18 May 2008

Dreams of John McCain by Bernard Welt

Bernard Welt is the author of Mythomania: Fantasies, Fables, and Sheer Lies in Contemporary American Popular Art, a collection of his essays for the journal Art issues, and is a member of the board of directors of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. His complete biography follows this article.

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The Metaphysical Poll is a good name for this site. It suggests that, aside from the realities grounding the standard accounts of political life published in the newsworld, there exists another world of unexpressed needs and desires, only fitfully acknowledged, and then generally with something between a blush and a sneer. We pretend that voters exercise free and rational choice, that we choose our candidates based on policy and, at worst, expediency, and that only the irresponsible, undereducated citizen – you know, the kind that voted for Bush – goes to the polls in the grip of fantasies elicited by evil geniuses.

But that parallel world is as real as an occupying army and as serious as a health-care policy, even if it’s only really available in dreams. I read the Metaphysical Poll as a report from the journalists embedded in that exotic and divided territory, dreamland.

Generally I try to listen to a dream with an entirely open mind. I not only do not know what a particular dream is about; I don’t assume that it’s about anything at all. But I can’t help noting, after about twenty-five years of listening to other people’s dreams and considering my own, that they often reveal an openness to ideas and feelings within ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge in waking life. This is why the discussion of dreams is such an interesting place for ideological antagonists, or even people with fundamentally different personality types and individual aspirations, to meet – that and the fact that they reveal that we all have pretty much the same concerns and fantasies, coalescing around different images and different possibilities for expression.

And that’s why the dreams which seem to shift the dreamer’s feelings about a particular candidate – the several dreamers here who awaken with a new, gentler image of Hillary Clinton – are so interesting. (It seems to me that, without exception, these dreams are giving signs of a more forgiving attitude toward someone who’s been unrealistically cast, in popular media as well as in their own lives, as a scolding and emotionally aloof mother figure – but that can hardly be news to anyone. The erotic dreams just make it all the more obvious.)

For similar reasons my own counterintuitive (maybe just perverse) impulses lead me to these dreams about Sen. John McCain:


Senator John McCain was near me at a department/supermarket store; the refrigerated groceries were right next to the clothing aisles. He was obnoxiously loud as he browsed for food products, saying offensive things to nearby women in a maverick fashion, like a Republican Borat. I was thinking to myself, This guy might be our next president?


Like most people who lead dream groups, I tend to express my responses to a dream as questions rather than comments—and also like most people, I’m really thinking of what I’d be paying attention to if it were my dream—as the dream-sharing practice of Montague Ullmann and Jeremy Taylor, adopted by many dreamworkers, suggests doing.

If this were my dream, I’d very quickly identify any image of a male authority figure acting outrageously with the typical adolescent’s feelings of embarrassment about his or her father. I more or less assume that that an inevitable phase of adolescence is the deflation of an idealized father-image, which is experienced as typical teenage shame, which has less to do with any real father’s behavior than the disillusion of outgrowing one’s idol as a part of realizing one’s own independence. The shame over one’s own lost innocence is projected on the father.

This dream reminds us that candidates like McCain do indeed depend upon awaking feelings of admiration for a strong father figure, and are in deep trouble if their idealized image is challenged in popular perceptions. Here the dreamer found a connection between McCain’s image as “maverick”—it’s practically his slogan, after all—and the figure of Borat, who encapsulates every rejected, regressive tendency in the traditional image of masculinity.

Many dreams have a feature that seems both puzzling and artistically just perfect. Here it’s the mixing of food store and clothing store. If it were my dream, I’d see this a confusion of the inner and outer aspects of personality—what really nourishes and constitutes the dreamer, and what is merely outward show.


I meet John at a party and a little later he sends me a birthday card. Before I know it, he's on the phone asking if I want to spend the day with him. I'm very excited to spend some time with a big political figure so I accept. We go to the zoo, and have some exhilarating conversation. I keep expecting people to recognize him and point and whisper or something, but they don't. Late in the day, we find ourselves in an indoor lounge at the zoo. I'm looking out the window at the giraffes, and when I turn around, I see that John has stripped down to his briefs. I say, I'm not going to have sex with you, ya know. He replies that he hadn't thought anything of the sort. He simply enjoyed hanging out in his underwear!


Like the previous dream, this one stems from strong feelings about the erotic component of attraction to a father figure. The male (and Democratic) dreamer expresses awareness of the father’s sexual nature as disgust and embarrassment – and also as a kind of triumph over the father’s crassness when he’s considered as a sexual rival. The female and Republican dreamer expresses ambivalence through stating a theme and then undercutting it: She’s hanging out with a powerful man, but no one is impressed; McCain undresses, but not as a preparation for sex. Occasionally, Freud is just correct, however maddening he can be at times; and in this instance, I think he’d have a thing or two to say about what is the giraffe’s distinguishing feature.

That which at once is and is not is typical of denial, of an unrecognized fantasy. The great man who is not noticed by the crowd, the physical intimacy which is not sexual, reinforce the obvious context: Who does an older man take to the zoo, of all places? Who has a better right to send a young woman a birthday card, of all things?

What’s especially interesting here is that the dreamer has settled the one question Americans really want answered about their political candidates: Boxers or briefs?


John McCain was speaking at a White House press conference, standing behind the blue, crested podium. He was speaking Vietnamese and talking about how farmers would begin to pool their assets. (I didn't understand the language, but I knew what he was talking about.) He had been brainwashed by the communists as a prisoner of war; it had been a conspiracy from the beginning. Then George W. Bush came out from behind the curtains with white powder on his nose and started yelling and pointing at McCain saying, Communist sleeper cell! Then John McCain turned into Dick Cheney with a rifle in his hand and started shooting.


This complex dream offers some insight into the paranoid fantasy that lies behind conspiracy theories: The negative expression of the idealized father-figure is the concealed, but all-powerful evil leader, the terrible face behind the smiling mask. This is functionally equivalent to the fantasy that expresses disillusion with the father through disempowering him; but instead of showing the subject as superior to the dethroned father, it refigures him as still powerful, but hostile rather than protecting. The dreamer is left helpless. (The same kind of fantasy, but about a mother who turns out to be powerful but withholding, appears in some Hillary Clinton dreams.)

It’s interesting that it’s Bush who exposes the masquerade. Is there an echo of The Wizard of Oz and “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” here? – because no other president, probably no other American political leader, has been defined so prominently as caught in the grip of tortuous oedipal anxieties – and with good reason. The white powder is a nice example of the dream’s characteristic way of exhibiting two ideas at once: On the one hand, Bush-the-son exposes the father’s fraud; on the other, he’s an irresponsible, self-intoxicated druggie.

“Dick Cheney” is in this dream, as it has always been, a preposterously appropriate name for an embodiment of patriarchy”: one more in that long chain of dicks that have ruled the world. As for why he shoots people in this dream, you’d have to ask Cheney: Why does he shoot anybody?

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Bernard Welt is the author of Mythomania: Fantasies, Fables, and Sheer Lies in Contemporary American Popular Art, a collection of his essays for the innovative journal Art issues. For many years he has taught courses on dreaming at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC and at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He is a member of the board of directors of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and writes a column on dreaming and film for the IASD membership magazine, DreamTime, recently covering Wild Strawberries and The Wizard of Oz. With co-authors Kelly Bulkeley and Phil King, he is at work on Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education (State University Press of New York, 2009). You can find his previous attempt to read the dreams of complete strangers by clicking here.

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1 comment:

Sheila Heti said...

[This response is from the dreamer of the Borat dream]

The analysis of Borat and McCain was interesting when Welt connected it to having issues with a type of father idol. I didn't think about that at first, but does sound right as it adds more dimensions to the meaning of the dream. If I were to actualize further what Welt calls, "realizing one's own independence", perhaps I wouldn't have dreamed a reflection of any inferiority complexes I may be having and may have participated more. Maybe if I were lucid, and acted more independently, I would have intervened in stopping McCain's offensive remarks to the women shoppers. But, it's also amusing if I look at this if I were a spectator of a Borat film, in addition to seeing it (and dreams in general) as an opportunity, if I'm lucidly taking control of myself, to practice overcoming any remaining passive tendencies. At the same time, McCain's reaction to me would only be my prediction of what would really happen outside of dreams.