I have dreams when I am sleeping that I cannot understand and are not publishable for a family audience. I also have dreams for my life and the world, visions of the way things should be. In the poem “The Dream” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry the poet imagines the convergence of both kinds of dreams. There is the dream of the world as it was before all of our meddling. Then he tries to imagine the world as it should be, rebuilt anew with what we know now. Finally, he realizes the impossibility of his dream, because of the way that the world, including himself, is in reality.
Berry begins with a dream that removes “our flocks and herds, our droves of machines” from the landscape to imagine the world as it existed without all of our tinkering, as it did for millions of years when we were hunter-gatherers, not apart from our existence, only our domination.
Like the afterimage of a light that only by not
looking can be seen, I glimpse the country as it was.
It seems that this leap of the imagination, this dream, is a difficult one. As I look around me, even in rural Bolivia, where a Guarani village recently got electricity for the first time a matter of months ago, it is hard to imagine the landscape without the trappings of civilization and settled agriculture, the power lines, food wrappers, plastic bottles, buildings, cars, railroad tracks and street lights. Our imaginations are dominated by the world as it is, making near impossible the ability to imagine the world without what we see around us, the things that our lives and lifestyles depend on every day. The poet suggests that only by closing our eyes can we begin to imagine this other world.
This world exists in our mind, in the realm of dreams. This is not a memory that we have from experience, but one we must reconstruct with our imagination, even if we use the details and facts that sciences like anthropology and archaeology can tell us. There are those that choose to paint an idyllic scene of the perfect harmony and leisure of hunter-gatherer societies, while others paint the other historical (and racist) picture of an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”. Somewhere between these two we must imagine that world of pre-history (which is to say, pre-agriculture) in more realistic detail. From this imaginative leap backwards, the poem then leaps forward to a future that might have been or perhaps could still be.
The poet then begins “putting back what I took away”.
to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing
This is the summation of the dream for which Berry yearns. This is the fulcrum of the poem on which the worlds of what was and what is hang in the balance. The question that haunts me is what it means “to build all that we have”? What do we have that can remain and “destroy nothing”? Is this dream of the world as it is except without the destruction even possible? As if waking up from this dream of the way the world was and then building it anew, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, his “hands weakening” and feeling “on all sides blindness” that permeates that fuzzy state between sleeping and waking, Berry is struck by the reality that always waits for us with the sunrise.
I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth the bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.
The crushing insight of the reality of the world and our own culpability come rushing in to the dream world where we can see both the distant past and future. The things that we despise about the way the world is must be things that we are willing to recognize in ourselves. More and more I agree with Jared Diamond and others that the way forward involves moving beyond the blame that we love to pass on to corporations, governments, religion and other institutions and recognize that it is only our consent to this state of affairs that continues to make it possible. I am the one that desires domination of the earth, animals and my fellow humans. I am the one that “can neither swallow nor spit out” the money system at the root of our modern arrangement. and “of all kinds of evil”. We are the ones that fail to imagine a new world into being.
Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?
Berry begins the poem by saying, “I dream an inescapable dream.” This reminds me of dreams I have had that I did not want to wake from, like the one where I could fly. There are dreams from our sleeping hours that grip us with some elusive feeling and/or glimpse of meaning to which we cling. There is a leap of our imagination that happens when we are not awake that occasionally perceives something imperceptible in our waking life. Yet our waking life is also full of dreams. For many these are simply consumer daydreams about a big house, nice car or other accessories of the consumer lifestyle (which may also include relationships with particular or imagined friends or lovers). For Berry and many others this is a dream of greener grass, not in suburban lawns, but in the vast prairies of the Midwest that have disappeared.
Berry plays with this dual meaning of the word dream. Indeed, as we have seen, these dreams are also related and intertwined as ways of seeing things that are not empirically available to our senses. If these dreams of the way the world was and is are “inescapable”, then how do we dream the dreams of the way the world should be? The building of this world that could or should be, the poet suggests, must involve the “pain of foreknowledge”. This is where these dreams converge. While the poem travels in a linear fashion from the dream of what was to what could be and then finally returning to the world as it is, there is a cyclical pattern embedded in this movement. Indeed, the dream of what was begins by an act of forgetting the reality of the world as it is, making an imaginative leap. In other words it begins in the same place that it ends.
Perhaps the poem leaves us, finally, with the idea that our dreams of other worlds, both that was and that should be, must be in ongoing conversation with the reality of the world as it is and particularly our place in that world as co-conspirators against nature in order to have any hope of these dreams becoming reality.