I had a dream
by Michael Brenner on 10 Jul 2021 1 Comment

I had a dream. I had a dream that….I’d remember my dreams. They’ve eluded me almost my whole life. Waking up – anywhere, at any hour – I simply couldn’t recall what had gone through my subconscious during those long phases of sleep set aside for dreams. What riches of adventure I missed? What agonies of the soul I’d avoided? No idea. A psychiatrist friend of mine once candidly told me, in the darkest of tones, that an inability to recall anything of my cinematic slumbers probably was a sign of a serious mental condition.  My conscious ego evidently could not handle the truths expressed in dreams – so wide was the disconnect between my conscious self and my subconscious self. So great was the threat to my sense of who I am from the forces churning beneath the surface that “I” ruthlessly suppressed them.  


After receiving that foreboding diagnosis, I summoned all the courage that I had and set out to plunge into my inner being. I tried every method to break down that barrier separating ‘me’ from that dreamworld. To no avail – none worked. That is until the past few weeks when, for some inexplicable reason (perhaps the explosive joy at seeing “America was back” at the G-7 summit), the unknown gradually became opaque and then visible to the ‘me’ who is writing this.


The revelations that were exposed proved far less dramatic or disturbing than I feared. That may be due to some psychological mechanism that, acting defensively, lifted the veil only on the more benign material that my vulnerable self could cope with. This record of what I discovered, therefore, is tamer than it might be. Still, for the sake my well-being, I am following my psychiatrist friend’s advice to put it down in words. For whatever it’s worth to anyone else, this is what I recall of what emerged from the depths of my subconscious.  


Dream A 


I was participating in an academic conference in a nondescript meeting room of a nondescript hotel in one of those nondescript American cities whose identity is only retained because it is emblazoned on all the hotel’s accoutrements. I was slated to be the commentator on a paper presented by a youngish female scholar. Its title: “The Place of Women in the New Cold War with China: Historical Comparisons.” The presentation seemed to be dragging as the speaker went well beyond the allotted 15 or 20 minutes. When she reached the point of using the term “Gender roles” for the umpteenth time, I impetuously broke into her drone to ask: “those rolls – are they plain or with seeds?”


In this bizarre dream ‘roles’ had been transmuted into ‘rolls.’ In actuality, I like rolls and I had eaten only a skimpy lunch. I retained the recollection of getting a startled look from the Chair and an angry stare from the presenter. My reaction: an unprompted riff on the taxonomy of rolls prefaced by the observation that as intellectuals we should not make the facile assumption that when you’ve tasted one roll you’ve tasted them all. In the vaguest of recovered images, I hear the sharp-edged voice of the Chair saying something about the obligation of senior faculty setting the proper example for aspiring junior colleagues. The scene was getting ugly – a state of affairs not helped by my remembered declaration that “I wouldn’t mind some egg rolls – so how about our adjourning to that Thai restaurant that I noted down the street.”


I have no idea whether or how I might have survived that hugely embarrassing incident since I was jolted awake by my wife who, hearing me muttering in my sleep, admonished me that egg rolls were fried, very unhealthful and “how many times have I told you that it’s far better to order soft spring rolls with tofu.” I didn’t dare ask her whether she had noticed any signs that I was succumbing to machismo.   


Dream B (two nights later)  


The theme was encounters with a heretofore uncontacted Neolithic tribe in the Amazon rain forest. The seed probably planted by a documentary I had been looking at that critiqued Jared Diamon’s latest theories about life just the day before yesterday. I somehow found myself part of an anthropological team that incongruously included a priest in 17th century missionary robes – black as was his wide-brimmed clerical hat. He took an active part in the animated discussion that the team had around the campfire, after first sighting the ‘primitives,’ as to whether and how we might approach them. I distinctly remember that I urged that we simply leave them in their garden of Eden and let nature take its course.


Reliving this dream now, I realize that my counsel had nothing to do with a romantic idea about the ‘noble savage’ – rather, I was terrified by the tales I had heard about the tribes in this neck of the jungle being headhunters and cannibals. I guess my subconscious was telling me that I was a physical coward. As if reading my thoughts, Father Francisco Xavier Ribera da Silva SJ reassured us all that cannibalism had become less and less fashionable over the years. He went on to recount his long experience with another tribe in a different neck of the jungle with whom he spent a decade in persevering efforts to bring them to Christ.


