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Essay/Politics & Government
Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

American dreaming 3.0

Embrace dreams as a counter to the naive realism of politics today, and they could become a potent democratic force

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book is American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (2011).

2,900 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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It’s almost impossible to think about the promises and shortcomings of the United States and not think in terms of the ‘American Dream’. US advertisers promote its seductions of individual freedom and material comfort, while school teachers use it to impart civic values. Even in the rough and tumble world of US Realpolitik there is a special place for the ‘American dream’. It’s what helped to inspire Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963, animated Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father (1995), and gave the title to the 2001 ‘Dream Act’ on immigration reform. 

Because the ‘American Dream’ is such a key phrase of the country’s self-understanding, it feels like a founding ideal of the US. However, it is not so old. It was scarcely used before the historian James Truslow Adams first popularised it in The Epic of America (1931) as both a vision that united centuries of US history, and also a universal human aspiration. It was, wrote Adams, ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement’. The ‘American Dream’ represented equality, social mobility and opportunity.

No doubt, many American dreams today, just like Adams’s, King’s and Obama’s before them, are animated by these ideals. But all of these dreams are figurative. There’s nothing sleepy about them. They are the workings of an alert mind, seized by open eyes, intently scanning horizons of possibility, and fuelling incessant longing, driving ambition, or both.

But what about American dreams in the literal sense? The stuff of nighttime joys and terrors and fantasies and hauntings? There’s no question that the ‘American Dream’ does political work. So might it also be true that Americans literally dreaming at night are engaged in an important political activity?

This isn’t a crazy question. Many societies throughout human history have taken dreams as important, worldly documents. The history of human dreaming shows time and again how dreamers have come to a new understanding about themselves and their world through the processing of their nighttime minds. Dreams have proven to be mental activities through which humans have come to a novel idea, a much-needed methodology, and a revolutionary way of perception.

In a dream in 1619, René Descartes broke open the ‘foundations of a marvellous science’ (of what would become modern natural philosophy), which he later outlined in A Discourse on the Method (1637). In a 1869 dream, Dmitri Mendeleev seized upon the periodic table of elements. In a 1912 letter, D H Lawrence described how dreams focus and give direction to his conscious cognition. ‘I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts the result of my dreams,’ he wrote. ‘It is very queer. But my dreams make conclusions for me. They decide things finally. I dream a decision. Sleep seems to hammer out for me the logical conclusions of my vague days, and offer me them as dreams.’

Many times in American history, private dreams have opened portals of new possibilities. Carl Jung’s ‘house dream’, for example, delivered to him the idea of a ‘collective unconscious’, one of the most important concepts for modern dream theory. During his 1909 voyage to the US with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung dreamed of moving downward through successive floors of a house. Each floor represented a different historical period: from ‘Rococo’ to ‘medieval’ then ‘ancient’. Finally, he descended to a ‘stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depth’. Jung did not doubt that the house symbolised his psyche. The deeper he went, the further he burrowed beneath his individual self and nearer to something mysterious, something ‘of an altogether impersonal nature underlying that psyche’. Jung’s house dream, as it is known to historians of psychology, gave him his ‘first inkling of a collective a priori’ in man.

Throughout his long career, Jung sought to popularise a more sophisticated awareness of the ‘wisdom of the dream’. But in one way, the great Jung was an unexceptional dreamer. For he, like so many dreamers before and after him, came to his big idea by way of a dream. Many dreamers have credited their nighttime dreams for providing not just a flash of inspiration, but even detailed instructions for bringing it to life.

No doubt, dreams present us with important realms of intellectual struggle, moral dilemma, aesthetic nourishment and existential doubt as well as certainty. It’s time, then, that dreams join the lectern and the journal of opinion as scenes of political thought.

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How to assess the potential political uses of dreams? What new social worlds can be made of literal dreams? Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950) can help to provide some answers. Trilling’s classic is a powerful meditation on how the individual imagination and private thoughts of a liberated intellect foster and protect democratic freedoms. Trilling wrote the book in the midst of the Cold War menace. He worried about the intensifying ideological arms race not simply between US democracy and Soviet totalitarianism, but also within US politics – between intellectual conservatism and liberalism. For Trilling, as for so many US intellectuals, the Old World provided a counter-example. The relative ease with which Europe had moved from imperialism to totalitarianism revealed, he thought, the dangers of a society that put limits on the free play of the mind and became, in his words, ‘bankrupt of ideas’. A liberal society, Trilling maintained, must privilege the individual imagination. It was, after all, the realm in which citizens – not subjects – make, test, affirm and reject political sentiments. Though Trilling never defined what he meant by ‘liberal’, he was clear what the liberal frame of mind was not – dogmatic, passionately committed to unexamined notions and beliefs, ideological. ‘Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,’ he maintained, ‘we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.’

