Wunder ist nicht nur im unerklärten
Überstehen der Gefahr;
erst in einer klaren reingewährten
Leistung wird das Wunder wunderbar.
Miracle’s not only in the unexplained
Outlasting of the threat;
Only in the clear, consummate
Achievement is the miracle defined.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
Before moving on, I have an admission to make: I am not really qualified to write this. I am singularly lacking in credentials of every sort, and I would be to a semiotician what a bounty hunter is to a law enforcement officer if anyone were paying me to do this. But for all that, I may still be in the right.
The ultimate test for a system of dream-interpretation is whether it’s useful. A system does not have to be true to be useful: there are 2,000-year old navigation devices that got people where they needed to go, even while the theory behind them was wrong. By this standard, I don’t think any system of dream interpretation would actually fail the test. The reasons why are interesting, but this isn’t the place for them.
However, the subject of this essay is neither truth nor utility, but structure – the shape of our question and the corresponding array of answers it might yield. I am not concerned with what dreams mean, but with how we can derive meaning from them – the possible structures that the dream, the dreamer and the interpretation make together. Many theories of dreaming assume that the interpretation process must somehow retrace the original dream-formation process, but for the moment, how a dream takes shape is also outside my purview.
It is important to consider structure first because it keeps us from asking stupid questions and then wondering later on why the answers we get make no sense. It also makes the assumptions we bring to our study visible by allowing us to recognize possibilities that we have unconsciously excluded.
A case in point: J. Allan Hobson, the creator of the activation-synthesis hypothesis—considered one of the foremost theories of dreaming for the past few decades— clearly did not consider the full implications of making ‘bizarreness’ one of his defining characteristics of dreams.
Bizarreness, by Hobson’s definition, refers to “unlikely elements in the dream narrative”—but unlikely compared to what? The word implies a comparison that Hobson does not explicitly state. What he probably means is, “unlikely compared to waking life or narratives of waking life”—but why should either one be the standard by which a dream is judged? When you are trying to determine the relationship between the brain dreaming and the brain awake, as Hobson is, this amounts to assuming what you’re trying to prove.
If we begin by assuming that events in dreams that are impossible in waking life are errors—for instance, a human character turning into an animal— we cannot hope to find a perspective in which those ‘errors’ are meaningful in their own right. No literary critic would consider Gregor Samsa turning into an insect in Metamorphosis to be an authorial mistake (although I doubt any two could agree as to what it means). Perhaps dreams can be better compared to novels than to waking life; perhaps they are even more like myths, or poetry, or improvisational theater. But we are not entitled to that ‘better’. We can make all the comparisons we like later on, but we must begin by taking dreams on their own terms.
Interpreting a dream is a retrospective act. When we interpret, we do so from the perspective of waking life, where it is something over and done with; we are not working with a dream itself, but with the memory of a dream. Moreover, even though we call it “dream interpretation,” it is just as fair to say that what we’re doing is using a dream to interpret waking life. Waking life is what matters to us when we interpret – it’s where we are, it’s where we’re interpreting from. If we were to attempt to interpret a dream while dreaming, we would be looking at an entirely different process. There could be no talk of building bridges then.
Since the memory of a dream is the raw material for all interpretation, it is useful to consider what the memory of a dream consists of:
1. sensory impressions: visual and auditory images, tactile sensations, occasionally a smell or taste.
2. feeling-tones: emotions experienced within the dream and moods that seem to characterize the dream in a less defined way.
3. cognitive acts: planning, recognition, internal monologues, assessments of dream-events, settings, characters, etc.
4. changes: the actions, interactions and transformations that take place in a dream.
5. identity: a sense of agency which may or may not be experienced as it is in waking life.
All of these may be remembered as part of a coherent narrative or in a fragmentary way. Often, we seem to recognize people in dreams without being able to recall distinct sensory impressions of them, or we recall our actions without having any insight into our motivations or emotions. Sometimes we may not be actors in our own dreams, but disembodied witnesses.
Mostly, however, the memories of dreams seem comparable to memories of waking-life, though more like distant memories than recent ones. As with distant memories, we have to trust that we have retained something important, while admitting that they are incomplete and probably the result of an unconscious process of selection.
In reading a description of someone else’s dream, we are yet another step removed from the original experience. A dreamer may not always have taken the trouble to record those elements that are hardest to communicate, especially if they weren’t motivated by an interest in dreaming. Participants in dream-lab experiments seldom mention emotions unless they’re specifically asked to, and in order to do justice to mood and emotional atmosphere, you practically have to be a poet. But emotions are too unpredictable to guess at, and too important to ignore. The perceptions in dreams are illusory, and cognition in dreams is often inscrutable to the waking mind – at least on the surface. But emotions in dreams have as much claim to reality as any we experience.
As for waking life, which the dream must somehow be put into relation with, we have the totality of our life experiences—past, present, and future—our hopes, fears, thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and the lives of our family, peers, culture, and others we associate with. I exclude neither one-sided associations like that between an artist and his dead predecessors, or a fan with a celebrity he has never met, nor relations with supernatural beings which, real or not, are felt on an experiential level.
In considering dreams, we are often severely limited by what we can remember, but in considering waking life, we are spoiled for choice. It will often be obvious to a dreamer when a dream concerns the very recent past or an anticipated future, but instincts can be fallible. In practice, a method of interpretation will usually limit the range of life experience to be considered to the dreamer’s present thoughts, feelings, or concerns (a useful umbrella category). An orientation of this kind is necessary if the interpretation is to be useful, even if dreams do not by nature limit themselves in such a way. In any case, the present has a tendency to look a lot like the past, so there’s really no compelling reason to pin a dream down to a specific time except for utility.
A method of interpretation may also limit the dream-elements to be considered, either by formally disqualifying some of them—for example, by considering only visual images— or by ranking them according to the dreamer’s subjective concern. This is an approach that some theorists have tried to justify theoretically, but it can better be understood as a practical necessity. If one element makes a clear point of connection to the dreamer’s life, the rest of the dream will often seem to fall into place around it. If a series of dreams is considered as the basic interpretive unit rather than a dream or a dream-image, one dream may provide the key to understanding the others in a similar way.
One form of dream-interpretation may seem to be an exception to this general structural outline: interpretation using a dream-dictionary, especially one with a spiritual tone. But a translation in a dream-dictionary is best considered a method of interpretation rather than the end-result. The interpretation is not complete until the dream is somehow brought to bear on the dreamer’s life.
A real exception is the interpretation of dreams as events occurring in a reality other than the physical reality we inhabit, or as precognitions of events taking place in physical reality. The dream may be considered as either a literal or a symbolic representation of such events. Dreaming in the West has traditionally been thought of as an inward-looking state, but if we actually interact with supernatural beings or other dreamers in our dreams, then the situation changes. But it may not even be appropriate to consider this a form of interpretation, since the significance of such dreams seems to be experienced in a more direct way than the word ‘interpretation’ implies by those who claim to experience them. In short, it is a whole other kettle of fish, and a can of worms besides.