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Exploring the value in the surreal - the threshold between dreams and reality

Writing by Martha Gane, artwork by Elana Munasinghe.

My friend Livs recently called me one Sunday morning in a panic. I was sat camped in the kitchen with my flatmates, horribly hungover and just beginning to attempt facing the world. I knew it was something important - Livs tends not to get up before twelve on the best of days. It took me a couple of goes to translate what was being warbled over the phone, competing for attention with the sound of frying bacon and a straggler from the night before only just saying goodbye. Eventually I pieced it together: ‘you need me to analyse your dream?’. 

From the cultural viewpoint I’m familiar with dreams that seem to teeter on an edge that balances between imagination and real life – we know they don’t actually happen, so Livs request seemed slightly dramatic. However, in some cultures around the world, dreams are intertwined with foundational beliefs that impact everyday lived experience.  What if we re-considered the value of dreams, and since dreams are a common distinctly surreal experience, the value of the surreal. 

Being the good friend I am, I patiently sat through some kind of trailing plotline about Princess Diana and murderous friends, and we pieced together a sincere analysis on what it could say about how Livs was feeling. We treated her dream, in all its surreality, as something of complete importance, not laughing at the absurd but considering it with care and meaning. Livs’ dream was entirely real to her; it meant enough that she had to call me up just to talk about it. But it wasn’t a concrete event that physically happened, it was an exclusive experience only she had. What does this mean for how we view the ‘real’ and ‘surreal’? We seem to take the real more seriously, despite the fact experiencing surrealism can have a huge individual effect on people. How do we negotiate this border between the real and surreal and what are the implications? On a personal level people do seem to consider the weight of their dreams, but transferring this surreal experience into the real world isn’t deemed socially acceptable. People that wake up angry at their partner for cheating on them in a dream, for example, are treated as comical. 

Someone who might have been more qualified to receive Livs’ call is St Augustine as he questioned whether we can be held morally responsible for what happens in our dreams. He was pretty obsessed with living a moral life and worried that what he was getting up to in his dreamworld could affect this. As a monk committed to celibacy, any sex dreams were a particular cause for concern. He managed to weasel his way out of moral responsibility in this case by making the key distinction between what he called ‘happenings’ and the actions we take in the world around us (Mathew 1981, p.50). In dreams, he argued, things happen to us, we don’t act them out (Mathew 1981, p.51). Dreams are an everyday universal interaction with the surreal. By drawing this distinction between dreams and reality Augustine by extension navigates a useful way to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and the surreal.  

But the significance for many isn’t really about whether we act in dreams but what the implications of these supposed ‘happenings’ are and what they can tell us about our real lives. The events in dreams seem all the more important because of the key fact that we don’t have any control over them, leading to the romantic notion that our dreams offer a view into our unfiltered psyche. The mysticism of dreams has captured human imagination for centuries. Many religious beliefs are founded on ideas that were communicated by God to prophets in a dream.  Surrealist artists considered them to be a hugely important source providing insight into the inner psyche, and Freud fans are obsessed with the psychological deeper meaning they hold. This history of thinking has a highly personalised approach, looking at each experience as an isolated event and suggesting dreams are founded in the individual.

But the notion of dreaming can be interwoven with wider cultural approaches to religious practice, belief and living. In Australian Aboriginal tradition there is a huge emphasis on the importance of dreams, a whole article could be dedicated to the complex notion of ‘dreamtime’ which provides their creation story. Similarly, across North and South America Indigenous people consider dreams to hold metaphorical or literal meaning for the reality of human life. One tribe in Peru has a practice where children’s names are delivered to parents in dreams (Peluso, 2004, 110). They frequently take the same pattern of the mother or father being chased by some kind of wild animal before it reveals itself to be a baby (Peluso 2004, 116).  This experience of the surreal is then translated into real life as whatever animal features in the dream become the child’s name. 

These examples reveal the way that the surreality of dreaming can bleed into the real world as the border between dreams and reality becomes blurred. It feels intuitive however that it would be impossible for any kind of large-scale system to be built around dreams. Could this be the legacy of a European imperial perspective dismissing others knowledge systems in favour of ‘rationality’? It does seem tricky to quantify the importance of dreams on a wider social level. If Rishi Sunak announced some new policy tomorrow based on a dream he’d had, we would all think he was mad. Indeed, despite the prevalence of prophetic dreams within Islam it is often considered haram for these to be used as a basis for implementing legislature (Rahim 2024).

But, as in my conversation with Livs, maybe the point is that we create meaning and value for ourselves from our surreal dreams, as they give us something exciting, sometimes disturbing, always unusual material for reflecting on our ‘real’ lives. My friends Grandma recently told her about a recurring dream she has been having for the last twenty years where Mussolini lives in a shed in her back garden. Sometimes he comes out for a bit to march around. I mainly wanted to mention this because I think it’s funny. But I’ll leave you to consider; was this just a ridiculous experience of the surreal imagination for her grandma. Or as my friend theorised, was it really about her internal guilt as a left-wing minded woman ‘harbouring fascism’ through her role as a landlord. And if it is was, then does this experience of the surreal mean that she needs to change how she lives her ‘real’ life?


Mathew, Gareth B. 1981. ‘On being Immoral in a dream.’ Philosophy, Vol.56, No.215 pp.47-54

Peluso, Daniela M. 2004. “That Which I Dream Is True: Dream Narratives in an Amazonian Community.” Dreaming,14( 2-3): pp.107–119

Rahim, Samia Abdul. N.d. ‘The Reality of Dreams’. Accessed Feb 2024.


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