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Posts tagged ‘Freud’

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 2 (The Science of Sleep)


I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
― Ernest Hemingway

On Thursday 22nd October, Lavinia Greenlaw chaired a discussion between Jonathan Coe, Deborah Levy and Dr Russell Foster on all matters surrounding sleep at an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Literature & Royal Society. Foster, a neuroscientist, opened by reminding the audience that 36% of our lifespan is spent sleeping. He described sleep as “the single most important behaviour we experience”, as well as giving a historical portrayal of its significance by citing Thomas Dekker, who thought that sleep was “the golden chain that holds health and our body together”.

Lady Macbeth refers to sleep constantly, using it to her advantage initially by making the sleeping state the moment to take the lives standing in her way, until it gets the better of her by abandoning her for good. She is deprived of rest, and yet clamours “To bed! to bed!” Shakespeare knew it was not something to be trifled with, and perhaps it wasn’t, until Thomas Edison came along. He thought sleep a criminal waste of time, and in inventing the light bulb he curtailed our natural sleep in a way candles and gas lamps didn’t and couldn’t.

Research continues to consolidate the link between mental illness and sleep disruption: illustrated by Foster’s graphs of hormone levels released whilst sleeping in the brains of schizophrenics. Sleep and mental illness have shared origins of overlapping neural pathways, as well as the more obvious factor that one is clearly able to influence the other. We need sleep to be able to use our brains as we would wish. The body at rest allows the brain to repair itself, sort information and perform memory consolidation, which is why we can sleep ‘on’ something and wake up with the solution.

Sleep deprivation actually puts the brain in an altered state, where you cannot tell how dampened a level it is working at. The part of the brain that controls impulse is asleep, which is why every idea seems outstanding when you are tired enough. Jonathan Coe said this was partly why he always felt sorry for Thatcher attempting to function on four hours a night. None of the three speakers put any faith in the concept of the brilliant idea at 3am. Rather than trust it for genuine inspiration, Coe recalled the story of a Hollywood producer who, agonized by ideas in the night dissipating on waking, put a pad by his bedside at his wife’s suggestion. The first morning he awoke to find he had written “boy meets girl” overnight.

Deborah Levy’s statement that “dreams tell us the things we don’t want to know but know anyway” clearly signposted that the scientific part of the evening was essentially over. She read Kerouac’s “rhapsodic manifesto” against sleep, containing his assertion that “the only ones” for him were “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. His rule of no yawners allowed does reveal the short jump between sleep avoidance and a fear of death. Just as brothers Hypnos and Thanatos lived cheek by jowl, some of us fear sleep in the event we should never wake again; Poe described sleep as “those little slices of death — how I loathe them”. Children require talismanic blankets and soft toys as part of their bedtime rituals in order to feel happy about going to sleep, but is this because of a painful (to them) separation from the waking world? Their fear of sleep could be more closely related to the threat of nightmare, depending on your personal views of the liminal state. Children are instructed to have sweet dreams, but more often see what truly lurks under the bed, or in the recesses of their minds.

Just as we have no control over the content of what we encounter within as we sleep, there is the area of considering what happens around us while we are unconscious. Jonathan Coe read from The House of Sleep, written 19 years ago about visiting a sleep clinic. Coe sleep walked frequently (nearly climbing out of a first floor window at one point) and decided not to visit a clinic, as he was frightened by the idea of being watched over while caught in the powerlessness of sleep. A parallel he drew with being in love. This powerlessness was summed up by a passage where characters Sarah and Gregory (an aspiring sleep clinician) have just had rather disappointing (for her) sex. The post-coital sleepiness and nostalgia were her favourite parts of the whole process. He tells her in one such period that his favourite part of her body is her eyelids, from watching her sleep. This is the first hint of his fondness for standing over sleepers. He likes to look down, fully in control, watching the helpless (a brilliant segue from sweet intimacy to sinister humour in the space of a few paragraphs). Sarah wakes from a nightmare where a creature has seized her by the eyes by its tongue, to find she cannot open her eyes as Gregory is holding her lids down with his fingers. He expressed a desire to see life flickering behind the lids.

If dream reveals the parts of the subconscious we would rather not tackle, daydream presented to Freud the ideal case scenario where we can make the little directions we desire to reality, much like the habit of thinking of a great response to an argument rather after the fact.

In the same way, we tend to think most truly in the quiet period immediately before sleep, moments described by Ondaatje in the English Patient “when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.”

Full of possibility, in other words. Levy’s hypothesis was that only psychotics are truly certain. There is value in being separated from our certainties, as a state of floating helps ideas, and allows us to encounter endeavour. Our super conscious state – where we are at our most controlled and articulate – lies in direct opposition to a sleeping or semi-conscious state where you encounter what you can’t articulate, and you lack the imperatives to control it. As science has no definition for the unconscious, literature revels in bridging the gap. Coe’s apt response to Levy was that a novel or a poem is not a daydream, as there is control there. A controlled daydream then.

Science and literature agree that sleep is a transitional state. Raymond Carver captured it perfectly when he talked of crossing an invisible line to “a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.”

The Editors

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 1


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.

The Editors

4. Why Read?

There are many reasons for reading fiction, most of them bad. The worst is probably a sense of duty, the idea that somehow you ought to read fiction in a way that it isn’t so necessary to watch TV or listen to your iPod. Doing this, you gain nothing, bore yourself and mentally mangle things worth more than mangling. Almost as bad is reading in order to know what everyone else is talking about. You devote evening after evening to the latest winner of the Booker, Orange, Costa, Betty Trask, Somerset Maugham or whatever prize and come away feeling that you’ve never read anything since Pride and Prejudice in the Fifth Form. The ugly side of this coin is reading so as to have read more than the people around you. It only works because they feel guilty about not having read all the books they ought. If you want to bully your friends, there are less time-consuming ways of going about it.

Good reasons are pleasure, curiosity and trust in the book to create a new curiosity.

Those apply equally to much else, but fiction can do one thing others can’t. The writer of fiction can be able to have the kind of nebulous, historically determined collective unconscious of which each of us is a unique part – like a Venn diagram of billions – send its charge down through his pen and onto the page. Freud wrote that all of his theories were prefigured in the 19th-century novel, and it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first. For example, when the idea gains widespread acceptance that the language of therapy and the opening of the private sphere have become the traps they were intended to spring, people reading David Foster Wallace will ask themselves, hang on, when was this written? I don’t want to suggest that the writer is no more than an amanuensis. This charge is refracted by passing through his ego and it is his skill that draws an ever greater force down onto the page.

If you want to know that actually looks like, read fiction.

Alex Starritt