The Meaning of Dreams

Bert 0. States[1][2]

From The Association for the study of Dreams (


A literary and phenomenological approach to the possible meaningfulness of dreams and fictions that would include both Aunifying concepts@ (Globus, 1991) and the unspecifiable emotional meanings carried by experience itself The essay examines the difficulty of pinning down the term meaning in metaphorical constructions. An attempt is made to apply Gadamer's concept of the unity of experience and Gendlin >s notion of Afelt meanings@ to both fictions (Hamlet) and dreams.

KEY WORDS: meaning; bizarreness; experience; emotions; metaphors; dreams.

[1] Department of Dramatic Art, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106.
[2] Correspondence should be directed to Bert O. States, 5514 Camino Contigo, Santa Barbara, California 93111.

This paper is intended as a literary contribution to the debate on whether dreams are random or meaningful constructions. I am departing mainly from Gordon Globus's article in the inaugural issue of Dreaming which disputes the Anew scientific@ notion (Crick and Mitchison, Hobson and McCarley, Foulkes) that dreams are essentially meaningless (Globus, 1991). By and large, I am in agreement with Globus, though I think he over-estimates what Foulkes means by saying that dreams are meaningless. Foulkes must speak for himself, of course, but as I see it, he is referring strictly to intentional meanings, or dreams as encoded messagesCthe kinds of meaning for which there is no adequate explanation without some variation of the homunculus principle. In another part of his book Foulkes says AIt does not follow that, since dreams are constructed to convey no particular message, they are meaningless. There are broader senses of meaning than apply to the case of de­liberate message-encoding@ (1985: 192). And again, at the end of the book, ADreams are not meaningless. To the contrary. . . . [But] intelligent use of dreams for self-knowledge depends on understanding what kinds of information they might, and might not, contain@ (214). Finally, in A Grammar of Dreams (1978) Foulkes presents an elaborate scoring system for latent dream structures (SSLS), or for what he refers to as Aprivate meaning.@ In fact, the system is based on the kind of free associational interpretation used by Globus in his Adream illustration@ (Globus 1991: 35-39). So I don't find as large a gap between Globus and Foulkes as Globus doesCunless of course Globus is thinking of dreams as encoded messages, and this does not seem to be the case. The big problem, in any event, is what we mean by the word meaning. Literary people are still debating this question in relation to fictional texts and it is probably time that psychologists and literary theorists sit down and talk about what dreams and fictions have in common in this regard.

 To begin, I question whether random vs. meaningful (as in Globus's title) of­fers the best pairing of the alternatives. Order and disorder (to invoke the language of chaos theory) would probably be a cleaner opposition; and orderliness, as an antonym of randomness, does not in itself produce or contain meaningfulness, though it may be true that orderliness in some degree is a precondition of mean­ingfulness. For example, do rock crystals or machines or athletic contests have meaning? It would depend on what we meant by meaning, but it is my sense that when we refer to meaning in dreams we are usually assuming that they have a coherent theme or, in Globus's view, that dreams (some dreams anyway) are Ain­stantiations of a unifying concept@ (1991: 38). But here again, one might say that a machine or a solar system has a unifying concept, though you may be using the term concept in a loose or metaphorical way. Which raises still another question: how do metaphors have meaning? Granted, the author of a metaphor, unlike the Aauthor@ of a dream, consciously (more or less) creates a qualitative horizon of possible associations, but is this horizon rightly considered as meaning, at least in the conceptual sense, or as the ground on which meaning may be derivedCa kind of incipient or undefined meaningfulness perhaps?  For example, Robert Burns' AMy love is like a red red rose@ may be interpreted in any number of ways Burns may not have intended, if indeed he knew what he intended. Is the meaning created by the metaphor or by the interpreter of the metaphor? Or, as Eugene Gendlin sug­gests of this particular figure (1962, 142-43), is the meaning created by Burns of a different sort from the meaning created by the reader? In his study of literary mean­ing, William Ray points out that Aa sequence of words can mean nothing in par­ticular until someone means something by it@ (1984: 3) and presumably a series of random words can be endowed with meaning if you are clever enough to detect a pattern (as, for example, when one sees a face in the clouds). Or, to return to the solar system in this connection, when the physicist finds a Aunifying concept@ that explains a certain phenomenon in the physical world, could it be said that the phe­nomenon itself has meaning or is meaningful? One can understand how Copernicus, observing certain movements in the heavens, would say to himself, AThis means that the earth revolves around the sun!@ What he would probably mean, however, is that this is what his observations mean, not what the solar system means. You may find this a trivial distinction, but how can we be so sure that the order of dreams is different from the order of the solar system? On still another level, if animals have predation dreams (and there is evidence that they do) would we say that their dreams have as much meaning as ours? Or is predation qualitatively more primitive than such sophisticated concepts as the AOedipal@ theme or the Aloss of attachments@ theme that seems to be unifying Globus's dream illustration? The problem seems to come down to whether there can be meaning in something if there is no meaner to put it there or an interpreter to perceive it? In terms of the present debate, the issue is particularly relevant because we don't know whether dreams should more appropriately be studied as instances of Adumb@ biology or Asmart@ psychology. Are they more like literature or more like the digestive system?

