Apr 3, 2023

Dreams Under Confinement

Mapping the pandemic’s collective unconscious

I started “Dreams Under Confinement”—a collective, international dream journal spanning the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic—a few days into the French lockdown, which I spent in Marseille. My social media feeds reflected panic—frenzied, haphazard organizing alongside variously futile proposals for connecting with others while being shut inside. We didn’t yet know what the pandemic would mean; it was hard to make out a horizon or a bigger picture. It struck me that everyone across the world was experiencing the stress of an unprecedented event, and that we might find ways to interpret it through our dreams. I made a Google Doc titled “Dreams Under Confinement” with a dream I had recorded from the first murmurs of the pandemic and sent the link to a handful of the people I most often converse with, who shared it with others in turn. Anyone could participate; I only asked that people include their initials and their location along with their dreams.

The dream document was intended as a collective study of the psychic experience of lockdown. Given the depth of the isolation, I suspected that a yearning for the public sphere, for adventure, for newly forbidden intimacies would find expression in the dream world. Articles popped up in magazines and newspapers claiming that people were reporting dreaming more, or more intensely—perhaps the result of reduced physical activity or heightened anxiety. Would people dream similar things despite being physically separated? Would they dream of the pandemic directly, or would it be sublimated into other forms? Was a new collective unconscious being forged through the conditions of confinement?

I had in the back of my mind Charlotte Beradt’s extraordinary (out of print) book The Third Reich of Dreams. Amid Hitler’s rise in the 1930s, the German Jewish journalist collected more than 300 dreams from people in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg where she lived. (As a Jew and a communist, Beradt had already been arrested and barred from pub­lishing; she hid the transcripts in books in her personal library before fleeing to New York in 1939. The collection was not published until 1966.) Her book includes commentary in which she interprets the dreams of the largely Jewish, middle-class figures of her neighborhood, noting the intrusion of the authoritarian figure into the mind. “These dreams—these diaries of the night—were conceived independently of their authors’ conscious will,” Beradt writes. “They were, so to speak, dictated to them by dictatorship.”

My inquiry is decidedly less ethnographic. I did not ask people to share more about themselves—their professions (or lack thereof) or the social context for their dreams; I wanted participants to feel disinhibited by the anonymity. (Frequently people did discuss events in waking life as a preamble to their dreams—the ways conditions where they live were changing, the fights they were having with their roommates, or even interpretations of the dreams themselves, but we’ve removed them from this excerpt for consistency.) While the document was active—from mid-March 2020, until it naturally petered out in early June, as lockdowns eased—approximately 70 authors, about half of whom I know personally, recorded more than 300 entries. Since the call for participation went out through various communist and left-wing radio shows, journals, and social media accounts, it’s very likely that many of the dreamers are participants in social movements, educated, and working freelance gigs or unemployed.

As the pandemic continued, a few of the other dreamers and I pulled out themes from the growing document. We compiled excerpts pertaining to handwashing, feelings of being out of place, and fraught relations with wild animals and the natural world. We saw the pandemic pushing into frame, sometimes straightforwardly—with anxieties about illness or sharing physical space—and sometimes more cryptically. In making this particular excerpt, new themes have become apparent. I hadn’t noticed, for example, the tendency toward conspiracy, distrust of the state, secret languages, authoritarian figures—a reflection of the preoccupations of this far left milieu? Or simply the images endemic to this paranoiac time of state-imposed quarantine? Other preoccupations grew loud through repetition in the document: anxieties about old people (grandparents, in particular), crumbling landscapes, as well as quotidian worries about housing and money.

It’s a rich document, to be sure. But it’s also true that there’s nothing worse than having to sit through someone’s dream when you aren’t in the mood. Therefore, to get something out of these dreams you might have to want to read them. You may have to read them slowly, to crawl inside them. You might consider what it was like to read them as they were dreamed and recorded during those first weeks of lockdown, as opposed to all at once. You might read them—as I did—as an amateur detective looking for clues about a time still so underprocessed, which escaped us, and which we have raced to leave behind. It occurs to me now, in hindsight, that over the last two years, we have all become interpreters—of symptomatology, contradictory government information and test results, of rhythms of incubations and infections, rhythms of societal openings and closures. In this regard, these dreams are just another site of interpretation, another container for magical thinking, or prophecy.

