Dreams I Don’t Have

For a long time, I’ve been crying early in the morning. What does it mean to wake up and, almost immediately, start crying? Some of the books I read about depression noticed the variegated times at which people experience their most dreadful hour, but none made much of it—perhaps because there’s this desire to equalise everything and cover it under the blanket of ‘we all go through the same thing’. This might be completely true; but it’s also completely false: we are all in it together, but some people slit their wrists and others don’t. Zeros and ones.

If I had to compare what I feel now with something I’ve felt before, I must travel back to 2004, when I met V (stick around and you’ll get the initials of every important person in my life, mostly men—whatever that says of me). (But, also, since we are on it: whatever that says of them. Because what does it say, really, that women play such a restricted role in the way men make sense of their lives? What does it say that women are a thing quite apart—apart from their thinking, their doing, their oeuvres? Some sort of addendum allowed and denied access at men’s convenience; that is: when some basic need itches and, suddenly, they remember we exist?)  

In time, V would become my Bulgarian boyfriend. But, at that time, V was a disheveled punk, sitting in the corner of a squatter house during a very loud rave party, compulsively drawing weird stuff in some notebook, alone and totally withdrawn from people. This was (I say with the wisdom of hindsight) something that attracted me in men: the more withdrawn from the social and the normal, the better. I don’t always realise it at the moment; in fact, I often did not realise it at all: fascination came in disguise and delay, stealthy like the bitter bite of a snake.

V and I spent a few days together: having sex, doing drugs, talking and drinking, hanging out in a square next to my house where we could easily spend six or seven hours doing nothing. I wouldn’t call those days fantastic, but I’d call them intense. Quite intense. On the fourth or fifth day, we are having drinks in a bar and V, in some post-acid state of sudden illumination, announces: “I need to see my father, my father is going to die.” What can my persuasive speech and my undisguised attachment do against the teachings of some guru? Nothing. Drugs have powerful effects on men; women don’t —at least, not this woman. And, so, I stepped aside and the hero’s journey went on as planned…

V left an orange backpack in my house and took a blue backpack with him: those were all his belongings. He jumped onto a bus headed for Madrid (where his parents lived) with the money I gave him (because he had none). He had my mobile phone number; I had his parents’ landline number. He did not call (and I could write a whole biography with the calls men have not made, with my useless waiting). After a couple of weeks, I—of course, it’s always I—did the damn call. A very affable lady—his mother—picked up and she told me that V had been there for a few days, but he’d left to Bulgaria. To Bulgaria! Without making a fucking phone call to me!

In case you are wondering, V’s father was alive. But I felt myself dying at that moment: have drugs ever given a man a vision of that? I said to myself that he’d eventually come back because of the backpack he’d left in my room. For weeks and weeks, I woke up in front of that orange backpack and started crying desperately. And, every day, when I came back home from work, the first thing I did was run to my room’s window because I knew that, in case he’d come back, I’d be able to see his blue backpack standing at his favourite hang-out spot: the corner’s laundry. This went on for longer than a month. And my feeling at waking up and seeing his orange backpack, and my feeling at returning to my window and not seeing his blue backpack—this feeling is what most resembles what I feel now upon waking up.

In 2018, I wrote this text about Chantal Akerman’s Man With a Suitcase—a film which fascinates me for a lot of reasons, and that I see as deeply related to my experience of V’s comings and goings (backpacks included). When I wrote the essay, however, I never mentioned this personal/biographical content. Why? Because my life is irrelevant and what matters is cinema, of course. Who says that? Well, I could extend far and long into the implications of that question. But, by now and by convenience, let’s say that I myself used to think that: as a film critic, my life is irrelevant and what matters is cinema.

Dealing openly with your own biography when you are doing film criticism means—zeroes and ones—nothing and everything. When I wrote about Man With a Suitcase, what gave me a certain angle about the film, a certain perspective, was precisely my experience. You can bring out that experience explicitly or not—but it will always inform what you see and how you see: it will always be the lens through which you look at the films. This is called, my friends, subjectivity. And you can deride it, be at war with it, find it petty and inconsequential, find it precious and grand, wish to expand it, bask in it like a pig: it doesn’t matter. There is no way out of subjectivity. You can linger (and I do linger!) over frames, and cuts, and shots, and camera movements; you can use tools (mise en scène, découpage, film history…) and use them brilliantly—but unless you write from a place (like one looks through a certain lens), unless there is a perspective guiding the writing (and, hopefully, being refined by the work of writing), all you’ll have is a bunch of clichés, impressions, and fancy terms more or less gracefully arranged.

