How to live an extra life

Reading Sidarta Ribeiro’s The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams for the Times, 2 January 2022

Early in January 1995 Sidarta Ribeiro, a Brazilian student of neuroscience, arrived in New York City to study for his doctorate at Rockefeller University. He rushed enthusiastically into his first meeting — only to discover he could not understand a word people were saying. He had, in that minute, completely forgotten the English language.

It did not return. He would turn up for work, struggle to make sense of what was going on, and wake up, hours later, on his supervisor’s couch. The colder and snowier the season became, the more impossible life got until, “when February came around, in the deep silence of the snow, I gave in completely and was swallowed up into the world of Morpheus.”

Ribeiro struggled into lectures so he didn’t get kicked out; otherwise he spent the entire winter in bed, sleeping; dozing; above all, dreaming.

April brought a sudden and extraordinary recovery. Ribeiro woke up understanding English again, and found he could speak it more fluently than ever before. He befriended colleagues easily, drove research, and, in time, announced the first molecular evidence of Freud’s “day residue” hypothesis, in which dreams exist to process memories of the previous day.

Ribeiro’s rich dream life that winter convinced him that it was the dreams themselves — and not just the napping — that had wrought a cognitive transformation in him. Yet dreams, it turned out, had fallen almost entirely off the scientific radar.

The last dream researcher to enter public consciousness was probably Sigmund Freud. Freud at least seemed to draw coherent meaning from dreams — dreams that had been focused to a fine point by fin de siecle Vienna’s intense milieu of sexual repression.

But Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious” has been eroded since by a revolution in our style of living. Our great-grandparents could remember a world without artificial light. Now we play on our phones until bedtime, then get up early, already focused on a day that is, when push comes to shove, more or less identical to yesterday. We neither plan our days before we sleep, nor do we interrogate our dreams when we wake. It it any wonder, then, that our dreams are no longer able to inspire us? When US philosopher Owen Flanagan says that “dreams are the spandrels of sleep”, he speaks for almost all of us.

Ribeiro’s distillation of his life’s work offers a fascinating corrective to this reductionist view. His experiments have made Freudian dream analysis and other elements of psychoanalytic theory definitively testable for the first time — and the results are astonishing. There is material evidence, now, for the connection Freud made between dreaming and desire: both involve the selective release of the brain chemical dopamine.

The middle chapters of The Oracle of Night focus on the neuroscience, capturing, with rare candour, all the frustrations, controversies, alliances, ambiguities and accidents that make up a working scientists’ life.

To study dreams, Ribeiro explains, is to study memories: how they are received in the hippocampus, then migrate out through surrounding cortical tissue, “burrowing further and further in as life goes on, ever more extensive and resistant to disturbances”. This is why some memories can survive, even for more than a hundred years, in a brain radically altered by the years.

Ribeiro is an excellent communicator of detail, and this is important, given the size and significance of his claims. “At their best,” he writes, “dreams are the actual source of our future. The unconscious is the sum of all our memories and of all their possible combinations. It comprises, therefore, much more than what we have been — it comprises all that we can be.”

To make such a large statement stick, Ribeiro is going to need more than laboratory evidence, and so his scientific account is generously bookended with well-evidenced anthropological and archaeological speculation. Dinosaurs enjoyed REM sleep, apparently — a delightfully fiendish piece of deduction. And was the Bronze Age Collapse, around 1200 BC, triggered by a qualitative shift how we interpreted dreams?

These are sizeable bread slices around an already generous Christmas-lunch sandwich. On page 114, when Ribeiro declares that “determining a point of departure for sleep requires that we go back 4.5 billion years and imagine the conditions in which the first self-replicating molecules appeared,” the poor reader’s heart may quail and their courage falter.

A more serious obstacle — and one quite out of Ribeiro’s control — is that friend (we all have one) who, feet up on the couch and both hands wrapped around the tea, baffs on about what their dreams are telling them. How do you talk about a phenomenon that’s become the sinecure of people one would happily emigrate to avoid?

And yet, by taking dreams seriously, Bibeiro must also talk seriously about shamanism, oracles, prediction and mysticism. This is only reasonable, if you think about it: dreams were the source of shamanism (one of humanity’s first social specialisations), and shamanism in its turn gave us medicine, philosophy and religion.

When lives were socially simple and threats immediate, the relevance of dreams was not just apparent; it was impelling. Even a stopped watch is correct twice a day. With a limited palette of dream materials to draw from, was it really so surprising that Rome’s first emperor Augustus found his rise to power predicted by dreams — at least according to his biographer Suetonius? “By simulating objects of desire and aversion,” Ribeiro argues, “the dream occasionally came to represent what would in fact happen”.

Growing social complexity enriches dream life, but it also fragments it (which may explain all those complaints that the gods have fallen silent, which we find in texts dated between 1200 to 800 BC). The dreams typical of our time, says Ribeiro, are “a blend of meanings, a kaleidoscope of wants, fragmented by the multiplicity of desires of our age”.

The trouble with a book of this size and scale is that the reader, feeling somewhat punch-drunk, can’t help but wish that two or three better books had been spun from the same material. Why naps are good for us, why sleep improves our creativity, how we handle grief — these are instrumentalist concerns that might, under separate covers, have greatly entertained us. In the end, though, I reckon Ribeiro made the right choice. Such books give us narrow, discrete glimpses into the power of dreams, but leave us ignorant of their real nature. Ribeiro’s brick of a book shatters our complacency entirely, and for good.

