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A Most Rare Vision

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake, circa 1786. Public Domain.

In the Northern Hemisphere, much of July and August is commonly referred to as the “dog days” of summer. Swelteringly hot, heavy, stuffy days tint life with lethargy, ennui, or larghetto. The phrase, dog days, refers to the appearance of Sirius (Canis Majoris—the Dog Star), in the night sky at this time of year.

Ancient Greek poets thought the star was responsible for both heat and fever, and considered it an ill-omened time of year. Homer wrote, “Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky on summer nights […] Orion’s dog they call it, brightest of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat and fevers to suffering humanity.” (Illiad, Lombardo Tr., Bk. XXII, II. 33-37.) The late summer heat inspires dreams of cooler, more comfortable weather, and the memory of an easy-breezy, lightness of spirit. The heat may also inspire fevered, disturbing dreams depriving one of sleep, and undermining morale.

Dreams, from the standpoint of Depth Psychology, are not merely neuro-physiological byproducts of brain activity without apparent benefit, but rather the direct expression of unconscious psychic activity and the inner situation of the dreamer. C.G. Jung said, “We dream of our questions, our difficulties. There is a saying that the bridegroom never dreams of the bride. That is because he has her in reality.” (Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930. Ed. William McGuire, p. 3-4) We dream about what we don’t know, what we don’t understand, what we’re curious about, and often we dream about worlds, people, and experiences which otherwise might remain undiscovered. And yet always, and in all ways, we’re dreaming about ourselves.

In Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, the King of the Fairies, magically beleaguers his estranged wife, Titania — along with several guests at a wedding — in order to punish her for not giving him something he wants. One of the actors engaged to perform at the wedding, Nick Bottom, a puffed-up, buffoonish popinjay, discovers that he has been so transformed as to have the head of an ass. The fairy princess, Titania, seeing the ass-headed Bottom, falls deeply and dotingly in love with him; she indulges and pampers him in ways he could never have imagined, and blissfully gratified, he falls asleep.

Upon awakening, Bottom says, “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” (Dream, IV-1) But Bottom, overestimating the limits of his own wit, pushes on with the dream analysis, which perhaps causes him to understand the meaning of his dream all too well. Aware of the disturbing self-revelation in the dream, he moves to distance from it, and declares in a fit of synesthetic anger:

Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.(IV-1)

Joseph Campbell noted that, in a journal entry as he traveled through India, he had prepared a talk to give at one of his host destinations:

My talk had as title A Comparison of Indian Thought and Psychoanalytic Theory. I introduced the talk by pointing to the East-West contrast of gods soaring on rapture with gods soaring on wings: the Oriental experience of vision-rapture and the Occidental interest in mechanics. We have turned to the dream world from the sphere of waking consciousness and see dream as a fact for science to consider; the Orient turns to life from the realm of rapture and sees life as a dream. Asian Journals: India and Japan, p. 205

Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we watch Bottom correspondingly struggle with the mechanics of the dream—the facts of it—trying to understand and explain it, rather than letting the dream incite him to rapture in waking life. Instead, his rational mind wanted to suppress his irrational insights and articulate instrumental causes of the dream; but ultimately, he could not, and decided to turn it into poetry instead.

No self-respecting rational-materialist will concede that life is a dream, for that way madness lies. But perhaps we shouldn’t fear at least a little creative madness, since “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.” (Dream,V-1) If life may be understood to be a dream, its fascination, metaphors, and depth of experience are indeed bottomless, and filled with awe. And rather than be the most serious and rational of men, I would choose to be a patched fool who experiences the magic of life while remembering that, to gloss Aristotle, hope is a waking dream.

Thanks for reading.


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