We knew ‘Zolar’s Encyclopedia & Dictionary of Dreams’ was absurd. But, as teenagers, we were thrilled by the idea of interpreting the secret symbols of the universe.
A former actor, model, and traveling salesman, Zolar wrote books on astrology, numerology, fortune-telling, homeopathy, palmistry, handwriting analysis, hypnosis, “the magick of colour,” and reincarnation. In addition to his books, Zolar popularized horoscope vending machines in the 1930s, selling millions of predictions on little paper slips out of movie theaters and stores like Woolworths. To read the destinies of that many people, he explains, you must be a generalist. “If you want a specialist, you go somewhere else. Over the years, I have evolved a method of astrological analysis that will cover the greatest common denominator,” adding, “That’s the only way you can handle a mass business.”
The Encyclopedia begins with an explanation of Zolar’s method, which is based on numerology and “mystic mathematics.” “The universe operates with exact mathematical precision, calculated to a fraction of a second,” Zolar explains. “Every day of life brings good or bad reaction to the magnetic influence of the numerical equations that surround you. They are in everything you see, feel, or hear. It is impossible to escape them.” The preface also includes diverse anecdotes of dreams that came true, an obligatory hat-tip to Jung, a reference to the second-century mystic Artemedorus Dalidarius, a quote from Freud taken quite out of context, and Benjamin Franklin’s “Astral Rule” for converting dream symbols into numbers that can then be used for the purposes of gambling. The effect is dizzying, like listening to a huckster’s patter. Even as teenagers we recognized every part of Zolar’s explanation was absurd, but the sheer weight of the text, its inexhaustible confidence, conveys a certain authority.
My friends and I were always on the lookout for clues to our futures, especially our romantic futures. We played slumber party games like MASH and SHAMPOO, folded paper fortune tellers, and scanned the suburban sidewalks for signs like ancient augurers watching the skies. Any object might hold predictive power, from a flipped coin to a scrap of paper left turned up— suggestively—on top of the trash can almost as if someone or something had left it there for us to see. At fourteen, it’s easy to imagine that everything is, in some sense, about you. Our relationships with boys were passing infatuations; our real romance was with the world itself, which we lavished with the attention of a new lover.
Our relationships with boys were passing infatuations; our real romance was with the world itself.
Conventional psychoanalysis conceives of dreams as a form of talking to yourself, your unconscious mind communicating its hopes and fears to your conscious mind via a system of idiosyncratic signs and symbols. To decode a dream, you must look inward and backward, to your earliest memories and your most private thoughts. Zolar asks you to look outward instead, to find in the highest heavens not broken shards of the past but a shining celestial pathway to your future. For a romantic teenager, nothing felt more natural than the idea that the whole vibrating universe was sending me personal messages. Like my mysterious dream bridegroom, the magnetic influences of the universe were just out of sight but right there beside me, waiting to be revealed.
Over the years, I stopped believing—in Zolar, in the mystery man with the beard, in the possibility that the future would reveal itself in secret signs. All the questions we had once asked the universe were answered by her handmaidens, Choice, Luck, and Circumstance. Stephanie and I stayed best friends, though separated by thousands of miles and all the busy details of our separate lives. The details of my dream faded away until I hardly remembered it at all. My real wedding when it came was unlike my dream in every way. Whatever the vibrating numbers had been trying to tell me, I had missed it.
When I recalled the dream again, twenty-four years later, it came not from outside, but from within, burbling up like the psychic sludge of a prehistoric past. I was almost forty years old. My dreams were as ordinary as my waking life. Looking for some direction, I went to another rambling old house in Los Angeles, this time to meet with a witch in a lemon-yellow Craftsman with a wide wooden porch and an overgrown front yard thriving in its benign neglect.
The witch drew seven tarot cards and arranged them into a V-shape. The center card represented me; forking to the left and the right were two paths of three cards each. As she overturned the cards, I glimpsed something, a little shard of a memory. I couldn’t recall every detail of the dream I had once had, but I remembered how I had felt at fourteen, and I could see all the pathways still spread out before me. As a teenager I had tried to decode every symbol for its hidden meaning, but I missed the message. My dream had not been a prediction about the identity of my future husband, but a demonstration of how it feels to love the life you have. Over the next few years I would overturn every part of my life trying to regain that feeling. When I married again it was at the end of the summer, to a man with a ruddy beard, on a beautiful afternoon. Not every detail was the same, but it felt just like the dream had told me it would. I don’t think the universe was talking to me the day of my tarot reading. I was talking to myself, to an interior world equally mysterious, and a long-gone version of myself that believed in dreams.
Just now I went back to the Encyclopedia to try again to wrest some meaning from my old dream that pointed to what was to come. The closest I could get was “a girl dreaming of a man with a beard,” and its interpretation, “Will soon marry the one she loves.” I don’t know if twenty-six years counts as “soon.” I can’t vouch for Zolar or his method, can’t recommend counting up the letters in words to find their magnetic frequencies, but I think he was right about one thing—that you can have that kind of lover’s engagement with the world and find vibrating within your ordinary dreams the mystic intentions of the universe.