Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On listening to dreams

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About a decade ago, MTV and Rolling Stone published a list of the hundred greatest pop songs of all time, topped by “Yesterday” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” What strikes me now about this list, aside from some dubious choices (such as “I Want It That Way,” which made the top ten), is the fact that while the list covers four decades of music history, the top two songs were recorded just over a month apart, in the late spring of 1965. Even more startlingly, both songs came to their composers in a dream: Paul McCartney dreamed the melody to “Yesterday” while staying with his girlfriend on Wimpole Street, while Keith Richards dreamed the guitar riff to “Satisfaction” in St. John’s Wood, getting up to play it into a tape recorder and immediately passing out again. The distance between St. John’s Wood and Wimpole Street, incidentally, is something like three miles. Which implies that something very interesting was happening in London that year.

Dreams naturally lend themselves to mystical interpretations. On Sunday, I posted two examples of the creative power of dreams: Friedrich August Kekulé’s discovery of the ring structure of benzene, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s composition of “Kubla Khan.” Both stories have inspired much speculation, serious or otherwise, about the larger meanings of such messages from the dreaming world. Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, speculates that Kekulé’s dream might have been sent to him by a bureaucracy on the Other Side (“So that the right material may find its way to the right dreamer, everything involved must be exactly in place in the pattern”), while Jorge Luis Borges, noting that Kublai Khan’s palace was also inspired by a vision in a dream, something that Coleridge couldn’t possibly have known, has an even more striking hypothesis:

The first dream added a palace to reality; the second, which occurred five centuries later, a poem (or the beginning of a poem) suggested by the palace; the similarities of the dreams hints of a plan; the enormous length of time involved reveals a superhuman executor. To speculate on the intentions of that immortal or long-lived being would be as foolish as it is fruitless, but it is legitimate to suspect that he has not yet achieved his goal. In 1691, Father Gerbillon of the Society of Jesus confirmed that ruins were all that was left of Kublai Khan’s palace; of the poem, we know that barely fifty lines were salvaged. Such facts raise the possibility that this series of dreams and works has not yet ended.

Turning to other major works of art, two of the three great canonical works of horror, Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, appear to have had their origins in dreams. (The third is Dracula, which stands apart as the most left-brained of horror novels, built on a substantial foundation of diligent work and research.) According to interviews, Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming movie Twixt Now and Sunrise was also inspired by a nightmare. Finally, to compare small things with great, some of the elements in my novelette “Kawataro” were rooted in dream imagery. Which shouldn’t blind us to the fact, of course, that there’s nothing more boring than hearing someone else’s dream—at least until the rational brain has done the hard work of editing and refining the material.

The most useful advice on the relationship between dreams and art is still that given by Kekulé: “But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by waking understanding.” McCartney dreamed the melody to “Yesterday,” but obsessively tinkered with it for weeks afterward, much to the annoyance of his bandmates. Coleridge, contrary to his own account of the poem’s creation, seems to have carefully revised “Kubla Khan.” Stevenson burned the original draft of Jekyll and Hyde, rewriting it entirely, and the result is one of the most ingeniously structured novels in any genre. In the end, as Paul Valéry points out, the creative process requires both halves of the artist’s personality: “The one makes up combinations; the other chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him.” Which only reminds us that if our dreams are sometimes messages, art is the province of the waking mind.

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