As I have been writing these recollections of my father, I find myself dreaming of him at night, strange dreams that incorporate places and events from my childhood that I would assume had been long forgotten, dredged up from those deep recesses of the brain where we hoard up memories of those we love. Researchers tell us that we spend about six years dreaming during a typical lifetime—about two hours a night—which means dreaming occupies as much of our time as eating and sex put together. We know as much about eating and sex as we’d want to know, scientifically speaking. About dreams we know next to nothing. We have no idea where in the brain dreams originate or how they are executed. There are dozens of theories for why we dream—what might be their biological or evolutionary purpose—none of which approaches consensus. Dreams represent six years of our lives about which science remains almost completely ignorant.
I dream in black-and-white, as most people did fifty years ago. Today, according to what I read in the science journals, the majority of people dream in color. Presumably, this has to do with the influence of color media. I recall that when I was a kid my dreams were framed with round corners, like the roll-down silver reflective screen upon which my father projected his 8 mm black-and-white home movies. Today my dreams expand to fill all available mental space. What all this suggests is that the very mechanism of dreaming is influenced by the conceptual and mental world in which we live.
I search the journals my father kept during his final weeks for records of dreams. What, I wonder, would an engineer dream about in the face of impending oblivion? Nothing, as it turns out, that you or I might not dream, but engineer that he was, he looked for the connections between his dreams and the data of his dying. In one of his recorded dreams, he was “a big ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase,” unrolling as he bounced from step to step. He passed two of his daughters Jinx and Peg going up. “They were puzzled as they watched me go by!” he wrote. “When I hit the bottom of the stairs, I woke up!” A poignant dream, to be sure—life as an unrolling ball of twine. He notes that the dream came just at the end of his “energy cycle,” and he draws the familiar diagram—UP-C, PLATEAU, DO-C, with an arrow pointing to the inflection where the down-cycle meets the horizontal. He notes that Jinx and Peg had visited during the day. But where did the spiral staircase come from? Or the ball of twine? Our memories, apparently, are like that “junk drawer” in his basement workshop, where everything went that did not have an immediate use. The unconscious puts the discarded bits and pieces of a life together in new and surprising ways.
The American social philosopher Lewis Mumford once noted: “If man had not encountered dragons and hippogriffs in dreams, he might never have conceived of the atom.” It is an extraordinary thought, that a scientific understanding of the world depends upon the dreaming mind. The dreamer, says Mumford, puts things together in ways never experienced in the awake world—joining the head, wings, and claws of a bird with the hind quarters of a horse—to make something fabulous and new: a hippogriff. Or fetching up from who-knows-where that ball of twine and spiral staircase. In the dream world, space and time dissolve; near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous, merge in novel ways.
Another of the dreams in my father’s deathbed journals: He is sleeping in a bedroom of the house he had grown up in on Baldwin Street in Chattanooga. A red brick building. In the dream, he wakes up screaming for his mother, who sleeps in another room. She comes and says, “It was probably your cancer hurting you.” He does not know he has cancer. He throws back the covers and sees that his scrotum is elongated and bleeding. His mother says, “Yes, you are dying.” At which point, he wakes up in the present—and records the dream in his journal.
The shifting sands of near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous. In science, too, we invent unseen worlds by combining familiar things in an unfamiliar fashion. We imagine atoms, for example, as combining characteristics of billiard balls and water waves, all on a scale that is invisibly small. According to Mumford, dreams taught us how to imagine the unseen world. In science we talk about “dreaming up” theories, and we move from the dreamed-up worlds of Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Oz to dreamed-up worlds that challenge the adult imagination. An asteroid hurtles out of space and lays waste a monster race of reptiles that has ruled the earth for 200 million years. A black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy swallows ten million stars. A universe begins in a blinding flash from a pinprick of infinite energy. How did we learn to imagine such things? Mumford believed that dreams released human imagination from bondage to the immediate environment and present moment. He imagined early humans pestered and tantalized by dreams, sometimes confusing the images of darkness and sleep with those of waking life, subject to misleading hallucinations, disordered memories, unaccountable impulses, but also animated now and then by images of joyous possibility or gruesome horror.
My father always believed there is more to reality than meets the eye. He was an engineer and a scientist. He loved the process of scientific imagination. He followed the latest scientific discoveries with unabashed enthusiasm. But he never dismissed the possibilities of taking the world apart and putting it back together in novel ways, as one does in a dream. He was unwilling to rule anything out absolutely, and he wanted to know how everything worked. Dreaming is like tinkering, like putting together the discarded bits and pieces of the domestic environment that he collected in the drawers of that big black cabinet in his basement workshop. Even the wild permutations of his deathbed dreams elicited his tinkerer’s analysis. They were part of the puzzle that might lead to a cure. He would tinker his body back to health.