Ever had that feeling that the thing you’re experiencing now you’ve already experienced in a dream? Ever wonder if your dreams contained not only images from the past but also from the future? “I’m eating a frozen banana while listening to Neil Diamond. Wait, I’ve done this before!”
As an assignment for my Lolita class (yes, I have an entire class on Lolita, and yes, it makes me exceedingly happy), I’ve been keeping a dream diary as part of the “Dunne Experiment.” In 1927 aeronautical engineer J. W. Dunne published An Experiment with Time, a treatise in which he claimed that dreams not only reflected backward but also forward, a “fact” confirmed by his long history of seeing in the night things that had yet to occur. To test out this claim, Dunne suggests noting down your dreams, then considering what events in the days after you dream them could have inspired them.
Sure, it’s wacky, but 1) Nabokov dug it for its aestheticizing approach to real life, i.e. reading your dreams and experiences as if they were texts and 2) who doesn’t secretly want to figure out that they’re dreaming of the future? Here are some excerpts from the report of my results…
1) On September 29th I dreamt I was on a white boat out in a turbulent, navy blue sea with my uncle and my husband, Scott. Scott and I climbed in the water, floating (as if wearing life jackets) around a flat, white diamond with a small square of red at its center that sat on the surface on the water. A line of something like string connected to its underside stretched down into the depths, invisible to us at the surface. This seemed like a kind of sport, like kite flying plunged into the ocean.
If this dream had occurred after October 3rd, when I started using my membership at a club at the Berkeley marina, I would have called it a convoluted interpretation of windsurfing, complete with the water, the life jackets, the sense of being tossed around in the waves, the sail transformed into a water kite (or perhaps, since it was white and flat, a board), maintaining the impression of using wind for motion.
2) Also on September 29th I dreamt that I was at a large outdoor concert at dusk with friends from undergraduate school. My friend Mike, sitting with me in the concrete bleachers, pointed to an entranceway behind us and told me to watch out for our friend Fiona, whom he said he wouldn’t recognize except for “her baby face.” Soon a tall, bulky drag queen with tan gray skin emerged from the spot (Fiona, in theory, done up, though looking nothing like herself), her gray hair in beehive, her red lips the only color in the scene. She sings in a low, serious voice, then spots up in the audience, waves, and breaks into her normal soprano.
If this dream had occurred after October, 5th, when we discussed transvestitism in the performance of femininity in Lolita class, I would have said it was inspired by our comments on how the women of the novel put on a form of drag (there being a woman in my dream as a man playing a woman).
3) On October 14th I dreamt that I was taking a flat escalator, like a conveyor belt, across a stretch of open water to a series of thin platforms, large boards sitting on the surface of the still, turquoise sea, which would be taking me on some sort of journey. I was standing on the shore, a low outcropping on compacted snow that was melting and crumbling under my feet in the sunlight, while I held in my arms mounds of items – poorly packed luggage, perhaps. Counselors from the camp where I spent my summers growing up lined the platforms.
If this dream had occurred after October 19th I would have chalked it up to a conversation I had with a friend about a “mini Burning Man” held entirely on boats, houseboats, etc. on a nearby river. This weekend retreat, the logistical details of which I’m still unclear on, appeared to me instantly – from my friend’s description – as a sort of floating gypsy camp, made of rafts tied together and in the middle of the river (though when I think about it, it makes more sense the boats would have been tied down on an encampment at the shoreline). It had a lively, communal, camp atmosphere, full of twenty-somethings like the counselors on the platforms in my dream.
Examples like these left me intrigued, at least initially. Given Dunne’s observation that people were often incapable of identifying the obvious ties between dreams and future events (interestingly similar to the trouble patients have in seeing links between trauma histories and their sexual fantasies in Brett Kahr’s Who’s Been Sleeping In Your Head?) I thought that, though I hadn’t experienced that eerie “I’ve seen this before” feeling lately, maybe I’d recorded ties deeper than I’d realized. Unfortunately, in each of these cases, a much more reasonable, highly likely explanation turned up to override the notion of imagining the future.
1) Was my dream of the “water kite,” unstuck in time, inspired by my windsurfing expedition a few days later? It seems unlikely. I already knew I would be windsurfing that weekend when I had the dream. To make the case even less likely, I had been planning on joining the windsurfing club for months and already had years of experience as a windsurfer. In addition, as keeping the Dunne diary confirmed, imagery water and boats appears regularly in my dreams.
2) Though I have no “normal” explanation for this dream, the causal link between our transvestitism discussion and the image of my friend as a drag queen feels tenuous. Though the two appear to have much in common, as visual “scenes” they share nothing. One is a memory of sitting in a classroom lit by yellow light spliced a thought of Charlotte Haze in a black evening dress, the other a smoky gray twilight scene with a figure of femininity who looked instead, when I think more closely, like a statue I saw in Tahoe this past spring of a bear dressed in a vibrant puffy dress (like the one worn by the Chicita Banana woman), fruit similarly stacked on its head, standing on its hind legs, striking a comely pose, its pursed lips painted a bright and striking red.
3) It seems much more likely that my dream of the water platforms shaped my visualization of the boat retreat than the other way around. Logically, my image of a gypsy encampment floating downstream makes no sense for a weekend get-together of a few hundred people. I’m sure, if I asked my friend for photos, I would see that the reality bears little resemble to either of the images I conjured in my mind.
Though I’ve enjoyed keeping my Dunne diary, I can’t say my results have lived up to my hopes. At the least, perhaps Nabokov would be pleased to hear that keeping this record has allowed me to start looking at my dreams, if not my life, in a more aestheticized way. Like tracing a thread through a literary text, I’ve begun to see patterns in my mental activity, topics and places that emerge again and again each night. Though I may not be conjuring up images the future, at least I know what’s coming for me in my sleep.