Dream States

Sometimes a dream can mean exactly what it says

In the nineteen-eighties I started having recurring nightmares. The nightmare part wasn’t so unusual: like many people, I’d had my fair share of dreams about being swept away by rogue waves, or driving cars that couldn’t make it up steep hills, or flying in airplanes that couldn’t seem to climb any higher than the treetops. Standard anxiety dreams, especially for a freelancer with more cheques in the mail than in the bank and a desk piled high with unfinished assignments.


But these nightmares were different. They were hyper-realistic, entirely devoid of white-knuckle special effects, and they had a dramatic structure—if that’s the right phrase for it—that never varied, though the details sometimes changed. I would find myself, mysteriously, back in Prague—a city I had lived in for a decade in the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies but was no longer legally allowed to visit—among old friends I hadn’t seen in years and never expected to see again. The atmosphere of these reunions was as tangible as the people: they were dark, intense and exciting in the way forbidden things often are, their powerful erotic undertow linked to a mounting sense of anxiety. It was like being Cinderella at the ball; I was thrilled to be there but worried sick about getting home before I was exposed.

The dream always ended the same way: when the time to leave came, getting to the train station or the airport on time proved to be almost impossible. I’d lose my ticket, or my passport or visa would go missing. I’d get lost in the maze of alleyways and passages, unable to find a taxi. I would try to make it on foot, but the airport or the station was always too far away. I seemed to be moving through molasses, dragging myself through the dark streets (it was always night) with rising panic. Sometimes, the Czech police would stop me and ask for my papers. I’d wake up with my heart pounding.

One of the strangest things about these dreams was that there was nothing especially strange about them at all. What I mean is that unlike other recurring dreams I’d had, this one, although frightening, was not deeply disturbing. It didn’t feel like a message from the depths of my mind; it didn’t feature reptiles or mother figures or wild horses or burning houses, which, according to some schools of dream interpretation, might have spelled trouble ahead. The dream didn’t shout out a warning, or cry out to be analyzed. As far as I could tell, it meant exactly what it said: I missed my friends in Prague, and I’d have gone back in a heartbeat if I hadn’t been banished by the police. But that was the point: in my waking life, I had accepted the fact that I could never go back. Or at least I thought I had. The dream was reminding me I hadn’t.

The most peculiar thing of all about the dream, though, turned out to be something else altogether: I was not the only one who’d dreamt it. There were, as I discovered, whole communities of people who’d had the very same dream. The dream, in fact, was not so much an emanation of my own private psyche as it was a consequence, a tiny, distant tremor, from the two most calamitous and tragic political upheavals of the century:fascism and communism.

In the mid-eighties, I was spending a lot of time in the Czech and Slovak émigré community, mostly in Toronto. Like all émigré communities, this one was stratified, not so much socio-economically,as you might expect, but rather by different waves of post-war emigration. First to arrive were the Forty-Eighters, who had escaped Czechoslovakia after the Communist take-over in 1948, usually at great risk to their lives. These people had never really experienced life under the Red Flag, though most had lived through the Nazi occupation. This made them a different breed from the next major wave, who left after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. These new émigrés were treated with a certain reserve by the earlier arrivals, who may have suspected them of being tainted, if not brainwashed, by twenty years of life under communism. The third wave washed ashore in the late seventies and early eighties. It was a smaller group, but more acceptable to the old guard, since many of them were human rights activists who brought an aura of martyrdom with them; often, they’d been forced out of the country by a deliberate campaign of intense police harassment and physical intimidation cynically code-named “Operation Slum Clearance.”

But rather than being pulled apart by such differences, this accidental community of exiles was instead drawn together by a kind of natural gregariousness. The Communists had tried vigorously to suppress this quality, since most forms of independent association are anathema to any system bent on total control. But the regime failed to eradicate the instinct, and once released from the draconian constraints of Soviet-style socialism, most émigrés reverted to form, with the result that in the eighties, the Czechoslovak community in this country was teeming with little theatre groups, drinking societies, newspapers, magazines, publishing ventures, jazz bands, church congregations, after-hours schools, folk-dancing ensembles and, of course, pubs and restaurants that catered to their particular style of democratic socializing.

It was through many casual conversations at such venues and events that I discovered two other things that bound this community together. Almost everyone had been tried in absentia by the regime at home for the crime of illegally leaving the country, and hence, almost everyone had a criminal record. And most had had recurring dreams like mine, in which they found themselves back in Czechoslovakia, unable to leave. They even had an name for it—the “émigré dream.”

