On Dreams and Dreamers: A Liberal Arts Reflection by Davis Smith
Why is it that artists since the dawn of recorded civilization have constructed their works upon the archetype of the dreamer and the dream? Let us define “dream” not only as an ideal which rules our passions and pleasures—a synonym for “aspiration”—but as an epitome of existence, an entity whose distant presence is so intense so as to work its way into one’s unconscious life. The impulse of the dreamer is the impulse to internalize the sublime. The dreamer sees an object of immense, terrifying beauty lingering on the horizon of the mundane, and declares that life will not be fully life for him until he has rested in the presence of this object. In other words, the dreamer pours all of his love into the object of his desires.
The acknowledgement that we are all dreamers is so properly basic that the earliest literary characters reflect this in magnified ways. The works of Homer have lasted since the 9th century BC because they depict catastrophically flawed figures who, theoretically, have everything they need for prosperity and fulfillment, thrust into the midst of the most trying, unforgiving circumstances. But they are not satisfied with their power and influence, their fame and renown, their victories and triumphs. Their thirst for something greater and more noble has yet to be slaked. They crave qualities that transcend momentary satisfaction—immortal honor among men, the abundance of a prosperous home life, peace with the divine, the hunger for perfection. If Homer had portrayed the fiercesome warrior Achilles from the Iliad as simply a war-lusty man of the world with a sadistic streak for vile vengeance, I highly doubt he would be anything close to an endearing, sympathetic character. But Homer knew his world better than any of the critics who have attempted to analyze him, and Achilles, through some miracle of artistic invention, lives on as a figure that somehow captivates the attention of all who read about him. This is because his highest longings are directed toward surpassing his own limitations in order to etch his name into the fabric of the universe. This is also what makes him a tragic figure.
The more widely-read of Homer’s epics offers us the battle-scarred, ever-wily Odysseus who is set adrift by fate in his attempts to get home after Troy has been conquered. On one hand, he can be seen as someone who craves mere temporal comfort rather than the eternal resonance sought by Achilles. Underneath all his heroic qualities lies a perfectly ordinary guy who just wants really badly to get home to his wife and son who he hasn’t seen for 20 years. The only problem is that he has to overcome the slight nuisance of immutable divine will in order to get there. But no one who reads the Odyssey can miss what Homer’s really trying to say about the concept of “homecoming.” We all have ideals which we view as “home” to us; something which we thrust the engines of our life into overdrive to get to. In both the epics (which Philip Melanchthon called a single poem in two parts), Homer seems to be saying that true homecoming—that is to say, true dream-fulfillment—is attainable in this life, but only through a degree of suffering that is so intense so as to transcend the mundane; coupled with a recognition of our ultimately insignificant position in the cosmos and the primacy of divine mysteries. Of course, Homer’s pagan framework produces a multitude of hinderances and downfalls to the achievement of a beautiful life; but overall, he is not far from a prefiguration of Judeo-Christian typology, as are all the Greek thinkers and poets. The big difference? Achilles and Odysseus do earn the honor and reverence among men which they strive to secure, even at the cost of their lives. The oral tradition that produced Homer carried on the legends of Achilles and Odysseus centuries after they supposedly lived. But in Scripture, everyone who strives to write their name in the heavens of their own accord fails spectacularly, from the disobedience of Adam and Eve onward to the Tower of Babel, Samson, Nebuchadnezzar, and even hubris-afflicted heroes like David and Peter when they fall prey to the weakness of the moment. The Biblical vision tells us that the purest dreams are those in which we take no part in achieving. They can only be won for us by the God who chooses to rescue us from our sorry state. Achilles and Odysseus’ mantras of self-sufficient “infinite striving” are, in fact, the very road to Hell. Which, as we all know, is paved with good intentions.
As we progress through the timeline of Western civilization’s output, we see the ideal of the dreamer evolve erratically and hesitatingly.The Roman poet Virgil, writing in honor of Caesar Augustus, reversed the Homeric concept by making Aeneas pius, or faithful, to a divine responsibility that directly contradicted his personal desires. Aeneas, like Achilles and Odysseus, is a dreamer controlled by forces beyond his understanding, but those forces use him as a means to build the great edifice by which all of humanity’s highest dreams may be accomplished—the pinnacle of Augustan Rome. It is no wonder, then, that the medievals universally preferred Virgil to Homer, since Aeneas represents the kind of man they strove to be—one on whom Divine Providence is free to work, and who pushes through suffering and temptation to gain the contentment that can only come from piety. So what if we are Achilles and Odysseus, sacrificing our lives and even our souls to achieve what we want to achieve against the odds determined for us by the gods? Try doing the same thing but in service of something higher than your own desires, in homage to God and History above all else. Get out of your own short-sightedness, and into the will of the Everlasting. This is the highest genius of Virgil’s recasting of Homer.
