Dreaming and Historical Consciousness

Dreams are curious specimens of temporality. Evolutionary psychologists consider dreaming to have developed as a virtual mode in which our distant ancestors could practice their response to potential dangers such as sabre tooth tiger attacks.1 Even though life has become much more secure, a large proportion of dreams vestigially simulate threats; the majority of dreams, in this view, are incipient nightmares. The influential dream researcher J. Allan Hobson, on the other hand, considers dreams to be offline rehearsals for the mundane present; preparations for the assumption of everyday consciousness, much like a pilot testing systems before pushing back from the gate.2 Supermarket books on dream interpretation, by contrast, assume that dreams predict the future, thereby carrying on a tradition of dream interpretation popular since ancient times. And then we come to the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic traditions. Freud thought dreams concerned emotions from the past, stored in the unconscious and still troubling the present in disguised forms. While Jung saw dreams as emerging from an individual’s present, serving as guides to self-integration and personal fulfilment. Which are they then: the past, the future, or just the present?

In my view, they are often all three at once. In this respect, dreams model the temporality of human consciousness as existentialist thinkers going back to Heidegger have described it. We exist in a situation of uncertainty and angst in relation to the future, yet this is necessarily the position in which decisions must be made. According to contemporary experts, anxiety is the most common emotion underlying dreaming. Existence involves operating in the face of this anxiety, emerging, as the etymological roots of the word “existence” (ex-sistere, “stand forth”) suggest, from the past into the future. As Foucault expressed it in his very first publication, a substantial preface to Ludwig Binswanger’s tract Dream and Existence: “In dreams he [a person] encounters what he is and what he will be, what he has done and what he is going to do, discovering there the knot that ties his freedom to the necessity of the world.”3 This is not the form or foundation of every single dream, but it does have particular relevance for the analysis of dreams at moments of crisis.

Consider, for example, the dream had by the nine-year-old Crow Indian Plenty Coups. In the mid-1850s, as the Crow came under increasing pressure from the Sioux and settler expansion, he experienced a dream in which buffalo poured out of a hole in the ground and disappeared. Then cattle came out of the same hole and stayed, lowing on the plains. The tribal elders debated the meaning of this dream, and it played a role in making them realize that they would not be able to withstand the white man in the future. The dream thus supported what became a beneficial Crow strategy of cooperation with the U.S. government over the coming decades.4 As Yeats wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” One must imagine the future in order to plan action in the present. Dreams are a source for agency, except when they cannot picture a future.