 Essentially, I am trying to offer a range of occasions on which we may or may not want to use the term meaning. You might argue that a dream is different from a rock crystal or a solar system in that it is a product of human thought and has strong personal connotations for the dreamer. And you may say that since ani­mals apparently don't think in terms of unifying concepts the question of meaning does not arise in their case. My point is really that you can't ask whether dreams have meaning without worrying about where meaning begins and ends. (All of this is quite apart, of course, from the psychoanalytic use of dreams in which, as Freud says, the dream isn't as important as the patient's response to it.) The strides that literary theory (chiefly, reader-response theory) have made in this direction go beyond the notion that there is no Atranscendental signified@Cor, to quote Globus on Jacques Derrida, no single Aauthorial, authoritative, transmissible meaning@ (1991: 32)Cfor any particular text. Globus is quite right to insist that multiple in­terpretations, even contradictory interpretations, of the same dream prove nothing whatever about meaning. The same is true of literary texts and no one seems to be saying that they are meaningless. It is simply that literary textsCand presumably the same may be said of dreamsCdo not have verifiable meanings because they mean in a different way from scientific postulates whose Ameanings@ can be tested. The problem is that interpretation usually amounts to a translation of the literary text or the dream report (what is left of the dream) into highly specified meanings. These meanings are then assumed to be present in the text (or dream) in some intentional or quasi-intentional form (censored or symbolic). Quite subtly, then, when we use a simple (and Awell-meaning@) construction like AThis dream means such-and-such@ the dream is given a voice, an intentionality C indeed, it is now all intentionality, and we can no longer see it as non-specifying or unintentional, or, another possibility, as a psychic experience whose meaning, as Foulkes and Gendlin (in a different way) suggest, is of a radically different sort.

 This conversion gives rise to what the deconstructionists call the paradox of origin: AIf the effect is what causes the cause to become a cause,@ to quote Jonathan Culler, Athen the effect, not the cause, should be treated as the origin.... If either cause or effect can occupy the position of origin, then origin is no longer originary@ (Culler, 1985: 88). In short, there is always the possibility that the cause of a dream meaning something may be the interpretation rather than the dream itself. It is true that the interpretation was caused by the dream in the first place, but that is no guarantee that it hasn't caused the dream to mean something it doesn't mean. So we are back with the problem of where meaning originatesCin the object of study or in the subjectivity of the interpreter? How, precisely, does this differ from Globus finding in his dream a unifying concept of Aloss of attachments@ that could not possibly have been detected from the dream report alone? I am not questioning Globus's interpretation. Indeed, I support Globus's position, having had the very same impression of coherence in many of my own dreams. But I would come at the problem of meaning and meaningfulness from a differentCperhaps one may say a complementaryCdirection. I suggest that we may take two very different per­spectives on meaning in both dreams and fiction: it is, on one level, a kind of sig­nificance or coherence, from which we can derive fairly specific conceptualizations that have a certain usefulness in the waking world (psychoanalysis, self-education, etc.) whether they are Acorrect or incorrect@; and, on the other, meaning is a form of experiential truth, or coherence, that is beneath explanation and is, indeed, virtually coterminous with the dream experience itself.

  Let me concentrate on this second sense of the term, since I have probably labored the first far enough. One notes that Globus, like most dream analysts since Freud, finds the unifying concept of his dreams (Aloss of attachments@) in the ma­terials and concerns of his waking lifeChis very Astrongest attachments@ in life, in factCwhich are then used to verify the meanings of his dreams. Can we not say, then, that daily life, at a certain level, is precisely as meaningful as our dreams and is something more than the random construction some people assume waking life to be? I am not suggesting that our lives are skillfully plotted in any literary sense, only that dreams are as random, or non-random, as our livesCboth being, as it were, experiences energized by a persistent self moving through a world that is partly happenstantial and partly predictable. The dream simply has the remarkable facility of skipping the Adull@ stretches of life and centering (rather like the day­dream) on matters of direct psychical concern. Like life, the dream is both random and orderly: it is random respecting what might happen next, but it is orderly re­specting the persistence of a personal energy that continually repeats itself, thus achieving a kind of self-unity. Let me bring this idea out of the blue with a passage from Hans-George Gadamer of which I was reminded in reading Globus's paper. This comes from Gadamer's critique of Dilthey's conception of the unity of human experience:

