Chapter 1 – Dream Theory in the West

Should there be a prophet among you,
in visions I will reveal myself to him
and in dreams I will speak to him.
(Numbers 12:5)

Many passages from the Bible remind us the extent to which, throughout much of the history of Western Civilization, dreams were considered the domain of religion. Gradually, fitfully, they have been claimed by more secular scientific domains, while always retaining some religious or spiritual proponents, like in current New Age movements. This push and pull between ideas or theories about what dreams are, what they mean, where they come from, has been with us for thousands of years. This section will be a cursory overview, a reminder of some of the shifts and contradictions in ideas about dreams in Western thinking. While there are various periods with differing dominant beliefs, part of what we will see is the fundamental eclecticism of European and more recent North American approaches to dreams – various trends will coexist within a society at any given time. Our focus will be on the 20th century, with some very cursory historical exploration, just to recall briefly the various evolutions and predominant trends through changing moments in history and within different sectors of society.

As far back as Ancient Greece we can see conflicting ideas of what dreams are about, how they work, from whence they come, and what they have to tell us. Within the Greek pantheon there are a variety of characters relating to sleep and dreams, such as Hypnos who governs sleep, and his son, Morpheus, the deity of dreams. “It was said the Mopheus appeared to humans in their dreams in the shape of a man and that Morpheus shaped dreams, and gave shape to the beings who appear during dreams.” (Packer 20) So dreams do not emanate from the dreamer, but from an outside force. Looking at writing of the time, on the one hand, “…Greek literature reveals a belief in the divine and prophetic character of dreams…” (Lincoln 5) while later works assert that dreams are allegorical, and “the dramatists conception of dreams…can be seen to have moved to a view in which psychological factors predominated”. (Van de Castle 61)

Yet another theory of dreams was that they were nighttime soul travel, nocturnal wanderings of the spirit – a belief held by many, including Plato. (Coxhead and Hiller 6) In this context, dreams could be deceptive and duplicitous: “both gods and mortals could be deceived by dreams.” (Packer 11) Aristotle, by contrast, determined that dreams were in fact the “mental process” of the dreamer – they were not from sources divine or diabolical, but came from within the mind of each individual. (Coxhead and Hiller 6) This range of ideas shows us that, “from Greece…we can trace all the theories of dreaming – materialistic, mystical, analytical, occult and medical – that were available to the West at the beginning of this [20th] century”. (Coxhead and Hiller 5)

As we move into the world of the Old Testament we continue to see the preference for explaining dreams as coming from outside the dreamer, albeit from a slightly different set of sources: “The Jews also believed that good supernatural entities could be sources of dreams. Angels, who resided in a special department in heaven, were sent as messengers from God.” (Van de Castle 54) This idea of dreams as being prophetic and from the gods and of deep religious significance continued up to Medieval times. But changes within the church eventually led to an insistence that only dreams by those recognized as within church structure were to be trusted – all other dreams, including the dreams of lay people, were suspect, conceivably evil.

We must first appreciate the seriousness that early modern Europe accorded nighttime visions… Christianity recognized a long line of female seers and religious women who had achieved a state of spiritual grace and were able to receive divine messages, usually in the form of visions….but by mid-fifteenth century…female seers were suspected of diabolical delusion. (Kagan 3 – 4)

By the 16th century, “dreams, in effect, had been banished” and it was “a sin to believe in dreams”. (Van de Castle 83) The banishment of the dreams of ordinary people from church consideration left dreams in an area of ambiguous push and pull between the rising realm of science, and an ongoing mystical / spiritualist tendency in the society. This separation between domains is likely part of what facilitated the eventual relegation of dreams to the realm of science. As scientific ideas developed, and religious ideas were increasingly compartmentalized, much of educated elite European society in the 19th century began to dismiss dreams as simply random mental refuse. Ordinary people and small marginal groups such as the Romantic artists and the Spiritualist movement retained an interest in symbolism and mysticism generally, and these groups were perhaps even excessively attentive to the world of dreams, finding the world of dreams to be more interesting than ordinary life. This mixed bag of ideas was the context in which Freud emerged with the book, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899.

