If Ostriker’s book rails against the flattening of biblical consciousness into stark, fundamentalist myth, then Kamenetz’s new volume, “The History of Last Night’s Dream,” makes the same argument about our souls — particularly, the parts of ourselves that dream. For Kamenetz, the Freudian tendency to reduce dreams to certain basic, usually sexual symbols — and, perhaps by extension, the neuroscientific one to reduce them to meaningless chatter — denies the fullness of dream life, and its potential to unlock deep secrets of the mind. Dreams are, in a way, nonsense — but as non-sense, they gesture to the inexpressible in a way that words cannot.
As Kamenetz acknowledges, this is a quintessentially poetic task. The poet, too, seeks to speak what cannot be spoken; the literal “meanings” of poetry are, as the Zohar says of the Bible, but the outer garments of the truth. For Kamenetz — who boldly asserts what others might term an idolatrous passion for the image — dreams do it even better, bypassing language entirely to give us visions of prophecy, even of God. They allow us to imagine, literally; to make image. And, Kamenetz argues, they have played a role in the history of religions for millennia, which he describes in (partial) detail.
Kamenetz may be familiar to readers as the author of the book “The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India” (1997). Like that book, “Dream” is at once affable and audacious; Kamenetz is a reliable narrator in unreliable territory. But I want to suggest that Kamenetz’s poetic eye is alive and well in this work of nonfiction. Not only is its subject ultimately the imagination; it locates the ground of spirituality within the imagination, and dares to posit religion itself as a product of the imaginal faculties. What more poetic gesture could there be than that?