The Creative Impulse in Dreams

There is an archetypal creative impulse woven into the fabric of every dream. Sometimes this creative energy is clearly visible to the dreamer, but more often it is hidden by the emotional experience of the dream. It may require an unusual effort of imagination (often aided by the suggestions and assistance of other people) to bring the dream's message more fully into the light of conscious self-awareness, but with careful study, we often find dreams provide solutions to problems the conscious mind is grappling with to no avail.

The story of Elias Howe's invention of the sewing machine in 1845 is a case in point. Howe had been struggling to invent a machine that would sew with the same speed and efficiency as Hargreaves' and Cartwright's new machines would spin and weave, but with no success. As the tale goes, exhausted by frustration, Howe fell asleep at his workbench one night and had this dream:

He is in Africa, fleeing from cannibals through the jungle. Despite his frantic efforts to escape, the natives capture him, tie him up hand and foot, and carry him back to their village slung from a pole. There they dump him into a huge iron pot full of water. They light a fire under the pot and start to boil him alive.

As the water starts to bubble and boil around him, he discovers that the ropes have loosened enough for him to work his hands free. He tries repeatedly to take hold of the edge of the pot and haul himself out of the hot water, but every time he manages to heave himself up over the edge of the pot, the natives reach across over the flames and forcibly poke him back down into the pot again with their sharp spears.

When Howe awoke from this "nightmare," much of his mind was absorbed with sorting through the emotions of the dream--but another part was able to note with objectivity, "That's odd--those spears all have holes in the points...." As Howe came more fully awake, he thought, "Holes in the points... holes in the points! That's it! That's the answer!

As he awoke, Howe realized that the trick to making his sewing machine work was to move the thread transport hole up to point of the needle (as opposed to a handheld needle, where the hole is on the base). It then was a relatively simple matter to design a system of gears that would cause the needle to poke the thread down through the layers of cloth, wrap it around a second thread, and then pull it up again, all very neatly and efficiently. And with the invention of the sewing machine, the last bottleneck to the mechanical production of clothing was broken--this dream lead very directly to the realization of the industrial revolution!

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Howe's personal life and emotional history to make anything more than vaguely educated guesses about the layers of meaning and significance in this historic dream that refer to his personal psychology. Even though I can only guess at them, they certainly exist. At the level of Freudian sexual imagery, for example, the sewing machine itself is a prime example of the sublimation of primitive libidinal energy into creative expression and cultural artifacts, and the specific imagery of the dream evokes that layer of possible meaning very strongly. In any case, it is very likely that the hot water was also metaphoric of the sweat of Howe's intense mental efforts.

Even more importantly, the dream offers an extraordinary example of the Jungian archetype of the "shadow" and its creative and gift-giving aspect. In Howe's dream, the creative solution to the technical problem is literally in the hands of the darkest, scariest, and most repugnant figures--the cannibals. This imagery manifests one of the deepest truths about the archetypal energy of the shadow: The conventional waking consciousness views all that is not yet clearly manifested and understood in the world of the ego as nasty, ugly, frightening, dark, and dangerous. Yet the deep unconscious contains the things the waking unconscious desires and longs for the most (the energies of love, creativity, and communion with the divine, to name a few); strip away the dark and frightening mask of the shadow, and that which is devoutly wished for and sought is revealed.

In all our nightmares there is this challenge to look into "the magic mirror that never lies," see the reflections of the least understood and most problematic shadow aspects of the self, and consciously acknowledge, "I am that, too." When we have the courage and imagination to do this, we are invariably rewarded with the gift of greater awareness of the creative impulse that is part of every dream.


© 2013 Jeremy Taylor