But In Order To Dream, You Gotta Still Be Asleep

Pass through gates of ivory and dream the dreams that are lies. Pass through gates of horn and dream true dreams. In his liner notes to Tell Tale Signs, Larry Sloman writes that Series of Dreams is so “powerful, lyrically, that it begs for a version that will do it ultimate justice.”  I think I know what he means in terms of the special frustrations of this song. I have 4 or 5 versions of it, and although I’m in the pro-Lanois camp, and I like very much the production that includes that ringing guitar, I still find myself straining my attention for the moment when the instrumental will really match the strange soliloquy of the vocals, and we really pass through the gates of___, as Dylan invites us to.

It’s easy to find evidence  for Dylan’s contempt for the romanticizing of dream-meaning.  He doesn’t give a damn about our dreams, and I want to aggrandize myself into someone on his side in this.  I can’t recall ever having a good dream.  I’ve never known that wonderland in sleep that I read about, which causes a person to think, “oh, if only!” when they awake. As far back as I can remember, back to my teens, all my dreams have been plausible plots occurring in realistic, familiar settings, starring people I know all too well appearing exactly as they do in the world outside my head. The plots always feature disappointment, humiliation, failure, loss, awful disfigurement, all of which are entirely reasonable expectations, or reminders of actual misfortunes. No codes, no outlandish enigmatic images with overdetermined connections to my roiling unconscious. There is a great gift in having only naturalistic dreams with grim and credible endings:  I never find the real fears or failures I wake up to to be disappointing or unjust. I’ve gone to sleep as often as most adults have, with a new terrible knowledge of something appalling and irreversible, and have in every case been spared what I respect must be a brain-breaking horror, in which the waker has a few confused moments wondering,  perhaps it didn’t happen and X is still here. I close my eyes on a miserable world with no X, and wake immediately into the miserable world with no X.

In Dylan’s songs, dreaming itself is not a map to the Self, it doesn’t lead the dreamer into an irresistible Kublai Khan, and dreams aren’t inspiration.  Early on, Dylan’s shrewd judgement  worked against the postwar intelligentsia’s Freud-mania, which he would have encountered often enough in the Greenwich Village he inherited in 61-63. We’ve got the great moment in Chronicles, when Ray Gooch finds Young Bob reading Beyond the Pleasure Principle and tells him, “The top guys in that field work for ad agencies.”   It’s hard to read that and not think of the shrink who’s skewered in Talkin’ WW3 Blues: the boy who sees how things really are around here is “insane,” but the doctor finally wakes up and starts having the same dreams.  Bob Dylan’s Dream is a beautiful lament for a lost illusion, the illusion outliving the youthful friendships charmed  with impossible fantasies of eternal camaraderie and optimism. His 115th Dream is a gigantic mural or picaresque of lost illusion, still a young man’s lament, and now with a caustic historical vision. With no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means:  the tongue-twisting consonants are the sound of the rocky real world the singer is trying to describe, whether the Real inside the Gates of Eden. or the real outside the Gates. She is his lover because she alone knows that to read dreams for meaning is to bury them like corpses or trash.

Who is awake and who is asleep matters terribly in Dylan’s songs, and being unable to sleep grants the singer a certain quality of vision. He does of course use his gospel songs as alarms to awaken us to….that which he feels he has been awoken to. Absent which side of the consciousness/unconsciousness divide you or I occupy theologically,  much of When You Gonna Wake Up, including the imploring and reprimanding tone the vocals keep up for the entire song, is a terrific wake-up slap. It’s only when we’re awake that we can even identify the few things that remain from our wishful and false dream-life.  A song that only reinforces the arrogance afforded by my own wish-less dream-life–I have very little trouble waking up to the very little that remains, tant pis for the rest of you sleepers.

The Fata Morgana in Simple Twist of Fate needs no sleep, while her poor weak victim wakes to a squalid room, and a vicious sun that only illuminates how much of him she took with her while he slept. Whatever  she took of him along with the coin, an offering or payment to the blind beggar who also remained awake in his own real world (another gate), while the hapless singer sleeps on.

In I and I the singer, sleepless and restless, watches the “strange” woman in his bed, and imagines her “free” dreams. He’s goaded and burdened by the special restlessness of imagination. He composes her dreams for her, partly in envy of her simple sleeping, and the dream he composes is the image of another songwriter, David, the “righteous king,” and not the fretful frustrated man who is imagining  him here.  David’s insomnia results in psalms written by moonlight streams. Our singer is burdened and isolated, “in creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” He goes for a lonely purposeless walk, he sees ordinary people wasting time wishing for spring to come, but at least there are two of them, they have company. He mutters bitterly about sacrifice–he’ll make shoes for everyone, don’t worry about his poor bare feet. And the strange woman sleeps on in her free dreams.  Set I and I’s sleepless singer alongside his older friend in Not Dark Yet. Again, grating wakefulness confers a special self-awareness, this time of how it feels to have reached an age where he hangs in the balance between lassitude and desire, moment to moment.

I was wrong–one time a dream inspires. ‘Cross the Green Mountain.  “Heaven blazin’ in my head, I–I dreamt a monstrous dream.” This is awful mythic dreaming, when a god forces a vision into a poor mortal’s flimsy skull. Here our singer does fall asleep, he does let his guard down for a moment and the result is terrible pain, in the form of visions and voices of the “ravaged land” and dying sons  of the Civil War.

