To be a Builder of Bridges: Part 3

Mitzuwirken ist nicht Überhebung
an dem unbeschreiblichen Bezug,
immer inniger wird die Verwebung,
nur Getragensein ist nicht genug.

There’s no presumption in joining in
On the indescribable relation;
The meshwork grows more and more ardent,
Mere being-borne is not enough.

–Rainer Maria Rilke


Now that we have determined where we are beginning from and where we are going, we must consider the question of how to get there.

I mentioned dream-dictionaries in part 2, and it is worth returning to them, since they represent the simplest model of dream-interpretation in use. Dream-dictionaries are an example of a cipher method of interpretation, as they provide interpretations for individual elements such as objects, people, and events, without considering a dream as a narrative whole.

A dream-dictionary is a thoroughly democratic method, requiring no special training to use and offering the same interpretative possibilities to everyone who consults it (although some may offer variations). It may tell the dreamer about their future: “you will meet an old friend”—or it may tell them something about themselves: “you are a really awesome person”—or it may offer a warning: “avoid spicy foods”. This is all quite straightforward.

The entries may be more spiritual in tone: “this signifies good fortune,” or “this is a symbol of the Babylonian fertility goddess.” Among other things, this approach leaves more the interpretation up to the dreamer: maybe it means it’s a good day to bet on your favorite racehorse, or to try to get your pet scorpions to mate. In addition, there are some dream-dictionaries that provide interpretations based on experience with large numbers of dreams, and some that have foundations in psychological schools of thought.

To many readers, I’m sure this sounds like absolute nonsense. I haven’t experimented much with methods of this sort myself, but I suspect it is viable if the dreamer chooses one dictionary and keeps to it exclusively, and especially if that the dictionary is specific to the dreamer’s culture. That is what I think— but for all that, I still wouldn’t recommend it.

The other well-known cipher method comes from psychoanalytic theory—that is, Freudian psychology. It works on similar principles, but instead of the method of interpretation coming from a generic source, it comes from a personal one: free association. The dreamer begins with a dream-element, and speaks or writes freely until they are led to something personally significant.

There is something inevitable about this process, like water running downhill. It would be easy not to associate entirely freely and distort the results, but if the dreamer is willing, it isn’t terribly difficult to suspend all mental censorship for the time it takes to get from one end to the other.

Free association is assumed to retrace the original process of dream-formation, which psychoanalytic theory considers to be a form of censorship—to trace the dream-element back to the thought that required censorship to begin with. But there is no evidence that this is why free association is effective. It is hard to demonstrate with certainty whether it is a re-creative or a creative process—that is, whether the thought is behind the dream, or is being projected onto it.

We all know people who are skilled at turning a conversation, any conversation, to their pet topic, and anyone who has played the game ‘six degrees of separation’ knows that, sooner or later, everything is connected to everything else. You can easily test this idea out using the game ‘six degrees of Wikipedia’: find an article you want to read using only six links from the page you start out from.

I played this game a couple times using ‘Sigmund Freud’ as the target page. The first time, I started out from the page ‘commonplace book’. From there I went to ‘S. T. Coleridge,’ ‘William Shakespeare,’ ‘Hamlet,’ ‘psychoanalytic criticism,’ and then to ‘Sigmund Freud.’ Five clicks. I also tried it from Wikipedia’s main page, following a link to the Bach cantata ‘O heiliges Geist und Wasserbad’ to ‘the serpent in the Bible,’ ‘serpent symbolism,’ ‘sexual desire,’ ‘libido,’ and then once again to ‘Sigmund Freud.’ Six clicks that time.

These are objective associations, but the dreamer practicing free association can also draw on personal associations and intuitive leaps. Perhaps the dreamer thinks that Bach cantatas are sexy, and can make the connection in only three steps, or maybe Coleridge’s opium habit reminds him of Freud’s cocaine habit, which would get him there in only two. But again: if the dreamer is intent on being honest in what he thinks of first, the method probably has value. (Meanwhile, all the psychoanalysts take out their commonplace books to make a careful note about cantatas and sublimation.)


We have not yet exhausted the possibilities of cipher methods, but those two will serve as examples—one generic, one personal. From there, we’ll move on to what Freud called the symbolic method, which I’ll be referring to it as the ‘allegorical method’ from now on, because ‘symbol’ is a word that for many people—including me—implies a deeper connection between a symbol and what it refers to than simply standing in for it. For similar reasons, ‘sign’ will be used instead of ‘symbol’ to designate an image that stands in for something else.

An allegorical method is a style of interpretation that considers the dream as a whole: the dream-elements are significant in relation to one another as well as to the dreamer’s life. This added level of complexity makes a greater degree of specificity possible for the resulting interpretation. It also implies a more intimate relationship between the dreamer and the dream because far more of the original content is preserved: allegorical methods do not allow for the possibility that a dream is deceptive in nature, as Freud posited. Indeed, many interpreters who use allegorical methods view a dream as a message, not only lacking in deception, but intentionally communicative.

Putting the question of what might be communicating with what aside, let us consider allegorical methods. As with cipher methods, the interpretation consists of a series of correspondences between dream-elements and something in the dreamer’s life—this may be their mental life or their outer circumstances. These correspondences may be generic, personal, or somewhere in between, like an inside joke or a cultural reference.

