I usually write my blog sitting at my desk in my study. This time I’m sitting on a rickety bed in a miserable motel in Cairns, watching Deadwood, a hard-drinkin’ cable-TV epic about the legendary Dakota frontier town where men were men, and women took their clothes off. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, where men were men and had deep and complicated interior lives and women took their clothes off. Deadwood brought to mind, perhaps unexpectedly one might think, Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Time of Cultural Devastation, a book I have recently read, which much occupied my thought, that deals with a real event that took place about twenty years before the fictional ones in Deadwood, in the neighbouring state of Montana. The event that Lear’s book concerns itself with is a dream.
In about 1856 or 1857, according to Lear, a nine-year-old boy walked off into the Montana forest. After a few days, during which he fasted, and at one point cut off a part of a finger (the better to incur the pity of his God), he had a dream. The boy, named Plenty Coups, took the content of the dream back to his people, the Crow Nation, and the dream became the foundation for their century-and-a-half negotiation of an unthinkable rupture: the utter destruction of their way of being in the world.
For the purposes of a brief blog, there are two things of interest in this story. Firstly, that a nine-year-old boy knew how to dream and saw dreaming as a significant and meaningful event. Secondly, that the Crow Nation accepted the child’s description of his dream and, in fact, went on to use their interpretation of the dream as a successful foundation for a complex and hard-headed policy of cultural survival.
Plenty Coups himself, who lived until he was almost ninety and is still a revered Crow leader, was not under any impression that he knew what the dream meant at the time that he dreamed it. When a figure in the dream asked him, ‘Do you understand this dream Plenty Coups?’, Plenty Coups replied ‘How can I? I’m nine years old!’
The ability to dream might be critical to our wellbeing and to our ability to sustain identity – and even sanity – in times of personal and social rupture. I’m not just thinking of our involuntary night-time dreaming – though our inability to dream properly while asleep may well be why so many of us have trouble sleeping – but of a kind of receptivity we could call, reverie. This is not a reverie at the expense of rational thinking, and neither is it an imitation of something weird and mystical that Native Americans did two hundred years ago. Reverie might be called the ability to daydream and know you are daydreaming; the ability to be absorbed in something other than the self – where one awareness watches another awareness, so to speak – or the capacity to get mindfully lost in imaginative content; to know that the daydream is a reality of a different order than our habitual one, but profound and necessary nonetheless, where things are unconsciously created that both draw on and affect mundane living.
Dreamers and dreams have become a suspect group – perhaps it was when Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream’ that the rednecks really started to panic – and being suspect, have to be made into objects easily recruited for the goals of neo-liberal exploitation. These days it’s more than acceptable – in fact praiseworthy – to ‘dream’, for example, that you might one day become as famous as Michael Jackson.
A dream is a product of the past, of the clues and traces and marginal hooks that we pick up every day and reassign new and transgressive meaning to. Plenty Coups dreamed on behalf of others, of the entire Crow Nation, and dreamed the fears and terrors that could not otherwise be put into words by him and everyone he knew. His dream, and its powerful and poetic images, began to dictate the Crow future well into the twentieth century and beyond the death of Plenty Coups.
The idea that a poetic image, and one generated by a child, could have such an effect on an entire social order, and be taken by that society into its bones and reworking of its very structure, is an alarming and extraordinary idea. To us, poets are versifiers of some kind, not people who dream the dreams that others can’t have, who consciously dream on behalf of others so that others can maintain their social and cultural coherence. When the dream fails, when it bursts its container with its malignant content and becomes a nightmare, rupturing our waking life, the world becomes ungovernable and incomprehensible. We might say that when dreaming and the ability to dream breaks down, things that were possible become impossible and rather than being located in the fluid neurotic behaviour of normal life, we find ourselves in the psychotic landscape of control and isolation. We become mired in the confusion of wealth and personal status with wellbeing, and in the brutal wholesale destruction of other lives; lives unimportant because we cannot imagine them anymore because we think that they can offer us nothing, except what we can take for ourselves.