A brief history of dreams — and nightmares — in literature and art

Coleridge feared them, Shakespeare sent up the queen with them and ‘Dallas’ used them to get out of an enormous hole

By Lucy Powell  /  The Guardian

Sun, Sep 29, 2013 - Page 12

Art and dreams make something of a shamefaced couple nowadays. I blame American soap opera Dallas. In order to resurrect the soap’s only buff cast member, Bobby Ewing, Pam wakes up to the convenient fiction that the entire seventh series was a dream. Emerging from the shower, dripping masculine assurance all over the lino, Bobby listens to her bonkers summary of the past year and replies: “None of that happened. I’m here now.”

But it wasn’t always so. Dreams and art have had a long, fertile relationship, as I discovered while researching the history of dreams for a new BBC Radio 4 series. Take the extraordinary work of the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. His Garden of Earthly Delights teems with fecund, fearful dream imagery: a copulating couple are held in a closing mussel shell; a steely grey figure climbs into a man’s carcass, a large arrow extruding from his backside. Images of slippery sin and fleeting pleasures, of enduring pain and terrifying pointlessness lurk everywhere in the triptych. Our sweetest dreams, Bosch seems to say, prefigure heaven; our most terrifying nightmares hell. But the central panel, which depicts the here and now, is also discomfortingly dream-riddled. Life, Bosch implies, is as fleeting and ephemeral as a dream.

Like a dream, art both is and isn’t true. Both offer a challenge to the tyranny of realism, replacing what is with what might be. Both generate an altered state of consciousness. To dream of feces, a modern dream key drearily explains, means that “some part of your life needs cleaning up.” An Egyptian papyrus from the second millennium BC is more upbeat: it goes as far as to say that eating your own excrement equates to “generating possessions in one’s own house,” while sex with your mother means “your clansmen will support you.”

In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus sends Wicked Dream to Agamemnon urging him to attack Troy. It is almost like a character. Dreams here have an existence independent of, and external to, the dreamer. They arrive as visitations, potentially bearing messages from the gods. In the lexicon of Homer, dreams are entities that sleepers “see.” Over the centuries, though, we have come to take possession of them: dreams today are things we “have.”

In times of upheaval, dreams can offer radical alternatives, giving artists a way to speak dangerous truths. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream contains what could have been, for the author, fatal allusions to the sexual life of Queen Elizabeth I. Contemporaries would have recognized Titania, the fairy queen, as a fictional rendering of their ageing, virgin monarch, whose continued refusal to provide the nation with an heir threatened anarchy. Titania, like Elizabeth, also refuses to share her bed, which throws the entire natural world into chaos. In punishment, she is subjugated to masculine rule, and forced to bed an ass. In light of all this, Shakespeare wisely structures his play as a dream vision, ending: “If we shadows have offended,/ Think but this, and all is mended,/ That you have but slumber’d here,/ While these visions did appear.” Bobby Ewing couldn’t have put it better.

In the wake of the great examples of the Bible, including the sartorially splendid dream analyst Joseph, dreams characterize the poetry of the medieval era more than any other. In William Langland’s epochal poem Piers Plowman, a quest for true, Christian self-knowledge begins with our narrator Will falling asleep in the Malvern hills, in England’s West Midlands. Decades of Will’s waking life are passed over without comment; it is only in his dreams that his search for truth can be conducted. This tells us that to the medieval mind, corporeality is erroneous and flawed. Dreams — freed from the body and potentially emanating from the divine — might be more real than waking reality. Senses lie, dreams speak the truth.

With the dawn of the Enlightenment, the idea that dreams might originate from outside the sleeper faded. But, as the Romantics were to discover, this did nothing to lessen their power — particularly frightening ones. Nightmare imagery stalks gothic fiction and ignites the art of the time, as the 1781 painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli shows: a swarthy goblin squats on an erotically supine sleeper as a mad-eyed mare looms out of the darkness behind.

Coleridge was plagued by nightmares so powerful he would routinely wake screaming. Why, he asks, in his 1803 poem The Pains of Sleep, were his dreams poisoned with “desire and loathing” and visions of an “unfathomable hell within?” Men whose lives were “stained with sin” might expect as much. But, he demands, palpably afraid, “wherefore, wherefore fall on me?”

In a sense, it was in answer to this that Sigmund Freud, a century later, began his investigations into dreams. Freud’s radical claim was that all our dreams — even the most terrifying — are wishes. The more difficult or dangerous our desires seem to our conscious selves, the more peculiar or terrifying their nocturnal expression will be. His sexually charged theories propelled dreams to the center of 20th-century culture. The wildly expressive art of Dali, Miro and Magritte, and the writings of the surrealists, used dream imagery in a bid to access and unleash authentic human experience.