If something is called or considered an experience its meaning rounds it into the unity of a significant whole. An experience is as much distinguished from other experiences in which other things are experiencedCas from the rest of life in which 'nothing' is experienced. An experience is no longer just something that flows past quickly in the stream of the life of consciousnessC it is meant as a unity and thus attains a new mode of being one. . .  On the other hand, however, in the notion of experience there is also a contrast of life with mere concept. The experience has a definite immediacy which eludes every opinion about its meaning. Everything that is experienced is experienced by oneself, and it is part of its meaning that it belongs to the unity of this self and thus contains an inalienable and irreplaceable relation to the whole of this one life. Thus its being is not exhausted in what can be said of it and in what can be grasped as its meaning. (1985: 60)

There are many ways to express this idea: for instance, Eugene Gendlin's notion of Afelt meanings@ in experience (1962) and Mark Johnson's concept of Aembodied understanding@ (1987: 103) bear on the same quality of Aimmediacy@ in experience which Aeludes every opinion about its meaning.@ But it is my belief that one cannot fully encompass the meaningfulness of dreams without considering them as being Aexperiences@ in just this sense. In dreams we experienceCor continue to experi­enceCthe sense of self-unity, or the relation of the part to Athe whole of this one life@ we live largely in the waking state. Dreams do not add, or give meaning to our lives; they Ainstantiate@ meaning that is already there. Dreams are not like Copernicus discovering something about the solar system that wasn't known before; they are simply a repetition, under different conditions, of the experiential Aorbit,@ so to speak, of the individual. I have dreamed, on countless occasions, of doing typical things I know to be part of my waking behavior. I feel guilt or shame or pleasure in the dream as I do in life, but I have no reason to believe that the dream, like a conscience beyond or above my dreaming consciousness, is Atelling@ me something I don't already know. Such events get into the dream because the dream means what my life means; it is not an interpretation but a continuation of my bad and good habits and of my regret, guilt, or satisfaction about having them.  The crucial difference, then, between waking and dream experience, as regards content, is that the dream is an imaginative condensation of experience: it is not better, more (or less) coherently, plotted than life; it simply is not constrained by what has happened, or is possible to happen, in the empirical world. These liberties, of course, constitute the bizarreness on which the Anew science@ of dreaming bases its case for meaninglessness; but it seems to me equally valid to see bizarreness as the Amedium@ through which the dream taps the unity of experience at the emotional level.

 I have dealt elsewhere with this notion of bizarreness as a medium of dream composition (1992, in press) and will only say here that the phenomenon of bizar­reness in dreams seems to me widely misconceived. Bizarreness should not be considered as an Aintrusion@ into the dream but as the very modus operandi by which the dream fabricates images, no matter how Arealistic@ or life-like they may appear to be. To claim, therefore, that the dream is meaningless, because bizarre or ran­dom, is a misapplication of waking logic and empirical causality to a species of experience that is grounded on entirely different behavioral laws. Indeed, dreams and fictions, looked at carefully, have virtually the same degree of bizarreness. It is all a matter of the conditions under which one experiences them. For example, a reader of Hamlet wouldn't find the Ghost's figure of speech, Athe porches of my ears,@ bizarre because literary competence teaches us to bypass a literal picturization. In a similar way, the singlemindedness (or Adream competence@) of sleep al­lows the dreamer to see all images literallyCeven a huge ear shaped like a porchCbut at the same time as perfectly in keeping with dream reality. It is only on reflecting on Shakespeare's metaphor that you see a porch-like ear for the grotesquerie it is and only on waking that a dream image seems Abizarre.@ In any case, beneath the metaphor is a felt meaningCvisually outrageous but comprehensively articulate of a certain deep likeness between things belonging to two different categoriesCin this instance, the ear as the entrance, or porch, to the body (conceived as the royal Ahouse@ of Denmark). This is one of the root characteristics of felt meaning: it is, as Gendlin says, A>non-numerical,' it can be specified as one or as many experiences@ (1962: 159). Felt meanings, in short, are trans-categorical and when the mind moves among categories and fuses its findings (sometimes called figural thinking) we are unavoidably in the country of the bizarre. I must add that I am not claiming that all dreams are equally Abizarre,@ only that bizarreness is a bottom-to-top condition originating in the Amodified attentive state@ of dream expe­rience. Indeed, Llinás and Paré, whom I am quoting here, have recently proposed the Aoutrageous@ hypothesis Athat wakefulness is nothing other than a dreamlike state modulated by the constraints produced by specific sensory inputs@ (1991, 525. Emphasis theirs). In some dreams (feverish dreams, night terrors, etc.) the process may get out of control, but such monstrosities are simply an extreme variation of the dream's peculiar Anormalcy@ in which Aattention is turned away from the sensory input, toward memories@ (525). They are to most dreams what the works of the surrealists are to the world of fiction.

