Last night I had a dream that I had lost my right hand and most of my right leg. The cuts were neat, and I was largely unaware of the circumstances that had led to my predicament. Here I was, apropos of nothing, sitting on a doctor’s examination bed. Waving the stumps back and forth, my mood wavered somewhere between horror and an inexplicable giddiness: “It could be worse,” I told my wife. “Look, they’ve got some pretty nice prosthetics now. This could be fun!” The incongruity of my cheerful response worried me deeply, and as I started to question my sanity the dream ended.
Outside of a character in a David Cronenberg film, who would respond to the loss of a hand or leg, nonetheless both, with elation? Me, apparently. Or at least the dream me did. Smiling and proud of a new, clean stump, without a thought of how such a loss would affect me, or how I’d have to learn to do everyday things again. Instead, chuckling with my wife over how much fun this might be. I’d like to think that in real life I’d be able to get over a dramatic loss like this, but responding to it like I would a lost shoe is very unlikely. Here I was, though, in res media, awash in mutilation and an incomprehensible euphoria – no past, no future, only a long “now” of mind-boggling uncertainty. Where am I? How did this happen? Reasonable thoughts in dreamland are reduced to quibbling shadows.
Within our heads exists an uncertain milieu of demons, lovers and lands unknown: The uncertainty of dreams – the shifting grounds of psyche and landscape – is the genesis of both horror and delight, and with an exception made for instances of lucid dreaming, we’re simply along for a ride. We dance like puppets on strings in the hands of a madman, and the madman is us – at least, a part of us.
The mysterious nature of dreams has inspired science fiction and fantasy stories for as long back as there’s been such a thing. H.P. Lovecraft wrote extensively about dreams. Recurring character Randolph Carter (often thought to be a stand-in for Lovecraft himself) traveled the dreamlands quite extensively. Eventually he disappeared, presumed to have settled there permanently. (As a person who has always lived in the shadow of fantasy, I can relate to the sentiment.) More recently, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series featured another dreamworld, Tel’aran’rhiod, a place just as “real” as the real world. Characters who die there never wake again.
Science fiction literature has its share of dream fiction, too. Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika (published in Japanese in 1993 but made available this year in an English translation), features a new form of technology that allows therapists to enter the dreams of the mentally ill, treating them from within their own troubled psyches. This breakthrough in care becomes a tool for evil when it is stolen by a person intent on controlling the minds of others.
Paprika’s plot speaks to the mysterious relationship between the waking world and our dreams. One influences the other. Only after talking about my dream did I realize that it was likely inspired by a news story I had read days ago about a man whose hand was chopped off by terrorists. The horror and immediate sympathy I felt for the man had become fertile ground in which my own distorted dreams sprouted to life. I’ve had many such experiences. I have also had experiences in which my dreams spurred me to action in my waking life. I’ve applied for jobs, started new creative projects and tried new foods, all inspired by dreams. Most people must have that experience: Why else do we speak of “dreaming big” or “making a dream come true”?
The loss of autonomy in dreams can be scary, but it can also be good. As a puppet on a stage, we’re put in a position of facing our fears and desires. We can’t walk away from the story in which we’re only playing a part, but we remain unaware of our passive status. It’s an ideal medium for communication between the subconscious and conscious minds. You must receive the message, even if it is sometimes garbled or even frightening.
With the productive value of dreams as an impetus for action clearly established, the horror of Paprika is revealed. What if our dreams were not our own? We would become a captive audience to the messages of another, perhaps a person without our best impulses at heart. Maybe it would become impossible to differentiate between your own thoughts and those of the interloper, and if so, soon those thoughts would eventually become your own. Each night’s sleep would a battle for the mind.
Fortunately, this isn’t a possibility. At least for now.