00.03.06, Brown, ed., Reading Dreams

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Eileen Gardiner

The Medieval Review baj9928.0003.006


Brown, Peter, ed.. Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. viii, 192. ISBN: 0-198-18363-1.

Reviewed by:
Eileen Gardiner
Italica Press

Reading Dreams addresses the persistent and perennial questions about dreams: where do they come from and what do they mean. Nominally it covers dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, but in fact provides insights into dreams and dream theory from Aristotle ( Parva naturalia) to David Lynch (Blue Velvet), with significant attention to Freud's practices and theories. This is a very broad topic, and a fairly small book; and a book that, sometimes haphazardly, embraces both dreams as dreams and dreams as literary devices as if they were the same thing. The volume includes its own review in the form of an introduction by A. C. Spearing (Medieval Dream Poetry), the scholar who introduced many to the whole subject of dreaming in medieval literature. It is an excellent summary of the book and analysis of the individual contributions. Spearing does not hesitate to indicate his reservations about certain essays that promise insight and in the end are "disappointingly indefinite," but he applauds the overall collection as an attempt "to place dreams and their interpretations more exactly in specific cultural contexts." The limits to this approach are obvious, and while some of these efforts at contextualization are thought-provoking, the real strength of this volume lies in its occasional insights into the world of dream-study. The best of these insights are into Chaucer's undeniably brilliant and innovative use of dreams as literary devices, his earnest use as well as his mischievous use of them to further plot, reveal character, and engage with inherited literary forms. Any student of medieval literature, any student of Chaucer, and particularly any student of dreaming in Chaucer should consult this volume. In addition, Peter Holland's "'The Interpretation of Dreams' in the Renaissance" is an essential roadmap to dreaming in Europe for anyone whose interest strays beyond the Middle Ages--a pleasure to read and a wealth of scholarship.

Among the many interesting and constant themes that recur throughout this volume are the authenticity of the dream, the relationship of the dreamer to the dream, the relationship of the dream to the narrator (and the dreamer to the narrator), as well as the source of dreams and the meanings of dreams. Several of the authors discuss the dream's relationship to its narration, either by the dreamer or by another narrator who also might act as an interpreter. There are many familiar issues involved here, all of which relate to the difficulty of describing and interpreting dreams. For the dreamer the dream is often a confused and ambiguous experience lacking in the signposts of reality. Exactly because of these qualities dreams may seem infused with special meaning, thus requiring special interpretation. But the interpreter's role is always open to criticism exactly because the interpreter represents some type of authority--eventhough for the dreamer that authority may be beneficial and desired rather than authoritarian and oppressive. Although the vision was considered a dream in the Middle Ages, the contributors to this volume have largely chosen to exclude visions, eventhough recent studies of visions would have provided a foundation for many of the issues that the contributors must consider. Particularly in the case of the guide or interpreter, the literature on visions has clearly addressed the issue of the authority structures that permit the interpretation of the individual's dream or vision for the goals of the interpreter; and declarations that these authority structures are "chauvinistic" or "phallocentric" are hardly new. Not that these are not observations worth making, but if they were based on current research on vision studies they might actually further these discussions rather than just glance off them. David Aers's "Interpreting Dreams: Reflections on Freud, Milton, and Chaucer" examines this relationship of the dreamer and the interpreter in the context of gender and power structures. Aers sets up a critical dichotomy in which the dream of the female dreamer is interpreted and therefore appropriated and exploited by the male interpreter. Thus his discussion of Freud focuses on the analyst's relationship to the patient Dora rather than on Freud's writings. Aers's observations on this Freud/Dora relationship serve as a framework for looking at the relationship between Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost, where Adam undertakes to interpret Eve's dream, since Eve, the dreamer, is unwilling or unable to interpret the dream herself. When Aers moves backwards to the dreams in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and the "Nun's Priest's Tale," the ground shifts, and he reveals an author who can play with gender and power structures in a way that almost seems precocious. Viewing Chaucer's treatment of the dream interpreter in the light of selected subsequent examples of dream and dreamer exploitation and appropriation provides interesting observations, yet how fruitfully can we compare a psychoanalytic case study, a literary text almost completely circumscribed by a biblical narrative tradition, and Chaucer? Related to the interpreter is the guide, who differs from the interpreter in that the guide is within the dream rather than external to it. For this reason, the guide often has a greater credibility than the interpreter: the guide is either an ally of the dreamer inside the dream experience or the guide has an eternal sort of authority that is not linked to the worldly hierarchies and power structures that the dreamer has left behind. In "Baring Bottom: Shakespeare and the Chaucerian Dream Vision," Kathryn Lynch approaches the problem of the guide in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Lynch examines how in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare, relying particularly on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, treats the whole notion of the guide, the interpreter, and the quest for understanding with an ambivalence that reveals an essential difference: Shakespeare depends on imagination and Chaucer depends on reason for resolving incongruities. While her conclusion might be intriguing, it should be noted that Lynch does compare one of Chaucer's least imaginative and least successful works with one of Shakepseare's most imaginative and most successful, an uneven comparison that contributes significantly to this perceived disparity. In this volume's inclination to downplay the connection between dream literature and vision literature it unfortunately ignores or fails to acknowledge obvious sources for observed phenomena. Certainly it is possible to find Peter Brown's essay, "On the Borders of Middle English Dream Visions," a stimulating excursion into the reasons for the popularity of this literary genre, but when he looks into the "whys" of a genre and fails to look at the literary milieu that precedes and surrounds its flowering in the late Middle Ages and focuses instead purely on the historical circumstances surrounding this phenomenon, he neglects to account for a significant part of the contextualization this volume touts. The economic, religious, political, and social upheaval of this period are well known; and Brown's exegesis on the liminal nature of dreaming and the altered perceptions occasioned by the dream state is well developed and provocative. However, he does treat the literary material as if it occurred in a vacuum and neglects to mention, except once almost in an aside, Dante and the entire body of vision literature. The flourishing of vision literature in the mid-thirteenth century followed by the culmination of that literature in Dante's masterpiece was part of the tradition from which Chaucer drew. Chaucer was undeniably influenced by the Florentine master. And vision literature written in the previous century is part of the mainstream literary tradition of the late fourteenth century. These visions appeared regularly in manuscripts containing contemporary romances and even The Canterbury Tales. To segregate visions as "religious" literature and to presume that they had no influence on secular writers is to mislead readers about one important context, the literary.

