Throughout my life, I have taken note of my dreams. Many, I will grant, have been quite mundane, or rather, blatantly non-sensical. To give but one example, on the night of October 13, 1986 I dreamt that my friend B. was very angry and impatient with me. We were in the basement apartment I shared at the time with A.. I heard A. putting the key in the door, and thought to myself that, through her, I could atleast escape this uncomfortable situation. Then, A. came down the stairs and, without my noticing, assumed the role of B. She was very angry and impatient with me. But, she had no time as she had to make a phone call. Trying to be helpful, I said, 'I know the number, I'll dial it.' But, instead of dialing the number on the telephone, I rolled a piece of paper into an old, mechanical typewriter, and started to dial the call by pressing keys on the typewriter. This became very difficult, as some keys got stuck or clung together in sections, while others were encrusted with moss. Now A. was growing very impatient with me, but I persisted, knowing that I could make it work. Finally, the call went through...
While many of my dreams have been of this sort, others have been extraordinarily visionary. Macrobius characterized the former type of dream as somnium, "an enigmatic dream...that conceals with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity the true meaning." (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, edited and translated by William Harris Stahl, Columbia University Press, 1952, p. 90). Meanwhile, the latter type he characterized as visum, wherein one is "initiated into the wonders of the heavens, the great celestial circles, and the harmony of the revolving spheres, things strange and unknown to mortals." (ibid, p. 91) My dream of The Virgin had this quality, as did many of my nightmares involving the swirling abyss. Sometimes, my visions were stilled to the point where I woke up knowing I had 'dreamt a painting'. Though rare, I have toiled without cease to render those visions into art. Other times, the images flowed past me in such fleeting succession, that I awoke at pains to recall the vast flood of arcane symbols which had suddenly broke upon me.
My best dreams were symbolic ones which nevertheless maintained a sense of narrative flow. After considering numerous examples of this type, I asked myself how their images had been held together into a single structured narrative. Through an analysis of myth, I realized that all such narratives involve three underlying iconologues. The first is the Iconologue of Narrative itself. This provides the dream with its narrative movement, involving the protagonist's descent, nadir moment of realization, and subsequent ascent.. Campbell recognized such a narrative structure in hero myths, and referred to it as the 'monomyth'. Frye also recognized this structure in his writings, and gave special emphasis on the realization, or 'metanoia' (a 'transformation of consciousness') that occurs at the nadir. Of greatest importance to me were the images that appear at the nadir of these mythic and oneiric descents, since they are often isolated and immortalized in art, as Threshold Images.
Another structuring element is the Iconologue of Time's Measure, which so arranges the images that they become a temperal unfolding and, indeed, measure that flow of time. All dreams and myths, I realized, are an arrangement of images over time. For example, the sun's daily setting and rising; the moon's monthly waxing and waning offer us two different Iconologues of Time's Measure - both of which became templates for the myth of the sun-God and moon-Goddess. Ultimately, other mythic events, such as Christ's death and resurrection or the Buddha's awakening, offer us other measures of time: Christianity's linear-historical measure and Buddhism's endless cycling. Nevertheless, the nadir-images of all these myths also offer us the means of breaking free from those temporal measures. By entering through the Threshold Image, we can momentarily suspend time's measure, so as to participate in its eternity.
Dreams transpire in a time removed from our normal wakingness. In 'the Dreamtime', memories from wakingness may be taken and re-arranged into numerous other possibilities. Events from the distant past may be re-arranged and combined with yesterday's residue or even with the dream's present. At times, dreams seem to measure one's lifetime backward, as a series of memory images in the dream regresses through one's life. Other times, they progress forward as expected, but then offer possibilities for the future not yet considered. Meanwhile, in repeating dreams, time appears to cycle round. Dreams offer countless arrangements of images, each of which may measure time in a different manner. In my book, Enter Through the Image, I analyzed many of these cases in depth.