We tend to think of dreams as unique to ourselves, all the more so because they are involuntary and afford us glimpses into hidden corners of our being. The study of individual dreams is still a major pillar of psychotherapy. Everyone from Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung, and existential therapists like Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss, believed that dreams arose from an entity called “the unconscious,” and that the final end of any therapy was to assimilate what Jung called “the materials of the unconscious” into the conscious mind and thus restore the “total personality” or, in the language of existential therapists, to restore equilibrium to our “being-in-the-world.”

The émigré dream seemed to challenge this view in at least two ways: first, because the material of the dream, its contents, came from the conscious mind; and secondly because, in a sense, the dream “belonged” not to an individual, but to an entire subset of individuals. And as I discovered, it was not just a Czechoslovak thing. Other immigrants from the Soviet empire—Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonian, Cubans, East Germans (and even, I suspect, North Koreans and Chinese)—experienced it as well, in one form or another. It was as though everyone who had passed through the fire of a totalitarian dictatorship and managed to escape was somehow branded with a kind of psychic mark of Cain on their souls that only manifested itself in dreams.

You would think a phenomenon so apparently widespread would have attracted the attention of psychologists or psychoanalysts, ever eager for new material to ponder. But when I began looking for studies on the subject, I came up almost empty. There are libraries of books about the interpretation of dreams, including dream dictionaries, dream catalogues, and even booklets offering instruction on how to have the dreams you want.Internet searches will yield millions of hits, ranging from the esoteric to the banal. Yet it appears that the only serious work on the émigré dream as a phenomenon unto itself exists in a handful of academic studies in German conducted among refugees who fled Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933.

References to the émigré dream may be rare, but they do pop up now and again in literature. The most recent example is a short story by the Czech writer in exile, Milan Kundera, called “The Great Return,” published in 2002 in The New Yorker. It concerns a Czech woman, Irena, who with some trepidation prepares to return home to a recently liberated Prague in the early nineteen-ninetiesafter many years of exile in France. Shortly after emigrating from Czechoslovakia, presumably in the nineteen-seventies, Irena started having “the dream.” Kundera’s description of it is a classic iteration.

[S]he is in an airplane that switches direction and lands at an unknown airport; uniformed men with guns are waiting for her at the foot of the gangway; in a cold sweat, she recognizes the Czech police. Another time, she is strolling in a small French city when she sees an odd group of women, each holding a beer mug, run toward her, call to her in Czech, laugh with fake cordiality, and in terror Irena realizes that she is in Prague. She cries out, she wakes up.

Irena soon discovers her husband is having the same dream, and so are some Polish friends of hers. She is both moved and irritated by “that nighttime fraternity.” What is unique about her soul, she wonders, if something as private as a dream becomes a collective experience? “On any given night,” Kundera writes, “thousands of émigrés were all dreaming the same dream in numberless variations. The emigration-dream: one of the strangest phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century.”

In addition to her dreams, Irena has involuntary daytime “visions” of places back home, “of landscapes [that] would blink on in her head unexpectedly, abruptly, swiftly, and go out instantly. She’d be talking to her boss and all at once, like a flash of lightning, she’d see a path through the field… All day long, these fleeting images would visit her to assuage the longing for her lost Bohemia.”

None of this would surprise most émigrés. The daughter of a Cuban acquaintance of mine, who left Cuba under traumatic circumstances and still dreams the émigré dream, is also haunted by waking images of the streets and places in Havana she once frequented with her friends. I used to have such flash memories myself, though in my case, they were triggered by a word or a phrase in a translation I happened to be working on. They were as vivid and involuntary as a dream, and I worked up a layman’s theory about memory and language lodging in the same region of the brain.

Another Czech writer who has touched on the émigré dream in his work is Karel Hvizd’ala, best known abroad for his involvement with Vaclav Havel’s two major autobiographical books, Disturbing the Peace and To the Castle and Back. In the eighties, he interviewed a number of Czech exiles living in West Germany and France, and asked each of them about the émigré dream. Hvizd’ala told me that, generally speaking, only those who felt a powerful nostalgia for home, who were not entirely happy living abroad, had the dream. Émigrés who relished their new-found freedom tended to have them far less frequently, if at all, suggesting that these dreams are in part a reflection of the dreamer’s capacity—or inability—to embrace the new life abroad.

