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What Is the Best Time of Day to Recount a Dream?


A fragment from Walter Benjamin advises us on the best conditions in which to remember our trip through the world of dreams.

Among their qualities, dreams appear to be like a territory, a place we arrive to in transit, in a movement, leaving one place to move on to another. However, unlike the dreams that we consciously undertake, in dreams we never really know where we are going, or what the route or the conditions of the journey will be. We fall asleep and, as with the narrator at the start of Remembrance of Things Past, it could be that the book we read a few moments before provides us with the surface onto which we fall and the first elements of a capricious world whose formation will quickly follow other directions.

If we follow the metaphor, it would therefore not be strange if we adopted the ways of curiosity and exploration when faced with that unknown land. Like certain great travelers we emphasize observation, registration and examination. And when waking up and discovering that at least one dream has survived that violent step into the waking world, we pause the flow of things for a moment to read the message that has just been delivered to us.

In One-Way Street, perhaps Walter Benjamin’s most endearing work, the philosopher included a fragment in which he mentions “a popular tradition” that “advises against recounting dreams in the morning, before breakfast.” His argument is that eating is different from other morning rituals because it means a point of no return between the dream world and the real world, as if eating were the definitive action of our presence in the palpable and conscious reality.


A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams on an empty stomach in this state, though awake, one remains under the sway of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablution, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds – a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not prayer, but otherwise a source of confusion between vital rhythms. The narration of dreams brings calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and mist incur its revenge. Expressed in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naïveté, and in laying clumsy hands on his dream vision he surrenders himself. For only from that far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be recalled with impunity. This further side of dream is only attainable through a cleansing analogous to washing yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.

It is curious that the fragment does not recommend explicitly that we eat or do not eat before recounting a dream, but simply establishes the difference between one circumstance and the other. If we have breakfast we break the continuity and we fully enter reality; on the contrary, we remain in that other world, and it is as if we refer to an event with another language and from a different perspective that can appear to us to be partially unknown.

In some respects, Benjamin’s fragment appears to tell us that we need to place a distance between our own dreams in order to recount and decipher them.

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