Gadamer goes on to say that aesthetic experience is not simply Aone kind of experience among others,@ but Athe essence of experience itself.@ The work of art Asuddenly takes the person experiencing it out of the context of his life . . ., and yet relates him back to the whole of his experience@ (63). Though dreams can scarcely be called works of art (either in artifactual form or in our manner of ex­periencing them), it could be said that like works of art they offer Athe essence of experience,@ as opposed to the lived events of experience. This seems to me close to what Globus means by unifying concept and what Ernest Hartmann says about dreams in the same issue: Adreaming basically connects, or joins; it brings together that which is usually kept apartCat least in waking. It connects thoughts, images, memories, wishes, fears, in new ways@ (1991: 25), some of them quite bizarre. But is that meaning, or should it better be called something else: preservation? corre­lation (Hartmann calls joining a Abiological concept@ [25])? articulation? descrip­tion? Or if we retain meaning as the operative wordCand I have no reservation about doing soCshould we not include in it the meaning that belongs, as Gadamer says, to the unity of the experience, something that Ais not exhausted in what can be said of it and in what can be grasped as its meaning@? In other words, there is, on one hand, what we might call local meaning, which is expressible in terms of concepts, and, on the other, there is the condition of meaningfulness that per­vades experience in the form of a Afelt@ unity. As one can see, this is very difficult to talk about, but then I believe dreaming is difficult to talk about precisely because it consists of having such experiences, and talking about them in almost any manner tends to draw one into a conceptual mode of thought.

Perhaps it would help to have a clearer sense of the difference between dreams and fictional art before proceeding to some examples of the sort of meaning I have been discussing. This is of course an immense subject that leads us into all dimensions of dreaming and storytelling. Perhaps we could begin with the similari­ties between dreaming and reading. A literary text, in itself, is nothing but words committed to paper in a certain arrangement; it may be used to provoke an expe­rience in a reader or it may become the food supply for library worms. In any case, we read these words one by one and the text is constituted as an experience only by the dialectical interplay of text and reader. This interplay, Paul Ricoeur says, allows us Ato speak of the work of reading in the same way we speak of the dream-work@ (1988, vol. 3, 168). What he means by this, I assume, is simply that reading and dreaming involve the Aplay of retentions and protentions@ that create the ex­pectations of a reader (or a dreamer). Dreaming is like reading in that it Aconsists in traveling the length of the [dream/text], in allowing all the modifications per­formed to >sink' into memory, while compacting them, and in opening ourselves up to new expectations entailing new modifications@ (p. 168). What in the dream, then, is comparable to the text? Certainly not the dream report, which is a text, of sorts, but it has only the status of a reader's second-hand summary of a fiction she/he has read. In the dialectic of reading there is, as Ricoeur says, an implied author who is Aa disguise of the real author, who disappears by making himself the narrator immanent in the workCthe narrative voice,@ and an implied reader, Athe receiver to whom the sender of the work addresses himself . . . [who] remains virtual as long as this role has not been actualized@ (p. 170). It would appear that in a dream the implied author-function and the implied reader-function of the fictional text are, so to speak, conflated in the consciousness of the real dreamer, resulting in the absence of a text. The dreamer is both author and reader. He tells the story to himself, in a manner of speaking, like the identical reader and listener in Samuel Beckett's dream play Ohio Impromptu who Agrew to be as one.@

Let us look more carefully, however, at certain differences between dreams and fictions with respect to authoring and experiencing. Let us compare fictions and dreams as perceptual experiences. But on what basis? What would be the best Aunit@ of comparison? Shall we compare the perceptual experience of the author of fiction to that of the dreamer, on the ground that the dreamer too is an author? This might be interesting except that the dreamer, unlike a waking author, has no perceptual experience of the act of authoring. Therefore, perhaps we should stick with our parallel between reader and dreamer, since both experience the contents of an imagined world. This is not a perfect Afit@ either because the dreamer is (usually) the protagonist of the dream in a way that the reader is not the protagonist of a fiction. But at least the reader is, as Georges Poulet says, surrounded by Afic­titious beings@ (1981, p. 43) who in a sense cease to be fictitious and constitute a virtual real world; moreover, in Poulet's terms it is equally valid to say that the protagonist is inside the reader's head and that the reader is inside the protagonist's. Let us refine the perspective further, however, and take as our object of study the perception of characters, since characters are (in one respect) common to both dreams and fictions, and seem to be the best carriers of the salient features of both.

