There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink, Part 3


In the dream, it was as if I were watching a movie and simultaneously playing a part in it. The movie starred a Swedish man who was in charge of running a movie theater. He wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around. At one point, I had to deliver a message to him, but when I was about to say it, I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It was my real reaction, but it fit into the movie that was being filmed, too. I was on the way back to my seat when I asked him, “What distinguishes a Byronic hero from the regular sort?” which wasn’t in the script. He answered me in a way consistent with his character, and I responded, “Is it always so clear?” This tied into some events that would take place later. (May, 2010)

No two people dream in exactly the same way. We all have our quirks, our individual patterns that, while typical for us, may strike other people as unusual— even un-dream-like or downright aberrant, if your dreams don’t match their prototype very well. It is hard even to know what’s typical for dreams, especially for matters of form, like sudden transitions and inconsistencies. They don’t lend themselves as well to statistical analysis as dream-content does.

When I look through my own dream records, it’s actually quite difficult to find instances of sudden transitions and inconsistencies, especially after the first couple years. Why might that be?

Could it be that this phenomenon—the sudden shift in settings, characters, points of view, etc—is not as common as we believe? Many of the features we think of as characteristic of dreams—dreams of flying, falling, finding new rooms in your house, etc— actually aren’t statistically common. They’re just notable departures from the logic of waking life, which makes it surprising to us that they happen to the extent that they do.

But there is another possibility: looking in my journal around that time, I find dreams with a shift of that type—but my dream self notices the gap in time, the gap where memories would be if it were waking life, and is puzzled or alarmed by it. This is definitely uncommon. Filling the gaps of memory with imagination isn’t something our dreaming selves usually have trouble with. Or our waking selves, for that matter.

This is something that people who train themselves to notice when they’re dreaming learn to catch in progress, but I wasn’t doing that at the time—which is why the conclusion I came to was not the right one, that I was dreaming. Perhaps these unpleasant experiences led to a kind of negative conditioning, and so the dreams began, of their own accord, to take on a less disturbing form. The gaps began to behave like narrative cuts between scenes—and perhaps by fitting that paradigm so well, they don’t stick out to my dreaming self as much as the others did. (And perhaps mixed metaphors, enacted or otherwise, just weren’t to my taste.)

My first efforts at interpretation were inspired more by literary analysis than by dream theorists or dream dictionaries, and so I found it easier to understand my dreams when they behaved like coherent narratives—and they did so more and more as I gained experience. What might otherwise have been disjunctions into something unrealistic became excursions into the realm of art. The dreams became increasingly layered and complex, and my dreaming self was, as often as not, in the curious position of knowing that my surroundings were unreal without being aware that they were a dream. I was simultaneously actor and observer. How is that even possible? I don’t know. Maybe my brain just runs on parallel circuits—whatever that metaphor means.

But once I did take up lucid dreaming, I did sometimes manage to catch the shift in progress—though I get the impression that it was harder for me than it would have been for someone with a less convoluted inner life. But at any rate, a junction can be a place for a lucid dreamer to board as well as an interpreter, if they’re timely about it.

I was in a car with my old friends Katya and Nina, and a man who was a friend of ours in the dream, though nobody I knew in waking life. It was late out, and it was snowing so hard that we could barely see the road in front of us. We could only drive at a very slow pace. After a while, I got out to make sure we were still on the road. I continued to walk in front as the car drove, indicating where it was safe to go as the snowstorm blew around us.

But suddenly, the snow and the car vanish, and I’m standing alone on the road on what looks like a beautiful spring morning. For a moment, I feel surprised—then threatened. I think: someone is trying to separate me from my friends.

But no sooner have I thought that that I realize: no, that makes no sense. I’m dreaming. That’s what’s happening.

I keep on walking in the direction we had been driving before. Maybe I’ll find out where we were going.

Off to my right, down a short incline, are gently rolling fields covered in mist. I see a couple of large, manor-type house out there, in the distance. It’s all incredibly beautiful, almost like an impressionist painting— colorful, blurred, with intense touches here and there.