RL, Friday, February 14th, Paris

I dreamed of a zombie epidemic, fighting with them in a dark frontier town that I lived in with the French Tiqqunists and my parents. There was a long standoff in a supermarket. My mum fled? After, jock boys, “protecting the town,” were throwing foxes off the city ramparts. It was day, and I had a bath with T, who got carried away and submerged himself in all his clothes. People were coming in, in front of whom I’d feel ashamed.

DN, Monday, March 16th, Budapest

A woman of around 102 appeared to me in a café in Budapest. The café was empty. Only the Danube-dwellers surrounded it and looked through the windows. She sat close to me and I could see all the lines and creases of her face, like a map of the world. She was mute, but communicated to me that she lived through two revolutions and two battles. Then she said in telepathic form, My face bears the pattern of the Danube, and the route of the migration of birds, before turning her face away.

CC, Tuesday, March 17th, Edinburgh

I have a bright blue chocolate egg and the police are raiding my house. They are dismayed that I have recently traveled, as evidenced by my possession of the egg, a sign of contamination. All of my friends and the social world are contained in these shady figures who are telling me off. I protest, saying that the egg was a present. The figures won’t believe me and start to shout incomprehensibly. They tell me Easter is canceled and that I’m a selfish person. I think the egg is something like money, because it’s shiny.

JS, Wednesday, March 18th, Normandy

I dreamed about getting a job in a shop on the Champs-Elysées—after the quarantine, I think. I remember the bone-aching dread of the anticipation of work. The shop was huge and sprawling, like the big M&S I used to go to with my nanny, where I’d feel embarrassed trawling around the ground floor lingerie section. Megan was my manager, we had to pretend not to know one another. Then somehow we were on the run, we’d stolen all the stock and we were halfway up the Champs-Elysées, sun in our hair.

DG, Friday, March 20th, South London

Caught the virus inside a castle. People weren’t taking it seriously and someone quite casually said he had it while sitting at a table with us in the old dining hall. On the dark and dingy walls of a precarious castle tower, two poet-academics had uncovered a secret poem inside the words of another poem—the words appearing inside the extant text, somehow highlighted in red. The academics pointed out these words as we ascended a rickety staircase. This secret poem was so impossibly interwoven with the original poem that I had no idea how they’d discovered it, and was skeptical as to its veracity: Could it just be a conspiracy theory?

EK, Saturday, March 21st, Ljubljana

In the night, I dreamed of an earthquake. In real life, I have just arrived to my quarantine in Ljubljana on a repatriation flight from London. I packed my leather trousers, three pairs of underwear and other things of no use, which I knew I would miss: framed pictures, posters, stones, some miniatures, dried plants, tiny chains, walnuts, and an array of small boxes. In the dream, the earthquake suddenly animated all the items I had installed around my new room. I observed the moment with pride. I knew I had taken with me the things that truly contain life, the right things. The whole room was buzzing. This was my reward.

As I fell my rings flew off my fingers.

RS, Monday, March 23rd, Los Angeles

I lived in a house at the bottom of a canyon bounded by a sheer cliff face. Sand and rock surrounded the house. The house was exquisite; anyone would be lucky to live there. The only road down to the house was etched into the cliff face, with a small railing to ensure that cars wouldn’t fly off the cliff. There was one turn in the road where the cliff face turned. C and I were driving down, driving too fast as we hit the turn, and I flew out the window and fell hundreds of feet to the bottom of the canyon. As I fell my rings flew off my fingers, glass rings of all different colors. I was unhurt when I hit the bottom, but scrambled to find the rings, which were scattered in the sand. C came to see if I was all right. We decided we had to ask the landlord to make a safer road to the house or we would withhold rent. But what if we were evicted for not paying rent? It was just the two of us, what power did we have?

DJ, Tuesday, March 24th, near Dijon

I was in Santiago, Chile, hanging out with some friends in a historically working-class neighborhood called Mapocho. We went into a shopería. The place looked ragged and small from the outside, but inside there was a huge hill with plenty of grass and trees. We sat down in the grass to drink chicha. It was sunny. We started discussing what was happening. The thing is, the coronavirus was already in the city. All public spaces had been banned. We suddenly had to leave them. Everyone in the restaurant started panicking and running toward the door. The group I was with arrived just as it was being locked. The military were outside, they were using special N95 masks that only they were allowed to use. A curfew had been declared and we couldn’t leave. But we couldn’t stay either. So we went into a tunnel, trying to find a way out. The tunnel led into a building, but the building was falling to pieces. It was a very tall building, like a skyscraper, but made of adobe. We started climbing stairs, looking for a way out. As we ascended, gusts of wind started shaking the building. We were thrown on top of each other. We decided this building had no way out, so we returned to the tunnels.