I will begin with our perception of characters in fiction. Without attempting to say all that might be said on the subject, I suggest that we perceive fictional characters on at least four levels, though these obviously form a unified impression. For convenience, I will call them the pronounal, the dialogic, the thematic, and the stylistic. On the pronounal level, the character is seen as a name or person (Hamlet, Ophelia, Brutus, Cassius), or a pronoun (I, he, she) consisting of a virtual body and a bundle of traits that form a disposition distinct from that of any other char­acter in (or outside) the fiction. Brutus is Brutus and Cassius is Cassius. On the dialogic level, characters may be said to create each other: in a dialogue speaker and listener merge, and are dependent on each other for Alife@ and identity, as when Cassius and Brutus argue over what to do about Caesar, they co-responsively create each other's characters before our eyes through the dialogical principle of stimulus and response, one provoking the display of emotions, traits, attitudes, etc., of the other. At this level, in other words, our awareness of character has begun to distribute itself beyond the pronounal phase of the discrete human entity and we begin to see that character is a reactionary formation, not a self-starting autono­mous entity. Brutus is now CassiusCand Caesar and Portia and Marc Antony, etc., as well. On the thematic level characters begin to manifest a super-psychological cast in that their individual subjective positions, or inter-positions, are perceived as part of a larger harmony. For one thing, Brutus and Cassius, unlike us, always talk on the same subject that other characters talk about when they aren't around (Rome, Caesar, conspiracy, assassination), and it never occurs to them that there are other topics in the world, like love, revenge, or ambition, such as obsess Romeo, Hamlet, and Macbeth who don't care in the least what happened in Rome. Finally, at the stylistic level, as Eliot said of Shakespeare, character and author Aspeak in unison.@ If characters are each different in their own way, there is the imprint of another individuality in them and it is that of their author who endows all of their speech and actions with the characteristics of a single individual style. And style, as Mikel Dufrenne has put it, is Athe locus in which the artist appears@ (1973, 105).  Odd as it may sound, at this level of perception we may say that Hamlet is Brutus, Romeo, Cassius, Macbeth, et al., in that all were Afathered@ by the same creator.

I have greatly simplified this spectrum in order to suit it more comparatively to a discussion of dreams. In the dream, obviously, something happens to this Anested@ relationship of perceptual planes. Perhaps the main thing is that while the characters of the dream (and its world) are created by the dreamer, the dreamer is now inside the world as a participant and the activity of creation, of imagining the world, no longer takes place from a superior standpoint. Indeed, from a purely phenomenal perspective, creativity does not take place at all; it is reality that un­folds before the dreamer's eyes. For the dreamer, for instance, there is no con­sciousness of theme any more than Brutus and Cassius are conscious of being bound by the theme of conspiracy or by an awareness that they are creatures in a play by William Shakespeare. As a consequence, any anticipations the dreamer may have about how things will Aturn out@ have only to do with personal expectations and nothing to do with aesthetic pleasure. Moreover, the dreamer does not perceive other characters in the dream in any such perceptual Adepth@Cor even a gestalt of this depthCas I have outlined here: characters are simply others in the same world and it is a world without theme or style, a world in which, like the waking world, anything may happen to you but you will always react Ain character.@

Still, there are echoes of something akin to an authorial function in the dream, though it can only be perceived in retrospect (apart, perhaps, from cases of lucid dreaming). Just as Brutus is, in part, made of CassiusCcould not be Brutus without Cassius, Caesar, etc.Cso the people conjured in the dream have what we may call fluid identities. They do not appear to the dreamer as composites, but they are subject to Arevision,@ or change (facial structure, gender, attitude, etc.). To put it another way, if Julius Caesar were a dream dreamed by Brutus Cassius might well become Casca or Trebonius or Cinna on the ground that all are conspirators and thus to a degree interchangeable as actional functions. Moreover, though the dreamer is not aware of a thematic dimension in the dream, there is one there in the sense that all elements of the dream (usually) cooperate in Asticking to the subject@ (my endangerment, my defeat of the villain, my unsuccessful love affair, etc.). Here we arrive at a level at which the function we call authoring in the waking world asserts itself as a kind of Darwinian ACondition of Existence@ in the dream world. The authorial act of the waking writer alternately putting himself into the Aminds@ of his characters, changing their natures as composition may require, think­ing their thoughts and undergoing their fate in a virtual way is repeated in the dream in the cooperation between the author/dreamer and the dreamed characters.

One cannot even claim that the dreamer knows more than the characters do, since in the end all are aspects of the same creative energy. This is what we might call dispersed authorship: there is a psychical bond between dreamer and dreamed char­acter (and dream world at large) through which the dreamer's anticipation uncon­sciously Ainstructs@ the characters to do certain things (even terrorizing the dreamer) in keeping with the emotion underlying the dreamCand they oblige, hav­ing in a sense no mind of their own. This is, as we say in literary studies, the only Aevidence of authorship@ in the dream world: a qualitative compatibility in all im­ages or, if you will, a commanding emotional Akey,@ as in a musical composition, that controls possibilities of development and harmony. This has nothing to do with conscious intelligent Aplanning@ on the part of the dreamer; it occurs more like a sequence of sympathetic vibrations wherein the wish is father to the deed. But that is a subject beyond our concern here.

