I was recently reading an article by Kelly Bulkeley reviving the idea of
dreaming as play. (see bib) While he spoke about the necessary paradigm shift
needed regarding dream theory so that it fits with new developments in science,
anthropology and psychology, it is his second challenge to develop new roles for
dreams along the line of play that I want to follow up on here.
There is a level of play that is... well, playful. Bulkeley relays how this
functions in terms of exploration, experimentation and improvisation. Here the
person is surrounded by a relative sense of security and safety and play is
autotelic, play for play's sake. But if we are reviving the metaphor of play in
the adult world or dreams and dream groups, we are entering the area of playing
with really odd things, boundaries, playing with desire, playing with fire. As
dangerous as this may sound, I want encourage and support work along these edges
and see this as kind of sacred play, play that enters into the world of self
exploration, meaning, value and creation for its own sake. But rather than
tackle the enormousness of this task, I'd rather just play with a small part of
this mystery, the play of desire at the heart of dreaming.
Playing with Fire:
Though many dream interpreters have been unhappy with Freud's view of libido
as childish sexuality, I wonder if the alternatives don't sometimes distract us
from the issue of desire itself. A hard view of Freud would be that dreams are a
disguised expression of repressed childlike sexual wishes. Softer views begin to
allow for a wider variety of repressions, including worries, anxieties,
anticipations and a host of other left over daytime concerns that might disturb
our sleep. Jung expands the idea of wish into the realm of desire for wholeness
and contact with the Self. But whether the focus is on the repression, the
revelation, or the obtaining of the object of desire there is a confusion or
collapse of the object and of desire itself.
What I would like to do is introduce a notion by the French psychotherapist
Jacques Lacan, that while biological appetites might be satisfied, desire
The first part of this involves seeing dreams and fantasy as a *staging* of
desire rather than a fulfillment or even a disguised compromised fulfillment.
Neither fulfillment nor complete repression, they are a circulating and playing
out of desire. It might be said that the tensions that desire creates are the
necessary poles or boundaries in which the fantasy or image take place. In this
view the image or dream is held together and produced by absence - by what is
desired and not obtained. The Lacanians usually say that fantasy is all about
the drive just circulating around and around the object -cause of its desire,
not the actual *getting* of that object.
The second part is that the desire isn't given in advance but must seem to be
found or discovered. We don't consciously create our own desires. Neither do we
create our own messages from heaven or the universe. These must all appear to us
as found or presented by some Other. However, to continue to explore desire, we
can't confuse this gift with an object we create, but must remember the first
notion that fantasy is the staging of desire, not the obtaining of the object.
An example. When I was a cigarette smoker, there was an illusion of pleasure
that circulated around the act and lasted for the duration of the cigarette. I
still can't fully articulate the separation of the drug from the habit as they
were intricately entwined, but while quitting I became painfully aware of how
the cigarette/habit was holding my desire and allowing me to pleasurably
circulate. Having used the cigarette/habit for so long, I found it a long and
arduous path to relearning how to circulate, to play, without it. I had to find
new ways of holding the desire without reaching for the object itself, new ways
of holding tension that where once mediated by the smoking/habit. (By the way, I
still scan my dreams as an early warning system. When I have dreams that I'm
smoking, I see it as an indication that my methods of holding desire are
slipping into the illusion that I _can_ really *get* it.)
Now we can look at a few examples from two Lacanians, Jean-Claude Milner and
Slavoj Zizek, and compare these examples to common dream imagery. They reveal
the fantasy aspect of desire through the paradoxes given by the ancient Greek
philosopher, Zeno, and Eleatic school student of Parmenides. The school
maintained that reality was one, unchanging and motionless, apprehended properly
by the mind rather than the senses. Milner used Zeno's paradoxes *not* as
statements of philosophical or empirical truth but as literary devices
exemplifying the staging of desire in/as fantasy.
In the first scene, the Paradox of Continuous Approach, the object can never
be obtained but always seems to be getting closer. Through clever philosophical
argument, Zeno shows that Achilles can never catch Hector, but neither can
Hector escape Achilles. (see Collinson, 1987 in bibliography for example) This
is often experienced in dreams, either not ever being able to clearly catch
someone or something, and not being able to clearly get away from some pursuer.
Lacan points out that the issue here is the circulation, and that no matter what
we do to obtain the object-cause, it always eludes us.
The second scene, the Paradox of Cheated Movement, tries to show that no
matter how much we act to change, we are always in the same place. Hercules
fires arrow after arrow but Zeno proves that its impossible and they go nowhere.
Note the stories of Tantalus in Hades and the curse of Midas. Tantalus, after
trying to steal the food of the gods (which might be seen as the object which
would eternally feed us, with life as well as other hungers) is condemned to
eternal need in Hades. "There he stood up to his chin in water, but
whenever he bent to slake his burning thirst, the pool dried up. Boughs of fruit
hung over his head, but when he raised his arms to pluck them, the wind blew
them out of his reach. A stone, moreover, was suspended over him and threatened
at any moment to fall and crush him" (Tripp, 1970, pg. 543). And for the
famous Midas, everything he desired and touched turned to gold and became
useless to him. Zizek points out that when we demand an object that the object
goes through a magical transubstantiation. The object takes on fantasy and
produces desire. Mother's milk becomes a token of her love and produces excess
fantasy rather than just satisfying hunger.