Finally, I noticed the Iconologue of Task Completion. This involves three stages: the acquisition of the hero task at the outset, its accomplishment at the nadir, and its integration into society upon the hero's return. In dreams, a sense of narrative structure emerges because the dream-protagonist acquires a certain task at the dream's beginning. Over the course of the dream, the protagonist then attempts to accomplish his acquired task. And, by the end, he either accomplishes it successfully, or else, he fails in his attempt. Failure to accomlish it then transfers the task onto the dreamer in wakingness. Now, the awakened dreamer must accomplish in wakingness what he failed to accomplish in the dream. The majority of dream-tasks, I realized, relate to one of the life-thresholds presently awaiting the dreamer in his waking life.
If we look at the dream I dreamt in Malta on October 29th, 1992, we can see the underlying Iconologue of Narrative Structure. Due to all the anxiety I experienced vis à vis M., I dreamt of descending the stairs of an old Maltese house; then, I discovered something extremely frightening in the cellar; and finally, as a result, I ascended quickly to the roof-top. This structure of 'descent, nadir-discovery, and ascent' occurs repeatedly in dreams, and furnishes us with a structural iconologue that subsequently appears, time and again, in myth. The same iconologue underlies mythic and oneiric movements from an imaginary 'overworld' that is friendly, open, and full of light to an 'underworld' that is narrow, dark, and menacing. Meanwhile, countless variations on this theme may also occur, since dreams are a fluid, continuously new and evermore creative mix of structures and symbols.
In my dream of The Virgin, the Iconologue of Task Completion made its appearance. Here, I was clearly given a task at the dream's outset: to sacrifice one of the figures floating on the water's surface. To accomplish it, I dived off the cliff and descended into the sea. And there, at the dream's nadir, I accomplished my task, but in a way different than expected. Then, just at the moment of embrace with the virgin, I awoke. Hence, the integration of that task into society then fell upon the dreamer in his wakingness. I had to find a similar such woman in the waking world.
Nevertheless, at the end of the dream - which is often the nadir moment - an image appears which becomes none other than a Threshold Image. In this case, it was the image of myself and the virgin in sexual embrace. Only by entering through this image - crossing the threshold it presented by embracing a woman in real life - could the acquired task reach its accomplishment, integration, and so, its completion.
The image appearing at the nadir of this dream is one which has been celebrated in sacred art for ages: the ancient hieros gamos of Babylonian times, the Christian Coronation of the Virgin, the Alchemical Coniunctio, or the Hindu Shiva-shakti. Each of these images isolates, elevates, and so sanctifies that life threshold-crossing into a momentary revelation of the Sacred.
Hence, the task ultimately awaiting us in dreams is to take their images and transfer them into wakingness. We may do this through a meditation on the dream, in which we attempt to enter, once more, through the dream. Or, we may elevate its workings into consciousness by constructing a work or art, and so entering through the painted or sculpted image. Or finally, we may attempt to live our lives in accord with the dream's message, and so enter, in our waking life, through the images of our dreams. As a result of these endeavours, we slowly awaken to life's underlying mystery. We acquire a mythology which, though mixing and amalgamating established symbols from a variety of different cultures, becomes for us individual and unique. We begin to detect our own life's underlying myth.
When, as a five year old child, I dreamt of descending into the basement to discover there the horrendous source of a mysterious noise, I had no idea that I was ennacting, for the first time in my life, a mythologem which would recurr in many of my later dreams, and appear finally in my painting of The Harrowing of Hell. The same mythologem was present each time, but repeatedly ennacted by me until it finally became conscious.
Pursuing this thought further, I could say that my initial dream was dreamt to offer me a series of images which, through their mysterious arrangement, concealed and yet somehow revealed a mysterious, hidden meaning to my infantile imagination. Playing these images over and over again in my mind throughout the years, I gradually realized what they were: they displayed to me at the time those threats to my newly-acquired sense of identity. In subsequent dreams, whether I ascended upward into a spiralling abyss or descended willingly into a darkened cellar, the message was the same: my fragile identity was continually being threatened by hostile forces external and unknown.
