No One Cares About Your Dreams—Unless You’re a Famous Writer
Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath and more on their nighttime visions
It’s true: no one likes to listen to other people describe their dreams. It’s unfair, of course, because pretty much everyone loves to describe their dreams—even if they’re too polite to do so most of the time. (Is this a flaw of evolution?) That said, it’s certainly fair to say that the dreams of some are more interesting than the dreams of others, and the dreams of artists (in this case writers, because hey, look around) fall into that former camp. After stumbling upon Katherine Mansfield describing the dream she had about a “very shabby” Oscar Wilde, I wondered what else my favorite authors spent their sleeping hours dreaming about. Some of them chronicled their dreams in journals—others, less polite, wrote about them at length in letters to their friends.
Katherine Mansfield dreams of Oscar Wilde:
In a café, Gertler met me. “Katherine you must come to my table. I’ve got Oscar Wilde there. He’s the most marvelous man I ever met. He’s splendid!” Gertler was flushed. When he spoke of Wilde he began to cry—tears hung on his lashes but he smiled.
Oscar Wilde was very shabby. He wore a green overcoat. He kept tossing & tossing back his long greasy hair with the whitest hand. When he met me he said, “Oh Katherine!”—very affected. But I did find him a fascinating talker. So much so I asked him to come to my home. He said would 12.30 tonight do? When I arrived home it seemed madness to have asked him. Father & Mother were in bed. What if Father came down & found that chap Wilde in one of the chintz armchairs? Too late now. I waited by the door. He came with Lady Ottoline. I saw he was disgustingly pleased to have brought her. Dear Lady Ottoline & Ottoline in a red hat on her rust hair “hounyhming” along. He said “Katherine’s hand—the same gentle hand!” as he took mine. But again when we sat down—I couldn’t help it. He was attractive—as a curiosity. He was fatuous & brilliant!
“You know Katherine when I was in that dreadful place I was haunted by the memory of a cake. It used to float in the air before me—a little delicate thing stuffed with cream and with the cream there was something scarlet. It was made of pastry and I used to call it my little Arabian Nights cake. But I couldn’t remember it by name. Oh, Katherine it was torture. It used to hang in the air and smile at me, and every time I resolved that next time they let some one come and see me I would ask them to tell me what it was but every time, Katherine, I was ashamed. Even now … ”
I said “milles feuilles à la creme?” At that he turned round in the armchair and began to sob, and Ottoline who carried a parasol opened it and put it over him . . . From a November 1920 letter to her husband, John Middleton Murry, published in The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield and reprinted in The Paris Review.
Vladimir Nabokov dreams of seeking butterflies with a spoon:
23 NOV 1964, 6:45 A.M.: End of a long “butterfly” dream which started after I had fallen asleep following upon a sterile awakening at 6:15 A.M. Have arrived (by funicular?) at a collecting ground of timberland (in Switzerland? in Spain?), but in order to get to it have to cross the hall of a large gay hotel. Very spry and thin, dressed in white, skip down the steps on the other side and find myself on the marshy border of a lake. Lots of bog flowers, rich soil, colorful, sunny, but not one single butterfly (familiar sensation in dream). Instead of a net, am carrying a huge spoon—cannot understand how I managed to forget my net and bring this thing—wonder how I shall catch anything with it. Notice a kind of letter box open on the right side, full of butterflies somebody has collected and left there. One is alive—a marvelous aberration of the Green Fritillary, with unusually elongated wings, the green all fused together and the brown of an extraordinary variegated hue. It eyes me in conscious agony as I try to kill it by pinching its thick thorax—very tenacious of life. Finally slip it into a morocco case—old, red, zippered. Then realize that all the time a man camouflaged in some way is seated next to me, to the left, in front of the receptacle in which the butterflies are, and prepares a slide for the microscope. We converse in English. He is the owner of the butterflies. I am very much embarrassed. Offer to return to the Fritillary. He declines with polite halfheartedness. From Vladimir Nabokov’s private papers, as published in The New Yorker.
Ernest Hemingway dreams of war:
I have bad dreams every night about this retreat. Really awful ones in the greatest detail. It is strange because I never had any ever in Spain about anything that happened. Only the always recurring one about getting out of the trucks and having to attack without knowing where the objectives were and no one to explain the positions. Last night I was caught in this retreat again in the goddamndest detail. I really must have a hell of an imagination. That’s why should always make up stories—not try to remember what happened. From a 1936 letter to Max Perkins, published in Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961.
