SURREALISM AND DREAMS:
WHEN THE SURFACE DOES NOT HOLD
Two experiences came to me, prompting the title of this "musing." The first was an invitation to speak at our local art museum on the occasion of an exhibit featuring surrealism and surrealist-inspired art. The second experience was the recall of a dream shared with me by a man during my early clinical training in Boston.
I will begin with the dream. The man who had this dream was in his late thirties. He and his family had moved to Boston from a rather provincial city in the southeast. This is the man's dream as he told it to me (with permission to share it).
I am walking in a strange place. It is almost like what I have seen pictures
of our moon's surface to look like. In fact, it reminds me of a surrealist
painting, so bizarre is the landscape. Suddenly, I feel as if I am sinking,
and I realize I have stepped into something like quicksand. The more I
struggle to free myself, the deeper I sink -- up to my knees, my waist,
and my shoulders. I know I am going to die, and there is no one I can call
to for help. Then, I catch the movement of something on my left side.
It is a dog coming toward me. It moves closer and closer with a very
inquisitive and friendly manner. I know it will either pull me out or go
for help. I feel such deep relief.
You notice here in this dream a sensation many of us have experienced at one time or another. It is not an uncommon theme in dreams: The ground gives way beneath our feet, and we sink or, in some cases, we fall very dramatically. What we took to be a firm foundation in work, friendship, finances, faith, or health gives way.
What was going on in the dreamer? A lot. He had not anticipated the stress he would feel moving himself and his family to another region of the country. He had not taken into account those adjustments of coping with a new job, new ethnic neighbors, the new "accents," the financial pressures of relocating, the challenges of getting around for himself and his wife, not to say anything about his children in their new school with ethnic customs totally unfamiliar to them, and the unrelenting cold days. While he coped tenaciously on the outside, his dreams revealed the terrifying landscape of his inner world where he felt himself falling with very little that was familiar and firm beneath his feet. And, by the way, he did not own a dog.
You can imagine, then, why this dreamer came back to my mind when the museum asked me to speak about the relationship of dreams and surrealism. Surrealism arose in that cataclysmic period between World I and World War II, when civilization itself was seemingly being torn apart. For the artists, their dreamworlds seemed to be uncannily descriptive of their disturbing waking lives .
No wonder then that the main characteristics of surrealism are chance, randomness, irrationality, sometimes absurdity, spontaneity, and the juxtaposition of objects that do not seem to belong together. The artists revealed on their canvasses the fragments of their inner world, showing us the shards of a civilization breaking apart, a world in which the surface would not hold. In fact, their pieces of art seem more like the pieces of a mind racked by schizophrenia, although that is not the case.
Notice the barrenness of this landscape. Is it a land destroyed by an apocalyptic war? Are those stumps we se on the ground? Is it smoke in the upper left? Are those barren trees in the upper right? And what do you make of the sky? Can you tell where the horizon is? Note how the sky and darkened land blend into a foreboding, threatening distance, shadowed by an overcast canopy. And what is that hanging in the sky in the upper left corner?
Notice, especially, the surface of the land. Note how the surface does not hold. The objects, whatever they are, may well be sinking through the surface as happened to our dreamer in the dream I presented earlier. The picture reminds me very much of the landscape described in the dream.
And that brings me to my concluding point. The surrealist painters were on to something when they said in their writings that there is a strong relationship between surrealist paintings and dreams. Both -- the art and the dream -- arise from the depths of the human psyche.
The dreams arise from our deep slumberings each night and wash up on the shore of our consciousness each morning those objects of our emotional-mental-social-psychological-spiritual lives, describing in mythic narratives the state of our minds. Collectively, these narratives embody the "spirit of our time," the Zeitgeist. It is this air of the spirit of our time that artists breathe in and then exhale with wondrous, revealing, and sometimes shocking images on their easels.
Of course, my dreamer was only one person. And you may wonder in what way his dream in the late twentieth century is connected with the art fifty to sixty years earlier. What I am suggesting is this. The dream is archetypal. It portrays a universal image that occurs throughout history in the dreams of individuals. However, there are times when the circumstances in life impact groups of persons, societies, and indeed the world.
At such a time when the stirring events of our world are shared by a majority of people, then a "spirit of the time" emerges from the collective depths. Our dreams are colored by such a Zeitgeist.
And it is our artists who gather these dream objects and dream stories. Especially is this true when the artists allow their knowledge and techniques to attend the images arising from their collective unconscious. Clinically, we might say about this process that the artists do not let their egos get in the way of their inner vision and creativity.
These artists render us the service of making visible what we may be experiencing inside but cannot or will not dare disclose. Sometimes the images are too frightening, but they may also be too magnificent to express. Sometimes we may need the skill and courage of the artist to make clear these symbolic objects that disturb us, inspire us, mystify us, and -- in any case -- summon us to give them form and substance.
From this perspective, we may say that surrealist art serves a similar function to that of our dreams, namely, to make us more conscious of our world and especially our inner experiences of our world. Through our inquisitive and friendly encounter of art, like our emotional coming to grips with symbols in our dreams, even when they have disturbed us or perplexed us, our lives are transformed, and verdant life is restored.
Oh yes, and the dog in the dream? Well, consider this: Was your heart not stirred just a little when that unexpected inquisitive and friendly dog showed up?