Roger Rosenblatt on Dreams

July 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers the art of dreaming.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: That is what is said by Dr. Rodolfo Linus, chief of physiology and neuroscience at New York University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Linus has been studying brain cells for nearly 40 years, and the conclusion of his study is that the brain dreams. That is what it does.

Dreams Dr. Linus breaks down into three categories: At night sleep dreams are dreams, the pure item. In the daytime, when we are conscious, dreams are daydreams. When we are awake and are focusing on something, dreaming is called thinking. But one way or another the brain is always in the state of mysterious wandering, so mysterious, Dr. Linus believes, that the imitations of reality the brain creates are beyond our comprehension.

In other words, while it is we who dream, we dream beyond ourselves. I guess this news should come as no great surprise when we consider the complex and baffling processes of art. Every painting–be it on a cave or a canvas–is a dream scape–some fluid combination of dreams, daydreams and thinking in which reality is at once acknowledged and imagined. Music is dreaming notated. Music probably comes the closest to the brain’s pure dreams because it begins and ends in the air.

Novels, poems, plays emerge from someone’s private and idiosyncratic mix of neurons, whence would the stuff of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Yates derive but from heightened states of dreaming. One ponders dreams beyond dreams, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

The curious counterweight to all this expansive creativity is that we usually claim that dreams are a bad idea. As a kid in school, if you were lost in a daydream, you’d be told to get back to planet Earth, that terrible boring classroom, even though planet Earth was where you least wanted to be.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream today.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It seems that we live to dream and at the same time are ashamed of dreams, or regard them as a means, rather than an end. Martin Luther King, Jr., could exhort us to have a dream today, but his implication was that the dream would only be of value when transformed into reality.

What Dr. Linus says, in contrast, is that dreaming is our reality; that a place of reverie is where we live. We may not dream up the news, but we dream into the news. Who is Timothy McVeigh? What train of thought or feeling runs between those shuttered eyes? Who is Tiger Woods, Kelly Flinn, Bill Clinton?

They are, themselves, and they are also our dreams of them. We are all Alice. Every event is a beckoning rabbit: A remark, an idea, another person, a room, a house, an entire city becomes a Rorschach test, whose shape is defined by our reactions to it. In short, we are collections of inner-driftings. Of course, Freud said this of us a long time ago, but he was looking to relieve us of the very condition that Dr. Linus says is our natural state.

The human brain is a dreaming machine. Who would doubt it? Be all that we have dreamed: symphonies, wars, hat, baseball, love affairs, government, gardens, theories about the brain, itself; a trillion creations produced by a nomadic organism wobbling around in a package of bone. You sit there tolerating a talking head on a TV screen.

But your brain has better places to go, and so it takes flight and soars around the universe as you remain stock still. So, indeed, does mine. We gaze at each other as occupants of each other’s dream, or of someone else’s dream. Whose dream is that?

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.