In Private Myths, Dreams and Dreaming, Anthony Stevens sets out his answers to this particular conundrum, conscious that it is one that has preoccupied man as far back as time itself. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he is qualified to describe neurological as well as psychological theories of dreaming. A generous, involved writer who has read omnivorously, he describes the wide range of theories which have been used to explain dreams. He even has some good words to say about Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams while still insisting that it was mostly wrong.
But this is no spoiling exercise in dream analysis without any conclusion. There is one theorist who, for Stevens, has pretty well got it all right. That person is Carl Jung, something of an outsider in psychoanalytic circles, although less so than before. For while stocks have been falling sharply in the Freudian market, shares in Jung have continued to remain stable. His central belief in the inevitability of universal symbols in the deep unconscious is now well in tune with other recent developments in academic psychology. It is no longer controversial to believe in the existence of handed-down "deep structures" as aids which enable children to learn language and to recognise faces quickly. Sociobiologists have described other genetically transmitted human response strategies, seemingly designed for general survival in the environment. It is therefore equally logical to believe now that certain fundamental human imaginative responses may also be inherited.
For Stevens, such imaginative patterns were originally encoded in the brain. Their main function was to suggest and rehearse during dreams those reactions likely to be of most use for survival during the next day. The stuff of nightmares - running away from predators, fear of the dark, falling from high places or becoming trapped in enclosed ones - could also be warnings about situations to avoid in primeval life. As mankind moved on, these pictorial, pre-linguistic messages became transformed, within the more recently developed forebrain, into narratives - the dreams we have today. But far from representing an atavistic return to early life on the savannah, the author believes that our dreams now embody a wisdom we ignore at our peril. For him, they are messages from the psyche warning us when our life-style is becoming dangerously distorted, suggesting paths towards a more satisfying personal existence.
To understand how he gets to this position, it is necessary to know what Jungians believe about the unconscious. For Freud, it was the original swamp; a dark, dangerous place whose destructive powers have continually to be guarded against. But Jung saw the same unconscious as a source of energy and ancient wisdom: a personal gold-mine once its symbolic meanings have been fully understood. And dreams are our most important representations of these unconscious forces, providing us with the combined immemorial wisdom of our very species itself.
At this point some readers may start having difficulties: Why should our dreams be more right about ourselves than any other voice? What exactly does it mean to be "right" about individual experience anyway? Stevens assumes that there are clearly correct and incorrect ways of living, but many of his assumptions are based on value judgements, not on clinical or philosophical facts. He also describes how Hitler once shared with a friend a youthful dream of omnipotence he had just had. Stevens suggests Hitler interpreted his dream quite wrongly, ignoring its message of ultimate destruction in favour of a vision of constant heroic warfare. But Hitler could also have had other dreams that were purely destructive from beginning to end. There is no reason why they should have been any better or wiser than he was, unless like Stevens one believes that all dreams necessarily contain a kernel of ancient wisdom, whoever experiences them and whatever they are about.
To persuade us of this point, the author constantly makes the best case for dreams, quoting those he and others have experienced that did seem to contain a personal message worth listening to. He also mentions famous dreams from the past, as a result of which mathematicians such as Gauss and Condorcet woke up one morning with the solution for a problem that had long eluded them. All these dreams come over as long and serious, in common with other examples quoted here which Stevens's patients have described to him in the course of their analysis. But what about the really silly dreams they may also have had? Or dreams that merely rehash a story read or a film seen just before sleep? Making a case for the importance of everything we dream is as pointless as dismissing the whole lot as essentially trivial.
Since no researcher has as yet been able to tie dreams down to any particular function, it is still too early for the definitive theories found in these pages. There is also a certain naivety in the author's uncritical reverence for primitive wisdom, whether he finds it in dreams, rituals, myths or initiation rites. The world problems he mentions, such as over-population, are not going to be solved by dreaming or dancing, although dreams may offer us timely warnings about the dangers we are drifting towards. But just as psychoanalysts commonly play down social and economic factors as a way of explaining individual mental disturbance, so does the author occasionally turn from practical realities towards the woozy mysticism that also characterised Jung at his worst.
Even so, this is still a brave and stimulating book. It could also improve the reader's own dream-life, by provoking a new interest which might cause more dreams to be remembered in the process. But beware; while our own dreams can seem fascinating to us, they may not always come over quite that way to others - something all dream-bores would do well to remember.