"To your dreaming mind, the car [or the house] is your self"... That's the kind of thing I found myself saying in the pub the other night, talking about a friend's dreams. ..."There's a mapping between the structures of the mother's body and those of the house and those of the car and those of your own mind"... Well, ok, but what on earth does it mean to say these things? How can such talk be more than woo, a psychologist's self-serving wanton elision of the natural and the normative orders, a magician's ambition to read meaning out of nature?
I take it that we don't do well to blithely help ourselves to the notion of 'symbolism' to answer the question. For surely the same "what does it mean to say...?" question will immediately come up just as much for the general psychological use of the concept of 'symbol' as for particular alleged instances of it. The question is: what does it mean to talk of 'symbols' here - when we don't have to do with conventions or rules, when we don't have to do with the kinds of social practices which give our normal notion of a symbol its normative character.
The cornerstone is that the concept of 'symbol' at work here differs from the normal one in that its meaning is not a matter of representation. Instead it is a function of two other factors. One is predicamental significance. The other is elaboration. Let's consider these in turn.
By significance or mattering I've in mind the kind of meaning which events or actions have which concern us. It matters that the crop is failing this year. The meaning of this for us has nothing to do with the crop representing something. It has to do with the way it messes with our peaceable aspirations, our hopes, the way it sparks our fears, the way it chimes with our values. By predicament I intend a significant situation which involves a clash or conflict of some sort, a clash or conflict which - if we are conscious of it - must inspire courage, resolve, action.
Psychoanalysis was founded on the observation that predicament is often unconscious. Consciousness of ambivalence is an achievement. We are sunk into our predicaments and extrication - that essentially emotional experience which is sometimes called 'thinking' - takes effort. It requires some kind of a way forward, a rubric for structured affective processing, some kind of crystallisation out, of this super-saturated solution, of distinct thinkable forms. Thought must be born in the mother of the mind - but childbirth is painful; it involves the galling and fearful recognition of the distance between wish and fact. I'm calling this crystallisation and structuration 'elaboration'.
'Dreaming' is a name we can give to that intrinsically emotional process which births understanding of predicament. And dreaming requires structure, it requires template. Culture provides this for us - we get a handle on our relational predicaments against a backdrop of the shenanigans depicted by an Austen or Shakespeare. Music and architecture provide it too - they give us structured templates around which associations may flow in their temporal and spatial arrangements. In some of these environments we can breathe more easily, thought can be born more comfortably. Liturgy is the religious term for the format according to which ritual entrains the moral emotions into manageable thinkable experience. But our earliest templates include, especially, our mother's body, but also the layout of our home. We move from room to room, life has a manageable structure. These early-available templates structure our routes of dreaming.
Why don't we just clearly represent in our dreams just what we're worried about? Why do we have to do with so-called 'symbolism'? Well perhaps this is because we're, like, unconscious! It's just kind of, uh, hard to think when you're not awake. Yet the primeval templates of the home and car, the mother and father, the sea, the garden linking the world of the home to the world outside, and so on - they don't require much by way activation. They're the standard stage-sets against which emotional experiences will be born. And when there's no active perceptual experience in the offing, but manageable structure pressing to be born from super-saturated predicamental solutions, then why wouldn't we dream with such symbols readily recurrent?
My friend dreams of something happening to his car. Perhaps someone else is driving it and he is terrified sitting in the back seat. Perhaps someone drives into it; perhaps it falls apart. The car is, as we say, a symbol of the self. Sometimes we feel out of control. Or better: this is a feeling we need to be able to have at such times, as an emotional experience that elaborates and renders tractable a predicament. It's a feeling that needs to be tolerated; it can be tolerated a little through being symbolised thus. The car or the house or the garden, these are the perennial backdrops for the workings out of the relational and existential predicaments of the self. I need to come to understand that I am feeling scared or troubled. If I don't manage to birth my affective understanding I will shut down, become depressed, go manic, etc. The apt object for it may be located later, in waking life perhaps, perhaps with the help of another. Or perhaps the recognition of it will be warded off with that waking dream and fantasy substitution for reality we call 'delusion'. Or the emotional promise of the dream will be lost when the subject shuts down again on waking. Finding the actual predicamental object in relation to the dream feelings can be important, but I don't want to overestimate this here. Often what matters is just that we can breathe again, and that we now instinctively, unreflectively, emotionally, fluidly, now know how to engage again with our problematic objects. That kind of tense torpor which signals a dearth of dreaming dissolves through the affective elaboration; movement in the mind, in one's relationships, and in and over time is awakened. The dreamer's symbols are the living forms which that predicament-honing elaboration takes.