How We Dream During
S.D. Chrostowska on Sleeplessness and Surreality
One of the symptoms of the coronavirus is abysmal fatigue. Abysmal is the first word that comes to mind when I recall looking at myself in the mirror two months ago. Friends’ feedback confirmed that the grey circles under my eyes were unusual, but no one seemed especially concerned. They went well with a writer’s romantic persona, some said, resurrecting the cliché of the consumptive poet kept up by turbulent passions and lucubration, drained of vitality by decadence and spleen, watching over humanity while it slept. I laughed and, until recently, thought no more of the fatigue briefly taking over my face.
When has a virus stopped a civilization from sleepwalking into an insomniac future? Never. There is no reason it should come to our rescue now. You might object that you are sleeping longer and better than ever. But this new pleasure is temporary, unlikely to survive the return to normal. The system we live in is sleep’s mortal enemy. It is not set up for it.
We are being robbed of dreamlife—of dream-dreams—as we progressively cut down on sleep to free up attention for work, maximizing wakefulness to capitalize on it. In order to survive or succeed, we are doing it to ourselves. And as one total mobilization follows another, we will work overtime to cure a depressed economy.
Is this why living the viral present often feels like a reprieve? Is this why we are dreaming more and suddenly paying attention to what we dream: to its utter unpredictability as well as the continuity of dreamlife with a reality in the throes of a pandemic? Reality seeps into our dreams undertow-like or explicit, turning us into nocturnal hand-sanitizer thieves, or, more surreally, the makers of face masks out of shrunken chairs.
Since the start of the storm, online archives and articles about “lockdown dreams” have mushroomed. For many, this is a traumatic time. But things have been getting steadily more bizarre since at least 2016, when Merriam-Webster chose surreal as its Word of the Year (trumping fascism). We may be at a loss for words; surreal has got us covered. It is historically one of the most popular after a tragedy. Its lay sense, “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” captures our everyday life in 2020, between the pandemic, nuclear threats, conspiracy theories, and climate change.It is, after all, not the end of the world. And even if the old world does end, another one will take over.
The discontinuity between “before” and “after” Covid is distinctly dreamlike, as if we had drifted straight from a stormy teacup into the uncharted waters of a nightmarish era. Things get surreal when the real resembles the dreamt or when a dream persists after one wakes up.
Today’s practicing surrealists—rather than just heirs to a historical movement—roll their eyes at the popular usage of their epithet. André Breton, surrealism’s founder and central figure, owns its technical definition. He described it “once and for all” (as he says) in his first Manifesto of 1924 as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Of its philosophy, he wrote:
Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
Breton was already then dreaming of an Encyclopedia of Surrealism that would, naturally, conform to its definition and itself be surreal. This was long before the aesthetic-political movement born in Paris in the 1920s went international, spreading across Europe, to North and South America, and beyond, the neologism roaming like a virus, if a benign one.
But who exactly coined the term surreal? A lookup in the Oxford English Dictionary draws a blank. Surrealist lore, however, points to Apollinaire. It is a little-known fact that Breton (often mistaken for “surrealist zero”) might have been beaten to a final word on the matter by Yvan Goll, a minor Expressionist poet. Goll’s own surrealist manifesto, shorter on ideas and published in the same month of October, touted the new movement as “the expression of our epoch,” one that “takes into account the symptoms that characterize it: it is direct, intensive . . . not content with being the means of expression of one group or one country. . . . It signifies health, and will easily repel the tendencies to decomposition and morbidity that emerge wherever something is being constructed.”
Sounding shrill prophetic notes, Goll forecast that “the art of entertainment, ballets and music hall, curious and picturesque art, art based on exoticism and eroticism, strange and unsettling art, self-centered art, art that is frivolous and decadent, will soon have ceased to amuse a generation that, after the war, needs to forget.”
Although surrealists do not care for the vulgar use of surreal, and cheer when dreams and waking life intersect, they do not wish, any more than you or I do, for the real to be “surreal” indeterminately. For them, surreality is reality that is subversive, droll, extraordinary—a defense against suffering, drudgery, and uniformity. Yet some continue to share Breton’s vision of “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” It is, then, not a matter of denying what exists, but of adding to it. “The dream,” after all—as Gérard de Nerval, one of surrealism’s great 19th-century precursors—put it, “is a second life.”
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the dreams of those suffering from nervous disorders are treated as symptoms. Anyone unable to face reality retires to the world of dreams as to Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols,” from which the analyst draws the diagnosis of a pathological or an undesirable condition.
With Breton’s Second Manifesto, surrealism challenged this passivity, quiescence, and complicity of the mentally ill: if an individual has any artistic gift whatsoever, “which is psychologically so mysterious,” they can transform their dreams into artistic creations instead of into symptoms, and, in so doing, “escape the fate of neurosis and, through this detour, make contact with reality.”
The temptation to search for happiness in dreamlife—including both nocturnal dreams and fantasy—arises because reality so often satisfies so little. But what if, instead of returning to dreams, we could turn our dreams into reality? What if reality could satisfy us? Would we even need dreams then? Stéphane Mallarmé once remarked that we could easily do without sleep. “Sleep is really not a necessity. It is a grace.”What if, instead of returning to dreams, we could turn our dreams into reality?
