Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Life is a Dream

Life is a Dream (La Vida es Sueño) is the title of a classic 17th century work by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. But what if life is in fact a dream, the reality we think we perceive existing only in the mind of the dreamer? Who is the dreamer? And is he or she part and parcel of someone else’s dream, with the dreamer before that existing only as a figment in yet another imagination? Who, then, is the ultimate dreamer? Like Segismundo, the young Prince who has been husbanded away to prevent catastrophe, there is no end to doubting reality once the idea of this ultimate form of subjectivity is introduced as an explanation for existence. Bishop Berkeley believed all impressions were totally subjective, with reality only being verifiable by the existence of God. Esse est percipi—“to be is to be perceived”—was Berkeley’s mantra.
But the notion of life as a dream may be an excuse for irresponsible or immoral actions. This is something Calderón’s character grapples with. Is the dreamer allowed to rape and pillage at will, since his transgressions will essentially be victimless crimes? Are felonies simply quality-of-life crimes for dreamers?  Or is the dreamer obliged to deal with right and wrong, to censor his own wishful dreaming as it were, because of the fact that the universe he exists in, whosever mind it can ultimately be attributed to, is somehow lessened for being a high crime area? Are moral convictions earned even without the notion of a real world in which actions have consequences?  If I do something totally horrifying and conclude that it is only harmless dreaming, the horror is not less horrific. In fact, no longer being punished for his crimes, with no prospect of serving time in a penitentiary, the dreamer is never allowed penitence and the subsequent feeling of having paid his debt to society for damages incurred. Dreamers are as stuck when comes to solace as they are frustrated by the impossibility of consummation. The pure dreamer may never pay the piper, but he will also never satisfy any of his wishes.


  1. My friend the late Spencer Holst, a master of the short-short story form, once said at the end of one of his stories, "... for to just forget is Justice when crimes are dreams."

    We love to coquette with the idea that our lives are dreams, but we know in our hearts the distinction between our dreams and our life wide awake. If we were to operate by the standards of proof demanded by logic and the scientific method, there would be no way to show that we exist. By these standards, life lies outside the realm of the provable. But we prove it to ourselves every moment that we live, so how much more proof do we need?

    If we seriously propose that our lives are but dreams, we must still live them, or refuse to live them and just die. The ages-long discussions of life-as-dream and life-versus-dream have for centuries done little more than provide clever philosophers a noble calling and a soft living (or a "dreaming," if you will). As for the rest of us, the recalcitrant, persistent quality of our lives-as-dreams has forced us to eke out our own livelihoods, even when we find it a nightmare to do so.

  2. What if the nightmares are reality and the so reality is the dream. What about that dream I had about the woman who never existed. Maybe the reality is the untruth. What if she exists--in my dream. And then there was Aline, my Isolde in fifth grade. SP


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