. . . and also sex:
I usually dream about whatever am doing at the time or what I have read in the paper; i.e. run into grizzly with wrong caliber shells for rifle; trigger spring sometimes broken, etc. when shooting; sometimes shoot very large animal of some kind I’ve never seen; or very detailed fighting around Madrid, house to house fighting, etc., after the paper; or even find myself in bed with Mrs. S . . . (not too good). Have had lovely experiences with Miss Dietrich, Miss Garbo and others in dreams too, they always being awfully nice (in dreams). From a 1938 letter to Eugene Jolas, published in Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961.
Sylvia Plath dreams of matching children:
Dreamed last night of being a matron with seven daughters, like dolls, whom I was to dress in party dresses all graded rose-colors, yet I found blue and purple dresses among the yellow and pink. Great confusion. Have they their gloves, their pocketmoney in their pocketbooks. One daughter was large, blond, freckled, Adren Tapley, only how changed from her innocent youth. Dreamt also George Starbuck had a book of poems published by Houghton Mifflin, a spectacular book, full of fat substantial poems I hadn’t seen, called “Music Man.” The endpapers were decorated as in a children’s book, ducks, colored Jack Horners, etc. He also send an envelope full of profound jottings on scraps of paper: To my dear friends. Zany epigrams and the like. From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, in an entry dated May 18th.
. . . and of being published in The New Yorker:
Dreamt one dream I remember, as apposite and ironical to this morning’s mail. Read J.D. Salinger’s long “Seymour: An Introduction” last night and today, put off at first by the rant at the beginning about Kafka, Kierkegaard, etc., but increasingly enchanted. Dreamed, oh how amusedly, that I picked up a New Yorker, opened to about the third story (not in the back, this was important, but with a whole front page, on the right, to itself) and read “This Earth – – – That House, That Hospital” in the deeply endearing New Yorker-heading type, rather like painstakingly inked hand-lettering. Felt a heart palpitation (my sleep becomes such a reasonable facsimile of my waking life) and thought “That’s my title, or a corruption of it.” And of course, it is: an alteration of “This Earth Our Hospital” and either a very good or an abominable variation of it. Read on: my own prose: only it was the “Sweetie Pie” story, the back-yard tale, with the would-be Salinger child in it. Beuscher congratulating me. Mother turning away, saying: “I don’t know, I just can’t seem to feel anything about it at all.” Which shows, I think, that RB has become my mother. Felt radiant, a New Yorker glow lighting my face. Precisely analogous to that young British Society girl Susan who, after being deflowered in a canoe house, asks her handsome young deflowerer: Don’t I look Different? Oh, I looked different. A pale, affluent numbus emanating from my generally podgy and dough-colored face. From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, in an entry dated June 6th.
Saul Bellow dreams of Tolstoy (and also his own penis, of course):
Dream I: I identify Tolstoy as the driver of a beat-up white van on the expressway. I ask the old guy at the wheel of this crumbling van what he can do to keep his flapping door from banging against the finish of my car. When he leans over to the right I see that he is none other than Leo Tolstoy, beard and all. He invites me to follow him off the expressway to a tavern and he says, “I want you to have this jar of pickled herring.” He adds, “I knew your bother.” At the mention of my late brother I burst into tears.
Dream II: A secret remedy for a deadly disease is inscribed in Chinese characters on my penis. For this reason my life is in danger. My son Greg is guarding me in a California hideout from the agents of a pharmaceutical company, etc.
Dream III: I find myself in a library filled with unknown masterpieces by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and others. Titles I have never seen mentioned anywhere. In shock and joy I open a volume by Conrad and read several pages sentence after sentence after sentence in the old boy’s best style, more brilliant than ever. “WHy in hell was I never told about this?” I ask. Certain parties have been holding out on us. I am indignant. From a letter to Martin Amis, dated December 30th, 1990.
Kurt Vonnegut dreams of murder:
So I am embarrassed about the failure of my first marriage. I am embarrassed by my older relatives’ responses to my books. But I was embarrassed before I was married or had written a book. A bad dream I have dreamed for as long as I can remember may hold a clue. In that dream, I know that I have murdered an old woman a long time ago. I have led an exemplary life ever since. But now the police have come to get me, with incontrovertible evidence of my crime. This is more or less the plot of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, of course. By coincidence, Dostoevsky and I have the same birthday, too. From “Embarrassment,” as published in Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday.
Emily Dickinson dreams of bees:
Happiness is haleness. I dreamed last night I heard bees fight for pond-lily stamens, and waked with a fly in my room. From a letter to “the Misses” (her cousins), 1864.
