May 28th, 2020

Your Dreams Aren’t What You Imagine

“According to Jorge Luis Borges the most astonishing things about dreams is not their psychic function, the biological mechanism that undergirds them, or even their nature. But the simple fact that they exist at all.” –J.F. Martel

Typical of dreams, I did not recognize the house I was in, nor the door, nor the man.

Three nights ago I dreamt that an African American entered through a door in a house that I occupied. There was no doorbell or knock. He simply walked in unannounced. Shocked — and again typical of a dream’s rhythm — I woke up.

What was recognizable about the dream was the feeling tenor of the unexpected appearance of a person entering a room uninvited. Layered through that feeling was the wonder that accompanies the beginning of a strange new relationship.

The dream had other components, none of which I recall — but it was the visitor, his presence and surprise entry, that stayed with me throughout the day. And the following day. And now, while writing this article.

Freudian dream analysis would have tethered this dream to some repressed happening in my past. And because I am caucasian, a Jungian dream interpretation might say that the dream figure was a component of my ‘shadow’ — an aspect of my unconscious converting into consciousness.

The psychologist James Hillman would say that as soon as I’d named and cataloged the contents of my dream (by analyzing or interpreting it) I would have destroyed not only the dream’s vitality — its impression — but also the denizen of the dream — my visitor. A figure from the underworld.

Too, Hillman would say that I’d lost an opportunity to better prepare for my death.


Hillman — a longtime scholar of both Freud and Jung‘s dream typographies — came to see, after decades of exploring his dreams and that of his patients, that a dream scenario, a dream figure (or dream animal) are happenings and entities that visit us from the underworld.

As Phil Ford and J.F. Martel write in their introduction to their Weird Studies podcast that takes on Hillman’s masterwork:

“In order for dreams to do their work on us, says Hillman, we must cease to regard them as hallucinations, mere metaphors, epiphenomena, or illusions, and instead see them as the imaginal other life we all must live. Every night, for Hillman, each of us descends into the underworld to encounter those forces that shape us and our surroundings. The way down is the way up.”

I’d read Hillman’s book The Dream and the Underworld years ago, but it wasn’t until the outbreak of COVID-19 that I began to understand, in a direct-knowing way, what exactly Hillman was positing.

The Buddhists have their concept of bardo, and Christians assert a purgatorial realm — waystations of sorts. But the mythological realm of the underworld is, to me, universal — not creed dependent — and this is what Hillman helps us understand in his book. He writes:

“The…transformative work in dreams constructs the House of Hades, one’s individual death. Each dream builds upon that house. Each dream is practice in entering the underworld, a preparation of the psyche for death.”

I mention COVID because the last three months have moved many of us closer, with unrelenting proximity, to the universal underworld — way more frequently than our usual six hours of nocturnal sleep provides.

The cessation of our maddeningly busy and self-important lives has allowed not only nature to reassert her might (I love all of those pictures of animals rewilding abandoned city streets) but also the underworld to shift its boundaries.

Reading Hillman is an immersion into deconstruction — because, well, to shorthand his character — as an always-agitating Aries — his revelations are often dependent on dismantling and defying the sources of the knowledge that supplied him the lexicon to compose his arguments. This can make for frustrating interpretation, but like the afterimage of a dream, it helps to get into the atmosphere he conjures.

My advice? Place two coins over your eyes and go for the ride — it just my might transform your own death anxiety.

Of my black man entering unannounced in my dream, Hillman makes some suggestions. Not that he’s interpreting mind you — and this is another trick to reading his book; he offers ways to consider a feeling by referencing historical origins, ways of seeing that were more literal than what we now consider symbolic.

In Egypt, the inhabitants of the netherworld were black. And in Rome, they were called inferi and umbrae. Historians say this term implies, besides the idea of a subtle essence, the notion that the inhabitants of the dusky spaces underground were black, and this is in fact the color often given to them.

Translated, and free of old-school analysis and sociocultural associations, a black figure visiting your dream is a literal denizen from the underworld. An honor.

In addition to the COVID ambiance we’re all drifting through, the day leading up to my dream was filled with variations of a theme. The bass notes related to transiting Pluto opposing my natal Sun and Neptune crossing over Mars in my chart’s eighth house.

With those two timers, I’ve felt, during the past year, like a magnet for underworld motifs; some related to the pandemic’s bardo, but others more personal and stinging.

On the day before my dream, an ancient deer with a broken leg took respite under my apple tree, watching her I was waylaid by sadness. Too, that morning I’d received news of an old friend’s demise related to a stroke.

And then later that evening I’d watched director González Iñárritu‘s film Biutiful — a movie, that aside from its artistic genius could be considered a post-modern riff on the Tibetan Book of the Dead — where the film’s protagonist Javier Bardem toggles the demarcation between Barcelona’s crime-laden underworld and a constant beckoning from that other underworld that appears in his dreams.

So the visitation in my dream was, well a visitation. Void of ‘meaning.’ I left it alone. And in considering the dream during the past couple of days I’ve made a place for my new houseguest too. No further action is required. He’d arrived. End of story.

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