That said, lately, I’ve been wondering if never dealing with the biographical content explicitly  (while still writing from a perspective born from this content: unavoidable), has been the best for me. I’m not talking about the texts, here. There was a time when I thought I wrote with my sensibility and my intelligence. Today, I think—and I mean it—that I’ve written some of my best film essays with my deepest personal traumas, without the need of mentioning them even once. So, this is not about the texts, this is about me. I’m asking if proceeding in this manner has done me any good at all. (If all goes as planned, which it rarely does, these issues should be addressed in a forthcoming text titled ‘Sublimation’ that, I hope, will shed some light, or at least some rage, on that big scam). Some months ago, I read in the footnote of some book, that the latin word for blind, caecus, also means unseen. This made a great impression on me.

Sometimes, I think I don’t have dreams because I can’t remember any. But everybody has dreams, or so they say. Since I sleep with someone who has very vivid dreams that he often recalls in precise detail, with all its strong imagery, not to mention the exciting shifts and turns, the experience of waking up dreamless is doubly pathetic to me.

A few years ago, I read C. G. Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. At that time, I was purposefully trying to remember my dreams. Instead of just fantasising myself into oblivion (which is my most natural attitude when I go to bed), I attempted to get into a state of receptiveness and relaxed attention (quite an endeavour for a person like me!). I don’t know how I came up with this idea: I guess it seemed more respectful with the unconscious than just trying to control every thought by driving it exactingly where I wanted it to be. For a time, I even slept with a notebook next to my night stand—in which, only once, the morning after, I found scribbled three words I could barely read.

In Jung’s book there’s a passage that I found strangely compelling—the whole book is compelling, but this passage spoke to me with its own voice, so to speak. Jung talks about this young doctor—all successes and recommendations—who visited him in Zurich because he wanted to be trained as an analyst. He said to him: in order to become an analyst, you should be analysed first. The man was very open and willing to talk about anything. But, when Jung asked to examine his dreams, the guy said: “I have no dreams.” To what Jung replied: “You will soon have some”—adding: “Anyone else would probably have dreamt that very night”. I found this comment wonderfully presumptuous (I’m sorry that I am so petty, but it does remind me of my own incapacity to produce anything that has any effect: how am I not going to feel hurt by that?). At the same time, though, I wished it worked, both for the doctor and for me.

I read Memories, Dreams, Reflections in summer of 2017, at the beach—while my boyfriend was abroad doing a job for which I’ll never be required (and perhaps for the better because I don’t know how to do it anymore.) While reading, I experienced many things I had forgotten, or half-forgotten, resurfacing in a cascade. I think the book might have also had some significant effects on my reflections (here I am, four years later). But no dreams. Not for me. The doctor, however, ended up having what Jung called “an impressive dream”:

He dreamt that he was traveling by railroad. The train had a two-hour stop in a certain city. Since he did not know the city and wanted to see something of it, he set out toward the city center. There he found a medieval building, probably the town hall, and went into it. He wandered down long corridors and came upon handsome rooms, their walls lined with old paintings and fine tapestries. Precious old objects stood about. Suddenly he saw that it had grown darker, and the sun had set. He thought, I must get back to the railroad station. At this moment he discovered that he was lost, and no longer knew where the exit was. He started in alarm, and simultaneously realized that he had not met a single person in this building. He began to feel uneasy, and quickened his pace, hoping to run into someone. But he met no one. Then he came to a large door, and thought with relief: That is the exit. He opened the door and discovered that he had stumbled upon a gigantic room. It was so huge and dark that he could not even see the opposite wall. Profoundly alarmed, the dreamer ran across the great, empty room, hoping to find the exit on the other side. Then he saw—precisely in the middle of the room—something white on the floor. As he approached he discovered that it was an idiot child of about two years old. It was sitting on a chamber pot and had smeared itself with feces. At that moment he awoke with a cry, in a state of panic.

