About ten years ago, during a road trip through South Carolina, a dear friend from England began talking to me about a dream he’d had. Oh stop, I implored. Please don’t even start this. Dreams are by their nature indescribable. They are subliminal events, fruit of the id, and any attempt to render them into words reduces them to mere narrative, and alters their content so profoundly that not only do they cease to be dreams, but the account (by definition) cannot be accurate. You’re making this up, literally.
He took offense for some reason; I can’t imagine why.
Compare my rudeness and ignorance to Hans Sachs’ contributions in this exchange:
Walther: I had a rare and wondrous dream.
Sachs: A welcome sign: what did you dream?
Walther: I dare not think what it could mean, for fear that it should fade away.
Sachs: My friend, that is the poet’s task – to see in our dreams the truth of our condition. The deepest wisdom of our existence is shown in our dreams. All of our poetic art is an effort to capture into words the truths that our dreams have revealed to us. … We feed on our dreams. Sing me your dream and I will write down the words.
Walther: I don’t know how to begin.
Sachs: Just think of your dream and nothing else.
Walther: With all the rules, I may have lost my dream.
Sachs: Then rely on art. Lost dreams are found through art.
Walther: Did I dream a dream, or did I dream art?
Sachs: The two are very close.
This notion that public art captures our private dreaming is, among other things, shockingly prescient. Freud’s epochal Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1901 and, in full form, not until 1911 – a half century after Wagner wrote these words. Katherine Syer notes Wagner’s interest in Mesmer’s theories of “magnetic rapport” and the suggestions in Flying Dutchman of Senta’s dream-like induced hysteria. But Wagner’s explicit connection between dreams and the artistic impulse is, to me, without prior intellectual foundation.
It’s all the more provocative because of polar distinction between the private – indeed, sui generis – nature of dreams and the public – indeed, communally received – nature of art. Particularly in the worldview of Meistersinger, art is a public gesture — the very thing that binds us because it is recognizable by all (the volk, not just the elite) and embraces something profound and fundamental about us that we all share and rejoice in. Dreams, therefore, are not only to be related – they form the seed of our knowledge of ourselves and of our communities.
I wish I could roll back time. I do wish I knew what my friend’s dream had been about. He’s a very accomplished writer, and I tell myself that, by reading what he writes, I receive the fruits of his dream, much like the multitudes of fruit that burdened and enriched the tree in Walther’s dream – the tree under which stood “the goal of all my longing, life’s most glorious prize, Eva in Paradise.”