In Freud, the mechanisms of dreaming, such as condensation and displacement, are ways of smuggling in meaning. Freud’s is still very much a meaning-focused theory of dreams.
It seems that historically, thinking about dreams supposes them to be the encryption of some content. In most analyses, the formal properties specific to dreaming are regarded only as the secret clasp to be prised open in search of the truly valuable, the meaning.
It seems to me that these formal properties are worth looking at in their own right. The first thing that strikes me about dreams is the presence of radical novelty, even in the tiniest details. An example from last night. A curved length of carved and burnished wood, forming part of a sideboard or dresser. The wood is inlaid with distinctively formed lettering. This object, this length of wood with its peculiar signature, is not from childhood or anywhere else. Put it this way: it has been designed by the dream.
The images – or things – in a dream are often characterised by novelty and by design. They are not representations of things that have been ‘met with’ in waking life and then cut and pasted into the dream. The dream is not a collage, however intelligent.
This is by no means the default understanding of dreams. There are rather long-standing ways of thinking of dreams as:
- ‘froth’, ‘scum’ or detritus. The dream is made out of threadbare and discarded odds and ends that we were unable to assimilate in waking life. The dream merely siphons these into its whirligig of unreason.
- Dreams as ‘mere shadows’ – as the counterfeit, unsubstantial representations of the more solid waking world.
Rather than dreams being the simulacra, the attenuated forms and copies of what lies elsewhere and previous, the dream-world consists of things newly fashioned and without citable precedent, conceived and executed by the dream itself.
The intricacy, detail, symmetry of these ‘representations’ entails what we would elsewhere presuppose to be a concentrated intelligence. (Suppose I had the skill to draw or paint such an image, or create it as a computer graphic. It would take considerable time to craft it. Would I have conceived it to begin with even? But the dream conceives and crafts it at once.)
I seem to recall Hegel saying that the dream is a form of thinking (rather than some confusing amalgam of sensible shapes). But it is ‘picture thinking’. Yet is this really true, at least in the way Hegel means it? Does not picture thinking use conventional shapes - pictograms and ideograms – to represent objects or concepts? The dream does not use such pictograms and ideograms. Firstly, it produces highly detailed, often strikingly new, objects. These are charged with a striking singularity, as if to say ‘this particular thing’ not ‘this category of things’. These objects do not confront us as re-presentations. The dream object does not form part of some alphabet of ideas. It does not appear straightforwardly as the signature of an idea. If dreams constitute a ‘language’ then this should make us reconsider what we mean by language. Dream images and scenarios have thickness and efficacy of their own which is not simple translatable into the 'meanings' they 'represent'.