I’ll make some fireflies, I decide, just like I used to do. I wave one hand over towards the fields, and little lights appear—not at all like the yellow-green of fireflies, curiously, but like little golden sparks flashing in midair, like a firework might give off.

Coming up on the right, just off the road I’ve been walking along, is another house, this one much smaller than the ones I had seen before—a narrow but tall building, black in color, with a red tile roof and all kinds of interesting architectural details. Behind a fenced-off area to one side, I can hear children laughing and playing. There’s something about this house—especially about the color, that deep purple-black—that makes it almost viscerally attractive to me—intrinsically inviting. A young girl peers over the fence at me as I walk up the steps…. (April, 2015)

There’s more to the story than that, but suffice it to say that this one has a happy ending—or it would, if there were ever a true ending outside of a story. But the most unrealistic thing about fiction is always that it comes to an end.


Thanks be to God now that the wine-shop door
Is open, since it’s there I’m heading for;

The jars are groaning with fermented wine,
With wine that’s real, and not a metaphor…


Actually, there is one other lesson to be taken from the story this essay opened with, when I answered the teacher’s question: it is possible for something to be a metaphor without being only a metaphor. We should never forget that dreaming— despite the metaphors, wordplay and various verbal associations we can trace back to our waking lives and thoughts— is a living experience in its own right for as long as it lasts. You can call a dream a metaphor, certainly—but if you did, you would be using a metaphor yourself.

(Total Metaphor Count: 50)


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….

There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink


“Who can give a definition of a mixed metaphor?” the teacher asks.

I raise my hand. I’ve been hoping for this one. And since the rest of the class has been in a stupor for the last hour— quite understandable, given how dull it’s been— he calls on me.

“A mixed metaphor is when you change your train of thought midstream,” I answer.

He considers it. “Good. Now can you give an example of one?”

I grin. “I just did.”

The lesson to be taken from this—other than “keep your students too busy to plot out pranks on you”—is that, despite the injunctions against mixed metaphors that all of us have received, when we encounter one in the course of daily life, it often passes so far under our radar that we swallow it without question.

This doesn’t just happen in speech, but in writing, too. Here’s an example from chapter nine of Are You Dreaming? by Daniel Love: “It is easy to simply shrug these things off, assuming they will do no harm, but in doing so we open the doors for further nonsense to encroach upon the subject, burying its real potential.” I count four metaphors—“shrug off,” “open the doors,” “encroach,” and “burying”— and only the middle two mix well.*

How does this happen? Are we really such inattentive listeners that we fail to notice when people are passing nonsense off on us? Well, there may be a certain amount of this. But I think the problem isn’t so much that we’re not paying attention, but that we’re paying attention to only one thing: the drift. Words are arbitrary placeholders for things and concepts, and once a metaphor has become common currency, it gets treated just as a word does—as if it had an arbitrary relationship to the image it carries along.

No matter how appalled we may be by mixed metaphors, we are never confused by them. This is important. We have no trouble parsing even the most ridiculous combinations and figuring out what the speaker means to say, and the process may take place without us even becoming aware of it. Stylistic faux pas? Perhaps. But not nonsense.

This is important because as we dream, we seem to change our train of thought midstream very frequently. As anyone who has learned to meditate knows, we do a good deal of this in our waking hours as well. The difference is that as we dream, we experience many of our thoughts imagistically.

This goes some way towards explaining the abrupt transitions that take place in dreams—one of the characteristics that most clearly distinguishes them from waking experience, and most frequently calls down the charge of “nonsense” from those who have only a casual acquaintance with them. How can dreams be meaningful when they are full of sudden discontinuities, many of them jarring breaks from the logic of our waking lives, and when we don’t even notice them happening? But it is exactly when dreams are like this that they are most like language.

Beneath the imagistic patchwork of dreams is a continuous train of thought, and every junction is an opportunity for an interpreter to board.