When I read this dream, I was quite taken by the image of an idiot child in the middle of a gigantic room—a room so huge, so dark, that one cannot see where it ends. For some reason, this image brought to me another powerful image from Andrei Tarkovski’s Solaris. (Why do I keep wedding Jung to this—in some senses, not-very-Jungian—film? I don’t know. You tell me!). The image in question is one we can’t see with our eyes despite the fact that the person telling about it insists that he “saw it with his own eyes”. Like those in the doctor’s dream, this image is not shown to us: it is recounted—and I think (hello cinema!) it is in this decision that the force of the image resides. Pilot Berton sits in front of a scientific commission to relate what he saw during one of their Solaris expeditions. After the ship guided by him was drawn into a sludge, he saw a garden below—a garden with shrubs, hedges, acacia trees and little paths. Then everything begun to crack and break:

I discovered something floating in one of the openings. It looked like Fechner’s space suit. Its shape was that of a person. I turned around—I didn’t want to lose sight of that spot. At that moment, the figure rose slightly, as if it were swimming or treading the waves. This person had no space suit and he was moving. It was a child. When I flew closer to him, I noticed something awful. I couldn’t make it out at first. Then I saw he was unusually large. Gigantic. He was about four metres tall. He had blue eyes and dark hair. He was naked, absolutely naked, like a newborn. He was wet or, rather, slippery. His skin was shiny. He rose and fell like the waves, but he was moving by himself. It was disgusting.

Berton’s image is dismissed by the commission as an hallucination produced by the planet’s atmosphere, inflammation of the cerebral cortex, and depression (they never take us seriously enough!). The image is declared not real. But, what about the doctor’s dream? Jung considered it quite real, let me tell you. His interpretation consists—if I had to put it in cinematic terms—in offering us the dream’s frame: the doctor’s stop in the foreign city was his actual trip to Zurich—a short stop.

Jung doesn’t say anything about the huge room whose end can’t be seen and he doesn’t comment either on any specific image or detail of the dream— except for one: the figure of the idiot child covered in faeces that he calls “a sinister symbol”. He insists quite markedly on eschewing any identification between the child and the doctor’s childhood: the idiot child is the man now, today. For Jung, this dream was highly time-sensitive and demanded urgent intervention. What the dream told him, in short, is that this man was not prepared for an encounter with the unconscious, and that such a confrontation would have shattered him completely. After retelling the doctor’s dream, Jung’s first words—his diagnosis—are: “I knew all I needed to know—here was a latent psychosis!”

The passage, on the whole, is a warning against normality. He offers it as an example of how often “emphatic normality” compensates for what goes on in the depths. The doctor’s very willingness to “speak about anything”, his ‘I don’t have anything to hide’ attitude was already suspicious to Jung. In that sense, I don’t know if the doctor and I have much in common, because it’s been a while since I have felt normal at all. But, after reading Jung’s take on that dream, I felt both more and less eager to pursue my dream recollection. Jung lied to the doctor about the dream: “I had to represent it to him as something quite innocuous, and gloss over all the perilous details”. After a few weeks and a few more dreams, he found a way to stop the training and convince the man to return to his normal life, his normal practice, his normal marriage, his normal affairs. But what to do when there isn’t a normality to which you can return?

Last year, on several occasions, I had an experience new to me: as I was drifting into sleep, I heard a voice. A voice calling my name: sometimes, it sounded gentle like my own voice; other times, it felt—unmistakably—like a warning preventing me from falling asleep; once, it was a hideous, terrifying voice that did not belong to this world. This is as far as I’ve got with dreams: barely lingering at the threshold. Access denied.

Perhaps the unconscious is not for everybody. Perhaps if I could remember my dreams, I still wouldn’t know what to do with them. But, when I wake up every morning feeling this extreme deprivation at something that I’ve lost or hasn’t come (I can’t even decide which one it is), I wonder if it is not time already to find inside myself something of what I can’t obviously find outside. And I wonder what would it take for me to dream; from where, from whom would come the prompt that would be my “you will soon have some”. And I wonder if that would make me stop crying.

© Cristina Álvarez López, November 2021