The Playful Art of Dream Cartoons

5 min read
Kelly Bulkeley

Kelly Bulkeley

A cartoon about dreaming might seem doubly pointless, like trivia wrapped in nonsense. If, however, dreaming is recognized as the play of the imagination in sleep, then the cartoon format becomes a potentially powerful means of sharing and exploring dreams. This is the spirit of a new book, I Must Be Dreaming, by Roz Chast, a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine. The book is a kind of illustrated oneiric memoir focusing on the amusing surreality of being a vivid dreamer who happens to live among 21st century American urbanites.

Chast’s book joins a long and honorable lineage of dream cartooning, including the early twentieth century newspaper cartoons Little Nemo and Dream of a Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McKay, The Sandman series of graphic novels written by Neil Gaiman with artwork by Dave McKean and others (1989-1996), and The Night of Your Life, a collection of “Slow Wave” dream cartoons by Jesse Reklaw (2008). Pioneering dream teacher Jeremy Taylor’s final works were personally illustrated comic books, the better to convey his ideas and insights about archetypal symbols in dreams.

The Visual-Spatial Mode

A psychological reason for the expressive power of the cartoon format arises from the dream formation process itself. In The Multiplicity of Dreams (1989), Harry Hunt argued that cognitive psychology needs to account for the true “multiplicity” of dreaming. He especially emphasized that while verbal-linguistic qualities can predominate in dream formation, so can the qualities of visual-spatial and kinesthetic perception.

In other words, some dreams are intrinsically more thought-like and lend themselves more easily to description in words, while other dreams are intrinsically more picture-like and can best be described by drawing, sketching, or some other visual art practice. The same idea can be extended from dreams to dreamers, with some people tending to have more verbal-linguistic types of dreams and other people tending to have more visual-spatial dreams. (Hunt observed that Freud’s dreams tended toward the visual-linguistic, while Jung’s leaned more visual-spatial.)

If a person with an innate tendency for visual-spatial dreaming also works to cultivate their artistic skills, then wonderful creativity can emerge. Roz Chast certainly seems to exemplify this vibrant dream-art dynamic. She mentions in the book that she kept a dream journal for a couple years as a teenager, and then she resumed the practice after her children had grown up. The personal dreams she illustrates in the book cover a lifetime of experience as a dreamer, guided by nothing other than what I would call her own Borgesian curiosity:

“I like to think of dreams as a mystery. I don’t need to know exactly why they are there or what they are. The fact that they exist at all is kind of miraculous.” (8)

Perhaps surprisingly, her dreams provide little direct inspiration for her professional work as a cartoonist, at least in terms of specific images and stories. However, I wonder if her lifelong interest in dreams has supported her cartooning work more indirectly, as a stimulating source of surprise, puzzlement, and mystery. The fresh perspectives and novel insights spontaneously generated by our dreams make them a natural ally for someone (like a cartoonist) seeking unconventional, offbeat angles on the world.

Indeed, this is the best part of Chast’s book, her infectious bemusement at the wild and wonderful follies of our nightly selves. More than any of the other cartoonists previously mentioned, she helps us appreciate how funny dreams can be. The same things about dreams that give them such a bad reputation—their oddities, absurdities, and perversities—also make them excellent fodder for humor and comedy.

The Big “Why?”

Although not intended as a contribution to research, I Must Be Dreaming beautifully illustrates the essentially playful nature of dreaming. Rather than analyzing or interpreting the dreams, Chast lets the vibrant images do the talking. Her cartoons create a delightful visual world in which others can share her amazement at the wonders of the human imagination. The excellent one-page manifesto, “Why Dreaming Is So Great,” goes directly to the ultimate philosophical question of dreaming: If our own brains create our dreams, then why are we always so surprised by them? How do we account for the radical autonomy of our dreams, their strange intelligence, their spontaneous creativity? In three small cartoon panels, Chast crystalizes a central puzzle of dreaming that has vexed Enlightenment thinkers from René Descartes to the present. What kinds of beings are we, that we dream at all?

The question becomes even more complex when factoring in Hunt’s “multiplicity of dreaming” and the natural emergence of a wide range of types and modes of dream experience. We humans are not just dreamers, we are multi-dimensional dreamers, as diverse in our oneiric capacities as in any other psychological trait. Hopefully by now it will not seem frivolous to suggest that cartoons can offer especially compelling evidence in support of this deep truth about our dreaming selves.

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