My curious dreamland self asked the good Father how much success he had. His response left an indelible, haunting memory that endured well into my waking mind. His response: “I would say that my success was significant but incomplete. There are occasions when laboring in the Lord’s vineyard is arduous and one must be patient in waiting for it to prove fruitful. In this instance, I take comfort in knowing that now, on Fridays, they eat only fishermen.”  


Dream C (5 days later)  


“Memories Are Made of This” – yes, the title of a pop tune that was playing in the background of a film noir from 1949 that I had been watching late the previous evening on You Tube. That explains why the quite singular dream that I experienced that night had memory as its theme. It was one of those odd affairs in which segments are mixed and remixed in all kinds of strange juxtapositions – like the latest avant garde novel (likely of French provenance) that is so profound as to be unintelligible except for a handful of cognoscenti who still smoke Gallois and Gitanes at cafe tables.


The dream dropped me into the midst of a rapidly spreading pandemic. It had some strikingly outré characteristics. For one thing, it afflicted highly visible public figures exclusively. The average person enjoyed some kind of built-in immunity. That defied all efforts to identify the causal agent. A pathogen with a social conscience was something that CDC scientists had never seen or imagined. Even Anthony Fauci was baffled. He did toy with the thought that perhaps we were dealing with a nosocomial illness contracted telepathically from the obsessive watching of endless, self-contradictory CDC briefings.


Second, its origins were obscure.  The initial clusters were noted in southern California when 13 members of the Beverly Hills Country Club came down with it at the same time. They were all denizens of the club bar’s evening ‘happy hours’ – evidently the counterpart to Wuhan’s ‘live market.’ Their primary symptom was a total inability to remember to whom they were married. At first, it was brushed off as no more serious that the periodic bouts of amnesia experienced on balmy evenings in the presence of an attractive stranger.


Diligent medical researchers finally found the cause: a unique memory virus. Its source? Since it had first emerged in Los Angeles, just across the Pacific from Shanghai, the circumstantial evidence pointed to China. And hadn’t they done something like this before? Mexico, of course, is much closer, but the already fraught relations between the U.S. and our neighbors over the border precluded making Mexico the scapegoat. 


The medical experts soon acknowledged that the virus had more serious consequences for emotional health and the cohesion of victims’ nuclear families. Moreover, the long after effects seemed to endure for many months rather than the usual 36 hours. This diabolical virus – at once highly contagious and liable to mutation – made development of an antidote uncommonly difficult. This HM-21 virus (High & Mighty), as it was named, was viewed as just a local problem until a massive outbreak hit Washington, D.C. I still retain vivid images from my dreamworld of the most dramatic episodes which gripped the fearful imagination of the nation. The HM-21 virus took on the dimensions of a truly historic crisis when it circumvented security to enter the White House where in struck President Biden himself.  


Upon his return from the summit with Putin in Geneva he exhibited signs of pronounced disorientation. They were accompanied by fierce headaches which abated only when he ate copious portions of borsht or black Beluga caviar. The diagnosis of infection by the dreaded HM-21 virus only came with the precipitous loss of memory. His first mundane incidents (forgetting that he had ever called Putin “a killer”) quickly gave way to the neutralizing of a large segments of his life as a Presidential candidate and President. Most troubling, he could not remember a single promise that he had made on the campaign trail. When that stunning news seeped out of the White House, Nancy Pelosi told reporters at a hastily arranged press conference: “Well, it’s as I’ve said. All roads lead back to Putin.”  


In my dream, I attended that press conference credentialed by the Huffington Post. My first thought, when I mulled over the dream upon awakening, was that my presence there was outlandish; Arianna Huffington never would be so free and easy with favors like that to someone just because he had written 240 pro bono articles for her rag.  


DREAM D (8 days later) 


I had a dream – a dream that mimicked, or perhaps mocked is the better term, a prior real-life incident. It transmuted a prosaic bit of awkwardness into a haunting nightmare. The background is quite simple. The school where I taught for many years had Deans and faculty who had an odd liking for long faculty meetings. Tedious beyond belief – nothing consequential was ever debated much less resolved. The only motive for not absenting myself was the dread that, in my absence, I might be appointed to one of our innumerable committees that shared the same perverse tolerance for interminable blather. So, I explored all kinds of methods to buffer myself against the enervating, soul destroying experience which occurred with unnatural frequency.


