Who Am I to Interpret?

It’s too bad that all these things
Can only happen in my dreams
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams.

Roy Orbison, from “In Dreams”

Sometime in my twenties I read Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in the Modern Library edition (1950) with a photograph of the cigar-smoking Austrian neurologist on the cover. Prompted by the theme of this issue of the Maine Arts Journal, I retrieved my copy from a high shelf and proceeded to dip.

I recalled making notations in the margins and was curious to see what had struck me way back when. Many of Freud’s declarations struck me as compelling and curious. Here’s one: “In a certain sense, all dreams are convenience-dreams; they serve the purpose of continuing to sleep instead of waking. The dream is the guardian of sleep, not its disturber.”

Some of my notes reflect my age. I wrote “yes” alongside this observation: “It may be said that there is no class of ideas which cannot be enlisted in the representation of sexual facts and wishes,” which reminds me of this line from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or: A Fragment of Life: “What is youth? A dream. What is love? The dream’s content.”

I especially liked the specific dreams Freud cited and his analysis of same. While his stock has fallen in recent decades, the guy knew how to unravel some of the mysteries of the after hours. I admired him so much that at one point in my post-college life in New York City, desperate for a job, I applied for a position at the Freud Museum. I didn’t get a call-back.

Partially inspired by Freud, I’ve kept a dream journal off and on over the years, jotting down the various scenarios that appear behind the eyelids. Looking back over the 200 or so entries from the last ten years, I recall some of them, but others are more or less foreign.

Some dreams are, to me, classic: finding myself naked in public, being back in college or lost in a dangerous New York City neighborhood, discovering a cache of rare books. Only infrequently do I wake up gasping. Here’s a sample entry, from 5 December 2017:

Part of dream: helping out a man in a wheelchair who was being harassed by a bald-headed asshole—not a skinhead, but mean. The harasser was messing with the knobs on the man’s chair and I told him to stop. He confronted me and I shouted for the police who arrived quickly and took him into custody. This was taking place in some kind of waiting room, for a train or plane. Then I wonder if the man in the wheelchair is completely innocent and I envision him playing some kind of violent video game.


And then I have some parts of a children’s game spread out on the floor in front of me and a man stops by to ask if my kids like this game and I tell him they love it (I think it’s a castle with miniature figures). I give the man my card but feel weird doing so.”

“Your dreams belong to you,” my mother, Patsy Little, once told me. I treasure them; they are gifts from the unconscious, short screenings of where I want to wander—or don’t. I jot them down to be lingered over; losing one in the daylight always saddens me. As poet Joseph Donahue put it, “The decree of a dream so utterly forgotten in no detail will ever be swept back to the alien domain of waking.”

I am nearly always disappointed with dream sequences in movies and television shows—they’re often cliché and obvious, and nearly always menacing, ending with a sweating shocked face. Often the movie or TV dream relates to the plot—and I understand that connection. As Freud noted, the source of a dream is often a significant event or experience.

Little Dreams Dali Hitchcock dream copy

Screen shot from the Dalí dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Sometimes cinematic reveries take us somewhere new or expand our sense of a particular character. I’m thinking of Salvador Dalí’s awkward yet compelling contribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), in which he interprets Gregory Peck’s troubled dream. Some of the imagery is pure Dalí—melted wagon wheels, for example—while other elements hark back to his and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929). A central image in the Spellbound sequence involves floating eyes. I wonder if Emily Muir’s undated painting Watching Eyes was inspired by the Dalí/Hitchcock scenario. On the other hand, maybe the Stonington artist’s surreal vision represents ‘50s paranoia brought on by Joe McCarthy—or is simply a personal nightmare. Who am I to interpret?

Little Dreams Emily Muir Eyes Watching copy

Emily Muir, Eyes Watching, oil on board, 19 x 28 in. (courtesy Courthouse Gallery Fine Art).

One of my favorite dream books is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Les Songes et les sorts, first published in Paris in 1938, and translated in 1999 as Dreams and Destinies. In her preface, the brilliant Belgian-born novelist provides an explanation of the book’s title. “There are dreams and there are destinies,” she writes; “I am, above all, interested in the moment when destinies are expressed through dreams.”

