What Dreams May Come?


British-born readers of a certain age might remember the brassy blonde Yorkshire housewife Viv Nicholson, the Premium Bonds winner in 1963, who famously gloried in her ability to vulgarly spend (“I’m going to spend, spend, spend!”) a fabulous windfall (in a still grubbily post-austerity UK) that was popularly referred to as ‘beyond one’s wildest dreams’?

Who could, try as one might, forget Robbie Williams, in accents of purest Stoke-on-Trent, reacting to his signature of a particularly remunerative recording contract, with the hollered words: ‘I’m rich! Rich beyond my wildest dreams!’ And for many decades, before the credit crunch was even a coinage, dreams were principally those of material avarice. Whatever, dreams were a big deal. But now they may have become just too big a deal in what passes for the adult world of today.

Take the very word dreams. The British author, broadcaster and cultural critic Jonathan Meades, one of the most acute and scathing observers of our time, put it best in an article for Intelligent Life magazine in the spring of 2009: “Words are as subject to fashion as morals and lapels, politics and popular music. Today’s merely tiresome coinage is tomorrow’s infuriatingly ubiquitous cliché. Journalese thrives on cliché. It is the jargon of the linguistically insentient whose job is to smother page upon page with words. And there are more pages than ever, and more screens, and thus more marginally literate word-operatives struggling to smother them.Where would they be without the following, the props of their desperate trade? Genius, guru, hub, legend, driver (meaning cause), challenging, controversial…and the newly transitive verbs to impact, to source. Where, above all, would they be without iconic?”


Dreams what sort of beef can anyone have with dreams?

To this litany of (over)usages I would add dreams. Dreams have been a part of human written and spoken discourse since the first caveman realized that he had a subconscious, and that it played weird tricks on him in his sleep. Martin Amis, in his novel Money, describes the way that sleep “pulls the wool over your eyes in that deceitful way it has”. Sigmund Freud might have remained an anonymous Viennese doctor without them, and a substantial portion of the greatest artistic endeavours in history might have remained unmade without them, whether as inspiration or subject matter.

One thinks of Philip K Dick’s sci-fi fable Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), or the sublime scene in Wagner’s 1810 opera Lohengrin where the heroine, Elsa von Brabant, dreams of rescue by the titular knight errant, who duly arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. Dreams – what sort of beef can anyone have with dreams? They are simple things; as Freud explains, they are the projection of unconscious wishes and fantasies onto the subconscious during sleep; harmless and quite natural. One may as well rail against gravity. In the Middle Ages, they distrusted dreams and dreamers – a real-life Elsa might have been accused of witchery and dragged off to the stake.


 ‘Reaching for your dreams’ has become as catchpenny and clichéd a usage as ‘at the end of the day’


However, this writer’s plaint is not against dreams or the idea of dreams – rather, the way in which the word has undergone that change and the way they have become the shopsoiled currency of some of humanity’s less appealing 21st-century traits of acquisitiveness and mass ignorance and infantilism. ‘Reaching for your dreams’ has become as catchpenny and clichéd a usage as ‘at the end of the day’. Tellingly, French has no such problem; ‘reve’ retains its place in the language now much as it did a century ago. Likewise with the Flemish ‘Droom’ and the German ‘Traum’ .To reduce ‘dreams’ to a linguistic cliché is idle; to believe in them, as one might a fairy tale – the two are often compared – is dangerous. Believing in dreams to reap benefits is, or should be, a fallacy we leave behind with the nursery literature of “wizards, friendly dragons, sentient heavenly bodies, anthropomorphic trains and other characters not subject to the rules of narrative causality” as noted in a particularly funny post, ‘You Can Be Anything You Want’, in the 4th June 2003 issue of the online satirical newspaper, The Onion. Here, we see dreams as appropriated by the language and thought-processes of the aspirational obsessions of late capitalism, which seeks to render as irrelevant real-life obstacles to success (famine, flood, leveraged buy-outs) as irrelevant in the face of apparently limitless individual capacities.

More and more people, however, if the words of talent-show winners and athletes are to be believed, are still buying into this complex; which has this writer dreaming fondly but perhaps vainly of a day when the world grows up.


–Paul Stump is a professional writer and critic specializing in the arts and contemporary issues. He has worked for BBC Radio and writen for The Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, Time Out, New Statesman, Harpers & Queen and other magazines and newspapers. He has appeared on BBC4 and his first book, The Music’s All That Matters, is republished by Harbour Books later this year.–