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Robert Ilson "In Dreams Begin Responsibility"

W. B. Yeats

R. F. Ilson - 

Honorary Research Fellow

University College London

E-mail: roberti@dsl.pipex.com

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

In this essay I compare The American Dream, Le Rêve français, and Русская Идея as exemplifying aspects of the National Mentalities of the USA, France, and Russia.  What do these phrases mean for the people living in or coming to America, France, Russia?  What do these phrases mean for the countries America, France, Russia? What do these phrases mean for the World as a Whole?  Is there an English Dream?  If not, why not?  Are there any other such Dreams or Big Ideas?

My conjectures will be supported by dictionary definitions, citational evidence, and personal anecdotes.  I hope that those present at my essay will contribute insights and opinions of their own especially but not exclusively with respect to Russia.

Key words: The American Dream, Le Rêve français, Русская Идея (Russkaya Ideya), national mentalities.

The Making of this Essay

When Professor Ter-Minasova graciously invited me to take part in the 14th Annual International Conference on Russia and the West, I was delighted to accept.  Then I got cold feet.  I know next to nothing about Russia and hardly more about The West.  What is this West anyway?  Where is it?  Does it even exist?  Besides, I am a professional lexicographer, not a professional sociologist.

It then occurred to me that I might be able to make a useful contribution to the conference precisely as a lexicographer.  After all, dictionaries are social artefacts whose form and content can tell us something about the communities that produce and use them.  For example, when I edited The International Journal of Lexicography I received among many books for review several remarkable dictionaries of indigenous languages including one of a Native American language whose macrostructure comprised all and only the items found in a corpus of conversations in that language recorded between 1968 and 1972.   Thus the dictionary included not only the items one might expect (function words, verbs, names of objects and qualities) but also geographical names.  These names included those of local topographical features (Big Squaw Mountain, Eagle Pass, as it were) – and the name of one country.  The country was not, as might have been expected, the USA or Canada.   What was it, then?   From the years when the corpus was recorded, you might hazard a guess.   The country was Viet-Nam.

Emboldened by this significant memory, I decided to see whether there was a word or phrase that encapsulated at least a part of the National Mentality of a country taken as belonging to The West.  Almost at once the phrase The American Dream surfaced in my mind, not necessarily because of its frequency but because of its disponibilité (ie its psycholinguistic salience).  The very fact that it came to me so readily made it a suitable candidate for investigation.

What next?  I recalled that some years ago I had heard on French radio the phrase Le Rêve français.  It seemed obviously calqued on The American Dream.  But was its meaning equivalent?  None of my French friends knew.  I filed the phrase away for future reference.  Then, a few months ago, I began hearing it over and over again in French broadcasts.  In preparation for the French presidential election of 2012 the Parti Socialiste had taken the novel step of holding an American-style primary election to select its candidate to stand against Nicholas Sarkozy.  And one of the candidates in that primary had made the phrase his own.  That candidate was François Hollande, who in the event was chosen.

So now I had two phrases from The West to compare.  That left Russia.  And at this point I had another stroke of luck.  I remembered that in Professor Ter-Minasova’s Festschrift Anna Pavlovskaya on pp. 81-2 of her essay Россия и мир had discussed the phrase Русская Идея and in so doing had provided a remarkable citation for it from Dostoyevsky, no less!

I was ready to go.  All that remained was to marshal evidence and draw conclusions.

The American Dream

American Dream is known well enough to have become a dictionary entry in US dictionaries, in a Canadian dictionary in my possession, and in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Here are some definitions from US dictionaries, one of which boasts a citation as well:-

Dictionary Definitions

(1931): an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and esp. material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal –Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition (MWCD11, 2003) [Note the date 1931: in the depths of the Great Depression that began in 1929, when millions of Americans were unemployed and may well have needed a bit of cheering up.]

The ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American. [1930-35] – Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1999)

The American way of life, especially as expressed in expectation of achievement: Salesmen like this are very much part of the American Dream.  Each one is out on his own…He thinks he’s free, that it’s just up to him how well he does (Vincent Canby). – World Book Dictionary (WBD, 1979)  [The reference to salesmen could not but conjure up Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949), whose principal character Willy Loman is sometimes viewed as a victim of The American Dream.]

And here are some citations for it – all, I hasten to add, taken from the invaluable Wikipedia.  These citations begin with the earliest so far recorded:-


1931 J. T. Adams Epic of Amer. 410 If the *American dream is to come true and to abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.