With the great jewels of medieval literature, we come to a time when European culture was fully in accord with a reigning vision—albeit a deeply imperfect one that was inevitably tainted and undermined by often shocking outbursts of greed and barbarity. The Greeks and Romans spent their entire existences grappling with the implications of their confusing, often brutal worldviews. Medieval Christianity not only persisted for more than a millennium, it fostered a type of thinking in line with that of ancient Israel; one in which dreams were not something to be fought over in blood-drenched battles or pursued across perilous, monster-laden archipelagos. According to this view, man already lives amidst the fulfillment of his greatest dreams, since eternity awaits all believers by means of God’s work in history. The divine light draws our souls toward it, continually challenging and pulling us toward the highest promise of unspeakable love. Thus, in the medieval romance and allegory, the battle and the quest are outward signs of their heroes’ internal stability (even as certain works, such as Beowulf, Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian romances, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, deal profoundly with the misgivings and pitfalls of their heroes who are, after all, flawed beings in a flawed universe). This same attitude naturally spawned the extravagant, labyrinthine side of medieval art; in which even the most apparently mundane aspects of existence are bathed in qualities of unspeakable grandeur and elevation (think the Gothic cathedrals). In sum, medieval literature was less about the persistent archetype of the dreamer devised by Homer and more about perfectly ordinary figures who lived in a world of unspeakable wonders and were content to take it as it came. Dante’s cosmic quest for the supreme Light restored, in some ways, the Odyssean model, but it is a metaphysical odyssey toward man’s most natural longings rather than a classical exploration of the kind of inhuman rage (ménin) kindled in Achilles when his plans are foiled, or of the fate-chained Aeneas’s tilt between the fierce saevae (wrath) of Juno and the glimmering promises of Destiny. Disullusionment never wins in medieval literature because, despite all the trials of the world, it is impossible so long as we have divine wisdom and love showered upon us like manna.
If we are to point to one work which re-instills the classical Dreamer into the fabric of our civilization and made it, more or less, once more the chief concern of all literature since then, it would be the grand fantasy of absurdity—Cervantes’s pioneering novel Don Quixote. When we start to read this hilarious, disturbing work; we look down upon and laugh at the Don as a deluded soul who wants to be a valiant knight in a world that couldn’t care less. But as the story unfurls, most readers will come to feel sorry for him as we come to know that he really does believe everything he thinks he is, and the world is simply too much for him. This is the conflict that has paved the way for all literature since then: reality as constructed by the individual, versus reality as it really is. Cervantes seems to be telling us that the desires of the individual direct one to the promise of paradise, only to be constantly thwarted by the indifference and even outright cruelty of reality. Whether he really believed it or not, Cervantes bifurcated truth from desire, and our culture has never recovered from this. All of the most celebrated tragic literary figures since then are dictated by the gulf that exists between what they want and the limits imposed upon them by their environment. However, the Homeric/Virgilian promise of potential fulfillment is blotted out because there are no actual conditions that could avert tragedy. Homer and Virgil believe that if the powers that be are aligned in just the right way; if Achilles can discover one little flaw in the gods’ designs, and Odysseus can get one goddess on his side; the dream has a chance of becoming reality. But modernity has abandoned the “superstitious” language of gods and goddesses in favor of a characterization of reality as alienating and terrifying. The universe no longer teems with beautiful mysteries but with ugly horrors. The impersonal cannot generate the favorable. If there is no higher intelligence than ourselves, and our own intelligence cannot even bring us happiness, then hope itself is dead, and has been swallowed up by darkness. O life, where is thy victory?
What, then, does this mean for the contemporary truth-lover? Has Quixote and the modern tradition that he has nourished really had the final word? How do we reconcile the need for happiness with the need for duty? This brings us back to the central question of the Aeneid, and to the medieval resolution, which must be our proper attitude. Anyone whose supremely joyful dream is not the embrace of eternity has their desires misaligned. The medieval hero starts in such a corrupted position. After all, Dante begins his Comedy lost in a “forest dark,” utterly directionless until none else but Virgil himself shows up to set Dante’s priorities straight. Throughout his journey, he is transformed when he allows the intimations of paradise to flood his soul. The key here that modernity has missed is that there is a distinction between beautiful and destructive desires. The ill-advised retreat into the stubborn dogmas of one’s warped desires, when unaccompanied by a will to renovate those desires, is the chief criterion of all tragic formulae. Plato’s Socrates said that education consists of teaching pupils to desire the right things. We must not discount the importance of dreams, for they are one of the fundamental glories of being human. We should not be ashamed of the indelible existence of dreams in our souls. However, the art of life consists of taming and subduing those dreams, in elevating them into the realm of purity against the base devices of sin, in realizing that all dreams must be subsumed into the greatest ruling dream of all, which is our heavenly destiny toward perpetual perfection. Prayer and steadfastness are the truest companions toward the achievement of this revolution of the soul.
So in reading great literature, poor vagrant dreamers that we are, we find ourselves between the pages. Who knows if Achilles or Odysseus stares us in the face to convict us of our inward-curved tendencies? What if Aeneas and Dante can serve as fuel for our longings, clarifying and elucidating the truths of Scripture and making the beauty of well-cultivated dreams all the more real for us? Through such literary experiences, we discover the necessity of facing our fallenness and properly ordering our loves toward the Light of Ages. We learn to discern the tragic and embrace the comic. This is the ultimate promise of a liberal arts education: the formation of the whole person and the direction of the will toward the transcendent through the nourishing streams of the Great Tradition. Literary and cultural studies can guide us into appreciation of a poem, novel, or play for its aesthetic qualities, yes. But most essentially, they school us in the art of wonder: in knowing ourselves and our world aright. They heighten our longing for the City of God. For in the untappable mystery of dreams and of the pining pilgrims who dream them, there can be none other than eternal joy for those who sail the current that will bear them to the waters of life.