There are many people out there who consider dreams to be mere brain static, unworthy of serious consideration; Dr. McNamara is not one of them. He believes that dreams are meaningful, and meaningful in a way that rewards interpretation. In one article on his blog, he has even offered his own speculation into what such an interpretive method would look like. His latest article, which was posted since I wrote part 1, is teeming with suggestive statistics, and contains enough citations to experiments, surveys and anthropological studies to make even the most dubious take notice. But when set beside the article I am considering here – “The Folly of Dream Interpretation” – it doesn’t quite square. It almost seems as if McNamara approves of dream interpretation, but only in the abstract.
Perhaps his views have changed somewhat in the intervening years; I know I’d be hesitant to stand behind everything I wrote four years ago. But it is striking that his insulting epithets target exactly those features that are essential to good dream interpretation. For instance—idiosyncrasy.
What kind of a thing does a dream have to be in order for an idiosyncratic interpretation to make sense? This question, at least, is easy to answer: it has to be idiosyncratic itself. It has to take its form and content from the mental habits of the individual dreamer, making sense only when they are brought to bear on it. This is not always the case—there are few aspects of dreaming where you can safely dispense with hedge words – but in my experience, it is true often enough that dream interpretation must be tailored to the individual dreamer if it is to be helpful.
This is why reading an essay will always be a poor second to learning to interpret one’s dreams alongside an instructor. But I hope that offering techniques alongside detailed case studies is better than nothing, and I know that writing as both interpreter and interpretee allows me greater freedom and scope than would otherwise be possible, since the same idiosyncrasies that make my dreams obscure to others make them transparent to me. And while I’m aware that nobody cares about my familiarity with transcendental idealism or my antipathy towards the muffin salesman at the local farmer’s market, such minutiae often prove to be the key to understanding a dream, and so I can’t avoid dragging them in, even at the risk of being uninteresting.
Of course, it probably wouldn’t be helpful if I went around giving such interpretations of other people’s dreams without any participation on their part – which is why I don’t do that. A guess is still not an interpretation, even if it’s a good one. If this is what Dr. McNamara means by “idiosyncratic interpretations”—not interpretations that take the individual characteristics of the dreamer into account, but which are produced by individuals and applied indiscriminately—then I would have to agree that it’s something objectionable.
But for me, it’s the “indiscriminately” that’s the problematic part; it cannot be for McNamara because he believes that it will be a universally applicable system of interpretation that will someday be proven correct. At least, that’s what his choice of experimental methods would seem to imply: if there are correlations between certain dream-elements and certain concerns, life events or outcomes of dream action, it seems unlikely that we could pick up on any that weren’t universal, or at least demographically linked, by using quantitative methods alone.
I think this sort of method is hopeless when it is not restricted to examining the dreams of individuals; perhaps an example will make the reasons clear.
Let’s Consider Fairies for a Minute
What sort of beings they are, what sort of associations they conjure up – that sort of thing. As a being that is, to my knowledge, universally acknowledged to be imaginary, they make a good example. OK, ready?
I think it’s likely that most people will have thought of something that has positive connotations for them—little, winged, flower-dwelling beings, or maybe more of a fairy-godmother sort of character. I also think it’s likely that fairies that appear in peoples’ dreams will reflect these associations. Unfortunately, they seem to appear so rarely that I can’t be sure: I checked every single dream series on DreamBank—in German and in English— and it only turned up a single dream with a fairy in it. The Sleep and Dream Database is more difficult to use for mass searches, but a search of the Most Memorable Dream texts—a good bet if you’re looking for fantastic beings of any kind—only yielded one result as well. Here are the relevant sections of the texts themselves.
…The woman was pulled into the crash and killed. She rises as a fairy angel spirit. Bob is now a red devil suited spirit and she makes him chase her in an opposite direction from us to save us. We are now tiny, like fairies and walk through a hedge with beautiful purple flowers. We see on the other side a meadow with a fairy castle at the far end…. [DreamBank: Barb Sanders #2: #3461, 04/20/99]
…i was alone in a magical world and had fairies for friends. it was fun because i could fly and make myself disappear…. [Sleep and Dream Database: Most Memorable Dreams]
For what it’s worth, they do seem to be positive characters in both.
My own records yield four dreams with fairies, all of them from the same two-year period. They are of a rather different sort.
The dream started off like a video game, with having to fight fairy-like creatures. They were similar to humans in size and appearance…. (June, 2010)
… In the movie, fairy-like beings took over children’s minds, forced them to act on their behalf. Some people knew about this, though, and were freeing the children, who then joined the fight against them…. (October, 2010)
In my dreams, fairies are something to be avoided. They are menacing creatures rather than helpful ones, as they tend to be in the older sort of stories, and at least a few modern ones. And while four dreams may not seem like a lot, it’s enough to make them the most frequently and most consistently antagonistic class of character in my dreams, somewhere above zombies, the mafia and Lovecraftian cultists.*
It is tentative—but even if it were completely hypothetical, it would be enough to illustrate the most significant problems with a purely quantitative approach. It is no mystery how the positive version and the negative version of fairies came into being: portrayals in fiction, as the narrative framing in both my own examples suggests. I’d imagine you’d find the same sort of pattern with vampires, which recently received the same sort of mimetic reboot. But would both versions be interpreted the same way? A generic interpretation that tried to encompass both portrayals would be an absurdity.
Or could it be that I have a negative attitude towards something that other people feel more positively towards? That would be very interesting, and definitely more plausible—but it is far from obvious how a purely correlative approach would handle the discrepancy. For some people, I’d assume, fairies would be correlated with friendly interactions; for others, with aggressive ones. If the results turned out to be evenly balanced, there’d be no way to reach any conclusions; if it favored one side over another, it might turn out a result, but one that is wrong to those in the minority.
This is a major problem with any statistically-based approach: it’s guaranteed to turn out wrong interpretations a certain percent of the time! And presumably, it would have no way of telling you whether you’re a dreamer for whom a given interpretation was correct that didn’t have a probability attached to it.
Not to mention another problem this example raises: classes of characters so rare that statistical conclusions can’t be reached in the first place. And again—for me, it’s more closely linked to aggressive encounters than any other class of character. That’s got to be significant, but any way you cut it, a statistical approach would be useless.
And actually, there’s an even more significant problem—one that McNamara might not consider valid, but which a practicing interpreter will have probably had in mind from the very beginning: the fact that reaching an understanding of a dream is not an intellectual exercise, but a process that, if done properly, gives a dreamer a sense of self-discovery, of felt meaning. You know you’re onto the solution the way you know you’ve managed to unlock a door after you’ve been wiggling the key around for a while. It’s not easy to explain such a thing, but I’m sure everybody knows what I mean, if only from movies and other media. It’s like what we feel when we witness an instance of dramatic irony, or poetic justice, or even find an object we had lost—suddenly, the whole thing becomes clear to us.
Merely looking an interpretation up in a book will probably not do this, even if correct: it will probably just result in an interpretation being imposed over the dream because it lacks an organic connection with the dream itself. At best, a statistical method could merely do what the best dream dictionaries do already: provide a dreamer with a place to begin thinking about their dream.
-to be continued-
*This list doesn’t include soldiers, who would rank higher by far if you were going by number of aggressive interactions, but they seem to me to belong to a different category altogether. The dreams don’t portray them as malevolent characters simply by virtue of what they are, like the ones on the list—something that marks them out clearly as carriers of projected fear and aggression. They may be threatening figures, but it’s a situational thing, not a personal thing.