“And people who don’t dream, who don’t have any kind of imaginative life, they must… they must go nuts. I can’t imagine that.”
― Stephen King
In the late 1910s, the surrealists, led by Andre Breton, invented a process they called “automatic” writing, which involved, among other techniques, waking each other up in the middle of the night in order to write immediately and attempt to capture something approaching the purity of unconscious thought. In this they were inspired by Freud’s works of psychoanalysis, and in particular the theory that the subconscious mind, free from the shackles of reason, is somehow capable of revealing a deeper truth. For both writers the dream was a purveyor of this deeper truth; the surrealists simply went to greater lengths to try to harvest the dream as a source of creative expression. It is noticeable, however, that between the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and Breton’s The Magnetic Fields (the first automatic text) in 1919, there was a world war, and it makes sense to me that this global catastrophe should have contributed somewhat to the urgency and pragmatism that the surrealists invested in their attempts to flee the constraints of rational thought.
But the surrealists were not the first writers to see the world of dreams as a way of escaping the strictures of waking life. Lewis Carroll was also fascinated by the contemporary science on the interpretation of dreams, and used the dream as a narrative form through which he could satirise staid Victorian didacticism. Alice in Wonderland is in many ways just an escape from the limitations of English society in the mid-19th century, and for Carroll the dream was the perfect vehicle for that escape. Conventional views of logic, order and morality are thus subverted in favour of a sort of gleeful anarchy of the mind.
“I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”
In discussing dreams and escapology in literature it seems entirely necessary to mention the famed use of the dream as a hackneyed narrative technique to obviate apparently inevitable fictional developments – otherwise known as the “I woke up and it was all a dream” ending. This device does of course have a more highbrow name – the deus ex macchina trope – whereby authors brazenly interfere with otherwise plausible plots just because they can and they don’t like the way things are going. Apparently Alex Garland’s novel The Coma has the message “I WOKE UP AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM” encoded in final paragraph. God knows what he was hoping to achieve with that, but presumably it was intended as some sort of play on the abovementioned cliché.
I suppose the point this post is meandering towards is that the dream in literature is often used as a sort of escape hatch to an alternate reality; an escape hatch used by authors to forget and to criticise the reality of waking life, or simply to indulge in whimsical doodles. The unifying thread seems to be dissatisfaction with contemporary reality and a yearning for something that may only be possible in the dim half-light of the dream world. And yet the escape is often not just from objective reality, but also from the reality of subjective consciousness. Returning to Breton and the Surrealists, automatic writing was intended in large part as a way of evading a subjective understanding of reality that was conditioned by a mind taught to think in a particular way. In other words, it was an escape from Western ideas of rationality and logic, as well as from the broader historical and social context of the time. Given that the prison bars of the mind are less clearly defined than other more objective constraints, it takes a very particular form of escape within oneself to break free from them. And what better temporary leave from the conscious self than the dream? Surely not drugs, despite certain similarities and what some claim to be the hallucinogenic aspects of Alice in Wonderland. No, the purest drift into unconsciousness is the dream. As William Blake, that king of dreamers, wrote:
Father, O father! what do we here
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.