We all have our peculiarities, some of which we prefer to conceal while choosing to broadcast others. One of my quirks, if it can be called that, is that I have been fascinated by sleep and dreams ever since I was a small boy in the 1950s. When I was about eight years old, I saw the Devil in a dream so powerful, it left a lifelong impression. In seventh grade, I checked out a Freud omnibus from the Pomona Public Library, digested his interpretations of dreams, and pronounced him ridiculous, a judgment I was never required to modify. Over the years, I have read an absurd number of books about sleep and dreams—most recently, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, by David M. Peña-Guzmán. (By the way, it’s fascinating to compare the title of that book with one I reviewed for The Lamp Magazine last year, When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep, by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold.) Some of these are only tangentially relevant (Omnia El Shakry’s The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, for instance); I just can’t help myself.
In that piece for The Lamp (a delicious magazine that you should check out if you haven’t already), I mentioned that “geriatric” sleep and dreaming get short shrift from researchers and writers, a striking deficiency of which I became aware only when my wife Wendy and I entered our seventies, in 2018. We seem to dream as much as we always have, so far as we can tell, but—as I reported—the quality of our dreaming is markedly inferior. How strange, at a time when so much is written about our aging population (much of it repetitious drivel, to be sure), that this subject has been relatively neglected.
Of course (you may have had the same thought already), in addition to being a compelling subject for research, this could serve as the premise for a satirical novel. True, it would for the most part appeal only to older readers, but as we are reminded ad nauseum, there are a lot of us. Maybe a good but aging novelist could go enjoyably wild and achieve an unlikely bestseller. (When Brains Dream suggests the possibilities: sleep labs! What could go wrong?) And in an entirely different vein, it would be lovely to have a slim philosophical meditation on sleep in old age, to put on the bedside shelf next to Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep.
As a modest public service, perhaps serving to prime the pump, here are a few mostly firsthand reports. It’s interesting that in my dreams, I am never old (nor am I very young). I honestly can’t remember even a single exception. Rather, I am an indeterminate age, neither “old” (as I am now in truth) nor “young” (as I once was). Wendy says much the same, though now and then she has a dream in which she is a girl. My dreams now tend to be much more fragmentary, less “well-shaped,” than they used to be; often I can hardly remember them when I wake up, whereas in the past I could often remember them in some detail. I do not have as many truly “good” dreams as I used to, but blessedly they do come now and then, leaving a sense of great felicity and thankfulness.
I am convinced that there are times when God speaks to us through dreams, as he did in many instances revealed in Scripture. In the course of a lifetime, I have experienced a few such, which I will not relate here. (I know also that, fallible as we are, we believers are capable of imagining a divine communication that is no such thing.) We have had many missionary friends over the years, who have been serving in a great variety of places; it is striking how many of them have recounted instances in which someone not yet a “Christian” has seen Jesus in a dream and has come to faith thereby. I have several close friends here in the United States who were led to faith by the agency of dreams.
For all the foolishness and deception and sheer twaddle attaching to dreams (we all know that sinking feeling when someone is about to recount a dream to us), it is a great error to dismiss or belittle this dimension of our experience.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Artwork by Antonio de Pereda is in the public domain. Image cropped.