So, with few exceptions, ‘Cross the Green Mountain being the most powerful for me, it seems that Dylan’s dream gates are made of ivory, and through them lies a false and alluring land which we must abandon. All to the best, for me and my never-alluring dream-land. But maybe my state of affairs is not such a gift of realistic woken-up thinking that I wish it to be. I wonder about Hamlet’s lines:

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Why? Why do bad dreams prevent him from being able to count himself king of infinite space–quite a liberating and delicious fantasy, I would guess–even if he’s crushed into a tiny nutshell?? I wonder if it is because bad dreams poison us against our own imaginations. Bad dreams, the ones we wake from shaking in fear at what our own brains can do to frighten us, the dreams that make us wonder if we are ourselves monsters, if you have enough of these dreams, do you come to hate and mistrust your own fancies so much that you can’t release your imagination and allow it to fashion you into a king of infinite space? Is it playfulness that’s eroded by  these bad dreams?

A deeply playful song, is Series of Dreams. It has what could be some of the greatest non sequiturs in all of Dylan’s lyrics, verse after verse of precarious and teasing arrangements of bits of nothing-at-all. And holding the bits of nothing together is a voice that seems confiding, familiar, self-effacing. Just thinking about these dreams. Nothing specific. Nothing that would pass inspection. I have nothing to say about this, but I’m thinking about it, and here it is. The illusion he creates of friendly candor is irresistible, and then the magical assortment of nothing-at-all.  And we somehow believe THIS IS IT, we take the bait–he’s really telling us….his dreams.  The unbidden and natural flotsam of Bob Dylan’s own brain.  Against all the matter of the song, against the tossed-off narration and the balderdash imagery, we’re seduced. The song really is a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand, Penn and Teller style, where the tricks are right out there for everyone to see, and we do see the tricks, and are delighted each time, anyway. Something like walking through the gates of ivory and finding the gates of horn waiting for you anyway, and laughing.


7 thoughts on “But In Order To Dream, You Gotta Still Be Asleep

  1. Hi Nina,

    Love this entry. Because my typical dreamlife involves my mother succeeding in her attempts to marry me to the nice boy from our church, or some similar horrorific situation, you’re not alone in agreeing with Dylan that forgoing dreams for sleeplessness could be the better alternative. So they can psycho-analyze both of us…

    In addition to the dreams in Hamlet, I couldn’t help but think of sleep in Shakepeare, too. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and Brutus’s insomnia make me think that, while Shakespeare and Dylan might have similar attitudes toward dreams, they don’t have similar attitudes toward insomnia. “Mr. Tambourine Man” seems also to be a perfect example of that. For the narrator, not being sleepy means getting to go “on a trip/ upon your magic swirling ship.” That sounds more pleasant than the ruinous results of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes’ ambitious plots and more interesting than me being married to the nice boy. I’ll take waking.


    1. Deann: Lady Macbeth and Brutus, too, of course! For Shakespeare and Dylan it seems that sleeplessness is a special psychological portal, an interesting contrast to Herr Freud, because there is will and awareness and accountability at play in sleeplessness that are necessarily dormant when we sleep and our minds are ostensibly unleashed to show us their stinking depths. The singer also faces “haunted frightened trees” in his journey, but the reward of the dance beneath the diamond sky is the reward of consciousness and freedom and not the passivity of a dream. I regret that as time marches on, being married to the nice boy seems less of a bad dream.

  2. Dylan and Hamlet have been on my mind, too. I was struck also by this line from Tom Stoppard’s play on the play, which speaks to your thoughts on Series of Dreams : “Half of what he said meant something else and the other half meant nothing at all.” Which makes us ponder, and delve.

  3. Fascinating song – all the more so, since Dylan obviously drews his inspiration from the gnostic “Gospel of Truth” by Valentinus:

    The unenlightneed ” found themselves a prey to troubled dreams. Either there is a place to which they flee, or they lack strength as they come, having pursued unspecified things. Either they are involved in inflicting blows, or they themselves receive bruises. Either they are falling from high places, or they fly off through the air, though they have no wings at all. Other times, it is as if certain people were trying to kill them, even though there is no one pursuing them; or, they themselves are killing those beside them, for they are stained by their blood. Until the moment when they who are passing through all these things – I mean they who have experienced all these confusions – awake, they see nothing because the dreams were nothing.”

    Full text here:


    1. I very much appreciate your taking the time to provide the text and a link here. We can’t know for certain in what context Dylan read or encountered any material, but I like the idea of linking Series of Dreams and When You Gonna Wake Up through this material you provide. Thanks.

  4. “them old dreams are only in yer head”

  5. You’re absolutely right, of course – we can’t know for certain. And even if Valentinus was the source, it’s intriguing to see how Dylan’s mind filtered and rebuilt those images: yet another case of love and theft, I think!

    His reading may be a little less esoteric, too. I first came across that passage in Harold Bloom’s best-seller, “Omens of the Millennium: the Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, & Resurrection” – exactly the kind of title you might think would catch Dylan’s eye. But unless he discusses it in another volume of “Chronicles,” I don’t think we’ll ever find out any more.

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