Dreams – where do we go?

Somewhere on the frozen front line of a northern war. That’s where.

I am with a companion, a stranger to me, both of us lying in snow behind a leafless bush of reddish twigs. Behind us is a copse of leafless trees – silver birch – leading further back into thick pine forest. In front of us is a flat plain of snow surrounded at a great distance by low, dark wooded hills. There is a large blue sky, the sunlight fierce off the snow. It is bitterly cold and utterly silent. My companion and I are dressed in washed out red uniforms of a sort of sack-like material. Behind us we are aware of more of our troops hidden in the scrubby trees.

Damn them – they are punishing us by putting us in this ridiculous position. Isolated and angry and waiting a bloody attack. We try not to breathe too heavily as our frosty breath will give our position away.

I am in a state of extreme tension. A fear too deep for expression has gripped me. There is no point trying to express it. I lie there almost outside myself, beside myself, trying to escape this appalling situation. The landscape around me seems so utterly indifferent to me I feel a great hatred for it. I am not thinking of the war, its aims nor of my companions – just of myself and how I might behave to save myself when the moment comes. Even this thought blurs, as I have no idea what is to come. No thoughts stay long enough to be examined. The fear is like a nagging, constant pain, making existence itself hard to grasp.

Looking back, I see the troop has formed just behind us, kneeling in firing positions among the scrub and snow. They are well equipped and dressed in heavy, dark greatcoats and fur hats. Most distinctly I am aware of the broad, shining silver bayonets fixed to their rifles, now all closely positioned and bristling in the sunlight. I envy the men there and feel bitter about what they have done to us. I turn to look at the snow plain beyond our bush.

Erupting out of the deep snow, hundreds of men suddenly rush at us with great force, charging onto us with guns and bombs, calling and screaming. They overwhelm us immediately. The fear rises to a crescendo as I roll over in the snow – thoughts whirling too fast to speak, blanking all sensation – ‘what will it feel like, the bullet or the smashed skull or the blade through my back? 

There is a madness, something of another world about this – it is all too great to be felt in relation to my life.  The real violence is now taking place a little away from us and is moving on yet further. We are left surrounded by shouting men. When will it come? When? But it doesn’t. I am being dragged on all fours across the snow scratching my hands and tearing my clothes on the thorn bushes. I begin to realise I am being taken prisoner – they have not killed me and are rolling me over in the slush to a place away from the fighting. I feel the fear transform to a bizarre combination of exultation and terror. I am still alive and will be so for a while longer. My companion has gone. Dead. Why him? Doesn’t matter. What’s next?

Immediately I am taken to a chateau, a prison nearby, rushed along by guards almost at a run. It’s too fast to think about. Just grab visions.

Through a heavy wooden door, eased back on huge hinges. Onto a grass and mud area overlooking a lower courtyard. Grass trampled into slush but bright green. Down to the courtyard, smell of shit and sweat and mud and damp. Sunlight is flashing off puddles. Several dirty men in torn greatcoats stand around, looking at me. No words, just worried, white faces. My fellow prisoners. Soldiers come and push us through more great wooden doors into the dark. A concrete floor. Bodies lie anywhere in pools of water. Living or dead – hard to say.  Some puddles are stained pale red with blood. I can’t see to the end of the hall as the light from the doorway doesn’t reach very far. I have no idea how big this place is nor how many bodies, or what else, lie in the further dark. No one says a word. The officer, large, indifferent as the landscape, orders me to an empty area of concrete floor, stained and disgusting. I lie down in old piss and blood, gripped with terror but with a creeping numbness. All volition gone. Nothing to be done or thought. I am losing myself.

Doors close slowly. Sounds of bolts and chains. It’s almost completely dark. How long? It’s so cold. I am shivering uncontrollably. Supposing I die here, this night or this day? Suppose they just come and take me out and shoot me? They can do anything they want. My stomach heaves and churns with the thought. Not here. Not now. No – I can’t end here. It’s not meant to be like this. My life is more than this, was more than this. Must be more than this. To die here. Here! It’s the appalling humiliation. It’s so shaming.  Utterly shameful. I feel so foolish I want no-one to know about me – in this, here. How can this possibly be the end?