Ibid: But there has been also the American dream that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.         [Note the striking similarity between Adams’s language and a traditional Marxist formula about Socialism: To each according to his ability, to each according to his work.]

  • the shared values that unite us: family, faith, hard work, opportunity and responsibility for all, so that every child, every adult, every parent, every worker in America has an equal shot at living up to their God-given potential. That is the American dream and the American value.
  • Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty.
  • There are those, I know, who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right, It is. It is the American dream.

The following important citation is preceded by a Wikipedia comment :-

Martin Luther King Jr. in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) rooted the civil rights movement in the black quest for the American dream:

"We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. . . . when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

I conclude this section with a satirical comment that I have recently heard repeated:-


The evidence above suggests that The American Dream is about Egalitarianism and the removal of obstacles to individual Success.  That Success may well be, and perhaps typically is, material prosperity.  But it would be going beyond the evidence to limit it thereto.  Thus I count it a personal Success to be here addressing you.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address included the famous words “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Resonant though these words are, they seem almost opposite to what The American Dream implies, which is “Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do for you.”  It is less about America than about individual Americans.

The Egalitarianism of The American Dream is Equality of Opportunity, not Equality of Outcome.  Anyone can succeed in America but, as Ursula LeGuin reminds us, not everyone does.   And about those Americans who do not succeed, The Dream is silent.  One can infer, however, that they have only themselves to blame – unless, as Martin Luther King implies, their failure is due to some artificial unfair obstacle (such as racism) that according to The American Dream ought to be removed.  As WBD’s citation puts it, the American “thinks he’s free, that it’s just up to him how well he does (Vincent Canby).”  But it would be unfair not to note also that John Kerry mentions “responsibility for all”.

What about the Rest Of The World?  Here, surprisingly, the citations and definitions above have virtually nothing to say, except for the reference to “the liberation of humanity” by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “American poet and administrator” (as MWCD11 calls him).  The American Dream is typically for Americans: “Only in America” can this Dream come true.

Le Rêve français

A few years passed between my first encounter with Le Rêve français and its recent rise in popularity – which rise, however, seems not yet to have led to its entry in any French dictionary.  Seemingly calqued on The American Dream, it turns out to be significantly different in connotation, as I hope the following citations below will show:-


Jacques Toubon (“Mr Allgood”), French Minister of Culture under Jacques Chirac (1993-95): Immigrants to France should learn French for several reasons, including “pour s’intégrer au rêve français”. – heard by me on French radio

  • "C'est le rêve français que je veux réenchanter, celui qui a permis à des générations, durant toute la République, de croire à l'égalité et au progrès. Et c'est pourquoi j'ai fait de l'école de la République la grande priorité de ce qui pourra être demain mon prochain quinquennat," a-t-il annoncé.  – quoting François Hollande (from Wikipedia)

  • il livre sa conception d'une France plus juste, apaisée et confiante. Équité, partage, mais aussi pragmatisme et efficacité structurent la pensée de François Hollande, exposée ici dans la plus grande clarté. Candidat « à échelle humaine », choisissant d’assumer les enjeux qui sont ceux de la France d’aujourd’hui et de demain, porteur des valeurs de la gauche trop souvent oubliées ou sacrifiées, François Hollande dévoile ici son ambition pour les Françaises et les Français, ses convictions profondes, son exigence de justice, sa conception haute et digne de la citoyenneté républicaine. Il nous invite à partager, à ses cotés, ce « rêve français » qu'il entend replacer au coeur de la société. – sur Le Rêve français de François Hollande (from Wikipedia)

  • Welcome to Le Rêve Français, our home surrounded by tranquil countryside in the small farming hamlet of La Blatière in the commune of La Chapelle Sainte ... (from Wikipedia)


In stark contrast to The American Dream, Le Rêve français seems more about France (as La République) than about the French.  People in France, including immigrants, are urged to help France to sustain her Republican virtues.  These, as presented by François Hollande, are perhaps conveniently summarised as the traditional trio Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.  A France like that will provide the best environment in which people in France can flourish.  Though this interpretation is based on citations about the views ascribed to Monsieur Hollande, a Centre-Left politician, it is noteworthy that Le Rêve français was invoked also by Monsieur Toubon, a politician of the Centre-Right.

Despite the absence of Rêve français from French dictionaries, its current popularity is attested to by the use of Le Rêve français as the name of a French gîte whose Anglophone proprietors invite visitors to stay there.  Moreover, there is evidence from Wikipedia that Le Rêve français has now even been used as the title of a French pop-song!