The dream itself placed me in that mood of brooding boredom. However, it seemed to take a bright turn when my dream-self hit upon what seemed a marvelous panacea. Prayer beads. Repetitious fingering of the beads, accompanied by a mantra of my own devising, would put me into a sort of ZEN state where, although conscious of my surroundings, all feeling and emotion was dulled. That would allow me to endure those tedious meetings.


I went on E-bay to arm myself with a selection of Muslim prayer beads (32 of them) – tasbih, as they are called. Jade, amber, rosewood, coral, whatever. The mantra was a repetition of the players in the Dodgers starting lineup for the 7th game of the 1955 World Series (their first victory after five straight defeats by the Yankees). This was my subconscious drawing upon the deep memories of childhood to remedy the pain of the present. Anyway, it worked.


As I became practiced in this peculiar form of self-hypnosis, I could put myself into a trance within eight minutes of the Chair announcing: “okay, let’s get underway.” My eyes were open but (almost) nothing registered. So thorough was I as a dream planner that my subconscious self even came up with a formula for finessing a situation in which one of my colleagues might point to me and ask: “what do you think about that proposal?” It programmed my near catatonic brain to respond: “I think that today’s discussion has been uncommonly focused and fruitful. That last proposal is particularly pertinent and should have a heuristic influence in orienting follow-on deliberations. It is, indeed, seminal and I look forward to continuing in this vein.”


Worked like a charm, solidifying my reputation as a colleague who could be counted on to make positive contributions to the school. A “team player” – the ultimate compliment. The colleague seated next to me went so far as to thank me for the hortatory influence that my intervention would have on future discussions of the issue. Combine that with hints of “cutting-edge” research and the sky’s the limit. 


The dream saw me refine and elaborate this technique. The self therein portrayed came up with the ingenious idea of adding a 108 bead Buddhist mala to my repertoire of survival tools. Fitted out by E-bay once again, I gave them a trial run at an exceptional 2-hour meeting set to consider “Curriculum Reform.” The effect of the mala innovation was dramatic. Zen state achieved in 5 minutes, impervious to all going on around me, a feeling of serenity diffusing through my entire being, and eyes still open – if barely.


The trance was more profound than I had ever before experienced. When I came out of it, though, I received a rude shock. Looking around me, I saw not the familiar faces of my colleagues. Instead, I was surrounded by strangers. A few I vaguely recognized as members of the Sociology Department. My school’s meeting had terminated and while I was still in my reverie, another batch of earnest academics were about to commence their faculty meeting. Subject: curriculum reform! 


I awoke in a cold sweat with a racing pulse before my subconscious could confront the challenge of keeping a shred of dignity and decorum. When I recounted this to my psychiatrist friend, he expressed little sympathy. ‘We each have our cross to bear,” he pronounced. “Cultivate a stoic attitude and ponder how many of your brethren are cast into far more dispiriting careers. Imagine yourself a wage slave at Goldman Sachs, the press officer for Andrew Cuomo – or the President of some benighted university called upon by his Board of Trustees to devise a program that responds to the loud demands of students who are pressing for transgender bathrooms while mollifying fat cat alumni who threaten to cut off the flow of generous shares of their ill-begotten loot…..By the way, can you forward me the web address of the outfit that you got your prayer beads from – I’m on two panels at this year’s annual APA conference in Dallas.”  


DREAM E (June 17) 


This had been the day advertised as the showdown in Geneva: Biden vs Putin. That, of course, was pure hype since anyone paying attention foresaw the banal affair that it turned out to be. The most exciting action took place on the “undercard” where ace reporters from all points of the compass scrimmaged aggressively to get close to the contenders – setting off a melee reminiscent of January 6 as Russian security guards strove mightily to defend the perimeter of the stage from this wild pack of would-be Pulitzer Prize winners.  I expected that my subconscious was likely to make something of these graphic images. So, I was surprised when the predictable dream began to unreel. 


The dream action didn’t start at the beginning of the day’s events, but after – the Biden news conference. There I was, somehow credentialed without the assistance of Arianna Huffington, in observer mode. The President was in reasonably good form: a bit drawn but alert in what has become his habitual plain-spoken manner. Little emotion showed in either the words he spoke or his body language. Just the usual platitudes and low-key remarks that are de rigueur after these summits. He did interject a few tart comments about unacceptable Russian behavior and promised some kind of terrible retribution were Navalny to die in prison. They clearly were intended for the ears of his critics at home who were taking him to task for not tearing Putin apart, limb-by-limb. The whole purpose of the meeting was to get to know the Russian leader and to calm the waters rather than to issue empty threats.  