The argument is not entirely convincing. Nostalgia might inspire flash visions of home, but it can’t explain the mysteriously collective quality of the émigré dream, which suggests that its origins lie not so much in the dreamers’ personal inability to adapt to the new life, but rather in the very impersonal, enforced collectivism of the political systems within which they were trapped. When the émigrés left home, the regime slammed the door shut behind them, and that door remained closed regardless of how well they adapted elsewhere. The dreams are not the expression of some vague philosophical notion about not being able to step in the same river twice, or of Huck Finn’s belief that “you can’t go home again.” The sense of being locked out of your own home was as real as the Iron Curtain itself.

Looked at in this way, we begin to see that some dreams, at least, point us toward a reality that is more political than personal. And if that is so, does it change the way we understand dreams in general? Or might it point us backward to a far more ancient notion of what dreams are?

As living creatures, we’ve almost certainly been dreaming as long as we’ve been on the planet, but until a few centuries ago, we looked at dreams as divine messages about the world and our place in it. The Old Testament is such a rich repository of dreams and dream interpretation that it sometimes seems as though the whole history of the Israelites was driven by dreams, from the first expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the building of Jerusalem. No one in the Bible interprets dreams as private information, but rather as the voice of God reminding His people of their destiny. Joseph upset his brothers when he dreamt that their sheaves of wheat bowed down to his, but he didn’t rush off to consult a family therapist: they all took it as a sign that Joseph would one day rule over them. He was eventually sold into Egypt, but went on to become the second most powerful man in the land by transforming the pharaoh’s dreams of fat and lean cows into prudent agricultural policy. In the biblical view, dreams always have consequences in the real world.

As we move closer to our own era, our understanding of dreams begins to shift, and by Shakespeare’s day, a kind of skepticism has taken hold. In a famous exchange in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio tells his love-struck kinsman that dreams are “the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Macbeth’s visions and dreams, so clearly the emanations of a guilty conscience, point forward to our own age, in which the emphasis has shifted decisively toward therapy: analyzing dreams becomes a technique for healing troubled souls.

Modern dream study directs our attention inward, away from the external world, as though something as insubstantial as a dream could only make sense in relation to the mind that produced it. Increasingly, we seem to be treating dreams as mere carriers of information about the dreamer, or the dreamer’s brain, while ignoring their wider cultural import.

Neuroscience—our understanding of how the human brain works—is the latest discipline to grasp this interpretive baton. Jonah Lehrer, author of an intriguing book, Proust was a Neuroscientist (on how great artists were the first to map the mental processes that science is only now beginning to grapple with), has written a series of posts on his blog, The Frontal Cortex, about an ongoing study of dreaming by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Lehrer calls their research “truly groundbreaking—the best account of dreaming since Freud.”

But it’s hard to see precisely what ground has been broken. One of the researchers, Matthew A. Wilson, ran experiments on rats negotiating mazes. “While a rat was running through one of them,” Lehrer writes, “Wilson measured clusters of neurons in the hippocampus with multiple electrodes surgically implanted in its brain. As he’d hypothesized, Wilson found that each maze produced its own pattern of neural firing. To figure out how dreams relate to experience, Wilson recorded input from these same electrodes while the rats were sleeping. Of the forty-five rat dreams recorded by Wilson, twenty contained an exact replica of the maze they had run earlier that day. ‘During REM sleep, we could literally see these rat brains relive minutes of their previous experience,’ Wilson says. ‘It was like they were watching a movie of what they had just done.’”

In a later post, Lehrer attempted to expand on what these experiments had turned up. “Why does the brain replay experience?” he asked. “Wilson and others argue that the dreaming rats are consolidating their new memories, embedding these fragile traces into the neural network. While we’re fast asleep, the mind is sifting through the helter-skelter of the day, trying to figure out what we need to remember and what we can afford to forget.”