Little Dreams Marguerite Yourcenar in Maine copy

Marguerite Yourcenar in a Maine field (photo: Petite Plaisance Trust).

The setting of one dream, titled “The Accursed Pond,” recalls an Alan Bray painting: “An unassuming meadow in the shape of an almost perfectly rounded basin with a small pool, the color of lead, outstretched in its hollow.” The author reads a dark message into this vision: “and as for the little pond, ill-omened of aspect, I have not yet encountered it while awake, but I know that on the day that I find it, I must interpret its presence as an incitement to commit suicide.”

Little Dreams Alan Bray Cheese Factory Spring 2007 casein on panel 18x24 (1) copy

Alan Bray, Cheese Factory Spring, casein on panel, 24 x 18 in., 2007.

Yourcenar takes exception to Freud’s need to find symbols in every dream. “When a gardener dreams of a wheelbarrow,” she notes, “it is not untoward to suppose that a real wheelbarrow might, on occasion, be intended.”

Yourcenar also includes dreams dreamt on Mount Desert Island where she lived for nearly half her life. On the night of 12–13 April 1970, for example, she finds herself on a road, “roughly the one extending from Northeast Harbor to Seal Harbor,” with a goal “to arrive at the shore of this last locality in order to lie down beside the water.” At a turn in the road, by the “hills and little lake of the Rockefeller property,” she discovers “a horde of wild horses.”

About a third of the text consists of “Posthumous Materials,” notes Yourcenar made in the years since the original publication. Here one finds a commentary on “Keys to Dreams,” dictionaries that attempt to interpret dream images, as well as observations about sexual practice and dreams. “It has happened to me—rarely, it is true—to have the most extraordinarily intense and extraordinarily beautiful dreams after orgasm,” Yourcenar writes.

Little Dreams Cover of 3000 Dreams Explained copy

Cover of 3000 Dreams Explained.

Little Dreams Sample dreams explained copy

Sample entries in 3000 Dreams Explained.

The title poem of my first poetry collection, published by Nightshade Press in 1992, is borrowed from such a dream dictionary, 3000 Dreams Explained by “Aspasia.” I drew on that guide in writing the poem:

Early in the course of a night’s dreaming

I smoke a cigarette, which may mean

success of one sort or another.

Later, around dawn, I ride bareback

alongside my brother through water.

Horses imply independence in the future;

I don’t recall their color,

but white and black can signify

a wedding and death,

respectively. At last

we stumble upon an island,

according to my handbook loneliness to come.

I toss the guide aside

to work my own interpretations.

Wasn’t David about to join me

in a house off the coast of Maine?

And wouldn’t there be horses

in the mailboat’s engines carrying us across?

Without Madame Aspasia’s assistance

I relive the thrill of last night’s episodes:

a bad habit of the past embraced again,

and my brother and I, complete strangers

to riding, whipping our steeds

up out of the frigid waters.

National Geographic ran a fascinating story on “lucid dreams” a few months ago. In addition to explaining the benefits of this type of dreaming to your health and well-being, the article shared some techniques for initiating it, including “Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams,” which “involves rehearsing a dream during the day and visualizing becoming lucid while telling yourself, the next time I’m dreaming, I’ll recognize that I’m dreaming.” I will be trying this in the days ahead.

Little Dreams Janice Kasper What Animals Dream red Fox 2006 copy

Janice Kasper, What Animals Dream: Red Fox, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in., 2006 (courtesy Caldbeck Gallery).

Which somehow leads me to a final dream image, Janice Kasper’s painting What Animals Dream: Red Fox. Kasper imagines what goes through the sleeping head of a red fox, from hunting to being hunted—a way for her to express her empathy for this handsome member of the animal kingdom. The image is lucid and lovely. That is my interpretation.


Image at top: Cover of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, translated by Dr. A. A. Brill. New York: The Modern Library, 1950.