Having and being had: what are the perspectives?

Hillman points out that, “at night the dream has me, but in the morning I say, I had a dream” (DU 98), and I have suggested that this is more than just a rhetorical figure. It is a thought-move both Jung and Hillman frequently make, and which I have traced through various of their writings under the heading of “perspective reversal”. Let’s get a little clearer on what exactly those “perspectives” are.

1. Well, one of them, the perspective that “we have” dreams, is that which takes dreams to be personal, subjective states of mind. Since we can only know of such states when a particular person reports (tells us) that they had them (and describes them), they are assigned to be that person’s dreams. In many ways, we treat a person’s dreams similar to that person’s memories: that a person has specific memories (and what they are) is likewise something we can only know when a particular person reports to have them.

This perspective is easily recognizable as the one we usually take in everyday life, and in a refined way, it is also that of empirical behavioral science. That a person “has” a dream thus means that it can be assigned to that person (rather than a different one) from a third-person point of view. It expresses the attribution of the phenomenon, which is derived from the attribution of the report about that phenomenon, i.e. the question of “who told us about that dream”, and “whose description is it”. In everyday life, that is probably the default view because much of our knowledge about dreams comes from talking to a number of other people (in addition to ourselves experiencing dreams), and thus ascription naturally happens. In science, the third-person view is necessary because it allows intersubjectively verifiable recordings of fact, although in this case its possibilities are of course limited: the dream contents can never be accessed from the third-person point of view; only the attribution can.

(We are, in a word, in a situation which generally requires heterophenomenomenology: we have a phenomenon which we can investigate in an objective manner only by ascribing it to people and then relying crucially on their report of it, alongside other measurable data. The terminology is Dennett’s, and comes originally from cognitive science.)

2. The contrasting perspective (“the dream had me”) is phenomenological, too, but in a more strict sense. Here it is the phenomenology of the experience itself, which is obviously only accessible in retrospect (another feature dreams and memories have in common). It is the perspective taken by the subject (the narrative ‘I’) of the report themselves. And it features commonly such experiences as “walking around in the dream world”, “being at some place”, “encountering figures” (where the figures may be people, gnomes, animals, and so on). 

Since these experiences are analogous to real-world experiences of walking around somewhere, being in some place, meeting people, etc., and are usually described in these terms, from this perspective it is natural to sort the dream into the same category, as it were, as the “world”. (After all, we do the same when we play a video game and “find ourselves” in the “world” of that game; the same happens with literature and film, too.) Also, since this is a first-person perspective, the question of attribution, i.e. “who has this”, does typically not arise. The more pertinent question, i.e. the one more likely to occur, is “where am I?” or “what is going on around here?”.

In many ways, then, this perspective is more akin to the one we take when interpreting what a novel’s narrator tells us. (But notice that it also has some characteristics in common with the perspective from which we frame, i.e. from which Goffman’s question, “what is it that is going on here?”, is asked.)

3. But there is something else to that second perspective. There is a stipulation of some autonomy: when I say “the dream had me”, it is not simply that “I” walked around in the world of a dream. It is that the dream presented me with its world, and it didn’t leave me much of a choice as to whether I wanted to walk around in it or not.

It’s different from, say, me planning and making a holiday trip to Venice. When I describe how I arrived and walked around there, I don’t say “Venice had me”, but that “I went to Venice”. The autonomous decision here is still with “me”, rather than the world around me. But in a dream, it is not usually the case that I can choose. Usually, I cannot even choose to have a dream, much less what it presents me with. That’s up to the dream itself, and in that sense, it has a certain autonomy to it.

Note that the converse does not hold with respect to the first perspective: in saying that “I had” a dream I do not imply that I had any choice in this experience. (In contrast to, say, “I had dinner at eight.”) It is still the case that the dream happens to the subject, even if we express it using the form of “I had”. The ascription of autonomy to the dream, then, is the same in both perspectives, and remains unchanged by the move I have called “perspective reversal” — if anything, the perspective reversal makes it clearer by expressing it directly.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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