The dreams of children

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.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. hey! i think the women of deadwood had ‘deep and complicated interior lives’ too. even the ones who took their clothes off, though not all did.

  2. Hi Karen: I was being slightly facetious perhaps, but not greatly so. Whatever interior states the women in Deadwood generated, the resolution was very often in some way to take their clothes off. The only woman who didn’t was the cripple Jewel, but even then her taking her clothes off was implied, even if it was for therapeutic purposes, ie: getting a new leg brace.
    The Deadwood comment was a nod toward the idea that a considerable amount of literature – and film and so forth – has historically been concerned with men’s complicated interior lives which need to be elaborately explained. And women who take their clothes off.

  3. I’d venture that Al Swearingen has more total/partial clothes off scenes than any other character in the series. That said, he is often accompanied by women whom he pays to take their clothes off.

    1. I haven’t seen Waking Life but am familiar with Sandman, so thanks very much for the movie link. Most of Gaiman’s work inhabits some kind of dream world I think. He always seems to me to be to be trying to get his unconscious under control, and processing it thru his writing.

  4. Interesting piece, never seen Deadwood and can’t say it sounds like anything worth watching. I rarely dream, well that I can remember, which some people find weird and worrying. I do sometimes day dream and do write creative fiction ( not to much aclaim so you won’t find my work many places) and often think my dream world is manifest through my writing rather than dreaming. My 2.5 year old daughter lives in a vivid dream/fantasy world, which I find amazing and I will mourn its loss when she enters into the rational world.

    1. Hi Rohan, Yes, I agree, creative writing can be a way to daydream yourself out of trouble I think. The capacity to daydream has become a lost one, a derided one in many ways, but a necassary one of you want to stop turning into an obsessively-worrying basketcase. If your daughter loses the capacity to inhabit a dream world at all, you should probably mourn. But there is no reason why she should.

  5. Hey Stephen

    I’m trying to follow you key points, which seem to be in the last paragraph of your blog, but wondering if you could flesh out more of this.

    You seem to be saying that: dreaming is a good practice, because it helps us re-imagine our current being and shift beyond our current roadblocks, and that without dreams, life is not much more than power centres and keeping up with the Jones, which goes hand=in-hand with destruction and depreciation of others in the margins.

    And that if we are to dream, we must look and expect the dreams to come from the margins and the un-powerful, eg, children. And, now I’m really guessing, is this because power centres can’t dream? (because to dream is always to delve into something other?)

    But where does the ‘nightmare’ you talk of fit in?

  6. I don’t know if dreams come from children, except inasmuch as we all were once children – most of us anyway – and if we’re smart have learned to smuggle something from our ‘childhood’ into our ‘adulthood’. The dream in this case, came from what we would consider the margins of the margins; the dream of a child, which was then held and thought of as a poetic image. Dreams are always marginal, in that they take and use as their material what we think is unimportant and ignore what we think is terribly important. You’re right, I think, the power centre seems to be a kind of psychotic core, and a psychotic core doesn’t dream, it just lives out a nightmare. Nightmares happen, when something happens that we can’t contain. The psychotic core can’t really contain anything, so everything is nightmare. Does this help?
    I love reCaptcha. My passwords are President Nerdiest.

  7. Hi Stephen, the content and organisation of that content in dreams fascinates me and I’ve always felt that our logical minds don’t make enough of interpreting or placing importance on our dreams. So it’s interesting to be made aware of a story such as Plenty’s.

    However, I write here to make a quick comment on my thoughts on the importance of reverie and again our underestimation of its importance to mental wellbeing. Contemplation, reflection and even free-association are not, I don’t think, valued enough or understood, not only for our peace-of-mind, but for our brain functioning to be working to its proper capacity. I have a feeling that some of our tendency to have lost the art of reverie is one of the motivational factors behind our lust for mind-altering substances. We need reverie, if you like, to maintain emotional homeostasis, just as we need other things like love, acknowledgement, truth and safety. Anyway, just a thought.

  8. Hi Finn. Yeah that’s an interesting thought. Reverie is definitely a lost capacity I think, or at least a devalued one. Getting out of it as a kind of substitute for or remembering of reverie certainly chimes with my experience at least. Reverie might have something to do with the capacity to listen to each other too I think, imagine each other and therefore each other’s point of view.

  9. Stephen, is there a paradox you are playing with here?:

    the power centre tries to be a container (of its-self, of power and priveledge) but it cannot contain anything (?) and thus is a nightmare which one could only repress (since we can’t deal with it)…

    whereas the opening up of an open space, of caring for others, within the cracks and margins, can contain our experiences of pain, otherness, loneliness or whatever akwardness that is part of living our lives, yet this wide open space is not attempting to be a container (not attempting to be a centre with clear insides and outsides)…

    your talk of ‘containing’ experience seems to had a good and bad variant (power centers contain in bad negative ways, whether something other contains is positive good ways).

    Also, what you are saying seems to imply that we will always dream, its just a matter of whether they are source of generative play or an uncontained nightmare. Is that so?

  10. Yeah, somewhat. I’m also playing around with various senses of ‘container’ too which makes things more confusing. A nightmare can’t contain itself. It works by pushing out and excluding any material it can’t deal with. So, if we think in terms of border protection, the excluded (all those threatening children and their parents) are pushed out because of their frightening otherness.
    The caring open space, as you felicitously put it, is both container and contained really.

  11. I just noted that an OL tweet this morning (a better news service than Murdoch and Faifax that’s for sure) brings attention to a tiny story buried on the ABC website about 60 children transported to Port Augusta. ‘Quick, get them out of the way and bury them somewhere before they frighten us too much and cause us to have to think.’
    The unspeakable terrifying thing is the thinking we might have to do and the catastrophic empathy that might ensue.

    1. No problem. It wasn’t my dream. Just a dream of some marginalised, despised, Crow kid. The last place anyone would have looked for political subversion.

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