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The Field of Dreams
Dreams and visions...in what way do they exist?
There are a few key words in the summary description that quite possibly make the riddle easy to solve, such as 'frightening' or 'recur.' If one deduced the answer is a dream, he would be correct. It is intriguing that how those few descriptions seem to be universal indicators for what eludes to dreams or visions. Although sometimes quite different, they can be hotly debated and definitely timeless. Dreams and visions are written about, scientifically studied, and philosophically interpreted. One may ask what the difference is between a dream and a vision and another may reply that there is no difference. Yet, another may explain that visions are premonitions to the future and dreams may not necessarily be so. Further, another may say that neither dreams nor visions exist and the people who speak of them are merely mentally disturbed. This intense debate is a primary field of interest in modern psychological research and a highly entertaining theme of literature throughout history. Dreams and visions are elemental to all genres of literature and culture which authors, poets and playwrights attribute to numerous foundations. This article will explore the scientific approach to dreams and visions, illuminate their use in literature throughout the ages and ascribe their literary importance to one specific culture, which is that of the Native Americans.
Freud and Jung
The founding father of dream interpretation is scientist, neurologist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. In his work The Interpretation of Dreams, he says, “…dreaming is not a psychic activity at all, but a somatic process which makes itself known to the psychic apparatus by means of symbols” (8). In short, Freud believed that dreams did have meaning and that this meaning could be free associated through the use of symbols in the person’s dream. He thought that dreams directly stemmed from personal experience and shouldn’t be looked at as a whole but rather in piece, such as symbols. When a person attempts to recollect a dream, it is wholly distorted and therefore the meaning is lost. He explains, “The question whether every dream can be interpreted is to be answered in the negative. One should not forget that in the work of interpretation one is opposed by the psychic forces that are responsible for the distortion of the dream” (382). These psychic forces include one’s level of intelligence, amount of self-control and the experience he has with dream interpretation in which to refer as a groundwork of interpretation. A reader can easily refute this argument when analyzing Native American literature, as often times this culture will interpret a dream or vision wholly and without regard to the individual who experienced it. This truth is evident in the work of Native American authors who intertwine dreams and visions in their literary work and go forward to explain historically how interpretation is done within a given Native American tribe.
Scientifically modifying Freud’s findings is his protégé, Carl Jung. Jung argued that dreams were partly made up of memories which are shared by all mankind. Basically, a person not only has his own symbols, memories and images but also that there are imbedded memories and images that all of mankind have in common. He called these images “archetypes.” He also believed differently in that “…the pattern or structure of a dream had as much significance as the separate symbols” (Persoon and Watson par. 6). He thought that dream analysis should be done using it as a whole, which is comparable to the process that Native Americans used when interpreting the dreams and visions that many individuals had. This culture utilized dreams and visions to not only explain current events that were happening in their lives but also to predict events of the future. The specific individual(s) who a tribe turned to listened to the description of the dream or vision and used the images and blueprint to make a determination of its meaning.
The use of dreams and visions in the life of a Native American and Native American author is dramatically different than the times of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Poe. Author James Welch emphasizes the importance of dreams in his work The Heartsong of Charging Elk. The primary character, an Oglala Sioux Native American named Charging Elk, experiences many dreams and visions that he refers to in order to maintain his sanity as well as determine the outcome of his people. The reader has a feel for how Welch relies on the significance of dreams and visions throughout the novel in order to describe the Native American culture. “The dream haunted him for several days. It was not a question of understanding the dream but of not believing it” (236). As a reader will determine, Charging Elk and his tribe felt dreams and visions had a significant impact on their lives and were not meant to be taken lightly. In a quite different aspect, N. Scott Momaday gives the character Set a number of visions that a reader may eventually interpret to be hallucinations in his work The Ancient Child. This novel emphasizes the cultural and spiritual characteristics of the Native American lifestyle while intertwining facets of a modern civilization. It is a coming-of-age story about an artist, Locke Setman, who eventually finds his way back to his Navajo roots due to the spiritual forces invoked by a young Navajo medicine woman. Part of the invocation brings to Set many different visions and dreams which disturb him greatly, not knowing the root cause of them. Momaday writes, “Set thought he must be going mad; there were moments when he was absolutely convinced of it; there were such strange and disturbing visions in his head, such impulses to violence, such pain” (214). As Set comes to terms with his ancestral call, he undergoes dramatic personality changes. Historical documents will concur with what Momaday writes in that many times Native Americans experienced a great deal of what science would call hallucinations during their dreams and vision quests. It is widely known that Native Americans placed great importance on their dreams and visions when reaching the period of adulthood, when there was a time of war or sorrow and with the retelling of tribal legend and folklore.
The dreams and visions so intensely studied in science are done similarly in the realm of literature. A literature student will encounter all genres and time periods of literary works and will be able to ascertain commonalities within them. One theme will be the element of dreams. Not only can they be subject matter but one will attempt to analyze if the product of an author, poet or playwright is due to a dream or vision he experienced. It seems throughout history, dreams and visions were used differently and literature points to many avenues. One is that dreams were irrational and insignificant. The other, and more commonly inferred, is that dreams were symbolic and prophetic. As works of art such as literature is seem to evoke subconscious feelings and ideas, it is quite palpable to compare them to dreams and visions like many literary critics do. For example, in his work Dreams in Literature, Edward Quinn states, “The medieval expression of this view took the form of the dream vision, a narrative poem, in which the narrator describes a dream that has clearly allegorical implications” ( par. 3) Quinn describes how literary works produced during the medieval era are distinctly different from those produced both before and after in that often the author will bring the characters back to harmony with the world around them thereby using the narrative symbols and allegory to represent an idea or feeling. In contrast, the dramas during the Elizabethan era used dreams and visions as a plot device often seen by readers in the works of Shakespeare. The use of dreams and visions bring the supernatural to the experiences of the characters and add a facet of mysteriousness for the audience. Finally, the modern view is similar to that of Freud in that dreams are wishes and desires of the subconscious and must be interpreted systematically and symbolically. A reader will define a literary work by attributing its meaning to the unconscious feelings of the author, although as difficult as that may be at times. It seems modern day analysis will not only tear apart the literary work itself but also the author who produced it. In order to get a grasp on what the drama, novel or poem is saying, one must have a firm handle on the personality and lifetime of its creator. For example, the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe are still analyzed in today’s classrooms but the work itself is never fully realized without knowing the problematic life that Poe led as both a person and an author. The disturbing imagery he wrote about is easily ascribed to the mental instability he had as a person.
As one will experience his own dreams and visions, he will be compelled to determine the meaning of them and from where they came. Are they prophetic or merely the result of a stressful day? Is it a recurring dream or déjà vu? Does everyone else have dreams that are similar? Science will continue to determine the answers to these questions as literature continues to entertain with them. Dreams and visions are neither culturally specific nor contained within one genre of literature although some, like the Native Americans and the literary work they produce, will continue to stand apart from their counterparts by the way they attribute significance, interpretation and sharing of the dreams and visions of their people. Here’s a riddle: Everyone has me, whether they admit to it or not. I can be frightening and I can be drug induced. I can be a glimpse of ecstasy and I can recur on a regular basis. What am I?