What Are Dreams?

An attempt to define this elusive phenomenon.

This is an excerpt from I. Ortiz Monasterio, “Jean Toomer’s ‘Kabnis’ and the Language of Dreams,” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 38, no. 2, 2006, pp. 19–39.

Above all, a dream is an illusion, something that occurs in the mind of the sleeping person. Dreams are not real; they are a product of the fantasy, but they are “always regarded by the sleeper as perceptually real” (Antrobus 98). Dreams are visual in the sense that they are formed by clear, bright imagery (Antrobus 98), but other kinds of perceptions can also be represented by dreams. Sounds can be “heard” and things can be “felt.” On some occasions, the meaning of the perception rather than the perception itself appears. Thus, the person knows what someone is telling him, without hearing the words.

The dreamer can also have thoughts and emotions, even strongly felt emotions. The dreamer, for instance, may see a strange person in the kitchen and feel an intense fear. The emotions associated with dreams are mostly negative. They can be an extension of recent emotions felt by the dreamer in daytime, but, as Freud believed, they may also be emotions that have been repressed for a long time.

Cottonbro, untitled, 2021. Found here.

Although it cannot be said that dreams have a story, they are storylike constructions, “series of images the development of which represents a more or less continuous drama” (Grison 960). This drama and its elements—the personae, their emotions, thoughts, and actions; the places; the objects; the relations between them—are rarely normal and logical from the perspective of the consciousness. Bizarre people, objects, and events come and go; identities may be altered from one scene to another; different perspectives of a single person may be represented by different personae; thus, nothing can be taken for granted. To Freud, the bizarreness of dreams camouflaged frightening thoughts and feelings (Antrobus 100).

Dreamers are part of the logic of dreams, of their “spontaneous and uncontrolled nightly dramaturge.”

No matter how uncommon, distorted, or unreal images may be, they by no means amaze the dreamer. Even their strange conduct and appearance seem normal. Moreover, discernment and willpower are not part of the faculties guiding the dreamers’ actions and, in general, events. Dreamers are part of the logic of dreams, of their “spontaneous and uncontrolled nightly dramaturge” (Grison 960).

Although revolutionized by Freud, the interpretation of dreams has actually been practiced since antiquity. While for many ancient cultures dreams allowed a vision of “the other”—of souls, places, and times other than the dreamer’s own—Freud contends that they allow an inner vision, a vision of oneself. Dreams have hidden meanings; the language of dreams, in short, is symbolic.



  • Antrobus, John. “Characteristics of Dreams.” Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. Ed. Mary A. Carskadon. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
  • Barasch, Frances K. “Theories of the Grotesque.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Ed. Irena Makarmyk. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 85–89.
  • Grison, Pierre. “Fuego.” Diccionario de los símbolos. Ed. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant. Barcelona: Herder, 1999. 511–514.
  • Manfred, Weidhorn. “Dream.” Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Francesco Ungaro, Encendido lámpara de araña, 2017. Found here.

Bakhtin and the Carnival

Breviary of “Rabelais and His World”

(Leer en español)


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In 1965, after thirty years of waiting, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was finally able to publish, in Russia, his masterful study of the series of five novels by Rabelais known as Gargantua and Pantagruel. The study was entitled The Work of François Rabelais and the Popular Culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Творчество Франсуа Рабле и народная культура средневековья и Ренесudoсансurania, Khudozhestvennia literatura, Moscow).

In France, it was first published in 1965 under the title L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance (Gallimard, Paris). Not long after, MIT released the English translation, by Hélène Iswolsky: Rabelais and His World (1968). The Spanish version had to wait almost twenty more years. La cultura popular en la Edad Media y el Renacimiento: El contexto de François Rabelais (Popular Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The Context of François Rabelais) appeared in 1987 (Julio Forcat and César Conroy, trans., Alianza Editorial, Madrid).

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The Low Art of Christoph Niemann

To feel more comfortable on the humble side of life: that’s perhaps the mark of a true humorist. As I skimmed through these ink drawings of Christoph Niemann online, I ran into a rather simple image portraying a hen somewhere along the Mekong River and I thought, “There. That’s the artist at his best.” I didn’t care too much for the animation of Angkor Wat at sunrise, however suggestive it is, nor for the boutique-boat sliding down the river, a gratifying exercise in light, undoubtedly, nor for the picturesque scene of a local girl cleaning fish at the market. I liked the black-spotted bird under the black-spotted dress hanging against exuberance, the cartoonish arm waving over the current at dusk and blotting it white, the loaded cargo tricycle with a motorbike on top.

Among Tralach, Cambodia, 2019.

The line between the serious and the comical is tenuous and unstable. All the more so in a repertory as casual and unrestricted as Niemann’s. He prefers techniques like watercolor and ink, traditionally related to temporary results. He sketches. He improvises, very much like a jazz musician. True to the designer’s calling, he simplifies. But despite this tendency, there’s a serious vein in him.

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