JFE, Tuesday, March 24th, NYC

Something in the bathroom is clogged, I’m told by a coworker in a restaurant. I go to the basement to search for cleaning supplies. I’m alone and it feels unsafe, an unfriendly presence gathering in the dark. I run out the door and up the staircase and all the way up the hall to the bathroom, narrowly making it without being overcome. The sink is fucking filthy. Who did this? The sink has got a big basin; behind it, a porcelain passage goes back indefinitely into the wall, the water sliding slowly back, like a small river. I begin spraying it hopelessly. Suddenly I’m in a river with thousands of people. Some of my friends are with me. The river is the sink—either it’s grown or we’ve all shrunk and fallen inside—though now it’s open air, a sink where a river should be, passing a sunny town. We’re all flying down this river. I mutter something about civil war. My friends are my audience and I direct them in our sailing. I feel like Captain Ahab.

RB, Tuesday, March 24th, Palermo

Everyone has died, the world is empty. I walk the dog.

LH, Friday, March 27th, NYC

I dreamed that I had sex with a friend of friends who I’ve spoken to at length but never actually met. We were on a mattress on the floor, it was carpeted. The room we were in turned out to be in my office building, which has been shut down, but which they are threatening to reopen soon and demand that workers come back in. In my dream I had sex with this person in this room for a full day, which turned out to be a day I was supposed to be at work—I hadn’t called in. Either my bosses found us at the end of the day or I left the room, went to them, and told them I quit.

RAG, Friday, March 27th, Vienna

I was back at Leeds Uni for some kind of celebration. Professors from all over the world were having a cuddle party, like a panel but they were all lying together on cushions. They were swapping things via their mouths. I sat at the front in the audience and then realized how close I was to so many people.

DH, Thursday, April 2nd, London

Went on holiday with MV to Japan. I arrived after her. Tokyo was a noir-space: just night and bars. We traveled to the outskirts of the city, where a rich gay couple, European, said that we could stay in their home. They would be away. The house was exquisitely decorated, small, comfortable. It was full of alligators, and a small child had been left there. As soon as the owners had gone, the child slaughtered the alligators. The neon green blood came out of them explosively, like geysers. Later we sat down together for an exquisite meal of alligator innards. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and met one of the two women who owned the house. She said they had changed their mind; they were moving back in. I asked if we could have an hour to pack up, and she assented. Back in the house, the child tried to grope me. MV was laconic, with her feet up, didn’t want to leave. The house was destroyed, covered in lurid green blood, the disemboweled corpses of alligators. I felt frantic, out of my mind, was throwing our things randomly into bags. We left and sat on a bench outside, smoked. Could hear the noises of shock and horror as the proprietors of the house discovered what had happened to their animals.

MT, Thursday, April 2nd, London

Long and extremely detailed dream that our next door neighbors were arrested for careless talk in a pub and breaking some unknown parole order. Their home was repossessed within minutes, and everything was moved out, including all of the things in the garden, such as the fence and the trees, so it was completely barren. Their adult son was taken away in a car. I looked at the house and it was much bigger and different in design than it is in reality—a large American town house as opposed to a small Victorian terrace. The door was left open, so I looked around. Then an estate agent turned up and immediately put a “for sale” sign on it and muttered something about gentrification as he walked away.

JS, Friday, April 3rd, Normandy

I’ve decided to participate in a televised talent competition. People are asking me what I will perform, and at the last minute, I decide I will dance. I know I won’t win, and that maybe people will think I’m delusional. I just want to perform my improvised dance in front of an audience. I roll my bones, swing my hips, bend my knees. In brief moments I feel like I’m flying and in others I feel clunky and slow. I dance until I’m out of breath.

MB, FRIDAY, April 3rd, Marseille

A monarch butterfly.

LF, Friday, April 3rd, Rome

The French Revolution was on our doorstep. I was a servant, working for some rich people in a villa. It was nighttime, someone attacked us. This person shouted he was Murat, that everything was gone, the Revolution had won, we had to open up! I tried to keep the door closed by inserting a spoon in the lock, but deep down, I was hoping for the door to collapse, I wanted to join the Revolution!