This story is fiction.  Of a particular kind. In fact although I didn’t copy it and it was I who wrote it down, I didn’t invent it and I didn’t get it from anyone else. I reported the story as it was shown to me. This kind of fiction keeps nagging at me. Its provenance is a complete mystery to me and it has lead me to examine ideas of identity, the ‘self’ and the nature of my experience of being alive.

Of course  – a dream. That’s what it was. I have noted it as accurately as possible. Even so I am aware that if I noted down every tiny nanonuance of the experience I would not have ended up with a few paragraphs, but a three volume novel.  Some of the materiaI I can attempt to convey. The brightness of the snow, the green of the grass, the feel of the grass, the glint of sun on bayonets. The physical movement and the kind of landscape. I can tell of emotions. Even so, these reports rely on a sort of faith that you, the reader, might have some knowledge of what these signal words mean. It is the faith of communication we have to get on with. But there is more. The particular atmosphere of this dream I believe to be utterly incommunicable. A better writer than I am might approach the task. But I believe it is not possible to transfer these kinds of sensations. They remain entirely personal. Saying that leads me to a natural silence on the matter. There is nothing more to be said. Nothing more can be said.

But there is also something else which really starts me wondering and worrying out the thoughts. I have never had the experiences described in the dream in my waking life. Nor have I seen them in a film. Nor have I seen the landscape, the chateau, the red uniform I was wearing. None of it.  More than that, I have never felt such fear nor suffered the extraordinary subtleties of the fear. Nor any of the other emotions felt in this scenario. One might say that it could be an amalgam of many different past experiences woven together in this particular narrative and set in motion by particular personal circumstances. But that won’t do – at any rate not on a macro level. The only alternative is that it is an amalgam – has to be – but on a micro level.

I have no doubt that this extraordinary construction – like all other dreams – is a brain-made construction. What puzzles me and pulls at me is the constraint of it.  I mean that it was not as some people depict dreams – with melting watches in deserts and thin legged horses a mile high leaping from the sky. No – it was all, apart from the drama of this particular scenario, normal. The ground was below, the sky above, the snow cold, the brick hard, the old piss smelly. Why, given the freedom the brain might have when we are asleep, does it stick to the normal? How does it construct, from the bottom up, plays with recognisable, if off the wall, plots? And how can it create this other world from its basic synaptic transactions? From fragments of received sensations, dissected and stored on a nano scale, the brain must bring these molecules of memory together at a level of construction so minute in its detail, in such infinitely small bites of information that it has been receiving from the material world, that it is able to create the scenes we experience in our dreams as entirely convincing, entirely novel. And these with greater subtlety and nuance than we are ever able to experience in our waking lives. It points to the brain taking in much than we can ever deal with consciously.

If the brain is doing this playwriting, set construction and film making in our sleep what is it doing while we have the sensation that we are awake?  It is obvious to anyone who gives a couple of seconds thought to the situation that, contrary to our immediate intuitive feelings about this, we are not looking out of windows in our heads at the material world.  What we are experiencing all day and everyday is a brain-made world. Let’s go back to some basics.

This is from Rita Carter’s ‘Mapping the Mind’

‘In normal brains incoming sensory stimuli follow well-worn neural paths from the sensory organ to specific brain destinations. As the stimulus passes through the brain it is split into different streams which are processed in parallel by different brain modules. Some of these modules are in the cerebral cortex – the wrinkled outer grey skin where sights and sounds are put together and then made conscious. Others are in the limbic system where the stimuli generate the bodily reactions that give them an emotional quality – the thing that turns noise into music and a pattern of lines and contrasts into a thing of beauty.