Among the many ideas emphasized by Freud – the identification of the unconscious; the categorizations of id, ego and superego; the development of the “talking method” of healing using free association – his work on dreams is one of the most significant and influential on contemporary society. Freud’s breakthrough seems a startling intervention, but these ideas emerged to some extent from the many ideas in the air at the time, and it was Freud’s circle that brought them together and forward to a wider public: “It can be seen that investigators of dreams from 1860 – 1899 had already discovered almost all the notions that were to be synthesized by Freud and by Jung.” (Ellenberger 311) However Freud’s fundamental re-usurping of the dream as worthy of examination has had an enormous influence on modern society and culture. “Freud’s contribution to the study of dreaming rescued the subject from the periphery, and restored it to the center of Western man’s concern.” (Coxhead and Hiller 15) Freud’s syncretic approach suggests on the one hand almost a throwback to a religious notion of the dream as significant to the human soul, yet with an attempt to present the ideas via a quasi-scientific argument, the mechanism of the subconscious. Freud did his best to align himself with scientific streams and distance himself from “superstitious” thinking, referring to erroneous notions such as, “the popular belief that dreams always foretell the future”, and continuing on to say that this superstition is not for the “educated” person. (On Dreams 59) These comments suggest the degree to which beliefs about dreams were shaped by education and class background. For the “serious minded”, complained Freud, “dreams are froth”. (On Dreams 7) Scientists remained as skeptical as ever about the value of dreams, saying Freud’s work on dreams and techniques such as free association could lead to “complete mysticism”. (Ellenberger 317)

Freud’s ideas about dreams became a point of disagreement and departure for psychologists that followed: “Freud affirmed that, with very few exceptions, dreams were disguised hallucinatory fulfillments of repressed wishes”. (Storr 44) This fundamental notion about the unconscious and the way dreams function as a fulfillment of repressed, generally unconscious wishes not acceptable to waking reality (in Freud’s world, usually having to do with infantile sexuality) was a major breakthrough, and the idea he was probably most interested in. His theory left little room for dreams that appear to address fear and anxiety, or dreams that were repetitive dreams of traumatic events. His interest was in the psychic conflicts around the social need to repress many impulses, and the ensuing neuroses from this repression. Freud’s critique of society included a rejection of religion, “because religions often demand repression of our basic selfishness, and psychological neuroses originate from repressed fundamental instincts, religious behaviour resembled mental illness by manifesting a universal obsessional neurosis of our frustrated instincts.” (Olson 343)

There are several other key ideas from Freud’s dream theories that are particularly significant for us in a cinematic consideration. One such idea is the concept of condensation – the compression of characters, places, themes into a symbolic and condensed dream language. Another major concept significant for its filmic implications, is the idea of latent content versus manifest content – manifest content being the strange symbolist surface language and imagery of dreams; the latent content being the repressed, hidden, true meaning, not immediately visible or even tolerable to the dreamer. This articulation of a distinction between what the images are and what they may symbolize, has contributed to the making and design of films, as well as some streams of film theory. The limitations of Freud’s theories have been mentioned often – in particular, the singularity of seeing dreams as wish-fulfillment and the obsession with understanding sexuality as fundamental to an interpretation of the content of any and all dreams – but his defense of dreams as significant to human subjectivity was of huge significance, as was the articulation of the poetic language functioning in dreams. Although for many, his over-emphasis on the notion of repressed childhood sexual impulses as the source of all dreams was unnecessarily reductive, the basic premise of wish fulfillment becomes quite interesting, especially as we will see certain parallels in Iroquois dream theory.

A contemporary and disciple of Freud, deeply influenced by many of Freud’s ideas about the human unconscious, Jung broke away from Freud’s circle and developed a number of his own ideas about human psychology and dreams. Jung was also influenced by other ideas of the time – ideas expressed by the Romantics, and by the Philosophy of Nature movement – and the influences of these more mystical and spiritualist tendencies separate him sharply from Freud’s preference for scientific rationale. Jung’s expansive ideas included a belief in universal symbols, in an individual unconscious as well as a collective unconscious, and in the notion of archetypes and myths as having emerged from these collective unconscious sources. Jung understood the psyche of each individual as essentially divisible into a persona, a shadow, and an anima / animus construction. Perhaps one of the key distinctions between Jung’s ideas and Freud’s, whose focus tended to be on pathology, was Jung’s focus on the fundamental health of an individual, and in their capacity for healing. Rather than focusing on disease and neurosis, he developed notions such as “psychic totality” and “wholeness potential”.

Within this framework Jung became one of the original important critics of the limitations of Freud’s theories, and particularly his interpretation of the function of dreams, saying, “I have therefore come to the conclusion that Freud’s view that dreams have an essentially wish-fulfilling and sleep preserving function is too narrow” (Dreams 38) His own thinking on dreams allowed for broader thematic possibilities, in particular for the very important area of anxiety:

Whereas Freud holds that every dreams is a vicarious fulfillment of a repressed wish, usually related to infantile sexuality, Jung maintains that the functions of dreams are manifold. They can express fears as well as wishes. (Ellenberger 716 – 717)

In fact Jung’s interpretations of what is happening in dreams reflect a much larger range of life experiences, including anxiety, but also fulfillment, mortality, or friendships, for instance. Jung wrote:

Dreams may give expression to ineluctable truths, to philosophical pronouncement, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides. (Modern Man 11)

Jung’s understanding of dreams was as a mechanism of the psyche serving not simply as an outlet for unpalatable impulses, but also as serving constructively towards a better way of living.