With these differences and similarities in mind, let us return to the question of meaning. Let us look at two cases that will illustrate the difference between experienced meaning and the kind of meaning we derive from interpretation. I will begin with a fiction, and for simple convenience I will remain with Shakespeare. Just before Hamlet dies, he asks Horatio to forego the Afelicity@ of suicide and live on to justify Hamlet's wounded name (AAnd in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/ To tell my story.@). And at the end of the play, Horatio dutifully begins Hamlet's story thus:    

      So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.

  This is, of course, very moving and I wouldn't want to change a syllable of it or to hear a word more. But the passage inadvertently bespeaks the inexpressibility of certain dimensions of meaning (and I suspect Horatio knows it). Something is inevitably left out of this account, no matter what sort of detail might followCshort of a complete repetition of Hamlet. And this is the true eloquence of Hamlet's dying words, AThe rest is silence.@ Indeed Horatio can relate Aall this@ competently. But it has so little to do with Hamlet's Astory,@ with the felt meaning of Hamlet, that one can almost imagine Hamlet speaking from the grave through his latter day friend, Alfred Prufrock, AThat is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.@ What Horatio is in a position to tell has about as much to do with Hamlet's story as the report of a dream has to do with what was actually dreamed, and with what it may mean as a psychical experience. In other words, Hamlet's meaning is what we experience in Hamlet's company, word by word, gesture by gesture. It is dura­tional rather than conceptual. What the experience may mean conceptually to Hora­tio or to you is quite different from what it may mean to me. Moreover, what it may have meant conceptually to Shakespeare, if anything, is something entirely dif­ferent, and not necessarily more Acorrect@ than your meaning or mine. Yet this infinite potential for new and other (even contradictory) meanings arises from something beneath all the possible things one can say about Hamlet. It is never Aexhausted@ by conceptual meanings for the simple reason that it did not spring from a concept but from an adherence to a certain rhythm in human experience, and this may very well be the thing about literature, and dreaming, that is most valuable. Imagine the point in Horatio's story where he gets to Hamlet's private thoughts about suicide (assuming the impossibility that he had somehow overheard Hamlet's soliloquies) and he says to his wonder-wounded hearers, AHamlet thought about taking his own life but decided against it for several reasons,@ and then goes on to name these reasons (as hundreds of critics have done since). This is what we might call his interpretation of the soliloquies, what it was that gave Hamlet his Abad dreams@Cthis is the information contained in the soliloquies. What the hearers would be missing, obviously, is precisely what Shakespeare Ameant@ by the speeches: that Hamlet is a man trapped between alternative courses and this is the way the mind tosses about in its restless ecstasy. This is the felt meaning of Hamlet:  a man so tossed. There is every likelihood that Shakespeare had his own intentions about the meaning of Hamlet, and they may have been quite specific. But as a reliable interpreter of his own play, or his hero's motives, Shakespeare is finally only as reliable as Horatio. That is because the poet's intention, as Northrop Frye suggested long ago, Ais centripetally directed . . . toward putting words together, not towards aligning words with meanings. . .  What the poet meant to say, then, is the poem itself' (Frye, 1957, 86-7). And he goes on to say, the poet is in the same position as a scientist who can Astate a law illustrated by more phenomena than he could ever hope to observe or count@ (88).

  Now let us apply this idea to a dream. For no special reason (though partly for its brevity), I choose a dream cited by Jean Piaget of a six year old boy who had for several months been dreaming that there was a basin on a stand in his bedroom:

In the basin I saw a bean that was so big that it quite filled it. It got bigger and bigger

all the time. I was standing by the door. I was frightened. I wanted to scream and run away, but I couldn't. I got more and more frightened, and it went on until I woke up.  (1951: 179)

This dream appears in a series in which Piaget is dealing with the question of whether there is any development in symbolism in the dreams of children that par­allels their experience in play. Most analysts would have no hesitation in assigning the growing bean to the realm of sexual symbolism (for Piaget it is a symbol of erection). In short, it is not hard to find a Aunifying concept@ for the dream and if we knew more about the boy we could be even more specific about the dream's determinants and how the dream figures in the boy's life. (We might find, for in­stance, that he had a frightening response to his mother's pregnancy and his sister's Aappearance@ from her stomach.) Surely even the most intrepid new dream scientist could not dispute the dream's meaningfulness (in the conceptual sense of the term) by claiming that it was only a bizarre dream about a bean (especially since the boy had been having similar dreams for several months).

