Dreams are potent sources of inspiration for writers. This is not surprising. In Dorothea Brande’s influential book, Becoming a Writer the subconscious is credited with pretty much all creativity. Brande was writing in the 1930s’ when an uncritical approach to Freud was common, but you do not have to be a devotee of psychoanalysis to find the book useful (and it is free online here: http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pglasser/18468462-Dorothea-Brande-Becoming-a-Writer.pdf) or to admit that strange and potentially interesting creative ideas are churning away beyond the conscious mind – or that dreams can be a way to access them.
This theme was suggested by my mother after I told her about a recent dream. I was in a street in Walthamstow in London where I accidentally knocked over a wooden screen-like object outside a little antique/junk shop (there are no shops in that street). A thing fell out and got damaged and I picked it up, smoothed it out as much as I could, righted the screen and found this little panel (rather smaller than A4, slotted in to the apex of the wooden thing.
This seemed to be a sort of altarpiece. I envisaged at the back of an alter, against a wall, it’s main purpose to display the picture I had damaged. But this was no exquisite Ghent altarpiece, the woodwork was quite basic and the wood dried out, cracked and nearly black.
The panel I had damaged seemed to be wood and the painting on it was also quite primitive. It had figures and had been, I knew (how?) painted by a seventeen year old Ethiopian illiterate shepherdess who had gained a modest reputation for her untutored style.
The shop owner came out and I expected a tirade but he was quite phlegmatic about the accident. Really, very little happened in this dream. What makes it remarkable, even incredible to me is that I dreamed this vivid, quite believable objet d’art without having read about the Ethiopian church or primitive religious painting, without having seen a documentary about such things for years, if ever, without being able to think of any book I had read or TV programme that I might have seen that could have prompted such an image. And anyway (it turns out, I checked) Ethiopian church art can be exquisite and sophisticated. The dream was convincing and credible fiction, but fiction nonetheless.
But even when you can spot where, in waking life, the elements of a dream have come from, no explanation for dreams I have seen credibly explains why they should have a narrative structure. It is often a surreal story with unlikely or impossible elements barging in. But why do they have a narrative at all, rather than being a stream of random images?
It seems to me that Brande was on to something and that storytelling is something that is so fundamental to us that it is, or at least can be, generated deeper than our modern, conscious minds.
But enough of all that, here is Christina Rossetti dreaming about cannibalistic crocodiles.
by: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
EAR now a curious dream I dreamed last night
Each word whereof is weighed and sifted truth.
I stood beside Euphrates while it swelled
Like overflowing Jordan in its youth:
It waxed and coloured sensibly to sight;
Till out of myriad pregnant waves there welled
Young crocodiles, a gaunt blunt-featured crew,
Fresh-hatched perhaps and daubed with birthday dew.
The rest if I should tell, I fear my friend
My closest friend would deem the facts untrue;
And therefore it were wisely left untold;
Yet if you will, why, hear it to the end.
Each crocodile was girt with massive gold
And polished stones that with their wearers grew:
But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,
Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,
Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.
All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,
But special burnishment adorned his mail
And special terror weighed upon his frown;
His punier brethren quaked before his tail,
Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.
So he grew lord and master of his kin:
But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?
An execrable appetite arose,
He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.
He knew no law, he feared no binding law,
But ground them with inexorable jaw:
The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,
Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,
While still like hungry death he fed his maw;
Till every minor crocodile being dead
And buried too, himself gorged to the full,
He slept with breath oppressed and unstrung claw.
Oh marvel passing strange which next I saw:
In sleep he dwindled to the common size,
And all the empire faded from his coat.
Then from far off a wingèd vessel came,
Swift as a swallow, subtle as a flame:
I know not what it bore of freight or host,
But white it was as an avenging ghost.
It levelled strong Euphrates in its course;
Supreme yet weightless as an idle mote
It seemed to tame the waters without force
Till not a murmur swelled or billow beat:
Lo, as the purple shadow swept the sands,
The prudent crocodile rose on his feet
And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.
What can it mean? you ask. I answer not
For meaning, but myself must echo, What?
And tell it as I saw it on the spot.