The Uncertain World of Daydreams

One aspect of myself I’ve always been quite aware of, and often bashful about, is my tendency to lapse into daydreaming. When I am on my own, my thoughts automatically lose their grip on reality. I find myself having imaginary conversations with people, or wondering what I would do if I were caught in some extremely unlikely emergency situation (such as being abducted, or driving into a lake with a car, or being confronted by wolves on a mountain, among a staggering number of fantastic scenarios), or, perhaps most often of all, recollecting a string of memories from the past but in an order that seems to defy logic and lack a justifiable purpose. The experience is very much like the classic one described in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the eating of a tea-soaked madeleine leads to involuntary recollections of childhood moments spent by the narrator with his aunt Léonie – if one were to add that the memory of his aunt Léonie immediately triggered a further involuntary memory, and so on and so forth. I have always been able to spend hours in these spells of day-dreaming.

It is only in my later adult years that I’ve had enough perspective to understand why this happens to me – and to realize that it probably happens, to a smaller or greater degree, to most human beings. Our liability to fall into daydreaming when we are not concentrated on doing or understanding something specific is almost certainly tied to our ability to fall into actual dreams when we are fully retired to ourselves, in sleep. Dreams at their essence are only capable of following a transitory or questionable logic in their development and sequence, and as a general rule are interesting only because of what they reveal about us as people – our palette of fears, hopes, desires, and beliefs – and not because of anything they indicate about the external world. But this Morpheic ability to create images and experiences out of nothing, regardless of whether these exhibit a logical structure, must be at the root of the creative ability we exert as conscious beings in our various efforts to re-imagine and re-shape the world of our wakefulness. [In fact, experiments have shown that brief moments spent in the beginning stage of sleep can bring on a boost in creativity and problem-solving ability] We could go further and say that the development of the arts in particular – and especially the infinity of stories we think up and then publish in books or produce in films – represents a form of collective day-dreaming which seems to enrich our lives and deepen our self-knowledge even while it presents the enduring danger of distracting our attention from the true world and the various things we are doing in it.

Dreaming and dreams are the antithesis of reasoning and reality. Dreaming happens to us, when we are passive, and takes us on a journey in which identities, including our own, are inconstant and plot-lines, however intensely experienced, change capriciously. In contrast, when we reason about things, we remain concentrated in our focus, and insist that our every proposition adhere to standards of correctness. One of my favorite political theorists, Hannah Arendt, was significant to me in part because of how incisively she pointed out the importance of active discussion in helping individuals to maintain their sense of reality. Active discussion – or, more precisely, what the ancient Greeks called logos, i.e. reasoned speech – helps us to escape a subjectivist state in which the worlds of fact and fantasy too often blend together. (Arendt did not actually write much about dreaming or daydreaming, but she was concerned about a world in which subjectivism was taking the place of political understanding.) I realize now that I, like like many others, was especially prone to becoming a daydreamer in large part because I did not engage in much discussion with other family members growing up. Lack of discussion leads to introversion, which can lead to daydreaming, which in turn leads to a hazy grip on reality; this is the real source of introverts’ fragility. By the same token, extroverts’ strength comes from their habit of frequent talking leading them to stay focused on things that are “relevant” and thus instilling in them a more rigorous grasp of reality. This may, however, come at some cost to their creative abilities. But this topic can be explored further at another point.

Ultimately, while we can argue about the superior merits of either day-dreaming or reasoned speech, it is certain that a complete life involves some interplay between these. The problem is when they become too separated from each other – when daydreaming is an escape from reality, or, alternatively, when analytical speech becomes divorced from the insight and richness of the inner world.

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