Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The American Dream

Variations on a dream

The fancy word for today—for surely every blog post must have at least one--will be oneirocriticism, which means the evaluation or interpretation of dreams. Dreams are on my mind for a couple of reasons. Last week I had the rare experience of seeing a current movie--Inception. It's all about dreams--I think. I didn't like it very much, but that is probably because I didn't understand it. Had I understood it, I'm sure I would have hated it. The other reason is the very particular dream I have in mind: viz., the American Dream. For of late the American Dream seems to have been everywhere in the news and the columns of pundits, and usually in a pessimistic context. “The American Dream has soured,” writes one eminent pundit. When compared with his political ideas, his apparent belief that the verb to sour is an acceptable predicate for a sentence in which the subject is the noun “dream” seems nearly plausible. Dreams would seem also to be mobile. “The American Dream is increasingly moving out of reach for most Americans,” writes another. Finally a third says that “for people like these [unemployed citizens and real estate bankrupts] the American Dream has become a nightmare.” There is a minority report from an optimist. “Obama Care extends the American Dream for millions.”

From all this it is obvious at least that few agree as to what the American Dream is (or was), presenting us with a most difficult problem of oneirocriticism. In my work as a medievalist I soon discovered that the old ways of thinking about dreams were very different from those of Freud or Jung. To the ancients, including the biblical writers, dreams had a definite, concrete, objective meaning independent of the dreamer and decipherable by the wise, the inspired, or simply the properly educated. It was probably toward the end of the second century of the Christian era that the Greek Atemidorus of Daldis published his famous Oneirocritica, a hefty encyclopedia of dream meanings that drew on an already rich literature and wielded a large influence on dream experts well into the Renaissance. In the Latin sphere the great expert was the grammarian Macrobius whose commentary on the Dream of Scipio (a part of Cicero’s lost “version” of Plato’s Republic) was still regarded as authoritative in the eighteenth century. Macrobius had a much subtler sense of taxonomy than did Artemidorus, but the two were in basic agreement that to dream of an eagle meant one thing, to dream of blood another. The meanings were part of a sign system, like conventional language, not the manifestations of the unique psychology of an individual dreamer.

As Freudians or post-Freudians, we no longer believe that. Seven fat cows are a good sign, and seven skinny ones a bad sign (Genesis 41:17)? That primitive level of oneirocriticism wouldn’t get you a B in a freshman literature class, but in the Bible it’s enough to make you vizier of Egypt. And if dreams are as cut-and-dried as the folks who write about the American Dream seem to believe, why not? One pundit tells me that the 1950s “were the heyday of the American Dream.” If so, I must be one of the original American dreamers, as I graduated from high school in 1954 and from college in 1958. Among the meanings of the American Dream at that time were the following: (1) a detached house with a garage, with a Chevrolet car therein; (2) an abstract confidence that each new generation of Americans would have a “better life” than their parents, particularly with regard to detached houses and Chevrolet cars.

Here the wisdom of our founders once again shines through. They created a Constitution designed to give concrete expression to the abstractions of the Declaration of Independence. The “inalienable rights” specifically enumerated in that document are only three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That last phrase, the “pursuit of happiness”, was a last-minute substitution for another more frequently used by the enlightened politicians of the eighteenth century: “the possession of property”. But though Jefferson and his friends knew that a citizen had a right to possess property, that was different from a guarantee that a citizen would have property. Actually owning property depended upon many variables, such as individual initiative, labor, thrift, and so forth—variables within the realm of what was called “moral philosophy” rather than the realm of governmental arrangement.

You have no right to happiness, but you do have a right to pursue happiness. That, in my view, is the “American Dream,” and it is just as real (or unreal) as it ever was. I know for a fact that my father never had an annual income in excess of $10,000. I am far less confident in claiming that I have had a “better life” than he. The American Dream has more to do with the quality of aspiration than the fact of achievement. The concept seems to hover between the subjectivity of suggestion and the objectivity of definition, which is to say between the Freudian and the Artemidorian. Nor does it have all that much to do with American exceptionalism. “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” Robert Browning, a Victorian Englishman, wrote that in the voice of an imagined Renaissance Italian. In the more modern idiom Oscar Hammerstein came pretty close in South Pacific (1949):

Happy talk, keep talkin' happy talk,
Talk about things you'd like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don't have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?

But Bloody Mary’s prerequisite for that is “No think about Philadelphia—it’s no good.”

In the political commentary of the moment I find a disturbing suggestion that the American Dream can be or should be guaranteed by acts of our Congress. Yes, the United States Congress, with its approval rating hovering around seventeen percent! It can’t even effect a self-respecting nightmare. But if the reality cannot achieve the dream, let the dream be defined in terms of the reality.

There is an anecdote about a Communist organizer orating to a group of exploited garment workers on the lower East Side in the early Thirties. “Come the revolution,” he said, “you will all be eating chocolate cake!”

“But what if you don’t happen to like chocolate cake?” asked a contrarian from the shop floor.

“Come the revolution,” said the organizer, “you will like chocolate cake.”