Русская Идея

Here I am really out of my depth. Though Русская Идея is not entered in any of my Russian dictionaries, there is a wealth of information about the phrase (eg in Wikipedia).  That’s just the problem, however.  Most of it is not expositions of the phrase by its adherents but interpretations of it by sceptics – who often turn out not to be Russians themselves.  So, in the hope of promoting reactions from you, I’ve decided to limit myself to two citations of which the first may well represent the origin of the phrase and the second seems an authentic summary of the work of one of its principal latter-day proponents.   


Dostoyevsky, 1861: Мы знаем, что не оградимся уже теперь китайскими стенами от человечества.   Мы предугадываем, что характер нашей будущей деяательности должен быть в высшей степени общечеловеческий, что русская идея, может быт, будет синтезом всех тех идей, которые с таким упорством, с таким мужеством развивает Европа в отделных своих национальностях. (from Pavlovskaya, pp. 81-2 in Svetlana’s Festschrift) [As with the 1931 citation from J T Adams for The American Dream, the date of Dostoyevsky’s words seems significant.  He was writing in the very year Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs and soon after what in Russian is called one of The Russo-Turkish Wars and in English is called The Crimean War (1853-56).]

About Berdayev, 1948 (?): The "Russian idea" is thus a mystical one. Religion and philosophy, not economics or politics, determine history and society. Berdyaev takes up the story in the nineteenth century. He traces the lineage of such powerful artists and thinkers as Chaadev, Khomyakov, Kireevksy, Leontyev, Aksakov, Hertzen, Bakunin, all of whom struggled to integrate the polarities of East and West, spirit and matter, and male and female in the Russian soul. This soul, however, is so immense, boundless, and vague that it is incapable of settling for "the halfway kingdom of culture." – about N. Berdayev’s Russian Idea, 1948 (from Wikipedia)in the region


From the two citations above, what emerges most strikingly is that Русская Идея is syncretic.  It involves a Synthesis : in Dostoyevsky’s more restrained version a Synthesis of European ideas and practices, in Berdayev’s more expansive version a Synthesis of East and West, male and female, etc. -- indeed, of just about everything.  Moreover, the locus (or focus) of that Synthesis is Russia itself rather than individual Russians (by contrast with The American Dream) or the interaction of Russia and Russians (by contrast with Le Rêve français).

It surprised me, however, to find that neither citation included a Synthesis of the two schools of thought whose advocates I had imagined in my naivety were rivals for dominance in Russian intellectual life in the 19th Century: the Slavophiles and the Westernisers.

Nor could I help wondering whether, having achieved its Synthesis, Russia had a Lesson to teach The Rest of the World.  No such Lesson was mentioned in my primary citational evidence.  But elsewhere in the material I unearthed in my research there appeared hints of various possible Lessons, albeit sometimes contradictory and of dubious authenticity.   For example:-

In seven steps, Sel'ianov and Kovalov trace the evolution and elaboration of a single idea—the Russian idea. The term is familiar to any student of Russian culture: the Russian idea is the belief in Russia's destiny to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. –from an apparently anonymous review in Wikipedia of their 1995 Russia-UK film Русская Идея, commissioned by the British Film Institute r

Oh really?  Would all Russians accept that as an accurate definition of Русская Идея?  Would any?   Such a citation shows what I, as a well-intentioned but ill-informed outsider, am up against.


Among my tentative conclusions from the foregoing investigation are the following:-

1) Only Русская Идея involves learning from elsewhere.

2) The American Dream is about individual Americans more than about America.  America’s role is to enable Americans to succeed (as by avoiding or removing obstacles to success).

3) Le Rêve français is about how France (La République) creates the conditions in which les Françaises et les Français can thrive.

4) One could argue that Le Rêve français is le juste milieu between the “rugged individualism” of The American Dream and the apparent collectivism of Русская Идея, insofar as Le Rêve français seems equally concerned with the Nation and the Individual, who is invited to “s’intégrer au Rêve français ” or to “partager Le Rêve français”.

5) As for The Rest Of The World, Le Rêve français seems limited to France and the French (immigrants included) ; The American Dream seems typically to be a Dream for Americans only – though Archibald MacLeish suggests it might imply or at least favour “the liberation of humanity”; my two most trustworthy citations for Русская Идея surprisingly concern Russia only : the various suggestions for its global projection seem to be inconsistent with one another and to belong to the realm of speculation.