Though no champion of literary romanticism, Trilling endorsed a vision of the vibrant imagination that lay at the heart of 19th-century romantic ideas of dreams. The romantics valorised dreams in their art and social theory as they believed that dreams provided a route to both individual liberation and social transformation. They maintained that while dreaming one is truly free, and that freedom of the imagination offers a bulwark against oppression.

A beautiful example of this romantic vision of the political work in an individual’s dreams is captured in the German folk song ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ or ‘Thoughts Are Free’ (that is, from oppression, not gratis).

The romantic philologist and poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben first transcribed ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ in 1842. In the same year, von Fallersleben was dismissed from Breslau university for his liberal politics. But in ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’, he whispers and giggles, baiting his oppressor with its lightness of spirits (the English translation is comparatively leaden and lumbering):

Die Gedanken sind frei,
wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliehen vorbei,
wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen,
kein Jäger erschießen.
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei.
Thoughts are free,
who can guess them,
they fly away,
like night’s shadows.
No person can know them,
no hunter shoot [them].
The fact remains:
Thoughts are free.

The folksong presents an exalted vision of an individual’s thoughts. Trilling called them the stuff of ‘imagination’, but these notions apply as well to dreams. They are the workings of the mind’s free play, which can act autonomously from political subjugation.

It’s a magnificent idea: come what may, and no matter who comes after me, my mental activities are mine. The state can deny me my rights. The market can exploit my labour. The court might throw my poor body in jail. But none of my oppressors can touch my thoughts, my imagination, my dreams.

‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ would be remembered today as nothing more than a sweet lullaby, or perhaps not remembered at all, if it hadn’t become a favourite song among political critics and activists to fight oppression. The anti-Nazi student activist Sophie Scholl, for example, used it as a means to flout fascism. Just months before her execution by the Nazis in 1943, she played the song on her flute outside her father’s jail cell in Ulm, to uplift his spirits and antagonise his tormenters. A little over a decade later, across the Atlantic, the folk singer Pete Seeger helped to bring the song’s image of the freedom of one’s dreams to US audiences. Just days before his defiant testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955, Seeger choked out the song’s power to challenge and ennoble, to fight and to frolic:

I think as I please,
and this gives me pleasure
my conscience decrees,
this right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
to duke or dictator.
No man can deny:
Die Gedanken sind frei!
And should tyrants take me,
and throw me in prison.
My thoughts will burst free,
like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
and structures will tumble.
And free men will cry:
Die Gedanken sind frei!’

No doubt, the prospect of an individual’s imagination as a preserve of freedom emboldened Scholl and Seeger. They believed that in safeguarding the boundaries of their innermost thoughts they were defying political domination. It is a very appealing notion. But is it accurate?

In a totalitarian society, even sleep wasn’t a safe space for the private self

Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams (1966) suggests that the verdict is ‘nein’. One of the most important modern collections of dreams from an oppressive political society, Beradt’s study reluctantly disproves the claim of a Nazi authority who maintained that ‘the only person in Germany who still leads a private life is the person who sleeps’. Beradt came to the idea of recording others’ dreams as a result of her own nightmares. Immediately after Hitler seized power in 1933, Beradt, a Jewish journalist living in Berlin, spent night after night being ‘hunted from pillar to post – shot at, tortured, scalped’ in her dreams. It occurred to her that she couldn’t possibly be the only one suffering through her sleep. So she set out to document as many dreams as she could of those who similarly faced oppression and possible persecution – namely Jews and critics of the regime – with the belief that ‘they might one day serve as evidence’ about ‘people’s deepest feelings and reactions as they became part of the mechanism of totalitarianism’.

The more than 300 people whose dreams she obtained from 1933-39 (when she was forced to flee Germany for London before moving to New York) suggest that, in a totalitarian society, even sleep wasn’t a safe space for the private self. Beradt compiled her dream reports directly through interviews and through the assistance of others. But in each case, she had to hide the material, write in code, and even send her notes to friends abroad for safekeeping. For even retelling a dream could be seen as an act of disobedience, and recording them, high treason.