The cortical area for each sense is made up of a patchwork of smaller regions, each of which deals with a specific facet of sensory perception. The visual cortex, for example, has separate areas for colour, movement, shape and so on. Once the incoming information has been assembled in these areas it is shunted forward to the large cortical regions known as association areas. Here the sensory perceptions are married with appropriate cognitive associations – the perception of a knife, for example, is joined with the concepts of stabbing, eating, slicing and so on. It is only at this stage that the incoming information becomes a fully fledged, meaningful perception. What we now have in mind was triggered by stimuli from the outside world, but it is not a faithful reflection of that world – rather it is a unique construction.’

In some dreaming, while the brain is still active in many of the areas which are involved in its waking life, other areas are closed down. Activity is decreased in the areas of waking thought and reality testing. Although it is sometimes seen that we move and twitch in our sleep, these are just vestiges of the dreamt movement experience going on while we sleep. It would not do to experience a charge from a Russian army in the confines of a single bed in north London. These restrictions on possible physical responses seem to recognise that the dreams we are experiencing have real power and that if, when we slept, we were left with all faculties running we could do ourselves (not to say our bed partners) some serious damage.  In this recognition we seem to be admitting that what we experience of life, waking and sleeping, is of the nature of a dream (that is, entirely an interior construct) only kept in control by other mechanisms and by a constant stream of new material coming in through our senses.

So the hallucinations we have been looking at in the earlier chapter represent a kind of slippage allowing free imaging in the conscious brain when certain restraints are loosened. The extraordinary conditions described both inside the brain and in the unusual environments individuals have found themselves in have lead to releasing of random (and perhaps not so random) images into an area that should be protected and shored up against such invasions. And in this we must accept that there is only a paper thin difference between dreaming and waking and that both states use the same material.

If, then, we see our brains as the animators of raw material dredged by our senses from the outside world into a maelstrom of brain-created emotions and memories, urges and appetites, then perhaps an unraveling of this, at present, tightly knotted ball of interpretations of perception, might be attempted.

The point of this is that it is exciting. The material world jogs along, keeping to its physical laws and being, for the most part, predictable. Not so when shutters are closed on the senses and we illuminate our consciousness with free play, using as building bricks the detritus of memories. The experience of dreams in sleep and of dreams projected onto the material world are much more enlivening than our analytical, conscious transactions. I don’t mean this in a flippant way; I’m deeply serious. Our necessary social transactions would be impossible unless electrified by emotional or mythic colouring and the construction of dramatic, inflated images of ourselves. I think this is how we operate. Why we have and art and drama. Why we have wars and religion.

The doors grind open. Some random selection has been made. A dozen of us are hauled to our feet and butted and pushed outside. Sunshine again, almost too bright to bear. Everything at a run again. Several groups of men are in the courtyard, but going through doors into different grassy, walled gardens. Soldiers with rifles follow them. We are made to run a few yards then stand by a red brick wall. A volley of shots from behind the wall. O god! O no – it’s going to happen. Now. This is it. What? This the last view, last people? But we are left standing. No-one comes. No more shots. We start to look around. Arched and open doorways lead though to kitchen gardens. I simply walk away through them, over muddy plots with sprouting green shoots. Others drift away. On out through the last gateway to a vast, flat landscape. Mud fields. Huge sky. No trees. Melting snow. The chateau recedes to nothing behind me. There is no one else in sight. Hours go by. I say to myself ‘I am still alive’. I cannot grasp this for the moment and put the thought away. Towards dusk, I approach the outskirts of a city, tower block flats and factories. A rubbish dump where I feel danger again. There are sounds of others. I scrabble myself under boxes of junk and lie there for an age. A man passes nearby, then his presence fades. As night falls I am left alone. I emerge from under the rubbish. I see the lights of the town and know I will be well for the moment. It looks like a new world. Coloured lights are coming on in the dusk. There is more to come then. This thought is all I am capable of and I move off towards . . .