I was recently corresponding with a reader on the topic of finding inspiration for creative activity. The conversation veered into the subject of dreams. In what way, we wondered, do dreams inspire or retard development of the creative impulse? And what is the source of dreams? The subject is one of general interest, and seems to come up over and over again.
We often speak about channeling the positive, and harnessing all that is good. But there is another side to this coin. The darkness–that flickering pale of horrors that sparks just below the surface of things–can also be harnessed and channeled. It takes great caution and care–as with the handling of any poisonous substance–but with proper training, it can be done.
My thoughts match those put forward by Ambrose Bierce in his short essay “Visions of the Night.” Bitter Bierce may have been surprised to know that his views were shared by more than a few prominent mystics and philosophers. It makes good sense to quote the relevant passages below:
I hold the belief that the Gift of Dreams is a valuable literary endowment—that if by some art not now understood the elusive fancies that it supplies could be caught and fixed and made to serve we should have a literature “exceeding fair.” In captivity and domestication the gift could doubtless be wonderfully improved, as animals bred to service acquire new capacities and powers.
By taming our dreams we shall double our working hours and our most fruitful labor will be done in sleep. Even as matters are, Dreamland is a tributary province, as witness “Kubla Khan.”
What is a dream? A loose and lawless collocation of memories—a disorderly succession of matters once present in the waking consciousness. It is a resurrection of the dead, pell-mell—ancient and modern, the just and the unjust—springing from their cracked tombs, each “in his habit as he lived,” pressing forward confusedly to have an audience of the Master of the Revel, and snatching one another’s garments as they run. Master?
No; he has abdicated his authority and they have their will of him; his own is dead and does not rise with the rest. His judgment, too, is gone, and with it the capacity to be surprised. Pained he may be and pleased, terrified and charmed, but wonder he can not feel. The monstrous, the preposterous,the unnatural—these all are simple, right and reasonable. The ludicrous does not amuse, nor the impossible amaze.
The dreamer is your only true poet; he is “of imagination all compact.”
Imagination is merely memory.
Try to imagine something that you have never observed, experienced, heard of or read about. Try to conceive an animal, for example, without body, head, limbs or tail—a house without walls or roof. But, when awake, having assistance of will and judgment, we can somewhat control and direct; we can pick and choose from memory’s store, taking that which serves, excluding, though sometimes with difficulty, what is not to the purpose; asleep, our fancies “inherit us.”
They come so grouped, so blended and compounded the one with another, so wrought of one another’s elements, that the whole seems new; but the old familiar units of conception are there, and none beside. Waking or sleeping, we get from imagination nothing new but new adjustments: “the stuff that dreams are made on” has been gathered by the physical senses and stored in memory, as squirrels hoard nuts.
But one, at least, of the senses contributes nothing to the fabric of the dream: no one ever dreamed an odor. Sight, hearing, feeling, possibly taste, are all workers, making provision for our nightly entertainment; but Sleep is without a nose.
It surprises that those keen observers, the ancient poets, did not so describe the drowsy god, and that their obedient servants, the ancient sculptors, did not so represent him. Perhaps these latter worthies, working for posterity, reasoned that time and mischance would inevitably revise their work in this regard, conforming it to the facts of nature.
Who can so relate a dream that it shall seem one? No poet has so light a touch. As well try to write the music of an Molian harp. There is a familiar species of the genus Bore (Penetrator intolerabilis) who having read a story—perhaps by some master of style—is at the pains elaborately to expound its plot for your edification and delight; then thinks, good soul, that now you need not read it.
“Under substantially similar circumstances and conditions” (as the interstate commerce law hath it) I should not be guilty of the like offence; but I purpose herein to set forth the plots of certain dreams of my own, the “circumstances and conditions” being, as I conceive, dissimilar in this, that the dreams themselves are not accessible to the reader. In endeavoring to make record of their poorer part I do not indulge the hope of a higher success. I have no salt to put upon the tail of a dream’s elusive spirit.
I was walking at dusk through a great forest of unfamiliar trees. Whence and whither I did not know. I had a sense of the vast extent of the wood, a consciousness that I was the only living thing in it. I was obsessed by some awful spell in expiation of a forgotten crime committed, as I vaguely surmised, against the sunrise. Mechanically and without hope, I moved under the arms of the giant trees along a narrow trail penetrating the haunted solitudes of the forest.
I came at length to a brook that flowed darkly and sluggishly across my path, and saw that it was blood. Turning to the right, I followed it up a considerable distance, and soon came to a small circular opening in the forest, filled with a dim, unreal light, by which I saw in the center of the opening a deep tank of white marble. It was filled with blood, and the stream that I had followed up was its outlet.
All round the tank, between it and the enclosing forest—a space of perhaps ten feet in breadth, paved with immense slabs of marble—were dead bodies of men— a score; though I did not count them I knew that the number had some significant and portentous relation to my crime.
Possibly they marked the time, in centuries, since I had committed it. I only recognized the fitness of the number, and knew it without counting. The bodies were naked and arranged symmetrically around the central tank, radiating from it like spokes of a wheel. The feet were outward, the heads hanging over the edge of the tank.
Each lay upon its back, its throat cut, blood slowly dripping from the wound. I looked on all this unmoved. It was a natural and necessary result of my offence, and did not affect me; but there was something that filled me with apprehension and terror—a monstrous pulsation, beating with a slow, inevitable recurrence.
I do not know which of the senses it addressed, or if it made its way to the consciousness through some avenue unknown to science and experience. The pitiless regularity of this vast rhythm was maddening. I was conscious that it pervaded the entire forest, and was a manifestation of some gigantic and implacable malevolence.
Of this dream I have no further recollection. Probably, overcome by a terror which doubtless had its origin in the discomfort of an impeded circulation, I cried out and was awakened by the sound of my own voice….
I suppose I vanish from the land of dreams before it finishes expressing what it has in mind, leaving it, no doubt, as greatly terrified by my sudden disappearance as I by its manner of accosting me.
I would give value to know the purport of its communication.
Perhaps some morning I shall understand —and return no more to this our world.