There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink, Part 2


This is a good point to take a step back and ask some big questions. To what extent does language influence our dreams? Are all the images in dreams enacted metaphors? If not metaphors, then do other characteristics of dreams that distinguish them from waking life have parallels in language?

We can give the second question, at least, a resounding “no,” for the simple reason that people, places, and actions in dreams may be literal representations as well as figurative ones. The literal representations will mostly be of people, places and actions that would not be out of place in our waking lives. Anything that is impossible or unlikely in waking life, anything that belongs to the distant past or that strikes us as too trivial to be of concern to us in its own right has a good chance of being a metaphor.

Of course, it is also possible to find images that would not be out of place in our waking lives standing in for something else, though these ones tend to be doing double duty:  a representation that is simultaneously metaphorical and literal, like the answer I gave my teacher that was simultaneously definition and example.

But here, we will have to make some further distinctions if we want satisfying answers. In the clearest possible case of dreams enacting metaphors, the dream enacts a familiar figure of speech—for instance, a person who’s having to deal with an excessive workload might dream about being literally “snowed under;” a dreamer may be “walking on thin ice,” or “fanning the flames,” or “floating on air.” I have one early on in my own records where I’m carrying a couple cats in a bag with me and looking for a place to let them out.

One interesting thing about these dreams is that they sometimes happen to people who aren’t very concerned about dreams, and may not ordinarily take the trouble of remembering them, much less interpreting them. They seem to be a natural, spontaneous phenomenon, and they are often transparent to the dreamer. People may infer from such dreams that their other dreams may be meaningful in ways that are less obvious. In this way—to use an irritating mixed metaphor that recently became a figure of speech in its own right—you could call them a gateway drug to dream studies.


So it is clear that some dreams are enacted figures of speech—but it is just as clear that not all of them are. We’re good at recognizing them, and they just don’t happen that often. More common are dreams enacting metaphors that are embedded into our language—dead metaphors.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By is the text to consult for those who are interested in learning more about how metaphors are built into languages and the conceptual framework that underlies them. Some metaphors are common to many languages, such as “up is good,” and “down is bad,” and can be found underlying numerous expressions, such as “rising above it,” “downfall,” “uplifting,” “weighing me down.” It has been posited that the frequency of dreams of flying and falling in cultures all over the world rests on this shared linguistic basis. A good case could probably be made for other so-called typical dreams as well.

When we employ metaphors like this in our speech and writing, we are using something well-known and concrete to convey information or attitudes about something abstruse or abstract. Every time we talk about the brain processing data, or being programmed for such-and such, or getting its wires crossed, we’re using conceptual metaphors with technological origins. This class of metaphors is growing all the time as technology changes. I found a new one just the other day, in Wade’s Before the Dawn:  “…Pääbo was able to fix a date, though rather roughly, for the time that all humans acquired the latest upgrade of the FOXP2 gene.”

As we might expect, these metaphors may easily find their way into dreams. On one night, for instance, I recorded two dreams within an hour of each other. In the first, I was installing some new software on my computer, and in the second, I had just finished having a surgery done. It’s a good bet that dreams recorded on the same night are influenced by the same set of concerns, and in this case, the connection between them is easy to see:  I am both performing the procedure and having it done on me; only the point of view and the metaphor have changed.

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson are very clear that the metaphors they are concerned with run deeper than language:  they structure the way we think, they guide our actions as well as our words. This raises a new possibility:  what we are seeing in our dreams is not the influence of language, exactly, but an expression of this deeper substratum.

But there is no question that dreams may show the direct influence of language in other ways. Dreams are perfectly capable of incorporating puns, rebuses, references to etymology—the origins of words are usually more concrete than the uses we put them to— and neologisms. Here, we start to run into processes that are more associative than metaphorical; the focus shifts from the concept represented by the word to the word itself.

Besides conceptual metaphors, there are also metaphors in dreams akin to those used by poets and other artists. Unlike those we have discussed so far, these do not necessarily involve language. What critics call the pathetic fallacy is a prime example of this type of metaphor. To convey the mood you want with the least possible expenditure of creative effort, just use the weather. Happy scene? Sunny day. Romance?  Make it a moonlit night. Instant drama?  Just add thunderstorm.

In our dreams, we are endowed with a sort of natural pathetic fallacy that automatically provides a suitable atmosphere. Since all human concerns are to some degree emotional concerns, there is probably a little of this in all dreams—and a metaphor may be both conceptual and emotionally expressive, although those that have been firmly established as conceptual tend to lose their evocative force along with their association with a particular image.

I recall an old dream where I was looking for a hawk, but could find nothing but ravens. Both birds are rich in symbolism; both have made their mark in literature; a hawk has even become a metaphor for a certain type of person, though in conjunction with doves rather than ravens; but the dream seems to have more to do with the general emotional associations with both birds. I’m sure that if I were to write a poem using the image, it would be clear enough to where I could be accused of unoriginality.

Emotional metaphors are easiest to spot in the dreams of trauma victims, whose emotions are at their most extreme. These dreams abound in disasters both natural and manmade, usually with no connection to the cause of the trauma other than the emotion evoked by it. Fires, floods and train wrecks seem to be the most common. Dream researcher Ernest Hartmann has done many studies involving such dreams, and he argues that expressive metaphors of this kind are the mechanism behind all dreaming. I would assign them a more limited role, although for some dreamers they may very well be as central as he claims.

Dream-formation is not one process, but the free combination of any number of them, some linguistic, some metaphorical, some both, some neither. The general rule does indeed seem to be as Freud stated it:  the dreaming mind will use any means available to make something abstract into a concrete representation, independent of any attempts to disguise meaning. And, we might add, independent of any attempts to communicate it, using the word “communicate” in its full, literal sense, implying intent as well as appropriate expression.

But even such a broad generalization- that the dreaming mind makes abstract things concrete- is inadequate. Emotions are not abstract—we can form abstract concepts of them just as we can of everything else, but the emotions we experience are always immediate and particular— and dreams may still enact them imagistically. Things that are already quite concrete may be expressed in a metaphorical fashion. And then there are those thoughts in dreams that we don’t experience any differently than we would in waking life. I really don’t think an all-encompassing generalization is possible.

This is not meant to be a definitive statement on how dream-imagery is formed— rather, it shows the inadequacy of the easy answers that rightly fail to satisfy skeptics. I am afraid that, as most people pose the question to themselves—newcomers to dream studies, theorists and dream-skeptics alike— dreaming must do one thing only or else nothing at all. But there is absolutely no reason to assume such a dichotomy. Given that dreams themselves exemplify ‘both/and’ thinking and  rarely incorporate ‘either/or’ at all, we even have good grounds to be suspicious of it. The task of the interpreter is not so much an analytic one as it is learning to be as flexible and original in your waking thought as you were while you were dreaming.

Running metaphor count:  42, give or take a few.

To be continued….


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