Sunday, April 26, 2020

The one realm of free expression

Most mornings I wake with my body full of tension, as if I've been clenching my jaw and my fists all night.

One night this week I dreamt I went to a party. It was in something like a gallery space. I was only there because a man I have a crush on (but who is off limits) was in attendance. But I wouldn't leave the ground level because I refused to take the elevator, which I assumed would be virus-infested. Which meant I was essentially acting as greeter for people I didn't know at a party I didn't really want to be at. I stepped back from all the air kisses, puzzled that no one was talking about the elephant of the plague, as if it had never existed.

I recently stumbled across an article on How Dreams Change Under Authoritarianism, and it has spurred a new obsession — investigating my dreamlife. That life is typically closed to me — for most of my life, I have slept deeply and do not remember my dreams. My sleep over the last year or so has become restless — light, often interrupted, and inadequate — an effect of various stresses and preoccupations but also of aging and my changing body. But this month I am dreaming more.

Charlotte Beradt collected dreams in Nazi Germany, which were finally published in 1966.
The links between waking life and dreams are indisputable, even evidentiary. In an afterword, the Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim notes the collection's many prophetic dreams, in which, as early as 1933, "the dreamer can recognise deep down, what the system is really like."
See also Sharon Sliwinski's discussion, adapted from Dreaming in Dark Times.

Beradt's dreamers "grappled with collaboration and compliance, paranoia and self-disgust, even as, in waking life, they hid these struggles from others and themselves." I suspect we are also dreaming about compliance and paranoia. I don't mean to suggest that our quarantined lives are in any way comparable to the terror of the morally repugnant Third Reich. But pandemic means health and economic crises, with everyday stresses to cope with and moral imperatives to contemplate.

Surely the collective psyche of our society is in turmoil. Are we dreaming of life under lockdown, or after lockdown? Of our old life, or a better life?
At times, The Third Reich of Dreams also echoes Hannah Arendt, who saw totalitarian rule as "truly total the moment it closes the iron vice of terror on its subjects' private social lives." Beradt seems to agree with this premise — she understood dreams as continuous with the culture in which they occur — but she also presents dreams as the one realm of free expression that endures when private life falls under state control. Under such conditions, the dreamer can clarify what might be too risky to describe in waking life.
How does the stress of physical distancing with its associated enhanced need for emotional connectedness present in dreams?

Yesterday, there was a puff of a bee outside on the stairs up to my apartment, dead I thought, but when I went back down to bring up another load of bags, I noticed it was still moving. When we went out for a walk later in the day it was gone. That must be how the bees got into this morning's dream. There was a bee on my mother's kitchen counter, it was slow, like it was drunk, but I managed to wave it through the front door. Then there was another that emerged from between the fruit on the counter, it looked bright and young, but it struggled to fly at all, I trapped it under a glass and took it outside. I started turning over everything in my mother's kitchen. I knew the bees were back from wherever they'd disappeared to, but they are all sick and dying.

What are you dreaming these days?

(Deborah Levy dreamt a pangolin walked into her bathroom.)

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