But let us return to Gadamer's notion of experience and see how it might apply. An experience, he says, Ahas a definite immediacy which eludes every opinion about its meaning.@ It is experienced by one person to whom it belongs exclusively and Athus [it] contains an inalienable and irreplaceable relation to the whole of this one life.@ This leads us far from the pragmatic course of dream analysis and diagnosis, as it is normally practiced. But where does it lead us? What is it in the dream that is not Aexhausted@ by the concepts we can, with good justification, attach to it? As with the meaningfulness of Hamlet, we are virtually speechless at this levelCwhich is to say, conceptless. The experience belongs to the boy who dreamed it, and all we can do by way of appreciating what it may have Ameant@ is to put our own experience, as ex-dreamers, in its stead. For me, the most profound point of sympathyCthe point that I can at least understand, as an outsider to the dreamCwould be the emotion of fright itself, not fright at a monstrous bean that stood for something outside the dream (erection, pregnancy, planting, bearing, etc.), but the immediacy of fright as an experience in itself, fright as a base-level emotion, fright as an indispensable biological signal, fright as part of the education in wari­ness, and specifically, in this instance, fright at the terrible power of transformation inherent in  nature. Why should the boy be frightened of his erection or his mother's pregnancy if not out of an inadequate understanding of what such transformations mean in a world where things, to a boy of six, remain substantially what they are? We can safely predict that this is one of many fright dreams the boy will experience in his lifetime and each dream, though concerned with a different object of fright, will have the same consequence. Fright is fright: it has its own narrative structure and its own feeling, though it may have different meanings and very different de­terminants in different cultures. I am not suggesting that fright, or any other emo­tion, has a universal or a single significance, only that it is an elemental experience, irreducible (like Hamlet's tossed-ness) to anything else and it matters little whether it is aroused by a plausibly vicious dog or a bizarre bean with a mind of its own. In this sense, the dream, unlike many fictions, invariably Atells the truth@ about our emotional life.

I realize that all this is rather like saying that Aa rose is a rose is a rose@; but what Gertrude Stein was trying to express in this famous tautology is the nonref­erentiality of rose-ness. It is an immanently phenomenological piece of poetry de­signed to prevent our seeing a rose as a sign, or as having a significance that is outside of its being. Likewise, to trace a dream emotion to its possible causes in immediate psychic life is to treat the dream as a signifier, or as a kind of box in which something more meaningful has been shipped. It is also tantamount to con­sidering Hamlet as the carrier of a concept (take your choice) as opposed to the experience of living the Hamletic part of one's own life through Hamlet. As for the signifying value of the bean, one might argue that it is not a symbol of erection (if that is the right referent) but that it stands in a metaphorical relationship to erection in which two life experiences are seen to share a certain likeness. As Hart­mann would say, the dream is Aputting things together in a new way,@ not one as a substitute, or concealment of the other, but one as being like the other. We may emphasize the likeness or we may emphasize the causal priority; the latter takes us to the realm of concepts, the former to the realm of essence, and that is essen­tially the division I am trying to describe here. Of course, we do not know where the bean came from, and Piaget does not tell us where the idea of erection came from. But I am willing to accept the strong probability that they come together in the bean image, together with a great deal more. The point is that it is not a mys­tery, a symptom of randomness, or a disguise that a dream should put bean and erection into a common category, or that it should graphically represent the bean instead of the erection (tomorrow night, as Calvin Hall would say, it may be the other way around). To take another page from Piaget: ASince affective life is ad­aptation, it . . . implies continual assimilation of present situations to earlier onesCassimilation which gives rise to affective schemas or relatively stable modes of feeling or reactingCand continual accommodation of these schemas to the pre­sent situation@ (1951: 206). My suggestion is that such assimilation is one of the sources of unity in experience, and two of the creative consequences of the process are dreams and art.

It is not a question, then, of dreams meaning one or several things, but of the impossibility of equating meaning itself to possible interpretations. Indeed, we dream about things whose meaning we already know in an emotional and precon­ceptual sense, and that is probably why we dream about them and why dreams make a certain kind of essentialized sense. The dream is the instantiation of a felt meaning which is the cause of the dream, not its effect; it is brought directly into sleep from the day's experience, and what meaning one gets out of it on the waking side by way of interpretation is itself a new meaning (because a new symbolization) which leaves the experience behind in the act of conceptualizing it for waking un­derstanding. If you dream that you are dancing, you may be dreaming about one of several things: how easy it is to dance, how graceful and exhilarating your effort, or how impossible and awkward; your dream-dance, then, will be the dancing of a feeling about dancing, which is to say about one of dancing's meanings to you. In any case, as Yeats might put it, you can't tell the meaning from the dance.

