Sometimes—when I’m really tired—falling asleep reading or watching a movie doesn’t stop the story. My dreaming brain carries the plot forward and Macbeth meets a cousin who takes him to a loud but terribly run-down amusement park or Sully of Monsters Inc. repairs to a laboratory to work out the exact laughter-to-energy ratio to assure the imminent Holiday promotion will still make money. Any story can become Groundhog Day, as the last page or minute of consciousness walks into walls, backs up, and walks into them again.
Recently, reading a science fiction novel before bed, I dreamt its main character escaped his troubles by taking a rocket to the international space station and staying there, circling and circling in floating bliss. He wasn’t alone. A cranky Russian occasionally appeared with hectoring messages, but my new astronaut generally resisted any demand on his time or attention. He might have stayed there until morning, but he was due to check into a swanky hotel in an unspecified location. And then I was standing in its lobby, awed by the lush purples, blues, and reds of it complicated carpet, the golden glow of its fin de siècle fixtures. After the bright sterile white and brushed steel of the space station, all the colors and candlelit patches seemed wet. Somewhere in there—I couldn’t say when—the character became me.
Dreams are more transparent to others than they are to you, which is why telling them presents dangers. English teachers especially excel at picking out prominent symbols and translating them. When one student says to another, “You were in my dream last night!” I want to stop them there. That key he tried to get into a lock isn’t a key, and that lock gives me good reason to start class right then. And you don’t have to be an English teacher to read dreams.
Other people must comprehend my dreams as readily. But don’t bother. I think I understand. In fact, I’d love to reverse the process and speak in dream, to transform the vocabulary of daily life into a-logical analogues. Maybe that’s what fiction is, dreams cleaned up enough to fit in this world.
I fell asleep last night during Moonlight Kingdom and found myself in a world where everything lurked. Every person watched, and every statement paused on the brink of revelation. No one said exactly what he or she meant, but their expressions said they meant something. And it all seemed so yellow, as if dawn had never quite dawned and, like some Swedish summer, might never reach dark. I felt unfulfilled because I didn’t have glasses and everyone else did. Though I could see fine, I searched relentlessly as others talked about mysterious departures coming up soon. I was going to miss something. Yet, looking for my glasses, my vision became too foggy to pick them out of the crowded surfaces I scanned. I was in a Wes Anderson I Spy book and wanted out… or in… I’m not sure which.
My wife tapped my shoulder to say I should go to bed, and I did. But, just as consciousness infects dreams, the reverse occurs as well. In those groggy moments, life and fiction commingle and it all seems invented instead of perceived. I wonder what might happen if I dropped off during Awakenings, the Robin Williams film about the doctor who revives patients who have lived in stupors for years. Would I dream I was fully aware at last, face to face with pure reality?
Probably not. Chuang Tzu says Chang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly and flew around in utter joy from blossom to blossom not knowing he was Chuang Chou. And then he woke up. He knew he was Chuang Chou then, but he didn’t know if the butterfly dreamt Chuang Chou or the other way around. Clearly, some distinction separated the two states, but he couldn’t say which was true.
Where am I translating and where am I reading reality’s hard surfaces? It might be better not to think about it. Perhaps our dreams aren’t telling us something. Perhaps they are something. Perhaps our interpretations are the dreams.