Throughout the literature of the dream the source of dreams has been the primary question, followed by questions about the relationship between the source of a dream and its meaning. Although several of the authors refer to Macrobius. They otherwise treat these questions as if there did not already exist a large body of literature on the subject. In his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis, Macrobius describes five categories of dreams: somnium (enigmatic dream), visio (prophetic vision), oraculum (oracular dream), insomnium (nightmare), visum (apparition): some of them (apparitions and nightmares) originate in the dreamer's mind reflecting daily anxieties, while others are sent to convey a present or future truth. Isidore of Seville believed that dreams could originate from within the self, could be sent by devils or demons, or could be sent as revelations and auguries. Gregory the Great in the Dialogues (4.50) enumerates six ways that dreams can originate: "either by a full stomach or by an empty one, or by illusions, or by our thoughts combined with illusions, or by revelations, or by our thoughts combined with revelations." Both Gregory and Isidore agree that it is difficult to determine the exact source of a dream. And Aquinas summarizes contemporary teaching, describing the sources of dreams as internal (bodily or psychic) or external (physical or spiritual: God or demons). The early twentieth century, with the work of Adler, Jung, Freud, and Horney, took up the discussion again, this time locating the source of dreams in the psyche or unconscious. And, the discussion continues, with dream researchers now locating two possible sources: the brain stem or the frontal lobe (The New York Times, November 2, 1999). Positioning the possible sources as psychosocial or neuroscientific, or some combination of both, mirrors the medieval notion of possible sources as spiritual and physical, or some combination of both. How clear a notion did people in the late Middle Ages have of the role of the physical in the creation of dreams? Steven Kruger ("Medical and Moral Authority in the Late Medieval Dream") proposes that advances in medical understanding in this period shifted the emphasis toward the bodily causes for dreams. He describes how several authors, particularly Chaucer in The Book of the Duchess, worked with the dream's intrinsic connection between the physical and spiritual to reveal a malady that festers in both body and soul, and he explores how a dream itself might have a corrective effect on the dreamer. Kruger delves into this struggle for moral and physical health with an arsenal of questions and observations regarding gender identification, but this vocabulary often obscures more fundamental concerns and sometimes even skews the reading of the text in unnecessary and perhaps misleading ways. Kathleen McLuskie in "The 'Candy-Colored Clown': Reading Early Modern Dreams," also explores where dreams come from and what dreams mean, and she does it in the context of the drama of the period. Comparing dreams in medieval and early modern literature with dreaming in films, she sets up a comparison with David Lynch's use of dreams in Blue Velvet and describes how early modern dramatists, such as Shakespeare and Webster, balanced their use of dreams as prophecy, as symbols, and as expressions of both the individual unconscious and of the collective political unconscious, allowing the subsequent interpretation of these dreams to create complex dramatic effects. McLuskie certainly doesn't equate these dramatists with Lynch, but she asserts the presence of a subtlety and balance not generally associated with dream interpretation in this period. Can we accurately or even fruitfully speak of the "unconscious" in this period, or would the discussion be better framed with a less modern, and weighted, term better acknowledging the otherness of the past? For the purpose of her comparison her choice of the term is clear; and the complexity that she consequently reveals in the material she discusses is, perhaps, worth the anachronism. Her piece provides an elegant closing to the volume by recalling for us how directly and succinctly the dream can reveal so much about character, can suddenly alter a course of action, and can concisely inform an audience. So it is no wonder that the dream has been employed so handily in the cinema, where characters must be revealed, motivation developed, and plot resolved in just two hours; and it is no wonder that the dream as narrative device remains a source of fascination for the storyteller and the scholar. Despite its uneven quality, this volume is an important addition to the literature, even in what it says about our own fascination with dreams and how we view them in our own time from our own perspectives.

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Eileen Gardiner

Italica Press