Ignoring Lehrer’s sleight-of-hand segue from rat to human experience, it seems like rather meagre results for almost a decade of research. To be fair, neuroscience is still in its infancy. Through countless scanning experiments, we’ve amassed entire databases of information about the mechanics of the brain, but we’re still casting about for a persuasive, holistic explanation of what all that data implies in relation to how we live. Meanwhile, present among us are whole human populations who, like the rats at MIT, spent most of their lives inside the mazes and wire cages created by tyrannical regimes that subjected them to a humiliating array of Pavlovian experiments. Some of those human rats bolted and took up a glorious, liberated existence in the cesspools and byways of the freer world, where the helter-skelter of their days was infinitely more varied and full of risk than it had been inside the cage. Judging by their dreams, the escapees have collectively exhibited a pattern of neural activity that appears to recur over and over again, replaying their experience in the maze, as it were. Yet what is more important: Understanding the mechanics of dreams? Or understanding what it means to be a former maze rat, tormented by nightmares about ending up back in the cage? Maybe that’s what Wilson’s rats are dreaming. Perhaps it’s our human experience that illuminates the life of a rat, and not the other way around.

There is one field—medicine—in which the émigré dream may come under fruitful scrutiny; specifically as a symptom of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, defined as a state of pathological anxiety that typically develops after exposure to a psychological trauma. Usually, such traumas are quick and violent—rape or combat, for instance—and one of the leading indicators of PTSD are flashbacks or nightmares that reiterate the original violation. The émigré dream appears to fit the bill in that it’s a persistent flashback, but what exactly was the trauma that produced it?

To answer that, we need a course in Tyranny 101. The “stress” to which the citizen of a totalitarian state is subjected is not just the accidental byproduct of a good idea gone bad. It’s a carefully calibrated system of repression, deliberately and ruthlessly planned and executed. Some people—the hard nuts, the rebels, the non-conformists, the uncompromising, the incorrigible—are imprisoned, tortured, shot or otherwise ruined; their property is confiscated, their children are banned from higher education, they are forced into jobs for which they are not qualified. As “enemies of the state,” they experience the trauma of repression as an immediate, shocking assault, akin to rape, on their physical and psychological integrity.

The rest, the “silenced majority,” are meant to look upon this spectacle of humiliation and take it to heart, though once is not enough: the reminders of one’s true helplessness must be constant. This is why public life in a totalitarian state is an endless series of rituals. The most extreme is the show trial, the main purpose of which is not the trial itself, but the petition, which every citizen is forced to sign, demanding “just punishment” for the so-called traitors. Such ritual atrocities are not meant merely to terrify, they are also meant to implicate. Everyone is made to share in the violation, and this mass participation in evil produces its own special kind of humiliation, inevitably crippling people’s will to resist. The rest of life is filled with lesser rituals, from compulsory Mayday parades, compulsory birthday celebrations for revolutionary “heroes,” compulsory fund-raising drives to support foreign “liberation struggles,” to compulsory voting in elections in which there is no choice of candidates. Each of these rituals, repeated regularly and often, adds a drop of bitterness to the cup.

In the early life of a totalitarian regime, such tactics appear to succeed. As the system ages, however, its supporters grow weary and acquiescence becomes merely routine, though no less degrading and humiliating. It is trauma in slow motion, like Robert Frost’s “slow, smokeless burning of decay.” And it’s invisible to outsiders, who often mistake people’s passive, sloganistic expressions of loyalty for the real thing. When I first went to Czechoslovakia in 1967, I was unaware of this general misery. The Prague Spring was looming, the thaw was tangible and people were happy that the awful pressures they had lived with for almost two decades appeared to be easing. In 1968 Soviet tanks crushed people’s hopes, and that trauma was followed by twenty more years of slow decay.

Such are the wounds the people of “the dream” carry around with them.

It was during this period that I heard the story of a young man, which I took to be emblematic. He wanted out, but was determined to play by the rules. Again and again he would apply for an exit permit, and each time the police would ask him why he wanted to leave. Each time his answer was, “Because I want to live like a human being.” I don’t know if he ever made it out, but I think of that story every time I hear someone say that the desire for freedom is what drives people to revolt. In my experience, the desire for simple dignity and justice is far more powerful. Recently, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the crowds may have chanted for freedom, but in one-on-one interviews with demonstrators, the words I heard most often were, “We want our dignity back.”

There were many reasons for the sudden collapse of communism in 1989, but one stands out: when the apparatus that had sustained the system fell apart, the fear and humiliation that had kept people silent for all those years vanished, too, and the people found their voice. A few days after the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, I went back. By the end of the year, the totalitarian police state was gone. The Iron Curtain, the thousands of miles of barbed wire and watchtowers and electric fence that had stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic, was torn down. I stopped having the dream at the same time, and have not had it since. The dream, along with the system that gave rise to it, simply vanished into history.

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