After months of isolation, Zoom calls, and Amazon deliveries, it is no wonder that people want to escape the ‘new normal’. The anxiety and boredom that comes with being trapped inside can be alleviated in a number of ways, but my personal favourite is through dreams.

Whether you are dreaming in sleep or during the day, this form of escapism can transport you to the furthest reaches of the earth and the darkest depths of the ocean. But can dreaming do more harm than good?

We all know what it is like to be immersed in a new novel or TV show: the world outside fades away until you are left with your imagination. It can be incredibly jarring when you are ripped out of this fiction and forced to face the real world. Dreams seem to straddle this boundary between fiction and reality, often informed by real life or perhaps made to help us cope with it.

Edgar Allan Poe recognises this in his poem ‘A Dream within a Dream’. The dreamer is so caught up in his mind that he struggles to grasp reality. He is shown standing on a wind-swept beach desperately trying to hold onto grains of sand. But no matter what he does the sand continues to creep through his fingers. It is not clear whether the grains represent passing time, the dreamer’s grip on reality, or something entirely different, but their formlessness prompts him to ask a very important question: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

Although this isn’t a particularly practical question, in the real world it has been posed and investigated through the works of many artists. In the 1999 movie The Matrix, for instance, we are shown what can happen when someone completely loses touch with reality. Rather than being used as a cliched ending, the idea that everything is simply a dream is placed at the crux of the movie. In this dystopian world, humanity has been reduced to an energy source, living batteries used by the machines that have taken over the earth. In order to hide from this horrible truth, they live inside a computer-generated world that looks much like our own. In this movie mundane life is the comforting fantasy from a horrific fantasy. Before the protagonist Neo discovers the truth for himself, the audience is given clues that suggest his world is all a dream. The man he seeks, the man who can enlighten him, is Morpheus, named after the Greek god of dreams and sleep. Much like this deity, he has the power to leave people sleeping in blissful ignorance or wake them up.

However, it is the intertextual references to Lewis Carrol’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that suggest that Neo’s so-called ‘reality’ is a childish dream. Neo is told to follow the white rabbit, wake up from wonderland and see how far down the rabbit hole goes.This image of the rabbit hole is particularly powerful and recurs in many discussions about dreams. In Carrol’s book itself no one knows just how far down it goes. When Alice falls, she goes “down and down”, falling for so long that she wonders if it will ever end, after many hours even believing that she “must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth”. In common parlance, “down the rabbit hole” has come to mean losing touch with reality when engrossed in an all-consuming idea. It is inextricably linked to nonsense, dreams and fantasy itself.

What we are seeing is art commenting on itself. Cinema and literature, in particular, are regularly used as a form of escapism. When they begin to reveal dreams within dreams, they show us how easily reality and fiction can be confused in our minds. Although The Matrix and Alice in Wonderland are themselves works of fiction, they force us not only to consider Edgar Allan Poe’s question but to ask another one as well: if “all that we see or seem” is but a dream, do we really want to wake up and discover the truth?

Artwork by Rachel Jung


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