Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Other People’s Dreams

Keep it to yourself

Gabriel Coxhead

There are, anthropologists tell us, cultures in which dreams are valued as repositories of knowledge and meaning, and people are encouraged to divulge their dream experiences to others. Contemporary Western culture, needless to say, is not one of those. For us, instead, recounting an episode from a recent night’s dreaming has become, if not quite taboo, then certainly a kind of faux pas, an act of self-centeredness that marks the teller out as socially oblivious or unsophisticated. We have paid specialists—psychoanalysts—to listen to our dreams; but outside that setting, the sharing of dream experiences is typically regarded as a form of conversational torture, something that friends and family have to endure out of politeness while inwardly dying of boredom. And this is no mere commonplace boredom, but a veritable existential anguish, a level of tedium that numbs the mind and erodes the soul: the boredom by which all other boredoms are measured. To cite what might be called the classic formulation: nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams. (Except that this very maxim has become such a cliché that perhaps we might expand upon it slightly: nothing is as boring as stating that nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams.)

As to when this particular anti-oneiric trope originally dates from, it’s surely bound up with the Enlightenment emergence of rationalist values, and the disparagement of what were seen as pre-scientific modes of understanding—even, of course, as traces of pre-scientific beliefs often survived in some form. In the Victorian era, for instance, dream almanacs and books offering vatic interpretations of dream symbols became hugely popular bestsellers. Yet this very same strain of bourgeois romanticism was sent up in George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody (1892), where the narrator Charles Pooter’s account of “an extraordinary dream I had a few nights ago” is met by his friend Gowing’s observation that “there was nothing so completely uninteresting as other people’s dreams,” and even his wife complains that he “tells me his stupid dreams every morning nearly.”

In literary terms, probably the most famous injunction against dream narration, and a staple of fiction-writing workshops, is “Tell a dream, lose a reader”—a dictum usually ascribed to Henry James (though I’ve come across attributions to other authors too, including Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike). The notion is less about boredom, exactly, and more about the effect a dream sequence might have on a work’s overall structure. If fiction—traditional narrative fiction, at least—requires the suspension of disbelief on the part of a reader, a willingness to trust the reality of the story, then the concern is that a dream sequence, by bringing in a note of invention and fantasy, implicitly undermines this illusion of truth and weakens the reader’s investment in the text.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.