The title of my essay encourages me to re-formulate my conclusions in terms of the Responsibilities entailed by each Dream or Idea:-

1) The American Dream: It is each American’s Responsibility to succeed.  Those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame (unless as Martin Luther King says their failure is due to some unjust impediment).  It is America’s Responsibility to remove obstacles to the success of individual Americans rather than to facilitate their success positively or to succour (as by a Welfare State) those Americans who fail.

2) Le Rêve français: It is France’s Responsibility, as La République, to provide Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité for the French.  It is the Responsibility of the French to help La République to do so.

3) Русская Идея: It is Russia’s Responsibility to learn from Europe (Dostoyevsky) or from Everywhere (Berdayev), with results for Russians and The World (or indeed for Russia itself) that are unclear.



“Since the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1991, the American Dream has fascinated Russians.  In 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev lamented the fact that 77% of Russia's 142 million people live "cooped up" in massive apartment buildings. In 2010, his administration announced a plan for widespread home ownership. "Call it the Russian dream," said Alexander A. Braverman, the Director of the Federal Fund for the Promotion of Housing Construction Development.” (from Wikipedia)

Does this citation suggest a replacement of Русская Идея by Русская Мечта (The Russian Dream)?  If so, will The Russian Dream be more like The American Dream than like Le Rêve français?


Is there a British Dream ?  The idea of a National Vision is perhaps less firmly embedded in the UK than in the USA.  But there are suggestive analogues :-

  1. 1. England: I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England's green & pleasant Land  (William Blake)

Despite its ferocious words, Blake’s poem has become almost an unofficial National Anthem in its musical setting by Sir Hubert Parry (later re-scored by Sir Edward Elgar).

  1. 2. Scotland: We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. (wording confirmed by my colleague Betty Kirkpatrick)

This adage implies that we are all interdependent and in some sense related.

  1. 3. The UK: The Lion and the Unicorn are Britain’s Heraldic Beasts, which appear on the Royal Coat of Arms of the UK.  The Lion represents England ; the Unicorn, Scotland.  In George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn : Socialism and the English Genius (1941), he re-interprets them symbolically, with the Lion symbolising Power and the Unicorn symbolising Imagination.  Orwell advocates a Synthesis of both as, perhaps, a kind of English/British Dream.  (me)
      1. Ironic Commentary: “We British, we don't have a dream, do we? No, it's because we're wide-awake!” --  Al Murray as his character, the Pub Landlord (from Wikipedia)

This comment is worth comparing with George Carlin’s comment on The American Dream above.

The Return of the Repressed: A Voice from the South

We return to the Question: What Is The West?  Does it include the whole New World?  If so, mention should be made at least of the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó’s seminal essay Ariel (1900), interpreted popularly though perhaps simplistically as contrasting the Graeco-Roman philosophical Ariel (Latin America as it ought to be) with the crassly materialistic and utilitarian Caliban (typified above all by the USA as Rodó thought it was).  Though Ariel and Caliban are drawn from characters in Shakespeare’s Tempest, and though Russia probably does not figure in Rodó’s scheme, perhaps Ariel can serve as a kind of Latin-American Dream.  And Rodó does warn his readers against nordomanía!  Note that Rodó’s essay was written in the shadow of Spain’s defeat by the USA in the Spanish-American war of 1898, as Dostoyevsky’s version of Русская Идея was written in the shadow of the Russo-Turkish War of 1853-56.


The British publication Radio Times announced that at 8 pm on Saturday, 17 December 2011, BBC Radio 4 would broadcast a programme about “the origins of the European Union”.  The programme is entitled “The European Dream”.

Appendix: Dreamers and Immigrants

The phrase The British Dream has surfaced in the title of a BBC Radio 4 Series called In Search of the British Dream, about the hopes of immigrants to Britain from abroad : “England and Wales now have the same proportion of foreign-born residents as the US, with almost three million newcomers from all over the globe arriving in the past decade.” – Radio Times, Monday, 28 January 2013, p. 130, column 1. The title of this BBC series suggests not only that The British Dream is considered an appropriate name for the hopes of immigrants to the UK but also that its etymon The American Dream may more readily express what immigrants to the USA hope for than what residents of the USA have actually experienced.  As for Le Rêve français, I recall that the first time I heard the phrase was as part of a homily addressed to immigrants to France.  Moreover, the phrases The American Dream, Le Rêve français, and (now) The British Dream all seem to have been coined during (or in the USA soon after) a period of mass immigration from abroad into the countries concerned.


  1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition (MWCD11, 2003)
  2. Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1999)
  3. World Book Dictionary (WBD, 1979)
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