All nations, all peoples, I think, have dreams of themselves, of their better selves, of the people they imagine they could be. They are not rational and are often not even true. But then again dreams do not have to be true. We just have them. Or perhaps they have us. But those dreams have been dying recently. The dreams of whole nations have been withering and dying. As if some disease of our imagination’s immune system were turning hope against us. And we find ourselves collectively adrift, mourning for the people we thought we could be.
To lament the loss of something that was just a dream, and was, more than likely, not only not true but probably was kitsch and vaguely embarrassing, seems an odd thing. Yet the mind is an ancient creature with habits and byways far older than we, as modern users, are aware of. We need dreams. The rational mind would like to laugh at them as childish atavisms. Yet dreams, especially those we share with others, however shyly, help define us and, I suspect, protect us. Like an immune system they help us recognize self and non-self, host and foreign. Without them there is a loneliness to which we are vulnerable.
For those who have been brought up in these funny little islands, not everyone of us by any means, but very many of us, even in those who are too embarrassed to admit to it, there is a part of them which cannot help but smile at ‘The Spirit of the Blitz’. The dream of the plucky war time people who came together and found they were better and stronger than their enemies, or they themselves, supposed. Embarrassing? Of course. But it is still there. A filament which inexplicably, maddeningly perhaps, is nevertheless still there. It doesn’t even matter if it is overlain with other seemingly contradictory dreams and beliefs – those glorious punk rock years or miners’ strikes. Dreams laugh at rational consistency.
Americans, of a certain sort, even if they would loudly protest, resonate to the simple John Wayne credo of not allowing others to lay a hand on them nor do to them what they themselves would not do to others. A direct and muscularly independent moralism, that smells of clear skies and clean rivers. A nostaligia for a mythic past when they were as they dream they can be again.
I am not defending these dreams. They are kitsch. I am not saying they are the only dreams we have of ourselves. I am saying there are such dreams in us. They had and have a role to make us whole and keep us from a deep emptiness. The emptiness of a dreamless adulthood when childhood is folded away in drawers and memories and photo albums.
I don’t know why it is I want to write this now. Or why I feel it so strongly. But I do.
It might seem a very silly thing to be talking about dreams, when the problems which beset us are so concretely real. But is it?
What has been killing the dreams in which we hoped and believed? A kind of rational nihilism in which the logical mind concludes that there is just no escape from the system it assumes is reality, despite the fact that it can see the clear traces that it is a system it had a hand in building.
Bravery is as irrational as hope, despair, like cruelty, is pure logic. There never is an alternative, not a rational one. There wasn’t in Ireland when the doubters said Ireland would sink without Great Britain. There wasn’t in 1939 when the same clever people said this little island would not survive alone, and alone it would be. There was no alternative when the poor and ignorant of, first, England, then the 13 states of North America and then of France rose up one after each other.
There never is an alternative, never a path, the rational mind declares, that does not lead to chaos and disaster far worse than whatever injustices people have risen against. And yet here we are. The sons and daughters of those who remembered to dream.
The simple fact of out times, is that if the old dreams of our better selves are dying, then we must dream new ones.