To write, perchance to dream

Can fictional dreams have ‘hidden’ meanings?

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I HAVE AN idea for a story about waking delusions relieved by true and meaningful dreams. It’s an idea I leave to run like a background program that I dip in and out of to make idle rearrangements, and sometimes a development comes to me as I’m falling asleep that I forget upon waking, or I find myself submerged in its middle and what comes before and after is briefly clear. The idea of a story laden with dreams presents me with handy leg-ups into originality as well as some dilemmas of execution. 

In fiction, dreams are a useful tool. They are the writer’s divine intervention. Like the famous opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, they can reveal the past in eidetic detail. They can make the murmurs of the subconscious plain. Catherine Earnshaw dreams she leaves Heathcliff to enter heaven, only to begin weeping to come back to earth. ‘The angels were so angry,’ she says, ‘that they flung me…on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.’ 

Dreams in fiction, as in the scriptures, are often prophetic, but usually in retrospect. In cases like Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, a character’s dreams may not only predict the future but literally create it, thereby allowing the logic of the narrative to be continuously overturned at the author’s will. The central quandary of this idea, and of Le Guin’s story, is that dreams can never be fully controlled. Even in lucid dreaming, where you can act with ‘astonishing’ reason, as Fyodor Dostoevsky puts it, this reason must ‘reconcile itself to such obvious absurdities and impossibilities, of which, by the way, your dream [is] full.’ This is the nature of dream illogic, which, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland conjures better than most, follows irrational premises rationally to their very ends. 

To induce a dream in the first place is largely beyond a person’s control. ‘When I was a boy, after my mother died,’ says the protagonist of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, ‘I always tried hard to hold her in my mind as I was falling asleep so maybe I’d dream of her, only I never did.’ In this way, trying to think of an idea for a dream is like trying to think of an idea for fiction. Had Tartt’s protagonist succeeded, his dream would have been interrupted by the waking world, at which point, like with many a creative train of thought derailed by the real, it might have become impossible to recall. But say he managed to both induce a dream and recall it in great detail, then would come the irresistible temptation to ask: what did it mean? 

Ay, there’s the rub.

IN FICTION, DREAMS always have an intended meaning, because fiction always has an intended meaning. In reality, the vast majority of dreams are meaningless or beyond understanding. Dream interpretation is a form of fiction; it is a construction of meaning where such meaning may or may not be inherent. 

But as a Muslim, I believe the meaning of dreams is sometimes inherent. Oneirology – the scientific study of dreams – in Islam divides dreams into three cases. The first case includes ruminations on daily life and reflections of the subconscious; the second is a bad dream, which comes from evil; the third kind, more often experienced by the deeply spiritual, is a true dream, one that is meaningful and somewhat premonitory. In all cases, definitive interpretation is discouraged; an accurate interpretation would only be guaranteed in the hands of someone with true prophetic abilities, of whom currently there are none on Earth. To seek an opinion from anyone else runs the risk of incurring real emotional or (in the case of ‘professional’ interpreters) financial harm. 

So, since all my fiction is about Muslim characters, how can I determine which of their dreams are ‘true’ dreams? None of them can actually be true, because, far from originating in divine inspiration, they are concocted by me, and I make decisions not out of omniscient wisdom but out of an aspiration to create something beautiful and complete. The dream must service my goal of coherence; it must be a crafty leapfrog towards later developments. Unlike the dreams of others in real life, which are notoriously boring, the dreams of fictional characters are a prompt to lean in and anticipate later relevance; such is the law of Chekhov’s gun. 

But if I believe it is better not to definitively interpret dreams in real life, how can I suggest that my characters (and readers) derive clear import from dreams in my fiction? Is this something I have the licence to construct for the sake of art? Or should dreams simply gesture towards meaning, without making it clear? Is that what dreams are, in fiction and in life: navigation? 

Navigation is the idea I have tended towards. It encapsulates the qualities that powerful dreams share with powerful art: suspension of belief, immersion in a sensory reality and a feeling of being steered towards revelation, even if its meaning remains obscure. Elif Batuman, in her novel The Idiot, writes ‘[My mother] believed, and I did, too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.’ By the novel’s close, I had emerged from the shared dream illogic of Batuman’s story to a sense of having been awakened to the fuller geography of my life. I could not say what the novel ‘meant’, and yet it had reoriented the way I navigated language, conversation, memory, books and my perception of myself and the people around me. Batuman’s point is perhaps that meaning, even if inherent, need not be consciously understood to make an experience (and a novel, and a dream) significant. 

Nonetheless, contemplating without hope of an answer a dream’s true meaning enriches the mystery of life and the magic of fiction. ‘Much on earth is concealed from us,’ is written in The Brothers Karamazov, ‘but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world.’ The passage goes on to describe a feeling much like prayer. This ‘mysterious sense’ is for me like the image The Goldfinch’s protagonist holds hard in his mind of his mother while falling asleep. 

I hold it in my mind. I return to my idea. I think of the stories available to me as precedent. Inevitably, I think of Joseph/Yusuf, the Abrahamic descendant in whose story dreams are pivotal and abundant. In the Quran, the chapter named after him and devoted to his life is introduced with the words, ‘We relate unto thee the most beautiful of stories.’ The elements that make his story beautiful are manifold: how Yusuf’s dreams radiate with significance and play out in his reality poignantly; that his dreams are a true story relayed to him by God; the compelling way in which dreams are exchanged between father and son, between prisoners, between a prophet and a king. 

All this, I have considered. In my writing, I have tried to use it as a tool. I have interwoven my characters’ dreams as navigation, as a unit of interpersonal exchange, as a ‘mysterious sense’ of the soul. None of it can be made true, and yet I find this is no barrier to making it meaningful. 

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