Only in my painting of The Harrowing of Hell was I able to isolate and identify those forces. Though masked as gods from different cultures, each of these figures stood at the threshold to a new life-awakening. For, each god or goddess stood for a life threshold, and was capable of initiating me across it, if only I could enter through its image. To cross over the threshold of that image, and so, be initiated into life's underlying mystery, I had to, in my own life, undergo a dangerous descent, then death, and subsequent rebirth, with their attendant suffering, transformation, and awakening. In my ego, I had to die to myself, so as to re-emerge reborn. Indeed, I had to do this repeatedly, each time awakening to a new understanding of life: to see life, in accord with its more ancient philosophy, as a gradual unfolding of the Sacred.
Occasionally, I have invited my younger self to come and visit me, to see how far we have come along. On an evening alone in the studio, I show him my works, and ask if, in all sincerity, I have stayed true to the promises we made. My childhood self is often amused at the older man I have become, and laughs at things I would never have expected - my long hair, my strange obsession with my works, and the bizarre questions I keep asking him. He's curious about the studio, and interested in my painting, but never reveals to an adult what he's really thinking.
My teenage self is much more difficult. While being quietly shocked and pleased at what we have accomplished (though he too doesn't dare show it), he questions me severely on how little progress we've really made. Why has it taken so long, and why haven't we finally broken through? Where's the recognition?
Other times, I suddenly find myself alone in the studio. It is late at night, and I have just finished writing or painting. Typically, I'm exhausted, but I'm also quietly pleased with myself. In the other room, I hear soft breathing, reminding me... inviting me... to follow her into the night. But I hesitate.
In a strange state of revery, I look about the room. I am no longer myself, but a stranger here. And, with a very observant eye, I look at what this person has just been doing. Cigarette butts in the ashtray, a half-finished glass of sherry on the table. Books in English, German, and French - most of it ancient Philosophy. Outside the window, Parisian architecture. I look at the paintings on the easel, the drawings tacked on the wall or cast carelessly about the place. A strange intelligence is at work, behind these images. My gaze rests a few moments on the pages just written, and reads certain isolated fragments of the text. Someone is seeking something here - an enquiring mind, eccentric and original, with a curious outlook onto things. Strange sentence-formations though.
Once, I took this kind of journey into myself, except now I was old and at the end of my life. Indeed, I was past life, and had become a part of the Ancient Unity. I was back to where I belonged. I had returned to the place from whence I had once set out. I looked around at all the objects I'd acquired, the things I'd done, and the works I'd completed. I searched for signs, indicating an emerging awareness of this final destination. Here and there, in isolated sentences, in oddly-rendered images, I found them.
And suddenly, it all reminds me of a dream I had when I was, perhaps, eighteen years old.
It was the middle of the night, and I was walking along the cliffs that border the Humber River. I was naked, but this did not seem to bother me. My white skin, in contrast to the blackness of night, glowed with a strange luminosity.
I could see some objects further along my path. Partially buried in the earth or entangled among the roots of trees, I could see canvases, drawings, and a cloth-bound book. These were my works, and what I had accomplished in life.
To my right was a stream, deep and cool, with fast-flowing water. In joy, I ran along the earthy bed bordering the stream, and suddenly did a hand-spring. First one hand plunged into the cold earth, then another. I turned my body in mid-air, moving my feet over my head.
But, when I landed, it was no longer on the cold comforting earth. Instead, I had plunged fully in my nakedness into the freezing water of the fast-flowing stream. I attempted, with one decisive gesture, to grasp the root of a plant growing there on the earthen bed. But the plant I sought exceeded my reach.
And stilled in this strangely poetic pose, I sunk to the dark bottom of the stream. Frozen - like a statue.