by Fraser Hibbitt
During his imprisonment, Socrates supposedly composed some lyrics, something he had never bothered himself with before. Puzzled by this behavior, his friend Cebes asked him on the day of his execution why he had decided to do so. Socrates replied that he had written the lyrics in order to discover the meaning of a dream he had. The dream, reoccurring throughout his life, had said “Socrates, practice and cultivate the arts”, something he believed he had already been doing by being a philosopher; philosophy, to him, being the greatest of all arts.
Socrates had throughout his life likened the dream-voice to someone cheering on a runner in a race, but he had felt whilst in prison that the dream may have meant the popular form of the lyric and so he felt compelled not to disobey the voice. That dreams can direct us, tell us, something about ourselves has held its grip on our minds since the advent of historicity. That there is some meaning lurking in the seamless and strange images played for us each night interacts with our proclivity to make sense of our self.
Dreams have had no small role in our cultural history. The Bible has its fair share, not only to illustrate ‘God’s language’ to his believers, but also playing a divisive role. The Virgin Mary’s dream, for example, was subject to discrimination causing a furor during the Protestant reformation. In the eighteenth century, Swedenborg had a dream which he took to be nothing other than a dialogue with God thus starting the Swedenborgian sect of Lutheranism; the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith had a famous dream in which he was given the directions to the golden plates of the prophet Mormon.
Dreams of Dali
Spirituality and dreaming have been close companions throughout history and yet dreams have also played their part in science. Einstein’s dream about cows inspired his famous theory of relativity; James Watson was allegedly prompted by the dream of a spiral staircase to discover the double-helix structure of DNA. In dreams, there isn’t so much difference between the cultural spheres of spirituality and science – it comes down to the waking interpretation. A dream is a store of interpretation which bends to meaning, and dreamlife, as we can all tell, operates on a different plane than that of our waking lives.
When we awake, it is by reflection that we discover the dream; the dream seeps into our waking life under the control of the ego and our common daily thoughts. In the waking life lies action; interpretation and meaning are retrospectively pinned to dream which can be vague at the best of times. It is this dynamic which produces the results. Interpretation is power; it construes, aligns and systematizes to produce meaning. In the Bible, the Pharaoh asks Joseph to interpret his dream of the seven fat cows being eaten by seven emaciated cows. Joseph concludes that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine so you best stock up. Joseph is then let free from imprisonment to serve the Pharaoh; such advice is valuable.
Dreaming and the power to interpret them has always granted prestige. With the advent of Psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud took over from his predecessors with The Interpretation of Dreams (1898). Freud’s theory on the dream world still, arguably, hasn’t left our cultural currency and this may be indicative of something of our time. Freud intimated that the dream world consists of unconscious wish fulfilments which are obscured by symbols and that through dreams we could come to understand the unconscious mind. Freud, or the psychoanalyst, acts as the chief inspector with a command over our symbolic dream world. Indeed, in some of the earlier writings, the patients of Freud must take a largely passive role when it comes to their own mind.
Freud successively opened the modern conversation with the dream. Freud’s foray into this obscure realm would be taken up by his former, and then estranged, protegee Carl Jung. If Freud’s interpretation of the dream as whole left the power of interpretation to the analyst, Jung was much more in giving it back to the patient. Jung’s ideas hold a seductive sway; he propounded upon the transpersonal experience of dreams – he was looking at what we all had in common. He didn’t so much as see the dream as an unconscious ‘wish-fulfilment’, but as messages from the unconscious to the conscious which relayed deeply personal meaning. Jung didn’t want the individual to believe their conscious beliefs were wrong entirely but that the dreams could point the way towards growth and balance in the individual.
The dream was, then, a powerful tool into understanding oneself. A place to inquire if one feels the demands of life have overtaken the individual’s power to understand it. Through psychoanalysis, the dream took on a role of engaging the ‘patient’ into the make-up of their own psyche. It was an education in critical interpretation. And with all interpretation, there are many ways of creating meaning; hence the dialogue with the analyst, the age-old seer. Of course, things were seen differently in the field of neurology. The hard-scientific spirit could not accept these theories without empirical validation. In the mid-twentieth century, investigations into sleeping produced neurological theories of dreams that would mostly do away with the problem of ambiguous interpretation. Of the many theories, the one that has gained currency involves that of memory.
This theory was supplied by the study of the brain during sleep. The intricacies of sleep proved that the body and mind go through cycles of different behaviors during sleeping hours, non-REM and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). REM was felt to be key to understanding the context of dreams. During REM sleep, the body becomes paralyzed apart from the eyes. The brain activates areas of the limbic system associated with emotions, sensations and memories; the cortical functions, such as planning and reason, are deactivated. It has been thought, and still is, that this process of REM sleep, where the dreamlife is most active, is a mechanism to sift through short-term memory and store what is useful. The dream is relegated to a by-product of this procedure; a consciousness reacting and interpreting sensory information in the brain.
The split in interpretation of what a dream is comes from its dualism. It is at once a physiological and a phenomenological process. Considering this, we ought to synthesize the two; if, that is, we wish to ‘figure out’ the dream. Both the physiological and phenomenological interpretations stand to make waking sense of the dream. The physiological objectification of the dream works to correlate cause and effect, postulating memory for memory’s sake but must stop at question of how memory affects our sense of self. It is understandable that one may feel dissatisfied with this conclusion to something which follows us through all trades of life. It is also understandable to feel the invasive quality of the classic Freudian model.
However, strains of Jung’s sentiments towards dreamwork would find championing voices in the late twentieth century. Psychoanalyst Masud Khan thought that a session should try to give the dream back to the patient because, he thought, the dream itself could be a form of psychoanalysis. Another great contemporary of his, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott found that if the analyst could withhold from trying to sound smart by interpreting a dream, the patient may hit upon the revelation themselves – the personal revelation always affecting the patient more than the intellectual’s interpretation.
The dream seems to move around the cultural conversation, ever elusive. Quick searches on google will show stock answers to common dreams, taking away the enjoyment of speaking about dreams and the strange world they inhabit. Dreams, with their myriad interpretations, should stand for a corrective to the over-analysis of life. As we can see, the dream itself has become a symbol of uncertainty in a world priding itself on a sense of certainty – later psychoanalytic thought stressing, then, the importance of uncertainty in our lives, and our ability to experience it. Waking up from certain dreams can leave one feeling relieved, disappointed, or oddly satisfied. The reliance on reason and efficiency works to systematize what we perceive of the world, and, in this case, limit our ability to freely dream. Dreams offer us the ability to think and talk about ourselves in novel ways, and even appreciate the equally elusive quality of living. Dreaming shouldn’t lead us to be suppliants to meaning cast down from above, nor mired in uncertainty, but, like Socrates with his imminent death, searching for and affirming, our own sense of a meaningful life.
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The blog’s last post was Elephants Across Brooklyn Bridge
Other articles by Fraser Hibbitt include Homage to Samuel Beckett and The Art of Journaling.