Dream Lessons

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian,  Edouard Manet, - 1867

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, Edouard Manet, – 1867

“Dream Lessons”

When I was a small child, I had a recurrent nightmare in which someone was attacking me. I needed to scream for help but couldn’t, because no sound came out. I would try and try to scream, but still nothing. Just little pockets of air.

Lately, the lesson of this dream became clear to me. Included in the theater of family life was one member who, I felt, was quite threatening to me personally. Unfortunately, my fear had no place in the Official Story of the Family. So I didn’t – couldn’t – voice it.

This choking-back-syndrome was carried forward into adult life where, if I got into any disagreement that seemed irrational – not based on shared, spelled-out premises and methods  – I would be rendered literally speechless, as if turned to stone. This didn’t happen in philosophy, where premises are made explicit and there is – or can be – agreement about how to investigate a matter. But it did happen, and frequently, in real life.

Revisiting my old dream recently, I resolved to give my suppressed opinions an airing, even where people weren’t inviting dissent and might not like it.

For instance: Recently a friend praised a fashionable opera whose theme is the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew. This really happened. The victim had been on a cruise ship with his wife when he was shot and thrown overboard by terrorists. My friend said she’d heard the music was “beautiful” and the opera “balanced” (fair to killers and victim in equal measure). She later referred me to a laudatory review of the opera in The New Yorker, which also praised the demeanor of the audience at the Metropolitan Opera House and caricatured the protesters outside.

I read the New Yorker review online and wrote back:

“I haven’t seen the thing, so I can’t judge of whether the opera as a whole shows that the terrorists have false – rather than true – outlaw chic. … You’ll have to excuse my impatience with these rationales. For decades, the beautiful people have been celebrating the ‘transgressive.’ What’s being transgressed? The most elementary norms of human decency and fair play. … By now, when the bad guys are hacking heads off, reinstituting crucifixions … the admirers of the ‘transgressive’ have nothing to contribute to the defense of the decencies. So what do they do, when a wheelchair-bound American Jew on a cruise ship is shot for no crime but that of his Jewishness and tossed overboard? They write an opera! A beautiful opera! Neatest trick of the week.”

So far, whether by email or in person, I’ve spoken my mind, at some risk, about three times in the past few weeks.

The sky hasn’t fallen yet. 

In adolescence, my childhood dream recurred in a variant suitable to that age. In the dream, my teachers, counselors and monitors were herding me and my classmates up the winding stair of a curiously thick-walled, cylindrical interior, rather resembling a castle tower. Daylight shone through the paneless apertures along the walls of the stair and daylight issued from the open doorway at the top of the stair, which gave onto level ground outdoors.

It was all very normal. We were being herded, as for phys-ed, or perhaps recess, except that the level ground outside was the place that had been appointed for our group execution.

The method of execution varied from dream to dream. Sometimes throat-slitting, which I feared would hurt a lot. Sometimes, by firing squad, which did not seem to me to need as much physical courage.

The trouble with me was, I didn’t want to stay in line or continue climbing the stair with the other kids. The social price of this refusal was instant and inescapable. It blanketed me. The teachers, the monitors, the kids – my classmates – all thought me intolerably oddball. For an adolescent, this is quite unbearable. I was not at all impervious to their opinions. On the contrary. They caused me the greatest discomfort.

Still, I didn’t join the line. Who the hell wants to get shot or have her throat cut? My fear of the place they were all going (all except me), was greater than my fear of their ostracism.

Nowadays, I think of this dream fairly often.

It seems to me not so much precognitive as pedagogic:

a parable that keeps on giving me its lesson.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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