I’m not talking daydreaming here. By its very nature, a daydream isn’t true. Or isn’t true yet. It’s what you wish would happen. Or think you wish would happen. (Have you ever thought of what it would really be like to live twenty-four seven with the man of your dreams – buff and studly and always with only you you you on his mind. Spare me!) All right, two weeks in Paris, five-star hotel, three-star eating, all expenses paid, with a somewhat less buff and studly guy, maybe even your own husband – yes, that would be lovely. But is that what you really daydream about?
Dreams when asleep are another matter. You might think they aren’t true either. But you could be wrong. I once had a colleague whose husband had awful nightmares about his second wife at least twice a week and sometimes more often. My colleague’s view was that her husband’s unconscious apparently went on hating this wife even twenty years after their acrimonious divorce, although he never saw her again after the court hearing. On the other hand, maybe dreaming about wife two was a metaphorical way of letting himself know how he really felt about wife three, who was my colleague. So perhaps the husband had been dreaming true, in a poetic manner of speaking.
Now if I had been the colleague, I don’t think I would have told me. A husband’s repeated nightmares about one’s predecessor could certainly suggest to others that one wasn’t really on top of things, wife-wise. She tried to make a joke of it: “When I married him, I didn’t think she’d be in the bed, too!” I laughed, to be polite. All the same, I would have kept it to myself.
I only dreamed about a spouse once. It wasn’t really a nightmare, although it was unexpected and therefore somewhat scary suddenly to see through the windshield of a car I was driving in the dream that the nose of the car had my second husband’s head on it in profile – rather like the three ships that used to adorn the nose of Plymouth automobiles when I was a little girl. We’d been divorced for at least seven years by the time his profile, featuring a large nose of his own, showed up on the car. So I don’t understand this dream at all. It couldn’t have meant I thought he was still trying to lead me around, because I was the one doing the driving in the dream, not him. By then I was entirely independent of him in real life anyway. And it couldn’t have meant I thought he was an ornament. He was all right in the looks department, but not particularly ornamental. Whatever my unconscious was trying to tell me, it failed.
I also once had a scary dream which might have qualified as a nightmare: an unknown masked man rang the doorbell where I was living with my mother, pointed a gun at me when I opened the door, and pulled the trigger three times. I heard the pop, pop, pop – but nothing happened. The man had shot blanks. I didn’t fall down dead or dying. (And no, it wasn’t about unsatisfactory sex – even though that could have been truthfully said about real life with my first husband, with whom I was still living at the time.) But I was in therapy when I had this dream. The therapist thought the unknown man was my father, and that my unconscious was telling me not to be afraid of him anymore because he was harmless. The therapist was probably right, as I had already figured out that my father was mostly bark and no bite. So that was another instance of perhaps dreaming true. But if I already knew what the dream was telling me, what did I need the dream for? I decided I had dreamed it to be able to tell the therapist about it. Then we could stop talking about my father and move on to my mother – a conundrum of a woman if ever there was one.
But mostly I don’t dream much when I sleep, or don’t remember the dreams, even in fleeting fragments. Although not so long ago I did have one amazingly real-seeming dream I remember very clearly. It was about another stranger, younger than me and definitely not my father, a strong and sensitive man who was making wonderful love to me. He knew exactly what to do and where and how to do it. Unfortunately, just after the preliminaries and his entry (if I may put it that way), Sophie – our younger cat – decided to pay my stomach one of her nocturnal visits with her paws and woke me up. Pouf! The delicious stranger was gone! It may not have been an instance of dreaming true, but I wanted him back so badly.
Which illustrates the most important difference between daydreams and dreams when you’re sleeping. (Unless you’re a shrink treating a patient, in which case content is always important, day or night.) The ones when you sleep seem so real. Really real. As if they’re happening.
That’s why for several months when I was fourteen, I was entranced by a late nineteenth-century novel in which the heroine taught the hero, whose life was not happy, a thing or two about dreaming. They had loved each other as children, and met again as adults after she had been married off to another, thereby becoming the beauteous Duchess of Towers, and had also had a son. Alas, they were parted for life when he accidentally killed his guardian in self-defense and was condemned to life imprisonment. The book is Peter Ibbetson, the first of three novels by George du Maurier, who was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which was made into a Hollywood movie for Joan Fontaine to star in when I was a girl.
George du Maurier’s most famous novel was Trilby, but Trilby didn’t do it for me. It was Peter Ibbetson — sentimental, anti-Semitic, and turgidly written — that grabbed me. (You can safely deduce from the three adjectives that you shouldn’t go running off to read it. Or if you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.) One night before he gets to prison, Peter has a dream more real than reality in which he meets and speaks with the Duchess of Towers and in which she teaches him how to “dream true.” (Yes, the expression is du Maurier’s, not mine.) From then on, he is able to return to his happier childhood past in dreams.
At a subsequent meeting in real life, the Duchess reveals she has had the same childhood dream as he — and at the same time! They had been in the same dream together! However, she forbids their meeting in further dreams because she feels bound to her husband. Stern mistress! But after he is condemned to prison for life, he dreams the Duchess appears to tell him her husband and child are now dead, so that although separated by prison walls, they can be together by “dreaming true” again. Thus, for twenty-five years Peter lives willingly in his prison, each night rejoining the Duchess, whose given name is Mary, in their beautiful childhood home. The years of their joy pass swiftly by. The lovers get so good at dreaming true they can travel into past centuries together, visiting the forebears from whom they descended.
You’d think so much nightly happiness might be enough. But wait, there’s more! Mary dies. Unable to reach her in his dreams anymore, Peter goes mad with grief and is confined to an asylum. While he’s there, she finds a way to come back to his dreams to give him hope that one day they may be together again. Naturally, he gets well immediately and is released from the asylum to live out his days in prison. There he continues to dream true, returning in sleep to the childhood scenes he still loves, where sometimes Mary manages to come back from death to join him.
In 1935, Gary Cooper made a movie version of Peter Ibbetson. (Ann Harding played Mary.) I was four at the time and therefore didn’t see it. But ten years later I discovered the book. What a wonderful concept! There were so many people – not surprisingly, all male – with whom I wanted to dream true:
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, for starters. If he could come back from the dead in a dream, why not? I was afraid of meeting Byron, and Keats was too tubercular, but I did think Shelley might like me. (Older and wiser now, I’m sure I was wrong.)
- Thomas Wolfe. I would take a class with him in our dream, come up to his desk when the hour was over, standing very close in a snug cashmere sweater, and then the ball would be in his court. I knew he wouldn’t fumble.
- Leonard Bernstein (when in his twenties). He would discover me, a sudden orphan, selling records after school in a music store; enchanted, he would adopt me and wait willingly until I grew up, when we could enjoy even greater bliss together.
- Gerard Philippe. My high school French was getting better every day. Even if he didn’t know English, we could therefore redo “Diable Au Corps” (“Devil In the Flesh”) together every night by dreaming it true without that milksop of a French actress who had also been in the movie.
Reader, I tried so hard. How I concentrated after I had turned out the lights! What bargains I made with whatever entity out there might be running things! I even ventured into formal prayer. Nothing doing. “Dreaming true” was just not for me.
So what brings it to mind again after almost a lifetime? In a word, death. So many people I used to know are gone. Often it’s hard to grasp they’re not still here – at the other end of a telephone line or a quick email. It’s easier to believe in “dreaming true” than that I won’t ever see them again.
Which suggests that perhaps I’m not wholly a skeptic, even now. “Dreaming true” may not have worked for me. But if you decide to give it a whirl, do let me know how you do.