Dreaming is a kind of thinking. Treating dreams as spandrels — as so much psychic “junk code” — is not only culturally illiterate — it runs against everything current science is telling us. You are a dreaming animal, says Ribeiro, for whom “dreams are like stars: they are always there, but we can only see them at night”.

Keep a dream diary, Ribeiro insists. So I did. And as I write this, a fortnight on, I am living an extra life.

Tonight the World

Visiting Tonight the World, Daria Martin’s new show at the Barbican, for the Financial Times, 5 February 2019

The terrible thing about dreams is that you cannot look away. You cannot peek around corners. You cannot glance at your feet. You must see – and cannot unsee – what you are given.

And while video games sometimes offer you the opportunity to shift from first to third person, so that you can see your avatar operating in the game, for the most part you’re suspended, disembodied, in a dream.

Daria Martin’s gallery-sized installation Tonight the World, now occupying the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, begins with a video game. In an eleven-minute screen capture, we explore a monochrome, abstracted version of the house in Czechoslovakia where Martin’s grandmother, Susi Stiassni, spent her early childhood.

The house is real enough: a modernist redoubt just outside Brno, built by architect Ernst Wiesner in the late 1920s for Susi’s father, the Jewish textile manufacturer Alfred Stiassni. Later, the house was home to a string of Czech presidents. House guests included Fidel Castro.

Students from Oxford University and from the University of Masaryk in Brno recorded the building using photogrammetry, and it’s their data that powers Martin’s videogame. They scanned most of the rooms, and more or less all the furniture, but none of the objects. This is one reason why the gameable villa Stiassni is furnished but unadorned. Blank white canvases in white frames hang from white walls. The shelves lining the library are empty. The only objects here are game objects, seeded into the scene so as to reveal, on a click, glimpses of the house’s history.

At this point, Martin’s show could go either way. We could be in for a rather stilted, tech-heavy exploration of her family’s fraught history. (Susi Stiassni fled Nazi occupation with her family in 1938, first to London, then to Brazil, finally to California.) But the way gallery has been decked out suggests (rightly) that a warmer, more intimate, ultimately more disturbing game is afoot. Past the first screen, fellow gallery-goers bleed in and out of view round a series of curved wooden walls painted a warm terracotta. Is the colour a reference to interwar architecture? All I can think of is the porn set in David Cronenberg’s existentialist shocker Videodrome. There is something distinctly fleshy going on.

Tonight the World turns out not to be a show about Susi Stiassni’s life; not, anyway, about those parts of her life that anyone else could have witnessed, or participated in. It’s about Susi’s dreams, which she recorded year after year in a colossal typewritten diary. We get to see some of her work, hung up like a vast storyboard, through a gap in one of the walls.

This diary provides the storyline for five short films, looping on a huge curved screen at the farthest end of the gallery. In each dream, four actresses play Susi at different life stages; chief among them, and the eldest, is Hayley Carmichael. She was the eponymous Hunger Artist in Martin’s 2017 film, which won the Film London Jerwood prize last year. Carmichael is extraordinary: she serves up pathos by the yard just by standing still and staring.

In one film Susi confronts an army patrol; in another, she discovers a proletarian man living in a wall space behind her living room. The page from Susi’s diary which describe these dreams are pinned on a wall nearby. In one, Susi writes: “I call in that we are the Korean army… Actually the Korean army isn’t us but they are just outside the house.”

We’re not just talking about disembodiment here. We’re talking about the dislocation of the survivor; about the strategies of identification and alienation by which a human psyche eludes mortal threat. These dreams are about being several people at once, in the hope that at least one of you will survive.

An episodic film about dislocation with four actresses playing the same person: what, one is tempted to ask, could possibly go right? But Martin maintains control — indeed, makes the dreams both comprehensible and gripping, in a way that other people’s dreams almost never are — by keeping an iron grip on the viewpoint. You never feel as if you’re looking through a camera; you’re always looking through the eyes of one or another Susi. Now and again, points of view are established before the characters doing the looking step into the appropriate part of the frame. It’s a neat trick and one that’s quite difficult to pull off: the same bit of film grammer Andrei Tarkovksy played with in Mirror.

Given her previous work — a Kafka adaptation, films about mirror synaesthesia, intimacy and robots — it’s hardly a surprise to find Daria Martin’s current show steeped in the uncanny. But how well does it all hang together?

Better in the viewing than in the telling, I suspect. Words imply chronology, and that’s very much not what this show is about. Susi’s dreams were shaped by her history, but they don’t depict that history. The men coming in through the windows of her half-forgotten family home are as likely to be Koreans as Nazis. They could be tourists, or players of a video game, or a Californian child (Daria Martin herself, perhaps) dressed as a cowboy. All times are one; all fears are universal.

Tonight the World is certainly an “immersive” experience, for what that word is worth. A dark, echoey interior, objects seen through chinks, and single pages that stand for whole manuscripts: there’s a little bit of Punchdrunk theatre company’s Tunnel 228 about the enterprise. There’s also an attempt, which doesn’t quite pay off, to have a piece of imagery from Martin’s video game bleed into the gallery space. This invasion comes across as more of a joke than a psychic rupture: a measure of how monomaniacally exact you have to be, if you want to conjure fantasy in real space.

What of that video game? Though it’s a chilly, jerky and rather daunting way to open the show, the mathematically rendered villa Stiassi — stripped of objects, provenance and affect — sets the right tone, I think, particularly in relation to the very next object Martin offers us: a chink in a wall, housing a small family photograph of the villa as it really was: a home filled with lace and rugs and books and bric-a-brac and life. The world is empty, until we ourselves enchant it — with monsters, or delights.