The tenor of the ‘presser’ in fact was so dull that my subconscious probably was ready to switch to another track. Then the slumbering ‘I’ heard Biden pronounce these sentences without which the waking ‘I’ never would have bothered to remember a rather dreary dream. In response to a question about the alleged Russian interference in American elections, he declared: “How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country.”


The distracted correspondent in attendance at first was confused. To whom was he referring? Then it dawned on me that it was us – the US.  Biden was stating with some vigor that if the virtuous United States ever did the vile things that Russia does, we understandably would be denounced and scorned. Having absorbed this, my dream persona began to run through its mind the names of countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus – and Russia itself, where in 1995, an expeditionary team of American political operatives saved Yeltin’s electoral win by dragging him from the depths of single-digit ‘favorable’ rating to victory.


What was the man talking about? Was his mind suddenly fog-bound, had his delinquent advisers actually fed him this talking point? Most disturbing: did he actually believe it – American innocence? My dream-self came to two conclusions: 1) at the moment, he probably did; and 2) it really didn’t make much of a difference since our leaders had long since blurred the line between virtual reality and actual reality – to such a degree that few bothered to distinguish the two any longer. The imagined ‘I’ felt an impulse to confront the man by asking him how the U.S. would react had Russia prevented Venezuela from accessing Covid vaccines through the COVAX mechanism, thereby sentencing thousands to death – or, had it pressured the EU to withhold approval of a desperately needed American vaccine in order to deny us the chance to burnish our good guy image while protecting the profits of Russian suppliers. Hopeless. Pointless. I bolted - sprinting down to the shore of Lac Leman where I dunked my head in its chilly waters. At first contact, I was jolted awoke by the cold sensation I felt on the nape of my neck. 


Well, the now conscious me thought that this was a dream worth remembering. My initial reaction was that there was reassuring evidence that my inner self was as clever a thinker as the conscious ‘I’ believed itself to be. Vanity quickly was eclipsed by more somber conclusions. It suddenly came to me with stunning illumination: the explanation for the puzzle of my prior inability to remember dreams. My subconscious was buffering ‘me’ from the accumulated debris and discards of the self’s encounters with the world.


Dreams were one phase in a monumental, recurrent process of trash disposal. Retaining this clutter of rejected material impinged on the space needed to store more valuable material – and also risked seepage into my conscious mind. Dreams were an efficient method for sifting, organizing and packing trash for disposal. They weren’t intended to be remembered. Does the trash collector on your street knock on the door at 7 A.M. to show you the odiferous items that he was about to throw into the dump truck? 


In my case, the subconscious had a heavy-duty workload. As someone who read about, thought about, and wrote about what was going on “out there,” my critical mind processed an enormous amount of trash. All the lies, the endless vapid palaver, the petty gamesmanship, the posturing, the hypocritical preaching, the machinations of sweaty egos that ‘I’ had encountered and relegated to the ‘good riddance’ bin piled up in my subconscious. In effect, part of my subconscious’ responsibilities was to relieve my brain of this odious heap of garbage.


Nature’s Waste Management, Inc. – non-profit and customized. This wholesale disposal operation does not preclude discriminating judgment entirely. The subconscious is programmed to recognize that certain items might have value for later use as negative points that the conscious self could deploy to skewer someone or something. So, they are sanitized, labeled “Restricted Access,” secured with one of those forbidding orange ‘stay clear’ signs, and stored in a locker. 


Basking in this liberating enlightenment, ‘I’ lay back, picked up my favorite prayer beads of black onyx, slowly ran through my mind Donald Trump’s criminal offenses and - at around 27 - fell into a blessedly dreamless sleep. None that I remembered, anyway.   


(Freud and his followers believed that our self-identity, our behavior and conscious thoughts are all shaped by powerful forces originating primarily in early childhood that are lodged in the murky depths of our psyche. They move through dim labyrinthian channels below our awareness level to inhibit us, to impel us, to orient us. Imagery, by the way, that reveals something about those who propagate it. Yet, we have no persuasive evidence that this conceptualization has any validity. Yes, there surely is a subconscious – dense, complex and in constant interplay with the conscious self. But it is not an amalgam of drives in constant struggle to dominate the conscious ‘I’ – literally at war with the person we think we are).  Furthermore, nature and evolutionary logic wouldn’t allow it.


To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.

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