Magazine article The Spectator

What's the Use of Dreaming?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's the Use of Dreaming?

Article excerpt

SEEING IN THE DARK by Bert 0. States Yale, 22.50, pp. 265

This is Bert 0. States's third book on dreams, the other two being The Rhetoric of Dreams (Cornell, 1988) and Dreaming and Storytelling (Cornell, 1993). Since all mammals dream, States concludes that dreams must have some biological function. `Nature does not indulge in systems that do not perform services to the organism.'

Freud, who reinstated the dream as a phenomenon worth taking seriously, believed that dreams gave disguised expression to infantile sexual wishes which, if expressed directly, would so disturb the dreamer that he would wake up. Hence dreams were the guardians of sleep. Although Freud considered his dream theory to be his greatest discovery, it has not stood the test of time. Most modern students of the dream believe that dreaming is something to do with processing information.

What we remember of our dreams is merely a glimpse of subterranean work in progress which, if we could grasp it in its entirety, might be comprehensible. As States points out, dreams sometimes gain access to realms of memory which are inaccessible to the waking consciousness. It is not surprising that dreams appear incoherent. States suggests that, if readers were to have inflicted upon them all the mental processes involved in writing a single new paragraph, what they would read would be as bizarre as a dream.

I am sure States is right to discard the Freudian notion that dreams employ disguises as a consequence of repression. People often have dreams which are frankly sexual, as well as having dreams in which sexual activity is represented metaphorically or symbolically. Dreaming is a mental activity which occurs when the subject is cut off from most stimuli originating in the external world. We are inclined to think of our conscious, waking thought as the norm, and to consider dreaming eccentric. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the most fundamental mental activity is the dream and conscious ratiocination no more than a superstructure.

States, as a former professor of literature and of dramatic art, is naturally interested in how and why dreams construct a narrative. Dreams may be embryonic works of art; attempts to make sense out of our subjective experience by imposing structure upon it. …

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