Telling Dreams

A story is a metaphysical entity. What exists in the world is the telling of a story. The same story may have different tellings, at different times, by different people, or in slightly variant versions. These tellings are tokens for which the story is the type. We can, arguably, reconstruct a story from its tellings, as we can reconstruct a dead language from its living descendants. But it is the tellings that are alive.

It is common to say that myths and dreams are interpreted or analyzed. But this way of speaking contains a small but important inaccuracy. It is not myths or dreams that are interpreted; it is tellings of myths or dreams. These tellings may be oral or written, in a wickiup or in a dreamwork group, or communicated in writing to the privacy of a dream journal. But they are all tellings; and there may be different tellings of the same myth or dream — different because they are recited or written at different times, or told by different tellers, or told in different circumstances. Although it seems that a dream is peculiarly ours, access to a dream, like access to a myth, is only through its telling, private or public.

But all this raises an important question. Is there, in fact, a myth or a dream apart from its telling, its disclosure, its revealing? Dreams offer an interesting instance of Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. The argument goes — with some obscurity — something like this. Suppose I have a purely private language, in which I use the word snark to refer to a certain sensation I feel at the time. At a later time, upon feeling a sensation, I say, "There is another snark." But how can I determine whether I have used the word correctly on this second occasion? Maybe I misremember the first sensation; maybe I mistakenly think that the second sensation is similar to the first, when it is really not similar at all. But that means that the application of the term snark is undetermined; a term whose application is undetermined is meaningless; therefore there cannot be a private language.

By the same reasoning, dreams — in the sense of a sequence of moving pictures in the mind — cannot be meaningful. Dreams gain meaning only in their telling, even when I am telling the story of the dream to myself, as I review it or puzzle over it. Suppose there is a figure in my dream. Upon awakening, I cannot identify that figure except as a companion. Later in the day, I see my friend John, and I realize — or come to believe — that the figure in my dream was in fact John. But how can I determine whether I have identified the figure correctly on this second occasion? Suppose that I am mistaken; suppose that the figure in my dream was not John at all. Perhaps the figure was another friend, or my father, or no one in particular.

But here, for a dream, it does not matter. What matters is the telling. The telling of the dream is where the analysis, the interpretation, the understanding, all the meaning-making activity can begin to take place. A dream is undetermined until it is told.

There can be many tellings of a dream; a dream, of course, is a construct out of its tellings. These tellings are tokens for which the dream is the type. Now which of these — type or token — is meaningful? Suppose I misremember my dream as containing John rather than Mary. Does that mean that any interpretations I make of my dream will be wrong?

Once again, Wittgenstein provides an analytical model. He says,

The fact is that whenever you are preoccupied with something, with some trouble or with some problem which is a big thing in your life – as sex is, for instance – then no matter what you start from, the association will lead finally and inevitably back to that same theme. Freud remarks on how, after the analysis of it, the dream appears so very logical. And of course it does.

So, it does not matter whether it was John or Mary in my dream. I could make up a story on the spot; indeed, I could invent a dream. What matters is the story, and the telling of the story.

That is why it is possible to work with any fragment of a dream, like a fractured piece of a hologram. Jeremy Taylor writes of a hesitant dreamer in one of his dream workshops who simply could not remember his dreams. Finally, Taylor suggested to him that he make up a dream: "What would your dream have been like this morning if you had been able to remember it?" Taylor adds — and note the use of words of telling — that "a conscious fantasy narrative could have been explored as readily as the regular nighttime dreams shared by the other members of the class." It is the telling that counts.

The same thing is true for any experience. Life is a hologram. Every little piece carries the meaning of it all.


  1. Steve, Essentially I agree with you in this very perceptive and thoughtful posting. I also understand and agree that the macrocosm is not jus in theory, but in fact, contained in the micrococm. However, I question Jeremy Taylor's statement. I'm not too sure of this, I must add, but it occurs to me that the primary virtue in manufacturing a fantasy under the circumstances he states is that it could open the hesitant dreamer to the power of his or her expressiveness, and therefore assist in conferring greater conscious access to his/her dreams. It's quite an ingenious exercise. But a consciously spun fantasy surely originates from a different place than a dream, the latter of which probably has greater connection to unconscious and subliminal activity. Do you really think that, other than the fact that both a dream and a consciously generated fantasy are equivalent in that they behave like holograms (at least in theory), that they are equivalently revelatory? I'm very uncertain about this....

  2. I believe that everything is equally revelatory. The entire world is meaningful — the rock you tripped over, the child who smiled at you, the rain and moon. I talk about this here. James Hillman calls this seeing through — the ability to see through the literal to the metaphorical, deliteralizing or metaphorizing reality. Take a look here. A myth, a dream, a waking experience, a hallucination are all — and probably equally — revelatory. Why else would you drink ayahuasca?