Anaïs Nin dreams of perfect sensual and emotional harmony:
Dream: I am helping someone with her manuscript. The pages are in disorder, and she is distracted and confused. I finally organize them. I give them to her and say: “Now they are organized. There is a continuity.” She takes the manuscript and runs into the open country. She is playfully wrestling with a man, and the pages are scattered. I feel that she is happy and that it does not matter, but when we begin to look for the manuscript, we can’t find it. I am on a bicycle. She and the man are waiting for a bus. I am afraid I won’t find my way back. The man gives me directions. I was also about to teach school. I was nervous and unprepared. I finally decided I didn’t want to be tied down. The man (principal) was very well equipped. The mood of dream was of fogginess and effort to clarify. I was nursing someone. The same woman whose manuscript I worked on. Everything was gray.
Dream last night: The son of Gonzalo comes and we are in a perfect sensual and emotional harmony. I feel joy and fulfillment. We are one. But when I mention Gonzalo he is hostile and says: “My father was a slob.” I am shocked. I have the same feeling as when I defend the hippies, a guitar player a welfare woman called a bum at the Rank Society meeting. From an entry in The Diary of Anaïs Nin Volume 7 marked Winter 1972-1973.
Susan Sontag dreams of bad husbands and bad students:
Two dreams last night
—a man (my husband—mad?) trying to kill himself—opening the pipes—flooding the house (concrete blocks)—I escape with the child to the hill above—he follows, tricks me, takes the child down where they both die.
—a student denounces me (about [blank], etc.) in class. (Mr. Mall Wall?) I can’t understand why he hates me so. No one in the class supports me. It starts when he is playing the harmonica (very beautifully)—I begin talking, tell him to stop, but he doesn’t. I get angry + go + take it away from him. Return to front of the class. He takes out another harmonica. I tell him I will fail him. Then he speaks.
In the other class (C[olumbia] C[ollege]) there is a riot, too. I’m saying something mildly critical about America—suddenly all the students take out small square sheets of paper + set fire to them. (It’s a small auditorium.) There is perfect silence. I stop. Then I realize it’s a declaration, a signal, a hex. They’re all (four-fifths, I say later) members of a student fascist organization. I’m condemned.
Rest of the dream spent waiting in offices to see a dean, to explain. I find Friess. Then he turns into an old woman—he’s (she’s) busy, has to go home, but accompanies me, while I wait. I explain how surprised I am. In all the years I’ve been teaching nothing like this has ever happened—then two on the same day. I decide I will admit to ———when I was 16, but nothing more. From Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, in an entry dated March 26, 1963.
Zora Neale Hurston dreams of the actual future:
Last night, I had something between a dream and a vision in which you were with me and you were very playful, happy and affectionate as you were in our salad days. The dread prohibition to love you was removed, and I was excruciating happy as I used to be whenever you came in sight. This last sentence brings me to a matter which I do not think I have ever mentioned to you. That is, that I am the subject of the as yet unexplainable to psychiatrists, recurrent dreams. I keep mum about it because I fear people might look on me as being “tetched in the head.” However, science knows about this phenomena, but has found no explanation, since no basis can be found in past experience, memory, etc. but evolves on future happenings which never fail to come. They usually begin in early childhood, and cease when the thing dreamed of comes to pass, often far into adulthood.
Mine, a series of about a dozen scenes began when I was around six or seven, and all have come and passed except the last where I see myself approaching a huge building in two parts. I am expected, and there are a great many people about. There appear to be shops on the first floor of one part of the building, which is of stone. A series of rooms upstairs that might be classrooms or offices with many people in them. A dining room. There is a sort of passage with stairs that lead to the other building, and that I cannot see as yet. I keep trying to find the way there, where some pleasant experience waits for me, but somehow I get mixed up about the stairs and the passage. There is a railroad with a junction somewhere near at hand. The entire scene indicates that I am reaching some much-desired goal. But on the way to this big establishment, there is a body of water, not very large, and lying in a deep basin like a lagoon. I walk around it and come to the railroad, and in some mysterious way I am at the building. [in left margin:] I was not allowed to see details of the first building until recently.
Now, in last night’s dream, for the first time, you met me near the water, and we ran up the hill playing and very happy. Then you lifted me and carried me part of the way to the building where all the people were and we mingled with them. Then you said that you had a pain in your side low down as in your pelvic region and we walked along hand in hand and very happy. From a letter to Herbert Sheen, dated January 7, 1955.
