On Daydreaming

The more time passes, the more I begin to understand the importance of being a daydreamer. This is not the same as being an idler, nor the same as being a loafer. An idler is one who spends the day doing nothing, often pointedly so, while a loafer is one who does so where people can see him. A daydreamer does not care about being noticed, and is frequently very busy. A daydreamer may spend a great deal of time reading books, pondering pictures, listening to music. A daydreamer may peruse the open spaces of the city, or may intently study the workings of the small places of small towns. A daydreamer may create art, or not; talk to others, or not; live actively; or not. What marks a daydreamer is not what she does but how.

Imagine two people both lounging without purpose, perhaps twenty feet from each other, in a park on a Sunday afternoon, neither one aware of the other. The first one sits on a blanket, sunglasses over his eyes, earbuds in his ears, listening to music. Once in a while he looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. He has no aim at the moment. He is not thinking of anything in particular. He is loafing and idling the afternoon away. There is nothing wrong with what he is doing.

The second person also sits on a blanket, sunglasses over her eyes, earbuds in her ears, listening to music. Once in a while she looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. She has no aim at the moment. But her mind is full of thoughts: she notes the shape of that tree and wonders whether it might be mistaken for a very tall man, then whether it might become one under the right conditions. Letting the thought develop she begins to imagine a blurring between tree and person, the slow time of arboreal decades and human days. Are there two cities instead of one? Do we speak with each other? What might that mean for us? Can we be treelike? She is daydreaming the afternoon away.

A daydreamer lives mythopoeically. The mind of a daydreamer creates bespoke, fleeting mythologies out of the stuff of everyday life. To a daydreamer, moments of stillness and out-of-the-way corners echo with significance that arises, manifests itself, then melts away again.

The artists of daydreaming are surprisingly few. That is to say, while it is true that much art and creativity comes from daydreams, relatively few artists in any medium capture the daydream itself. The daydream is as volatile as its nocturnal counterpart, a momentary vision that eludes memory. A few artists in various fields do manage to capture some of the quality. But, while frequently (though not always) quite popular and of undoubted skill, such arists are often denigrated or overlooked by critics and fall into the category of guilty pleasure for many — a function, I suspect, of the general disrepute of the daydream among modern Westerners. Life and art, we are told, ought to be about more serious stuff than this.

But why must that be the case? In what is the insistence on seriousness grounded? For some, I suppose, it is a matter of morality. It is wrong, somehow, to daydream, to raise one’s own personal imagination above the greater and more urgent realities of the world; egotistical, to attend to one’s own impossible thoughts rather than to the living reality of the many people around us. These are thoughtful objections, not lightly dismissed. If one also believes in a god, and therefore in a high morality encoded directly into life itself, then certainly it might seem that time spent imposing one’s thoughts on the world can only be wrong, even idolatrous.

The genre of fantasy fiction, which in some versions is at its best a formalized way of daydreaming, has often been attacked on such grounds. “Escapism” is the usual epithet. As J. R. R. Tolkien once pointed out, though, there are different kinds of escape: the flight of the unjustly imprisoned is not the same as that of the shirker or deserter. How we see our escape, our daydreaming, is likewise dependent on how we see our mundanity: is it our duty to be confined only to the real world as it is, or are we entitled to more?

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir berates Estragon for dreaming and wishing to speak of his dreams; Estragon, in anguish and frustration, gestures at the world around them and asks, “This one is enough for you?” If you are a daydreamer, then the answer to Estragon’s question is both no and yes. It is no, because the daydreamer is always adding to the world, always embellishing and imagining, the mythopoeic imagination always creating new things. But the answer is also yes, because without the things of everyday life, the daydreamer has nothing. This world is enough, because it gives us endless occasions to daydream about it, to add to it, to see it anew.

Let us seek out times to daydream and not be ashamed.