In a memorable scene of South Pacific, a 1958 film based on a post-war musical, Juanita Hall’s character, Bloody Mary, sings about dreams. We see her sitting between a young John Kerr’s Lieutenant Cable and France Nuyen’s exotic Liat. There is a love story in the background.
“You’ve got to have a dream”, Bloody Mary sings while Liat dances with her hands. “If you don’t have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?”
Years earlier, in the morning of 24 July 1895, a young Sigmund Freud wakes up from a dream: one of his patients, “Irma”, was not doing too well. Freud is worried that he might have made a medical error and has to consult two of his friends, both doctors.
This dream occupies the whole second chapter of his 1899 seminal, Interpretation of Dreams. Freud uses it as a clinical example to illustrate his method and theory of dream analysis. He was perfectly aware of the symbolic importance of that first dream’s analysis, and he writes to his friend and colleague W. Fliess that someday in the future a marble memorial tablet would be placed on the wall of Hôtel Bellevue, where he had spent that night. “In this house on July 24, 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigmund Freud.”
“I see little prospect of it”, he added modestly.
Predictably enough, a tablet was installed at the site some years after Freud’s death. As fate sometimes decrees, it survived the actual Hôtel Bellevue, which has since been demolished.
Freud’s theory of dreams was the first that claimed that a systematic understanding and deciphering of a dream’s intention, function and language is possible. His method – free associating on the various elements of the dream and drawing connections between the associations rather than the original elements – has been followed by millions of psychoanalysts all around the world and has made possible the deciphering of countless dreams since that fateful July evening in 1895.
Or has it?
Dr. John Allan Hobson, an American psychiatrist and dream researcher who died early in July this year, has claimed otherwise. Hobson is more known for his discovery of R.E.M. (Rapid eye movement) during sleep. His general research programme had at its basis an attempt to quantify brain events and study their correlation to the mental events they give rise to.
Hobson claimed that dreams are but by-products of the brain’s functioning. They are fables that we humans say to ourselves. They appear to say something meaningful, but in reality they just represent our feeble attempts to attribute meaning to random firings of our brain neurons thereby making some sense out of non-sense.
In 1975, exactly eighty years after Freud’s Irma dream, Jacques Lacan was giving lectures in the United States. At some point, he spoke at MIT before an audience of mathematicians, linguists, and philosophers. Noam Chomsky, the already famous American linguist philosopher and activist, was in the audience. Unconvinced by Lacan’s presentation, Chomsky asked a question on thought. What is a thought? Or something like this.
“We think we think with our brains” said Lacan. “Personally, I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something. But I’ve seen enough electroencephalograms to know there’s not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain”.
Remaining unconvinced, this is what Chomsky has to say about Lacan, several years later: “I kind of liked him”, he admits. “[But] I thought he was a total charlatan, just posturing before the television cameras the way many Paris intellectuals do.”
If, taking Lacan’s claim seriously, we accept that no trace of a thought can be seen in the brain, then we can assume that there would be no trace of a dream either. In the brain we wouldn’t find thoughts, or dreams; we wouldn’t find virtue, or vice; we would find no wishes, no memories, no desires, no longings.
In a way we can guess that Lacan would be rather sceptical about Dr. Hobson’s research. In the brain you can only find brain events, neuron firings, electrochemical interactions, and such like; what sort of correlation was the man expecting to study?
This may all sound a bit bizarre, I realise, but is so only if we fail to remember what a thought, a dream, a wish, a memory, a desire, or a longing, are. These are not biological entities. They are meaningful aspects of the life of a human being, a person like you or me, who tentatively work our way through the maze of our everydayness. Granted, they are mental entities, and behind them there are corresponding brain events, no doubt about that. Our mental life would not be possible without them. Yes.
But our thoughts and wishes and desires and the like they are not what they are, in isolation. You can’t see them in the brain, because they can only become what we think them to be within the internalised discursive sphere in which we operate. Not outside it. We think our thoughts are our own, inherently private; but they are not. They are empty vessels that source their meaning from the discourses in which we partake.
I guess this might have not been what Bloody Mary, Juanita Hall’s character in Southern Pacific, had in mind, but I think it’s on the spot:
You’ve got to have a dream.
If you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?
This piece was originally published in the August, 2021 edition of Splinters.