant need of repair: perhaps the same principle applies.
Whereas Freud traced everything back to some rather gruesome principles of childhood psycho-sexual development, Jung interpreted the behavior of human beings as the expression of our relationships to the internal archetypes. He was fascinated by frameworks such as alchemy and the Tarot, in which experience and interaction are formulated into a complex, but internally consistent, symbolic language, representing our innermost feelings and impulses through highly developed images. Both Freud and Jung saw great value in dreams as a means for the “unconscious” to express itself without being edited or suppressed by our conscious selves, and both organized elaborate systems of interpretation — Freud, typically, relating everything to sex, and Jung searching the dream imagery for evidence of the archetypes, hoping to use these symbols as guides to the underlying mind of the dreamer.
Today, many of those who study such things believe that there is, in fact, no structure to dreaming; that only upon waking do we attempt to drag the tattered bits and pieces of meaningless imagery that may have haunted our sleep into some kind of recognizable narrative. Others believe that dreaming is simply a way for our minds to sort and prioritize the vast accumulation of images and feelings that we experience during our waking hours, filing away important concepts in a sort of underground memory, a river of experience that bubbles up to provide our moments of déjà vu or inspiration, allowing our waking selves to reach beyond the daylight world for the ideas and connections that separate us from cats and cattle and coyotes.
Me, I’ll go with the middle ground: Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in the embarrassing position of telling some story about a past experience — completely sure of my facts — only to be contradicted by someone else who was also present at the time. Memory, clearly, is flawed, even when we’re wide awake: how much more unreliable might it be when we attempt to bridge the gap between waking and sleep?
On the other hand, if I had the conscious ability to assemble the sort of scenarios that I wake up from two or three times a week I’d be in Hollywood, and Johnny Depp would be camped out on my doorstep waiting for a chance at the next screenplay. Something is going on in my skull while I’m snoring into my pillows.
I like dreams: even nightmares can seem like a window into another world, a place where many of the same people live and work and play, but where the rules are different: a stairway can go up or down forever; a room can become larger or smaller from one moment to the next; a ventriloquist’s dummy can chase you down the hallway and out into the front yard, gibbering wildly from that creepy little hinged jaw and waving its disgusting little arms. (Those things should be outlawed. I mean, really.) In our dreams we have the opportunity to live in two different realities, and sometimes we get to take a little something from one to the other.
When I was a boy I dreamed about pirates and giant ants and the Blob. Now I’m thinking I ought to write a movie about the family ghost. Tonight I’m putting a notebook next to my bed: Tim Burton, get out of my way.
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