The Death of Dreaming

October 17, 1990|By A. Zoland Leishear

I AM LOOKING through my closet for a black dress. There is a funeral coming and I do not want to be caught unprepared. Imagination has been sick lately, and I think the end is close.

It started a number of years ago when I noticed that non-fiction was greatly outselling fiction. In publications that review such things, non-fiction was receiving at least three times the coverage. I had an image of scores of worker bees, head down, droning along. When they bumped into a bookstore, they lifted there heads to say, ''Just the facts, ma'am.'' I know the facts, they are emblazoned across a T-shirt I have (black, of course): ''Life is hard, then you die.''

What I want are the flights of fancy, the wind shears of hope that lift you up even against your will. But these are not to be found among the writers of fiction either, particularly not in that especially virulent brand of American writing known as minimalism. But imagination has suffered worse blows then these. The most recent and perhaps the final hit has come from Allan Hobson, a Harvard psychiatrist and neuroscientist. Dr. Hobson has taken imagination and dissected it. He has caused the death of dreaming.

In a particularly nasty bit of scientific research, Dr. Hobson claims to have discovered that dreaming, that netherworld of signs and portents, is nothing more then the brain self-stimulating in the absence of external information. We are asleep. Nothing is coming in from the outside world. The brain starts getting a little shaky in this vacuum and begins to eject unconscious flotsam and jetsam so it will have something to look at. This is dreaming. No pattern, no meaning, an image salad. Dr. Hobson is wrong.

Over the past 500 years, and probably for much longer, man has been arching through two cycles commonly known as an Age of Science and an Age of Faith. For the sake of simplicity, let us call them fact and fiction. Fact governs the realm of the senses, those things that can be seen or touched. It embraces issues that respond to order, like science, or logic. They are the things that nail us to earth, that keep us from blowing away. Fiction rules from the other world, the invisible and ineffable, the realm of the spirit, the domain of the heart. It is the stuff, if you will, of which dreams are made. It is what keeps us going when we discover the truth of that T-shirt message. It is more than the facts.

These two governing philosophies rotate in popularity. The Middle Ages, an age of faith, was ended when the plague did not respond to prayer. Men and women looked to something else to solve the problem, and the seeds of an age of science or reason were sown.

We live in a age of science. Technology is destroying our planet. It is beyond our ethical capacity to handle it. It is not making us happy, only miserable, longer. We are beginning to look elsewhere. Has it not occurred to anyone that perhaps the solution is to combine the two? This may have been Dr. Hobson's intent but he has missed the point.

No matter how long and hard you search you will never find anyone's soul. There will never be incontrovertible proof that Jesus Christ was God. No amount of genetic scanning or scientific research will ever explain how such rude vessels as Mozart, Van Gogh and Faulkner produced such magnificent art. Nor will science ever create art. And Dr. Hobson can come to my house and show me facts until Christmas and I will never see dreams as mere electrochemical signals. I have had dreams. They have come as rescuing vessels when I did not even know I was in danger and they alone have saved me. Dr. Hobson is not so much wrong, as he is inappropriate. He has the right methods but he is using them in the wrong realm. He is simply a modern-day Ulysses who sailed too far and went beyond his limits. His punishment is that he does not even know another world exists. This is the plight of many who espouse an age of fact.

Maybe it's time to combine the two, to stop trying to dissect the soul, to start looking somewhere other than the bottom line, to grant that there is more here then eye can see or hand touch, and to do so without lapsing into superstition and fanaticism. Perhaps it's time to realize that failures such as the Hubble Telescope, or even our economy, are not so much failures of science or policy, or even fact, but failures of spirit. They come from looking down too much, from aspiring only to the mundane and graspable. Perhaps it is time to realize that fact and fiction, Science and Faith, this world and the other exist together and were meant to. Our half-bodied attempts have met with little success. Whole-bodied can only be an improvement. Then solutions may present themselves and we will find the strength to labor through all the details.

I have found my black dress and I have it at the ready. Imagination may still die and I will attend the funeral. It will be difficult to see it go, but standing there as they lower it away, as I hear the sounds of dirt hitting the coffin lid, I will not lose heart. I believe it will resurrect, be born again. Though I cannot prove tTC this point, it nonetheless makes all the difference. And in the meantime, I can dream.

Ms. Leishear is a free lance.

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