They were all keen to be scratched between their horns at first. Then, a little hesitant.

MLK, Saturday, April 4th, Copenhagen

A city built next to the ruins of another city. When I walked into the city of ruins—filled with delicate old brickwork, catacombs, and barely visible underground cisterns—a herd of goats was grazing among the piles of rubble. They were all keen to be scratched between their horns at first. Then, a little hesitant, the older goats began pulling away, calling at the younger ones to join them.

RL, Wednesday, April 8th, Marseille

My paternal grandmother, a psycho­analyst, is in some kind of kitchen—like a butcher’s or a hammam, with a hip-height white marble slab, and white tiles up high. Of course I think of blood, but there’s no blood. It’s spotless. She’s sitting on this slab wearing all black, and she has her perfect legs crossed with the superciliousness befitting an analyst or librarian. I love her. She is alive but it is also like a Victorian death portrait. I’m immediately jealous, as someone I have had a long, incomprehensible rivalry with, Grace P, is sitting down in my grandmother’s kitchen/consulting room. She will not disclose that she dislikes me, the little bitch. She is trying to stay here for several months. My grandmother is opening her heart up to Grace P, apparently because she is part of, or pretending to be part of, my family. Is she part of it or not? I am trying to work it out: Is she some offspring of infidelity? My grandmother’s? My grandpa’s?

CW, Wednesday, April 22nd, Jerusalem

I am visiting what I suppose to be some kind of government office. Distinct feeling of having visited this office before. I am here to see someone. Blurred image of the meeting itself. After I leave the office and start walking toward the exit, I feel I have just betrayed someone, that I am an informer who is visiting the secret police. Suddenly I realize that I have been holding a square-shaped piece of soap all along. I know it signifies something very important, but I cannot remember what. While I am standing in the corridor, a group of women walks by. N is among them. She greets me in passing and I sense that she is completely indifferent toward me. Disappointment. When I look again at the piece of soap in my hands, it has been broken into two symmetrical halves, but not by me. This realization is accompanied by a feeling of relief.

SL, Thursday, April 23rd, Oakland

Five of us walk arm in arm through the city streets singing “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge. Celebratory and happy. I look over at W lovingly. He is singing on and off.

I wish I hadn’t bought so many fish! Why, oh why, did I?

RL, Thursday, April 23rd, Marseille

One wall by the entrance of my apartment boasts a tall bookshelf, but each compartment houses a fish tank with different types of fish: tropical fish, goldfish. They can’t breathe, it is my fault, I have bought too many and their collective body heat is making the water evaporate and the glass steam up. When I look closer I realize some of them are already swimming in midair, with the reduced water beneath them. I wish I hadn’t bought so many fish! Why, oh why, did I? Lines of banal goldfish are keeling over, an exquisite black and spotty fish is swimming in midair. I start panicking that it’s because I forgot to put the pump on. I’m trying to plug in the pump, which is inside a tank in one of the compartments with a straggly black angelfish. But when I switch on the pump I realize my fish are making an exodus in thin air ’round the back of the tank. Although they will dry out soon, they prefer to leave my hellish and neglectful care.

SL, Friday, April 24th, Oakland

A chasm in space looks like a giant translucent jellyfish. I pass through it and my body shakes as I enter. W passes through it and his body shakes as he enters.

CW, Monday, April 27th, Jerusalem

I am in my old room in my parents’ flat. I recognize bookshelves with very few books in them. I have come to look for a particular book, I am in a terrible hurry, I am about to be sent away. It feels like deportation, I’m expecting to be arrested very soon. My mother is with me in the room. I find the book, it is clothbound with a white cover, coarse to the touch, like canvas. Without seeing the title, I know it is a compilation of writings by Hannah Arendt. I am intently searching for her sequence of dream texts. The lines and letters of the table of contents are very close to my eyes, dancing around, blurred and distinct at the same time. I finally identify the dream sequence, and am elated—the German adjective glücklich captures my sentiment, more than happiness and different from joy.