It is interesting that many artists today, in this age of hermeneutical frenzy, have so little concern for what their works mean and often feel that a work has been violated or misunderstood by those who attach meanings to it. Collaterally, most readers (perhaps all readers except literary critics and their students) seem perfectly content to be engrossed in fictional works, to think about them thereafter, and perhaps even to re-read them, without the least interest in translating them into a conceptual language. It seems to me, in the first instance, that the artist's discontent rests primarily on an instinctive understanding of the non-equivalence of interpretation and meaning, and of how interpretation diminishes the metaphori­cal character of the work and how truth Adiscloses itself@ in it, as Heidegger puts it (1975: 75). And the gratification of reading as an end in itself would seem to be a corroboration of the artist's unease with interpreters who not only read their work but convert it into conceptual propositions. For it cannot be that what we get out of art (or dreaming) is a consequence of our interpreting it; it would seem rather to be a result of having assimilated it. And when we awaken in the morning and wonder what a dream meant, we may be neglecting the possibility that what it meant is that we were simply continuing our waking life in another dimension. To understand a work (or a dream) is simply to perceive wherein it is a true version of one's experience, for there is no understanding to be had from a work that sets forth a false version of experience and it does not take a literary critic to detect the difference. Needless to say, a true version of experience, like a false one, de­pends centrally on one's personal and cultural assumptions. Understanding, as Mark Johnson has put it, Ais our mode of >being in the world.' It is the way we are mean­ingfully situated in our world through our bodily interactions, our cultural institu­tions, our linguistic tradition, and our historical context@ (1987: 102).

My own understanding of the dream is unavoidably that of a Westerner; how­ever, it is not meant to exclude or discredit other beliefs but, in some measure, to offer an adjustment of our prevailing Western tendency to equate the meaning and importance of dreams with what can conceptually be got out of them. The kind of meaning I have been elaborating here is untranslatable; it is virtually identical with being and if one moment or experience seems more meaningful than another it is because there is more of being in it, as in the adventure, the discovery, or the epiphany, all moments in which (as Walker Percy once said of the metaphor) a big thing is happening in a small place. There is a colossal difference between say­ing, AMy love is fresh, delicate, soft, beautiful, fragrant, etc.,@ and AMy love is like a red red rose,@ and the difference is that one is a string of qualities and the other is a sensory experience that calls up our felt memory of the world; one tells you what your love is, what sorts of things it is made of, the other tells you it is an ineffable feeling but that it has a certain character. Two things come together from different realms and one sees, beneath all possible specifications, that there is a unity within all separateness that cannot be articulated by the act of conceptual interpretation. It is Freud's Oceanic feeling writ small. Dreams and fictions have in common the ability to condense being into narratives of felt meaning. Finding other, more specific meanings beyond such understanding obviously serves certain purposes relevant to immediate social life, politics, psychoanalysis, criticism, the study of authors and literary periods, and so on; so the point is not to deny that there are other kinds of meaning or to lament that they get attached to dreams and fictions. But all of them are at best incidental to the real purposes of storytelling and dreaming and why they have persisted as involuntary exercises of the imagi­nation from the beginning of history. Like almost everyone else, I am at a loss to say what those purposes may be, and every theory I encounter or have myself con­ceived leaves me with the same sense of unease and over-simplification that I ex­perience in the presence of any single interpretation of a dream or fiction. Whatever the purposes of dreams may be, however, I am fairly confident that they have noth­ing to do with such things as message-sending, symbolic disguise, suppression, ran­dom nonsense, trashing excess memory, or recommendations for better living. All of these things may be read into them, but what is always left behind is the di­mension of meaning that cannot survive translation. A dream is a dream is a dream.



Culier, J. (1985). On deconstruction: Theory and criticism after structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Dufrenne, M. (1973). The phenomenology of aesthetic experience, trans. Edward S. Casey, et al. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Foulkes, D. (1978). A grammar of dreams. New York: Basic Books.

Foulkes, D. (1985). Dreaming: A cognitive-psychological analysis. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.

Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Gadamer, H-G. (1985). Truth and method. New York: Crossroad.

Gendlin, E. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Globus, G. (1991). Dream content: Random or meaningful. Dreaming, 1, 27-40.

Hartmann, E. (1991). Dreams that work or dreams that poison: What does dreaming do? An editorial essay. Dreaming, 1, 23-25.

Heidegger, M. (1975). Poetry, language, thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York & Toronto: Harper & Row.

Hunt, Harry T. (1991). Dreams as literature/science of dreams: An essay. Dreaming, 1, 240.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Llinás, R. R., & D. Paré (1991). On dreaming and wakefulness Neuroscience. 44, 521-535.

Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, trans. C. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson. London: William Heinemann.

Poulet, Georges (1981). Criticism and the experience of interiority. In Jane P. Tompkins (ed.), Reader-response criticism from formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ray, W. (1984). Literary meaning from phenomenology to deconstruction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ricoeur, P. (1988). Time and narrative, vol. 3, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

States, B. (1990). Dreaming and Storytelling. Hudson Review, 21-37.

States, B. (1992: in press). Bizarreness in dreams and other fictions. In Carol S. Rupprecht (ed.), The dream and the text: Essays in language and literature, Albany: State University of New York Press.