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The Secret History of Dreaming

The Secret History of Dreaming

by Robert Moss

  • Reviewed by Jeremy Taylor, DMin on March 1, 2009

    Robert Moss has done it again—written an engaging, informative, and eye-opening book. Like many of his earlier books, The Secret History of Dreaming challenges many of the most deeply held and unconsciously reactive prejudices of mainstream scientific dream researchers. It targets most particularly the unquestioned assumption that dreams are essentially an epiphenomenon of autonomic processes of individual body-minds, and that their meaning (if any) is limited to symbolic reflections of the individual dreamer's own less-than-fully-conscious personal experience and “threat rehearsal.” This still-fashionable position holds that any collective, cultural meaning or significance of dreams at best reflects the parallel development of “coping strategies” on the part of individual dreamers living in the same or similar societies.

     The Secret History of Dreaming adopts a much broader and more dramatic view. It offers the reader a series of compelling and vividly rendered historical anecdotes that Moss weaves together to create a picture of the process of dreaming as an “unseen hand” at work, shaping the history of the world much more specifically and directly than the current scientific view allows.

    The book begins with a quote, a basic premise of the medievalist historian Jacques Le Goff: “The imaginal life is central to the human story and should be central to the writing and teaching of history.” I agree completely with this; any view—not just of history but of science itself—that ignores the imaginal life is no more than a polemic defending repression and denial as imperial cultural ideals. Moss is much kinder and less argumentative than I tend to be on this point. He lets the fascinating stories he has chosen to tell organically unfold, one after another, until the reader either acknowledges the repeating
    archetypal patterns they reveal or denies the evidence by taking refuge in petty critiques about Moss's enthusiasm and storytelling style.

     Moss's writing career has alternated between fiction and compelling accounts of his scholarly research. His explorations into the wilder, more uncontrolled, and directly experiential aspects of dreaming, which he captures in The Secret History of Dreaming, seem to draw these two strands of literary expression into a single thread. As he says fairly early in the book, “We'll take a middle path between the caution of the Egyptologists and the fantasies of the ceremonial magicians.”

     Having made it clear that he is taking this “middle path,” Moss goes on to share some truly compelling stories, drawn from all over the world, involving particularly talented and courageous dreamers, both men and women, whose dreams have influenced the course of history in very specific and dramatic ways.

    For example, there is a lengthy account of Carl Jung's 25-year conversation with Wolfgang Pauli, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945 for his work demonstrating that only one electron at a time can occupy a quantum orbit, or “shell,3” around an atomic nucleus. It was an important enough discovery to be officially named for him—the Pauli principle. Pauli's work, greatly influenced by his dreams and his friendship with Jung, is acknowledged today as an important foundation for the development of a greater understanding of quantum entanglement, as well as providing a theoretical background for Jung's key ideas about synchronicity and the dynamics of meaningful coincidence.

    Other chapters address the life-shaping dreams of such famous American artists as Mark Twain and the political leaders John Adams and Benjamin Rush, as well as the great American heroine of the antislavery movement, Harriet Tubman—among many others. Moss also explores levels of dreaming that regularly reveal the health or dysfunction of the dreamer's physical body, both in the moment of the dream and in the future.

     At the end of the book, Moss makes an impassioned plea for readers to take up the cause and become “dream archeologists” like him, joining in the search for the dreams and dream stories that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the course of collective human history. In this regard, I would like to have seen him offer a little more acknowledgement that even clearly “collective” dreams have personal and interpersonal levels of meaning. Nevertheless, as the book amply demonstrates, the collective, historic importance of certain dreams is undeniable.

     Because the book rests so completely on stories and anecdotes, no matter how well documented and carefully cross-referenced they may be (and they are), it will probably have little overt impact on the world of academic/scientific dream research and theorizing. This really is too bad, because, as Stanley Krippner says in his cover blurb, “This splendid book is destined to become a classic, one that transcends disciplines and provides an agenda for the role that dreams can play in ensuring human survival.”

    Review published in Shift magazine

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