If only we could turn our dreams into reality . . . goes the generic refrain of wishful thinking. This wish, this dream silently intoned, which so many of us are having nowadays, throws into relief the meaning of Yeats’ words, “In dreams begins responsibility.” We might have heard it put more bluntly: “Be careful what you wish for.” Be careful, whoever you are: corona or no corona, crown or no crown. Be careful, as in, devote thought and attention to what you would have become reality.
Over the coming weeks and months, our dreams are likely to grow darker and more anxiety-ridden. They will feature aspects of our new reality, from which we have every reason to flee into fantasy. Before, however, we look upon dreams with the cold eye of the social analyst, seeing in them the symptoms not of a virus but of human decline and failure to support our planet, and before, bored with our toys of mass distraction, we choose dreams as a refuge where we no longer have to think about what’s going on, we might embrace our dreamworld as the imagination’s intimate playground. Or—in the utilitarian language to which we are still attached—see it as a tool with which to envision what comes next. What comes after the lockdown? What world would we like to see at the other end?
As we stay home, spending more time with our own and others’ fantasies about what we will do after the crisis, we should be on the lookout for happy dreams in which we are not the protagonists. I want to call these dreams utopian, because they are social and implicitly include everyone. Still, they are not utopias in the classical sense of being images of an ideal or a significantly better social order. They do not cause us sleepless nights as we build virtual worlds in hopes of finding a solution to generalized unhappiness in some perfectly specious redesign of society, nor do they give us headaches as we act in furtherance of our hopelessly biased grand plans. We are probably likelier to stumble on a solution when asleep.
So why not sleep through it all, for as long as we can physically manage? A year of rest and relaxation is a wonderful premise for a novel. A dream come true even. Time off, time-out, time-out-of-time . . . It can be salubrious to so radically lose track. It can also be disorienting. When things fall apart around us (then again, when are they not?) and unless we are battling an active infection, sleeping immoderately, while not irresponsible per se, is depressive and unsustainable.
The “small sleep” many are getting their fill of these days has other things to offer. It is not for self-soothing and beauty that we now so desperately need to catch some z’s. It’s to solve problems. We must sleep on the problems with society before we can tackle them. And to really fix things, we must be awake. We want to be around and alert when a world ends—this world of the lockdown, with its makings of a new world order. In such circumstances especially, cutting down on sleep can be just as bad as overindulging in it—bad for us and bad for society. We must sleep for the sake of those who sleep rough, to be there for them when they awaken.
In self-exile, Breton waited out the Second World War in the US. The eerie prescience of his “Letter to Seers,” from 1925, still amazes: “action seduces me also in its own way, and . . . I have the highest possible opinion of experience, since I endeavor to experience what I have not done! There are people who claim that the war taught them something; even so they aren’t as far along as I am, since I know what the year 1939 has in store for me.”
To publicly predict to the year (if not in so many words) the outbreak of World War II more than a decade prior is no small feat. Though his source be a fortuneteller and the prediction obscure, Breton here proved a seer as well as a visionary.We must sleep for the sake of those who sleep rough, to be there for them when they awaken.
Today, we find ourselves thrown in a situation that is in many ways the opposite of his, or so it would seem. The world is coming together to fight a war against a non-human enemy that attacks indiscriminately and kills the most vulnerable. To survive, we are not forced into exile but simply required and morally compelled to stay where we are, while governments do their best to look after us, our sick, and our dead.
There are as many prognoses as there are failed predictions. In this surreal spring, our new normal, we foresee having less to worry about later than we have now. Onto the horizon at the end of the tunnel we project a false sense of security. It is, after all, not the end of the world. And even if the old world does end, another one will take over. Things will eventually fall into place. Already we celebrate coronavirus survivors as superheroes (forgetting the heroism of antibodies).
Unlike fever, cough, shortness of breath, and diarrhea, which we can by now recite in our sleep, the neurological symptoms of Covid-19 are still shrouded in mystery. Apparently infrequent, they also tend to occur in the early stages of infection. According to the clinical data, they may include cerebrovascular problems such as loss or impairment of the senses of taste (ageusia), smell (anosmia), and touch (analgesia), altered consciousness, confusion and somnolence, muscular weakness and the absence of reflexes in the feet and legs.
I remember running, last winter, to catch a subway train. It was about to leave, but I was convinced I could make it, without overestimating my strength. Nearly there, on the home stretch, I suddenly felt my legs grow heavy, truly leaden, as in a dream about running where you fail to make any headway. It was the first time that my will outstripped my body, with dire consequences.
Seconds later, I lay stretched out on the platform, my left arm elbow-deep in the gap I didn’t have time to mind—beneath the train. And as in a dream, someone, a watchful stranger, stepped out and signaled the accident to the driver just in time to save my arm, possibly saving my life. Many a brush with the big sleep takes the form of a waking nightmare.
In the moments that followed, I may have expressed my gratitude too effusively (the shock put a gap in my memory). In hindsight, I should not have gotten as close as I did to the onlookers. In the irony that is life, I may have contaminated the very person who helped me up, passing on the virus that so surreally felled me, and that I did not even suspect myself of carrying.
I hope he did not catch my bad luck—falling ill or falling down, or falling down ill. Of course, without a serological test, I have no way of knowing for certain that I contracted the virus and escaped with nary a scratch. Half-knowing makes the ritual masking and hand-washing that much more surreal. It’s as though I merely dreamt it.
S.D. Chrostowska is the author of, most recently, The Eyelid, published by Coach House Press.