Dreams helped to promote a fuller adaptation to life by supporting and strengthening the ego and enhancing the development of one’s personality. Within our dream states, it was possible to experience archetypal events like birth, death, separation from parents, and marriage…Jung also conceived this process as what he called the individuation principle that represented an awakening of the self or becoming more fully conscious of itself and its possibilities for growth. (Olson 348)

One of the types of dreams moving the individual towards a process of individuation in Jung’s categorization was what he called “compensatory dreaming”, and he would thus say, “when we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?” (as quoted in Shafton 93)

What sets Jung’s compensatory dreaming apart is that all dream compensations, great and small, show the Self’s “wholeness potential” at work in a “self-healing balancing process”….Dreams are the natural reaction of the self-regulating psychic system…particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual.” (Shafton 100)

While Freudian theory has had an enormous influence within the discipline of Film Studies, observation reveals that Jungian concepts are likely a major influence on many contemporary filmmakers – dreams of anxiety in particular are perhaps one of the most common themes of dreams in film. But there is also a parallel between Jung’s ideas about individuation and individual wholeness and the screenwriting trajectory of a character’s development into a more complete or more functional human being. Character growth and transformation is the fundamental dramatic arc of many contemporary film stories.

If we consider our Wild Strawberries example, professor Borg goes through his day haunted by his dream, the theme of mortality is evident. His unpleasant personality issues are clearly articulated by his housekeeper and his daughter-in-law within the early minutes of the film. The pressure of the sense of his impending mortality with the sense that he has not arrived at being the person he would like to be, or living life as he would most enjoy living it, becomes the evident quest of the film, in other words, his own need for individuation. When at his mother’s house, he comes across a watch without hands, he is reminded of the clock without hands in his dream. There is a long moment where the character pauses, troubled – is it a memory? Was it a premonition? In the dream it seemed tied in with the proximity of death and the other troubling images of the dream, and this association gives pause once again in his mother’s house.

These kinds of issues and questions are allowed for within an essentially Jungian understanding of dreams, and are considered fundamental questions of the soul. For Jung the dream serves first and foremost as an important dialogue with the self, in fact Professor Borg says of his dream that it is “almost as if I want to tell myself something I won’t listen to when I’m awake”. Thematically, his two dreams and the way they are taken up in parallel with waking events, suggest preoccupations with the proximity of the end of his life, and the success or lack thereof of his major relationships. These issues are not really addressed within Freud’s interpretations, and offer no insight in considering the significance of Professor Borg’s fundamental anxieties about mortality and quality of life, or for understanding the prophetic echo in the hand-less clock and so on.

The evolution in the West from a tradition of dreams as prophetic to one in which they are a commentary on the state of the psyche to one in which they are synaptic spasms has been a long and circuitous process. Probably the single most significant event in scientific studies of dreams was the discovery in the 1950s of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). The dream made physiologically apparent was an enormous breakthrough, giving proof to their existence in a new observable way, and has led to many and various technological developments that have facilitated further research and theorization. However, within many scientific circles, this has led to a continuing diminishment of any interest in dreams as meaningful in and of themselves, a position that has followed scientific ideas about dreams for some time. For instance,

The 19th century medical concept of dreams as ‘somatic processes, which are in every case useless and in many cases positively pathological’, has its equivalent in the current concept of dreams as ‘parasitic modes of [mental] activity’, produced nightly as the memory-and-learning system evacuates itself of useless or mistaken memory traces. (Shafton 12)

The spirit of the scientific endeavours has at once become a validated venue for the exploration of somatic activity, while rendering all theories that prescribe meaning – be they psychological, prophetic, divine, allegorical – to be irrelevant.

While the validation of the dreaming experience, in the context of direct reports made by dreaming subjects in the laboratory and of measurable physiological correlates such as REM and non-REM sleep states, has led to the confirmation of the unquestionable existence of the dream experience, it has simultaneously posited the experience as an expression of random – and therefore meaningless – neurophysiological activity. The gap between the dream as biology and the dream as meaningful, intentional experience has yet to be closed. (Irwin 13)

This emphasis on dreams as synaptical releases, on learning and memory function, leave little room for the meaning and psychic insight expounded by Freud and Jung, and have reintroduced the idea of dreams as meaningless random imagery. The push and pull between different theories of dreaming continues – while science forges on with its interest in bio-chemical and synaptic releases, popular culture remains split between various schools of psychology and occasionally even the belief in dreams as portents of the future.

Chapter 2 – Dream Theory in Native North America

%d bloggers like this: