The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

The Quest for Total Information

Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity

Rebecca Lemov

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

In my dream I was single. Everything in the village was just like when I was a little boy. My companions are boyhood friends. A nice lady came straight to where we are. She was dressed in Hopi dress and look nice.”

Thus begins dream 211, recorded on January 1, 1945, by a legendary Hopi by the name of Don Talayesva. His “autobiography,” Sun Chief—as told to, paid for, and assembled by anthropologist Leo Simmons—had already appeared, in 1942, but the recording and documenting continued for another two decades, resulting, in time in “the most complete record of any preliterate available.” That observation, made in 1959, came from Dorothy Eggan, who published dream 211 and others in a 1949 article in American Anthropologist. Talayesva’s dreams are highly detailed and deeply personal, full of romantic longings, jealous husbands, worries about what “people are saying,” and hints about and references to “white friends.”

Eggan, an autodidact, was married to a prominent University of Chicago anthropologist, Fred Eggan, and accompanied him on his field trips among the Hopis of Arizona beginning in the late 1930s. There she began recording dreams. Although her interest seems to have been piqued by her own long psychoanalysis, she sought to free the anthropological study of dreams from the narrow Freudian hermeneutic. In her view, anthropologists didn’t have the requisite training to analyse the latent content of dreams. At least among indigenous people, however, that was not a problem because, she believed, the manifest content of dreams itself told a story. As she wrote in her 1949 journal article, “The dreams in themselves are a form of projective phenomenon and represent a process of free association, both in sleep and after awakening, where the critical function of the conscious mind is off-guard and only partially operating.” This, in her view, gave dreams like Talayesva’s more than the therapeutic function of a “safety valve” for painful or inexpressible matters. It also gave them, especially in a culture that prized remembering and talking about dreams, an important role in cultural analysis. In this context, Eggan believed, dreams could throw “into relief the unsocialized residue of the personality, as well as those areas where a culture has succeeded in applying the most effective control and support.”

Working into the 1950s, Eggan would eventually collect nearly one thousand dreams from some twenty informants, with Talayesva alone supplying more than a third. She described him and many of her other, older sources as “preliterate,” and regarded their dreams as significant because, unlike those of younger Hopis, they revealed a more unacculturated experience, a “cultural cocoon” that remained fairly insulated from the rapidly spreading effects of “Westernization.”

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Joseph E. Davis is publisher of The Hedgehog Review. His recent books include To Fix or To Heal, edited with Ana Marta González (New York University Press), and Identity and Social Change (Transaction paperback).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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