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A Dream Within A Dream


“Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”
(Edgar Allan Poe)

Everybody knows a film where the hero finds himself in a mysterious otherworldly reality until he (and the audience) wakes up. The major twist of the movie is often the realization that the main character(s) are already dead or dying (Jacob’s Ladder, The Others) or the hero is crazy and living in a state of psychosis (Shutter Island). Usually there is no doubt in the narration that there is only one reality and what we have seen before must be some kind of distorted illusion or fantasy (however some movies play with the motive: Interception and Lost Highway doesn’t come up with simples answers in the end).

These stories seem to have a strong appeal to us. This seems sometimes astonishing because that type of twist (it was only a dream) could be also seen as kind of a bad joke. Sometimes I felt disappointment when I had to learn that the great solution in the end is that the hero’s experience was only kind of a vision or dream.

One reason why these stories appeal to us might be that we all have these „realizations“ at a much smaller scale throughout our lives that everything is different as we thought it was before. Blows of fate could lead to a complete new point of view. Reviewing some decisions in the past we may think that we must have seen reality in a pretty different way at that time. This applies not only to individuals but also to whole societies. Normal habits of people living in the 50ties might look pretty weird today. We see reality in a different way. Our view of reality seems to be much more shaped by changing belief (systems) but also fears and certain moods rather than cold calculations.

Maybe there is more about this. Edgar Alan Poe’s well known poem suggests a much more ambiguous concept compared to the movies with their one big twist. „All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream“.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we would wake up a second time after we realized that our first experience was a dream of a psychotic vision but the real-real which we experienced after that is as crazy and dreamlike as our first experience of reality? Maybe we are caught in dreams and cannot escape. And we are not what we think we are.

And maybe the “reality” in which the hero awakes in some movies is kind of a false awakening. How do we know that our everyday reality is more real as a psychotic vision? Maybe our idea – or what we’ve been told is real – is the only big lie.

There are many intelligent interpretations of Poe’s famous poem. Of course there is the overtone of personal loss, of regret at the movement of time and “the poem dramatizes a confusion in watching the important things in life slip away“ (Wikipedia). But most important, “the poem questions the way one can distinguish between reality and fantasy, asking, “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream? (Wikipedia)”
This seems to be the obvious interpretation but there is more about Poe’s true intentions. A helpful clue is the beginning of Alan Parson’s Project’s „Tales Of Mystery And Imagination“ with a narration from Orson Welles. The words are an encapsulation of a section in Poe’s Marginalia, which gives us a little more to think about:

„For my own part
 I have never had a thought
Which I could not set down in words
With even more distinctness
Than that with which I conceived it.
There is however a class of fancies
Of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts
And to which as yet I have found it
Absolutely impossible to adapt to language.
These fancies arise in the soul
Alas how rarely, only at epochs
Of most intense tranquility
When the bodily and mental
Health are in perfection.
And at those weird points of time
Where the confines of the waking world
Blend with the world of dreams
And so I captured this fancy
Where all that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.“

In modern words Poe refers to extraordinary perceptions of seeing reality through a hyper-realistic filter sensing what lies beneath. It’s maybe a glimpse about what Dion Fortune said about the driving forces of the Universe, „the framework upon which it is built up in all its parts, belong to another phase of manifestation than our physical plane, having other dimensions than the three to whom we are habituated, and perceived by other modes of consciousness than those of which we are accustomed“. If we follow Fortune we could indeed say that we are living a dream within a dream until we have that kind of extrasensory experiences, which seem to happen from time to time. Of course, in everyday life we need to have a certain idea of reality because it’s simply a question of survival. Even more we need to be accustomed to “normal reality” if we don’t want to run into permanent trouble.
There is one more simple insight I took from Poe’s poem and the idea of a “Dream within a dream”: We shouldn’t believe that every revelation (like the big turning points in some movies) necessarily reveals the truth or that we finally have grasped the right idea what’s really going on. Even more we should be sceptical if any kind of guru or somebody else says he can tell us what’s real. There are many convincing concepts of “reality” and maybe we are experiencing a couple of “dreams” in our lives, like walking through different rooms in a museum with every room representing a reality of its own. Furthermore every idea of reality in its own right contains some truth.