Iris Murdoch dreams her friends are philosophers:
PS I had a dream last nigh in which you were Socrates. I’ve never made this identification before, but it seems a good one. (Of course you are much handsomer.) In the dream you looked like yourself except for having white hair. You made a very good Socrates. From a 1966 letter to Elisa Canetti, published in Living on Paper.
Charles Simic dreams of high notes and low behavior:
As for me, in a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out. For example, many years ago I dreamt that I was on stage during the performance of the opera Aida about to sing the famous aria “Celeste Aida” in which Radames, the young Egyptian warrior, voices his hope for victory in a coming battle and proclaims his love for Aida, the Ethiopian slave. I wear some kind of helmet that is about to slide down and cover my eyes, hold a lance in my hand, and worry about what will happen next, because although I know the melody, I can remember only the opening words and figure that I’ll have to fake the rest by making up words that sound Italian. I do that, but I now have another fear, a high note that awaits me toward the end of the aria that I’m sure I won’t be able to hit—so to avoid it, I sing the opening over and over again like an old LP record that’s skipping. Thankfully, I awoke and in due course became aware that I was lying in bed in a motel just outside Buffalo, New York.
In another dream, one that remains vivid to me down to its every detail, I’m Stalin’s secretary, or more likely some kind of foot servant, who walks behind him in the Kremlin with adoring countenance as the dictator goes around meeting various officials, perfectly aware that he is a man who has already killed millions and striving with my every expression and gesture to avoid their fate. Even in the dream my slavish behavior appalled me. I woke up thoroughly ashamed of myself. Is this some kind of prophecy? I found myself worrying. As my fellow Serbs say, inside each one of us lurks a turd. Had I been reading a book about Stalin and Soviet Russia at the time? Not that I remember. What made the dream so odd that I even wrote down the date is that both its setting and my behavior didn’t seem to have an immediate cause. From “Dreams I’ve Had (And Some I Haven’t),” originally published in the NYR Daily.
Philip K. Dick dreams of mysterious books that call to him:
July 5, 1974
Since I last wrote you . . . I have continued to have the same dream again and again which I mentioned: a vast and important book held up before me which I should read. Yesterday, for example, since Tessa and Christopher had gone off on a picnic, I took several naps and had four dreams in which printed matter appeared, two of them involving books.
For three months, virtually every night, I’ve had these dreams involving written material. And within the last few days it became obvious that a specific book was indicated. That the ultimate purpose of these dreams was to call my attention to an actual book somewhere in the real world, which I was to find, then take down and read.
The first dream on July 4 was much more explicit than any before; I took down my copy of Robert Heinlein’s I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, a large blue hardback U.K. edition, for two men to look at. Both men said this was not a book (or the book) they were interested in. However, it was clear that the book wanted was large and blue and hardback.
In a dream a month ago I managed to see part of the title; it ended with the word “Grove.” At the time I thought it might be Proust’s WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE, but it was not; however, there was a long word similar to “Budding” before “Grove.”
So I knew by the first part of the day yesterday that I was looking for a large blue hardback book –very large and long, according to some dreams, endlessly long, in fact– with the final word of the title being “Grove” and a word before it like “Budding.”
In the last of the four dreams yesterday I caught sight of the copyright date on the book and another look at the typestyle. It was dated either 1966 or possibly 1968 (the latter proved to be the case). So I began studying all the books in my library which might fit these qualifications. I had the keen intuition that when I at last found it I would have in my hands a mystic or occult or religious book of wisdom which would be a doorway to the absolute reality behind the whole universe.
Of course the possibility existed that I didn’t have the book in my library, that I would have to go out and buy it. In several dreams I was in a bookstore doing just that. One time the book was help open before me with its pages singed by fire on all sides. By that I took it to be an extremely sacred book, perhaps the one seen in the Book of Daniel.
Anyhow today I looked all day around the house, since Tessa has been sick with a sunburn, and all at once I found the book. The three month search is at last over.
As soon as I took down the volume I knew it was to be the right one. I had seen it again and again, with ever increasing clarity, until it could not be mistaken.
The book is called THE SHADOW OF BLOOMING GROVE, hardback and blue, running just under 700 huge long pages of tiny type. It was published in 1968. It is the dullest book in the world; I tried to read it when the Book Find Book Club sent it to me but couldn’t.
It is a biography of Warren G. Harding.
P.S. This is on a level, and it goes to show you that you should never take your dreams too seriously. Or else it shows that the unconscious or the universe or God or whatever can put you on. A three-month gag. (If you want to read the book I’ll mail it to you. Postage should be enormous. You got three years ahead in which you have nothing planned?) From a letter to Claudia Bush, as published in Letters of Note.