FM, Wednesday, April 29th, Hudson Valley

Post-pandemic world, everything is owned by Amazon, there is no US government, everyone lives in tiny houses. My partner and I are invited to “go to the movies” by an unseen acquaintance. “The movies” turn out to be one of these small houses. The carpeting and furniture are similar to those I remember in my high school—thin, matlike carpet ripped up around the edge by the walls, tall tables with metal legs and wood-laminate tops. I can’t see over the tops of the tables, our hosts are hidden from view, as if we are the children in the Peanuts cartoon and they are the adults. It is revealed that the hosts have a sexual fetish regarding cats, and the invitation to the movies was, in fact, part of a ploy to get to our cat. In the fracas caused by trying to defend the cat, my partner disappears. He has been kidnapped.

JS, Thursday, April 30th, Normandy

I dreamed that there were large ants under my bed, except their bodies were nauseatingly swollen and crustacean pink; each was the size of a small mouse. On the sloped ceiling that hangs above my bed were damp spores. I was unwell and confined to the bed and being tended to by my ex-boyfriend. I didn’t tell him about the infestations though—I was embarrassed and trying to hide it from my housemates—and so every time he left the room I would check under the bed and sometimes they’d be there and sometimes they wouldn’t.

JFE, Thursday, April 30th, NYC

Racking shit from a tiny strip mall in the middle of nowhere. Supplies. We get caught and end up running. Me and R are planning to burn down a building, or a large truck. I feel very self-righteous about it. It feels like the owners of the place have wronged us all. We want revenge. There’s a gate at the front where people with fishing passes can enter. I note where each security camera is located, and climb in through the window. I look around then leave the same way and go to discuss it with R. I return to my apartment, which is narrow and maze-like, and find many friends from Chicago, and we’re all living together. More conversations, masturbation, vertigo-inducing flight, the ocean, etc. The dream unravels.

SL, Friday, May 1st, Oakland

Busy grocery store with J. Teenage girls push past us in line. We pay for our items and walk through the city. I discover my bank account is -$30,000 for the next five days and I don’t know how I’ll buy food and get around. I tell J and ask her if I can borrow $500. We are climbing the stairs to my apartment. She says yes, of course, we’ll stop by her apartment to get it. Later, we are still in my apartment. I go to take a shower and see that my clothes are in the toilet. I ask J about this. She’s like, There was nowhere else to put them. I say, Just put the toilet seat down and put them on top. I’m a little mad. Then I feel guilty because she is going to lend me $500. Then I think that shouldn’t matter. I wonder when we are going to go to her apartment to take care of that. I feel that sunken, anxious feeling I feel when I’m broke and somewhat desperate.

TFK, Tuesday, May 12th, Providence, RI

My parents want to send me to the army and I ask them if it’s possible to sign up for just the training portion without having to later be deployed. The answer seems to be yes. I’m satisfied, and I have a surge of excitement as it dawns on me that I will be infiltrating a hostile organization I have no intent of falling in line with. The training involves going to a remote mansion along with the other recruits and holding a loaded gun pointed at a chandelier. I wonder when they will start making me do push-ups. I am afraid to do push-ups, but the chandelier, which seems to be both the enemy and the entity conducting this training, does not require me to do push-ups.

JM, Tuesday, May 12th, Paris

My granny is standing next to me, wringing her hands in her characteristic way, telling me about her father, Poppa. I see headshots of him, ghastly and green, in the trenches. Instead of going by what I refer to as his “Jewish name,” Josef B, he chose instead the name Bella T. His eyes bore into me. I learn about his film career. He’s been in lots of films, even cowboy films. There is something about a little boy who killed himself in January, who might have been Poppa. Then I go to the Parker family home and I tell them the story of the suicided boy, and midway through I’m laughing hysterically. They are horrified and I say, I’m sorry, I’m in shock, but that’s not why I’m telling it like this. I just wouldn’t be able to explain to them the kind of humor around death in my family.

SL, Monday, May 25th, New Mexico

A large syringe is hurtling down from the sky and pierces the earth, causing a huge atomic explosion. This happens in a field that looks like the one at my old elementary school. Bodies are being dragged through the city and ambulances are everywhere. I make my way to the worst of it trying to find the epicenter of the disaster. It is chaos. As the heat and the fire overtake everything, I relax my body into it and wake up in a room staring at a variety of Buddhist books. A monk there encourages me to pick one to read.

Rona Lorimer is a writer and translator based in Paris. Her essays and articles can be found in LARB quarterly, Commune, Endnotes, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Conversationalist. She has written two plays and one chapbook of poems.