The most generic of the methods currently in use is Carl Jung’s archetypal interpretation. Although archetypal interpretation is only one technique in the analytic psychologist’s arsenal, it may be the best known outside analytic psychology. In this method, the pattern of a dream-scenario is related to a pattern in a myth, which provides the dreamer with new insight into his inner and/or outer life. This is the most generic method because archetypes are supposed to be universal, and whether or not the dreamer is familiar with the myth in question is irrelevant. Here, the meaning of a dream—or a work of art, or a life event—flows from its origin, the archetype.

I thought this idea was pretty great when I first began learning about it, but my enthusiasm has since waned. The thought that you’re following in the footsteps of heroes without realizing it is a powerful one, and may provide the dreamer with a new way of looking at his situation, but it is hard to see how simply being bigger gives a pattern meaning it did not have before.

That similar patterns are found in the myths of cultures all over the world is worth thinking about, but while myths do serve to give meaning to people of that culture, they also receive meaning from the cultural contexts they are found in, and do not mean anything specific outside of them. Cultures definitely do not agree on what they mean on a practical, day-to-day level, and if myths sometimes have meaning that crosses those boundaries, it is still far from being universal. This is true for signs in general, and not just dream-images.

Consider the linden tree. It probably doesn’t mean much to most of you reading this, but in Germany it represents a curious blend of national identity and longing for death. You can thank the romantic poets for that one. If a German who was familiar with that tradition were to dream of that tree, he might consider those connotations in interpreting his dream.

What is less commonly known abroad is that the linden is also the national tree of the Czech Republic. It is both a symbol of German nationality and of Czech nationality—two distinct countries, for the geographically challenged— but apart from either context it does not belong to one or the other. It is a tree. For people of most other nationalities—unless they were a singer of Lieder, or maybe a botanist—it wouldn’t even be in their semiotic vocabularies.

Most psychologists who use allegorical methods recognize that if our dream-images are representations, they will frequently be ones we are already familiar with in our waking lives. By the time we are neurologically capable of dreaming, we are familiar with many kinds of representations through art, stories, religion, and day-to-day life, and it is more natural to assume that the semiotic vocabulary in dreams overlaps with the one we have in waking life than supposing we have two completely separate ones. That’s just not how the brain works. Waking or dreaming, “L’homme y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles,” although he usually can’t see the trees for the forest.

In personal allegorical methods, the dream-image is something to be explored rather than replaced, as in cipher interpretation. Free association takes you away from the original image, but in the associative process used for allegorical interpretation, you remain as close to the original image as possible, exploring its connotations, its context in waking life and in the dream, and perhaps the role it has played in past dreams, if you are an experienced dreamer.

The dreaming mind can be assumed not to distinguish sharply between cultural and personal associations. Cultural associations are personally significant too, after all—we probably wouldn’t be dreaming about them if they weren’t— and we rarely differentiate sharply even in waking life. Images must be taken on a case-by-case basis. In many cases it is easiest to start with a sign that has clear cultural significance, but if events, people, or objects the dreamer encountered on the previous day appear in the dream in a parallel situation, that can also provide an easy point of access.

While the term ‘allegorical’ is useful to refer to this class of interpretative systems, it is unreasonable to expect a one-on-one correspondence between dream-elements and a waking-life situation, or emotional conflict, or anticipated fear. A dream can also be seen as a dramatization requiring some back-story, a few extras to make the set look busy, stagehands to move the scenery around. For practical purposes, it is usually enough to have the gist of the story.

An example may make this more clear. Several years ago, when I was a university student for the first time around, I was considering leaving my studies for a variety of compelling personal reasons. During this time, I had a dream where there were two armies battling over an island fortress. I had some special role to play for the side I was on: I was to assassinate someone important on the opposing side during a meeting. Before going in, somebody showed me a medal as a reminder of my duty: it was a small, bronze medal with an oil-lamp engraved on it. The parts after that were fuzzy—but as I recall, the inside of the fortress proved to be empty.

It is a fair bet that when you’re undergoing a profound inner conflict your dreams are going to show it in some way—but even if I hadn’t known that, the medal would have been an obvious clue. It looked just like the medal I had received in kindergarten for perfect attendance—probably the first one I had ever received for anything. What better symbol for the part of myself who wanted to keep on attending?

Since the medal was conveniently emblazoned with a well-known symbol of scholarship—you can’t read books in the dark, after all— even somebody who didn’t know the medal’s personal significance might have guessed the nature of the conflict. Or maybe not, since oil lamps have been used to symbolize any number of things through the centuries.

The rest is interesting, but six years later there are elements I would have trouble accounting for, since they became much more significant for me in the year following the dream, and I’m no longer sure what they meant to me before then. Or could it be that the dream had as much to do with things to come as with my current dilemma? Who knows?

There may be elements in dreams that no amount of examination can shed light on; there may be whole dreams that remain mysteries no matter how much we poke at them. Freud and Jung both posited that seemingly irrational phenomena—including dreams— makes its own kind of sense when properly interpreted. They make a good case for it, but I like to believe that somewhere in the world there may still be irremediable nonsense.


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