I've been reading a fat biography of Carl Jung and coincidentally thinking about the unconscious, dreams, and fiction.
People have known about the unconscious—or subconscious—for hundreds of years. Shakespeare explored the role of the unconscious in many of his plays without naming it as such. It seems to me that Jung and Freud (and others) thought that they could understand the unconscious through dreams. But that understanding is based on a chain of assumptions:
1) That dreams are manifestations of, or reflections of the unconscious.
2) That the dreamer can report a dream accurately.
3) That with this report, it is possible to interpret what is going on in the unconscious.
I suspect these are all wrong. Based on what I've read recently, it seems that dreams are utterly random firings of neurons in the resting brain. It’s impossible to report a dream accurately, even an exceptionally vivid dream (you may think you're doing so, but you are probably kidding yourself). And because the dreams are random, there’s no sensible way to interpret what they might mean.
Michael Chabon has an interesting brief essay on dreams in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:
“I hate dreams...I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off...Dreams are effluvia, bodily information, to be shared only with intimates and doctors...Whatever stuff dreams are made on, it isn’t words. As soon as you begin to tell a dream, as Freud reminds us, you interpolate, falsify, distort; you lie...
“Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that...If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head. A work of art derives its effects from light, sound, and movement, but dreams unfurl in darkness, silence, paralysis...."
Dreams in fiction (says someone who has included a dream in his novel) are a cheat. As Chabon says, "Dreams in art either make sense, or they make no sense at all, but they never manage to do both at the same time." I'll try not to do it any more.