"... the dreamer can recognize deep down, what the system is really like."
-- Bruno Bettelheim, afterword to Charlotte Beradt's "The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation, 1933-1939"
I wake with a start at 3:45 a.m.
For a second, I'm suspended in the dread of the evaporating dream. I'm on a business trip, to some kind of conference, somewhere in Mexico, in the company of some stern Jesuits. But my flight is delayed, and now I've arrived a day late and jet-lagged and won't use my cell for fear of international roaming charges. But the Mexican phones won't work; I punch at numbers but get no beep-boop-bloop. "Hola?" I say. An operator's voice replies, "English?"
I carefully spell out the digits of the number I'm trying to call, but that doesn't work; I get connected to some random answering machine that kicks in without any preambulatory recorded greeting. So I ramble on into the void about being late and lost and so so sorry about it all before hanging up and wandering alone the streets of a strange and ugly city until I come upon a diner where my Jesuits are sitting around social distancing, drinking coffee and engaging in post-prandial conversation.
"How's the food?" I ask. Brother Robert--no longer in his cassock but in jeans with a white T-shirt underneath a gray cashmere pullover--says the turkey was salty, and that the ragged blind beggar outside the door was Jesus Christ in disguise, conducting a test.
"All those who gave him money will this day enter the kingdom of heaven," Brother Robert tells me.
"But I didn't see him," I protest.
"Exactly," says Brother Robert.
And I lie there wondering if the scariest thing about my dream is how boring it seems now that I've broken the surface into almost full consciousness. It was vividly tedious, and though within seconds I've lost the greater part of it to wherever dreams go, I can remember a few details and trace them back to real life antecedents, things I read, seen in movies and thought about during waking hours.
Dreams are not all that mysterious or filled with hidden meaning. Our minds organize the random firings of neurons into a story as we wake. The brain's a novelist, selecting fragmented memories and ladling them with significance as it retakes the wheel. That's all. Like any good debater, it leaves out everything that doesn't fit its narrative.
Like a lot of people--30 to 40 percent--I have been having especially wild and discomforting dreams lately. Where before my dreams were vague soft gray-scaled things, they now present in lurid color and HD. I remember more of them than I am used to, and sometimes it takes a few moments before I can shake them off. I fight the urge to tell others about them. Obviously I do not always succeed.
Apparently it's not just the anxiety of the pandemic that is affecting our dreams. Part of it may be due to the fact that our schedules have relaxed. Earlier this month Tore Nielsen, a professor of psychiatry at the Université de Montréal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory there, wrote a story for Scientific American that surveyed some of the research into the way covid-19 has altered the content and nature of our dreams.
"After the pandemic began, many people did sleep longer and later," Nielsen writes. "In China, average weekly bedtime was delayed by 26 minutes but wake-up time by 72 minutes. These values were 41 and 73 minutes in Italy and 30 and 42 minutes among U.S. university students. And without commutes, many people were freer to linger in bed, remembering their dreams. Some early birds may have turned into night owls, who typically have more REM sleep and more frequent nightmares. And as people eliminated whatever sleep debts they may have accrued over days or even weeks of insufficient rest, they were more likely to wake up at night and remember more dreams."
Maybe, but our sleep habits haven't changed. We have maintained some discipline; we go to bed and get up at the same time we've always gotten up. There's an extra hour of so to work--or not work--in the morning; and there's no clock-watching in the afternoon, but bedtime has remained stable. (I will admit to the occasional 3 mg of chewable melatonin or half an Ambien when my mind is racing. Some of my dreams might be chemically enhanced.)
We've been hearing about pandemic dreams anecdotally since March, and there have been a few scientific inquiries along with a slew of unscientific ones. There is a Twitter bot (@CovidDreams) that tracks and collects Tweets about them. A couple of Bay Area artists have a website--IDreamofCovid.com--where they archive and illustrate coronavirus dreams.
IDreamofCovid.com was in part inspired by Charlotte Beradt, a Jewish journalist working in Berlin in 1933 who experienced terrifying dreams of being hunted by storm troopers. Beradt began asking Germans about their dreams, eventually recording and transcribing about 300 of them.
After she and her husband fled the country in 1939, they settled on New York's Upper West Side. She published articles about her research as early as 1943, and in 1966 her book "The Third Reich of Dreams," which collected about 75 of these dreams, was finally released. In one of those, "Mr. K., a factory owner" tells of a "dream of terror in which no shot was fired, no blood flowed."
"Goebbels came to my plant," he told her. "He had the workers line up in two rows facing them. I had to lift my arm in the Hitler salute. It took me half an hour to get the arm up. Goebbels watched my efforts as though it were a spectacle, with neither approval or disapproval. But when my arm was finally up, he said six words: 'I do not desire your salute,' and went to the door. I stood there in my own plant, amid my own people, my arm raised. Never in my life have I felt so humiliated."
Maybe Beradt's dreamers had it worse than we do; the inconveniences and uncertainties most of us experience because of covid-19 pale before the horrors of the Third Reich. But a pandemic breeds its own paranoia and moral reckonings. It seeps into our psyche.
It changes us.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.