We can begin to explore this switch of use-value to exchange value in our
dreams that have similar predicaments and then use the unobtainable object as an
index of our intersubjective relations. For example, that others comply or don't
comply with our demands shows how they confirm various attitudes towards us. And
again, all this requires that we let go (at least momentarily) of the idea that
the dream is *revealing* our secret obtainable object, but rather the reverse -
that the withheld object is creating or revealing our style of desire. The point
in reference to dream work being the shift from finding ways to get the hidden
object to ways of helping it display and play itself out.
In the Paradox of Increasing Diminishment we can never get where we want to
go because of an infinite amount of half distances we would have to cross to get
there. Here the drive is revealling in its circulation again, in the path
itself, in play. Lacan says in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis,
" When you entrust someone with a mission, the *aim* is not what he brings
back, but the itinerary he must take, The *aim* is the way taken... If the drive
may be satisfied without attaining what, from the point-of-view of a biological
totalization of function, would be the satisfaction of its end of reproduction,
it is because it is a partial drive, and its aim is simply this return into
circuit." (p. 179). The real purpose of a drive is simply to reproduce
itself. Half is double. And thus our horror when we diet and try to diminish our
desire simply to find it has increased. Note the common dream theme of the
desire to get somewhere and always having a million diversions, sub-plots, mazes
and distractions along the way. In dreams, we often take the long road home.
These literary paradoxes give us a way to approach the dream imagery which
allows for a new relationship with and to desire. Regardless of the technique or
style we use to approach dream imagery, there emerges now an option to note the
element which, from the viewpoint of desire, is producing the image. And an
opportunity to come into a relationship with dream imagery in a way that speaks
to the circulation, or with the desire.
Since the Lacanians deal with structure more than content and see the object
of desire as only visible indirectly (like the clue qua missing-clue found by a
detective at the scene of a crime: "Did you here those dogs Watson."
"I hear no dogs Holmes." "Exactly!") I'm going to shift for
a moment back into a Jungian paradigm to build a quick model that can be used
with manifest dream content.
Jung spoke of how important it is to hold the irreconcilable opposites of the
psyche in consciousness. If held long enough, a reconciling symbol will emerge.
The opposites spoken of here are incompatibles in one's life - like desires and
needs for mutually exclusive things. Jung felt it was always a disaster to try
and force these things together (identification with the Self) or allow oneself
to be tossed back and forth between them. Rather he suggested that we
differentiate them as far as humanly possible, that we hold the tension between
them until a symbol or image is produced that can carry both the conscious and
unconscious elements and allow us to reconcile the incompatibles.
The question is always what kind of containers do we have to hold and examine
these incompatibles. I want to live forever with I'm going to die. I want to be
monogamous with I want to mate with everyone in sight. I want to be thin, after
I finish this bag of potato chips. One approach is to see the dream itself as
the container or holder of that which cannot yet be expressed in consciousness
any other way. To see our dreams as an already mapped out playing and continuing
of our unreconcilable desire means that every dream is already a furthering of
desire's project and is its own reconciling symbol. The degree to which we want
to come into relationship with this process as co-creators will have more to do
with our ability to stay in the play of desire rather than our ability to
"get" the objects we seem to want in our dreams. This shifts the dream
from just being a working out of frustrations to an imaginary theater that uses
frustration to produce works of art and pleasure.
Models for dream-work then shift to models of dream-play. The skills needed
shift from abstracting and pulling back to embodying and drawing in. Examination
fantasies gives way to images of exploration and experimentation. The tensions,
rather than being worked out, are sought after like the tensions of a stringed
instrument. Structure shifts from predetermined rules to trust and support found
in the interplay. The older structures, views and rules are not thrown away, but
become revisioned as imaginary platforms, each with their own desires and styles
of presentation. In this way we not only get to see the desire of which the
fantasy is a play, but also begin to participate and find enjoyment.
And so these dream paradoxes, the home we never get to, the lover who eludes
us, the crime for which we are eternally punished, the monsters we can never
escape, become imaginary, improvisational platforms, theaters of our desire. And
it is in this sense that they are gifts that allow us to remain in that place
where possibility and desire blow kisses to each other across the gap that holds
Bibliography and notes:
Bulkeley, Kelly (1993). Dreaming is play. _Psychoanalytic Psychology_, 10:(4),
Collinson, Diane (1987). _Fifty Major Philosophers_. New York: Croom Helm.
(Achilles and the tortoise: "Suppose a race run over 100 meters in which
the tortoise is given a 50-metre start on Achilles, It is impossible for
Achilles to overtake the tortoise; for by the time Achilles reaches the
tortoise's starting point, S, the tortoise has moved on to S1, and by the time
Achilles arrives at S1, the tortoise has advanced to S2, and so on. thus
Achilles never catches up with the Tortoise. The distance between them will
diminish _ad infinitum_ as they move from point to point but it will never
disappear." Collinson, pg. 14).
Freud, Sigmund (1924-50). _Collected Papers_. London: Hogarth Press.
Jung, C. G. (1953). _Collected Works_ . (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Lacan, Jacques (1977). _The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis_.
London: Hogarth Press.
Tripp, Edward (1970). _The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology_ New York,
NY: New American Library.
Zizek, Slavoj (1993). _Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through
Popular Culture_. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.