Who Makes Dreams?
By CHRISTOPHER HOLLIS IHAVE always taken an amateur interest both in my own dreams and in the interpretation of dreams. From that doubtless the reader will infer the worst, but my interest has been in a question that seems to me to lie unanswered behind all the various theories of dreams—indeed a question which few of them really try to answer, and that is, What, or perhaps Who, makes dreams? I find it easy enough to believe that the objects of dreams are symbols, whatever disputes there may be about the symbolism, but what interests me is Who invented the symbolism? for it is certain that we, the common or garden dreamers sans peur and sans reproche, did not invent them. The waking symbols of religion or art are consciously accepted conventions. The symbols of dreams, if symbols they be, are not like that. I do not deliberately select an elephant as a symbol of my great-uncle. I dream, without choice on my part, of an elephant, and a psychologist afterwards tells me, truly or falsely, that I had that dream because I was frightened of my great-uncle at the age of three. Abraham Lincoln, it will be remembered, had before all the great events of the Civil War a dream of a journey on a mysterious ship. One might argue that there is a natural con- nection of a sort between a journey on a ship and death— he last had the dream on the eve of his assassination—but there is no natural connection between a journey on a ship and a victory in battle. Who decided that the one should symbolise the other? Freud tells us that a boy spinning a top is a symbol of sexual desire. Who decided that it should be such a symbol?
For some dreams it is fairly easy to account. The brain—to use language as untechnical as possible—goes on ticking over in sleep on the same lines as those on which it had been operating while awake. I see in dreams the objects or persons of whom I had been thinking during the day. Or there reappear experiences from the past that had left a deep mark. For instance, in my own case there are three motifs which are constantly playing with me in my dreams. Of these, two seem easy enough to explain. Though both my parents have now been dead for some years, they constantly come back to me as alive in my dreams—far more frequently than do any other dead persons. There is nothing odd about that. Again I had, when an undergraduate, an undistinguished academic record. I would say in waking judgement—and I think truly—that that has never been any handicap to me in the later life that I happen to have led. Yet often in my dreams I think that I have to take an examination for which I am wholly unpre- pared and I wake up to thank God that whatever horrors the future may hold for me, it is at least almost certain that I shall never again have to take another examination. I dare say that the psychologists would say that all this proves that in the bottom of my soul I minded my academic failures .snore than I had persuaded, myself that I had minded them. That is plausible enough.
But for my third recurrent dream I find it much more difficult to account. I am making a railway journey. I leave my case on the platform and, when I return for it, it has dis- appeared. In real life it so happens that I have only once mislaid luggage and that was on a bus. I put a suitcase in the little cubby-hole under the stairs and forgot about it when I alighted. Even then I recovered it a few days later from the lost-luggage office at Baker Street. But in my dreams it is always on a railway platform that I lose my case, and, what is more, I lose it by going away and leaving it unattended— a thing which, it so happens, I can hardly imagine myself doing in real life. What this proves—whether it is some Dunne- ish prophecy that I am going to lose my luggage at some time in the future or whether it is some darker, more mysterious reminder of the sins of my past life—I cannot imagine.
It seems to me that Dunne is clearly up to a point right in saying that we dream both of the past and of the future. Life is, as it were, a book already wholly printed. Normally and in waking life we read it through line by line, but in dreams the eye jumps back or jumps forward a number of lines. I once had what at any rate seemed a confirmation of this: In my dream there appeared to me a man who had been at school with me, though older than 1, a quarter of a century before, but whom I had hardly seen since and whose career I had not at all followed. He came up to me and said, 'I don't think you know my wife, do you?' When I awoke the next morning, I remember thinking it strange that this man, who had been so little in my life, should have appeared in my dream at all. But then I got up, went about the occasions of the day and thought no more of it. That evening I went to a cocktail party. A staircase ran up from the hall to the room where the party was being given. I was standing at the foot of the staircase, waiting to ascend, when the front door opened. In came the visitor of my dream, came up to me and said, 'I don't think you know my wife, do you?'
I should be inclined to think that there was more than chance in that and that I had genuinely experienced in my dream a little piece of the future. And, whether we experience the future or not in dreams, we certainly sometimes experience the past. But, even if we accept that our dreams are a hotch- potch of past and future experiences mixed higgledy-piggledy, that seems to me not an explanation of the problem, but the problem itself. Who mixed them? And why did he mix them just like that? Sometimes, as I say, I see in my dreams persons or objects that I have been seeing during the day. That is easy. But as often there comes back to me, as also, apparently, to others, in dreams some person wholly from the past—some most casual acquaintance who never played an important part in my life and who certainly has not been consciously present in waking thought for years. Why is it he rather than another that has appeared? It is certainly through no choice of mine. What is this mysterious person or force or Dunne-ish Observer who has taken the book of my life and decreed that my dream's eye shall not only travel back or forward, but travel to this apparently insignificant place in the text rather than to another place? That is what I should dearly love to know and what none of the explanations has ever begun to explain to me. The subconscious mind is a phrase—not an explanation. To say that ideas are associated by itself has little meaning— somebody must associate them. Even if they are associated according to rule, somebody must have made the rules. If, as Dunne thinks, there is an Observer, is he inside or outside me? If inside, how? If outside, how? Men in a simpler age believed that each particular dream was sent by a direct act of God. Even the most obedient of believers perhaps finds it difficult to believe exactly that today. But, if we reject that direct belief, there is really little left to us but a confession of mystery and total ignorance and here, as in so many other fields, modern discovery has succeeded only in teaching us how little we know.