Dreams can free us from the constricting world of rationality
By Richard Handler
A History of Last Night's Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul
HarperOne. 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-06-057583-0
Throughout history, humans have tried to make sense of the baffling, nonlinear fleetingness of dreams. For shamans, mystics, and sages, dreams have provided a pathway to transcendent power—call it God (or myriad gods). In the Holy Bible, dreams were often seen as prophetic. Abraham's grandson Jacob dreamed of a ladder into the heavens where angels journeyed up and down, as if on some celestial highway. Later, Jacob's son Joseph dreamt dreams that were the envy of his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph used his gift for dream interpretation to gain the Pharaoh's favor. If you really understood dreams, Joseph's accomplishments seemed to demonstrate, you could parlay your skills into real power right here on earth.
Even though Sigmund Freud dismissed religion as an infantile fantasy, he appropriated the oracular nature of dreaming into his new "science" of psychoanalysis. For him, dreams were psychic puzzles, but instead of containing signs from some transcendent realm, they offered a royal road to the deepest riches of hidden and repressed conflicts. When Freud's disciple Carl Jung picked up the gauntlet of dream interpretation, he harked back to the older, oracular tradition. Jung's whole schema of archetypes and his idea of the "collective unconscious" gave dreams a pronounced spiritual flavor. In a sense, Jung's approach to dreams was a return to prophecy—it was designed to help us integrate ourselves into a transcendent drama.
Of course, in these pragmatic times, clients have long since ceased to bring their dreams into their therapists' offices. Further, most neuroscientists today seem to have concluded that the function of dreams may be little more than that of a neural detergent— flushing out useless, clogged thoughts from our overloaded consciousness. For these hard-science empiricists, analyzing dreams for their psychological or philosophical content is about as useful as using Drano to analyze the hidden messages in your kitchen sink.
Nevertheless, in A History of Last Night's Dream, author Rodger Kamenetz invites us to reconsider the meaning of dreams as conveyors of psychological and spiritual meaning. A professor of English and religious studies, Kamenetz is best known for his 1994 book, The Jew in the Lotus, an account of his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Throughout his life and work, he's been a spiritual seeker.