To be a Builder of Bridges: Part 4

I do not especially like the name ‘volitional interpretation’. ‘Interpretation by choice’ was another option, but it seemed to imply that it was the dreamer-as-interpreter making the choice rather than the dreamer-as-dreamer. ‘Phenomenological interpretation’ would also work, but it carries philosophical baggage that may not be appropriate for all systems that fall into this third category. For the time being—or should that be, for the being-in-time?— it will have to do.

Of the three types of system, volitional interpretation is the closest to non-interpretation. It cuts out most or all of those semiologic middlemen, the signs—which, as you may recall from part 3, are the actual vehicles of meaning for cipher and allegorical interpretation, and not at all incidental to the process. It also fails to fall into a spectrum of generic and personal systems as the other two do: every volitional system is personal by definition.

The main concern of volitional interpretation is the dreamer’s agency. The dreamer’s choices within the context of the dream, and the dreamer’s (usually subconscious) choice of dreaming that dream rather than any other are interpreted rather than the objects or events that take place in a dream. Only the attitudes towards the objects and events are relevant, and because those are already known to the dreamer, no further investigation is required. The dream is neither a deception nor a message: everything is simply as it appears to be.

Does the dreamer tend to put himself in the role of a victim? Does he see himself as a competent person? How much does he depend on others? Is he cautious or reckless, friendly or aggressive? Such behavior patterns are apparent to anyone reading a dream series, although only the dreamer can place the dream into the context of his life. Only the dreamer—or, as the case may be, his therapist— can say what they mean.

Some systems of this type, like Medard Boss’s existential dream analysis, use a philosophical framework to help relate the dream to the dreamer’s life. In gestalt therapy, the method of having the dreamer speak from the perspectives of the various people and objects in the dream plays a similar role. Most quantitative systems of dream analysis fall into this category by default, since behavior patterns are the only meaningful content they are capable of picking up on. However, all that is necessary is the acknowledgement that, waking or dreaming, we are essentially the same person, and are responsible for our conduct in both states.

If I look at my dream from part 3 from a bare-bones volitional standpoint—no philosophical systems or role-playing or the like— it turns up some interesting results. My waking-life conflict is primarily an internal one, and yet in my dream I have placed myself unambiguously on one side of it. A battle between two groups of human beings has rules; the decision I have to make is one to be decided by rational consideration. But I am planning to break the rules of engagement: I do not even want to consider the alternative, but rather to cut off that line of thought prematurely.

That I am taking orders from another character is also curious: I seem to be playing an active role in the dream, but I’m not the one calling the shots. That might lead me to wonder who’s doing so in my waking-life conflict, although I wouldn’t have to look too far. I think most people would have said that the attitude my dream portrays was exactly the right one to take, which only goes to show that—well, it could go to show a lot of things. When life gets rough, everything inside you becomes polarized, and the meaning of dreams often becomes obvious – but it’s not an introduction to interpretation that I’d recommend.

In practice, methods of interpretation are often used alongside others from the same or another category. While the theories they are based on are often contradictory, the methods themselves are complementary, and may be used to illuminate a dream from multiple angles.

It is hard to illustrate this without using specific theories, or adopting a definite theoretical position myself, but one thing it is possible to generalize about is the usefulness of volitional interpretation as an adjunct to other methods. Its fundamental claim, that the dreamer dreaming and the dreamer awake are not two distinct people, could be called the dreamer’s Law of Identity. All dream interpretation is aimed at feeling out the relationship between the two, but if there is a meaningful relationship, it implies that the two must be continuous in some way.

In addition, using volitional interpretation alongside allegorical interpretation precludes the major danger of using allegorical interpretation alone: becoming so caught up in the world of your dreams that you no longer relate them to your waking life. Taken to extremes, you get introversion, ultimate self-referentiality, the serpent eating his tail—and, finally, madness, mysticism, or some combination of the two. I wouldn’t recommend that either.

In any case, most theories of dreams hypothesize that dreams contain multiple levels of meaning. If so, the incompatibilities are more apparent than real, at least until you must decide what to do with your interpreted dream. There is a significant difference between taking a dream as a snapshot of waking-life tendencies and taking it as advice for changing them.

Perhaps there comes a point in a dreamer’s life where he no longer has to interpret: his self-knowledge is so complete that his dreams are transparent to him, and he does not need to build a bridge because he can make the leap just as surely as he did when he dreamed his dream. This is pure speculation on my part, but it is a good reminder that interpretation is not an end in itself. It is relative rather than ultimate, and for that reason not indispensable if we would rather seek self-knowledge, or wholeness, or whatever we’re looking for some other way.

But if you do choose to interpret dreams, there are other rules of thumb to keep in mind: any method will become more useful as you practice it; a dream series, especially one taking place over a short period of time, will produce a clearer picture than a dream analyzed on its own; and, most of all, the dreamer himself is the best authority on his dreams. Not all interpretive systems acknowledge these guidelines, but you can’t go far wrong with them, no matter what system you choose to practice, no matter what your reasons for practicing it are.

And if there is one thing I would advise against, it is being too quick and unyielding in assigning a meaning to a dream—ruthlessness under the sign of the lamp, to put it poetically. When you are feeling out the relationship between yourself dreaming and yourself awake, it is not the relationship between two points of data, but a personal relationship.

In interpreting dreams, respect for the unknown is also self-respect.

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