Sometimes, the meaningfulness of a discontinuity—or the continuity of meaning despite a discontinuity— may even be obvious to someone who doesn’t work with their dreams. No interpretation is required to spot it: only good observation.

To illustrate this, here’s one dream from not long after I started keeping a dream-journal regularly:

I was either a woman joining a rebel army or I was going to participate in a track meet—it kept changing back and forth. I was getting married to someone who was also fighting. During the parts where I was going to a track meet, I was driving through a strange town, afraid I was going to be late. As it turned out, my first race was much later than I thought, so I had time to eat and rest. Then it turned into the other dream where it turned out there was enough time to hold a wedding ceremony. (August, 2007)

It is hard to imagine a more striking discontinuity than those in this dream, which actually seems to consist of two parallel dreams: one a scenario that only departs from waking life in minor ways, the other much farther removed. But the same narrative arc underlies them both, and the end result of both is: “it isn’t so urgent after all. There’s time.” What isn’t so urgent? Nine years after dreaming it, all I can say for sure is that it’s neither a race to be run nor a battle to be fought. Either dream alone would have been sufficient to get the point across to an interpreter, but the flipping back and forth between the two makes the drift more clear than either alone could have.

Another short example from around the same time:

I was practicing with French interrogatives. There were people asking me all sorts of questions. I had to think hard about the answers. I was told it was so I could be a developed character. (November, 2007)

Here, the break isn’t an imagistic shift, exactly, but the collision of two frames of reference—real life and fiction—in the course of a conversation.

A short explanation: an interrogative is a word that signals a question, such as “who?” “what?” “why?” It’s quite possible that I was actually reviewing them around this time. “Developed character” is narrative jargon, used in literature and other media. You might also say 3-dimensional character or round character. But you wouldn’t use the term to describe a real person.

However, you might talk about somebody becoming a more complex person, or a deeper person, or a better-educated person. For a university student living away from her family for the first time, studying, meeting new people, acquiring new interests, all are possible. I am posing questions to myself—or my environment is posing questions to me—or perhaps my dreams themselves are, seeing as that was one of the new interests I had acquired—and I don’t yet have answers. I am having to think about them, and in the process I am growing as a person.

So why “developed character” rather than something more literal? It could have just been because the phrase was the closest at hand—a dream really doesn’t need another reason. If I casually used the phrase during into a lively conversation with my friends, I’m sure that they’d understand what I meant by it with no need of an explanation, without even considering it strange. (Did you notice the term “narrative arc” in the paragraph right after the rebel army dream?)

However, it may also have been because at that time the concept would have been more meaningful to me, more evocative, more current than something literal would have been. I grew up in an environment that was ambivalent towards intangible goods like personal growth and development—and, by extension, formal education as anything more than career preparation. Having had a thoroughly unpleasant formal education myself while setting a high value on learning, I had my own reasons for being ambivalent. In short, I may not have had an unequivocally positive way of putting such concepts to myself.

One final point:  this use of the narrative jargon may also indicate a sort of proto-awareness into the dreaming state—“I am not a real person.” It’s a long-shot, a possibility that would hardly be worth mentioning if I didn’t have so many clear instances in the years that followed, but it’s always interesting to speculate.

To be continued….

*I count 21 metaphors in this post, not including Daniel Love’s.

Dreaming as Metaphor: The Glass Ukulele

In our dreams, we experience many of our thoughts and feelings through our senses. This usually means visually, although any of them may be involved. An overwhelming emotion becomes a force of nature; a concept becomes a solid object that can be handled and manipulated. This movement from the abstract to the concrete is at the heart of metaphors as well as dreams: “My love is like a red, red rose*,” for instance, or “The internet is a series of tubes”. This is why it’s often helpful to read dream-imagery as metaphors for our current state, or some salient aspect of it. It’s as if we experience our internal facts as external when we’re inside our own heads…. [Click here to continue reading]

This article has been substantially edited and moved to my new blog, Prism of Dreams.