Beradt was a reluctant voyeur of her subjects’ pain. She thus edited out all ‘dreams involving violence or any physical expression of fear’. This disclaimer strikes an unforgettable note, for it confesses that the reports that actually made it into the book, as sickening as they are, are the PG-rated versions. A 45-year-old doctor dreamt that all the walls in his apartment mysteriously disappeared. Then he hears over a loudspeaker announcement that, forthwith, the Nazis were outlawing all walls. A 30-year old woman dreamt that she immersed herself in molten lead because once it hardened, it would render her immobile, keeping her from being a threat to the Nazis. A woman milliner dreamt that she was talking to herself in her sleep (which she didn’t do), speaking to herself in Russian (a language she didn’t know) ‘so I’d not even understand myself and so that no one else could understand me in case I said anything about the government’. (So this is an example of a dreamer living under Nazi rule, who made herself unintelligible – even to herself – in order to survive.) If these are the dreams free of violence, then indeed violence must be understood in the narrowest possible way. And if these are the dreams free of violence, then ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ is nothing more than an impossible dream.

Beradt’s reports demonstrate how deeply, inexorably social dreams really are. Even the most fabulous dreams offer neither escapist fantasies nor safe harbours providing refuge from the world outside. So what good could dreams possibly be in creating new political prospects?

It is precisely because the social world provides raw materials for private dreams that dreams can help us to think about society. Dreams are not, in other words, an escape from reality, but rather another way of thinking about what ‘reality’ in social and political life actually means. If Beradt seized on a function of dreams during politics in extremis, the logic of her method extends well beyond Nazi Germany. ‘Set against a background of disintegrating values and an environment whose very fabric was becoming warped,’ Beradt observed, ‘these dreams are permeated by a reality whose quality is unreal – a combination of thought and conjecture in which rational details are brought into fantastic juxtapositions and thereby made more, rather than less, coherent.’

Beradt does not foreclose treating dreams as illusions. Dreams can be fantastical, replete with grotesque exaggerations, surreal distortions, taunting beasts or even rainbow-maned unicorns to the rescue. However, in the process of scrutinising her dreams, as outrageous as they might be, the awakened dreamer can perceive with new eyes truths that the waking world might obscure, or seize on possibilities hitherto unimagined.

The great potential of dreams for our public life lay in their ability to help people question that which goes by the clumsy and overworked moniker of ‘reality’ in political debate. Taking dreams seriously can lead to the kind of fundamental, unobvious discussions that those who wield ‘reality’ to browbeat people into ignorant submission, or dutiful obedience to whatever status quo, use to defend it. But these are examples when ‘reality’ is on its best behaviour.

The US needs its dreamers most when the world seems to be shaming them

Often, ‘reality’ is called on in more insidious ways, as evidenced by its function in testy exchanges on the Senate floor, angry social media memes, and generally whenever it happens to be modified by the words ‘political’ or ‘economic’. In these occasions, ‘reality’ asserts, but doesn’t question. It bellows, but doesn’t listen. One need not take dreams literally in order to make use of them to see more clearly what’s being defended and what’s being overlooked or concealed during daily power struggles over ‘real-world’ politics.

Awakening from a nighttime dream to look under the iron covers of ‘reality’ weighing heavily on political imaginations can do valuable intellectual work. It invites people to take notice of the gaps between their nighttime dreams, anaesthetising versions of the ‘American Dream’ ideal, and their daily experiences. Put simply, were Americans to use their dreams as a counterpoint to the naive realism and facile idealism that marks today’s discourse, this would be enough to justify them as a resource for political thought.

The daily workings of the world will ever seek to shame the nighttime workings of the mind. In early September 2001, the US historian Robin Kelley was finishing his manuscript of Freedom Dreams (2002), a hopeful study of how African Americans’ radical dreams can ‘change the world’, when he witnessed from his window the twin towers of the World Trade Center go down. As he sent off the manuscript to his editor, US bombs, in misguided retaliation, were ‘raining down on the people of Afghanistan’.

Fortunately, Kelley didn’t take this unsubtle mockery as a sign that he should abandon his Dreams. He seemed to realise – as his dreamers before him did – that the US needs its dreamers most when the world seems to be shaming them.

Therein lies the subtle genius of the idea of the ‘American Dream’. It was never meant to be a description of facts. If it has any value, it’s as ‘a counsel of perfection’, as the US philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Achieving Our Country (1998). ‘You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.’ The ‘American Dream’ is nothing more – but also nothing less – than an aspirational ideal.

At present, when so many, including the powerful, find ‘alternative facts’ indifferent to evidence more compelling than the prosaic ones that welcome verifiability, the prospect of turning to dreams to work through our political conditions might seem reckless. But ignoring them altogether could be even more reckless, and even stupid. After all, if Americans lose touch with a third of their problem-solving lives – just think of the actual, and perhaps even actionable – ‘American dreams’ they have lost.

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Support Aeon

Ideas can change the world

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

No ads, no paywall, no clickbait – just thought-provoking ideas from the world’s leading thinkers, free to all. But we can’t do it without you.

Become a Friend for $5 a month or Make a one-off donation

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