The language of having

If we want to take perspective reversal seriously, we have to revise some of the language we use. Rather than saying, for instance, I “had” a dream (or fantasy) we should say “I was in a dream”; similarly, when we describe our experience, we should say “in my dream I saw …”. In other words, we would speak about our dream experience as if it happened to us when we (metaphorically) went there, similar to how we speak about experiences on a trip, say, when we went visiting Paris.

1. There are two aspects to this: first, we acknowledge in recalling the experience an important bit of its phenomenology — for within the experience itself it appears not as if I “have” the dream, but as if the dream “has” me; and secondly, we accept that the dream is not entirely personal or original — we do not simply make it up or invent it, but by being in the dream we share in something that is already there (is always there), independent of the episode that makes up our current experience. 

Of course, every episode of experiencing something is unique and we do contribute something to it from our personal history (just as every experience we have in the external world also is unique and partly constituted by our perceptions of and actions in it). But not all of it, for just as the external world exists independent of our episodes of experiencing it, so does the imaginal world of the soul exist independent of our sharing in it in our dreams or fantasies. Thus when I say that “I was in a dream, and I saw…” this is quite similar to saying something like “I was in Paris, and I saw…”. Just as Paris is there no matter whether I visit it or not, the dream is there whether I experience it or not — in the sense that other people might visit (or have visited) Paris even on days when I don’t, and that other people might dream (or might have dreamed) similar experiences even when I don’t dream them. And just as Paris is different every day, too, and will obviously be experienced differently by different people any given day, so is the dream somewhat different every time it is experienced, and the difference has in part to do with who it is who is in the dream. Yet just as Paris is always Paris, the dream is always the same dream, in a recognizable sense, through varying experiences of it. We express this by saying that it followed a certain pattern, that it contained a well-known narrative or typical motif, that it belonged to a certain category (nightmarish, wish-fulfilling, shadow-confronting, …). It’s true that such categories are somewhat vague — where does one type end and the next start? —, but then so are many cities, too. (Precisely at which point does your “experience of Paris” begin: when you cross its geographically defined border in the car, somewhere outside the suburbs on the motorway? when your train rolls into the Gare du Nord and you step onto the platform? when you wake up at the Shangri-La hotel in the morning and take in the famous views after arriving in the middle of the night seeing nothing? when you spot the Eiffel tower from the plane in the distance, long before the actual landing? when you hear someone speak French for the first time in the street? …)

2. Now according to Hillman, the move of perspective reversal corrects something we do, habitually, in our waking-life views of dreams:

In sleep, I am thoroughly immersed in the dream. Only on waking do I reverse this fact and believe the dream is in me. At night the dream has me, but in the morning I say, I had a dream. (DU 98)

The notion that “I have” a dream is one that emerges in waking life, from the perspective of ego consciousness. It is perhaps worth getting this into somewhat sharper focus: what exactly goes on when we habitually take the view that “I had” a dream?

First of all, we do this vis-a-vis some recollections of dream contents. (Plainly, if we do not remember anything of the dream, the thought that “I had” a dream doesn’t even cross our mind.) Thus either when we actively try to remember (e.g. as part of dream journaling in an analysis) or when a recollection pops up, typically a fragment of some of the experiences we had when we were in the dream, we are tempted to say: “I remember this, therefore I must have had a dream.”

But notice here that this conclusion, in this particular form, is not actually implied in the memory itself. We might equally — and more cautiously — put it this way: “I remember this from the dream / from my dream experience / from when I was in the dream.” (Notice also how this latter way of putting it to yourself is analogous to something like “I remember this from when I was in Paris.” The natural form of remembering something does not necessarily make a self-ascription as if from a third-person point of view.)

Back now to the passage I quoted from Hillman. I take it that he wants to take issue with this habitual move, this “on waking I reverse this fact”, this “in the morning I say, I had a dream”. Instead, Hillman says, we should look at dreams in a way that would “keep me subjected to the dream” (ibd.).

What does it mean that I am (or remain) “subjected to the dream”? Does this phrase merely stand in for the point of view that “the dream has me” (that is, is it simply another way of referring to the move I have called, throughout on this blog, “perspective reversal”)? Hillman certainly doesn’t help matters by throwing around the notion of subjectivity liberally in various senses here, stating that

What walks though my dreams is […] the deep, subjective psyche in its personified guises. A dream presents “me”, subjected to “my” subjectivity. I am merely one subject among several in a dream. (Ibd.) 

3. The clearest bit from all this is that last sentence, and indeed Hillman goes on to discuss one school of thought which attempts to keep us subjected to the dream by taking seriously that “I am merely one subject among several in a dream”. Hillman thinks that this attempt fails, but obviously he considers it an instructive failure. So let’s have a look.

The school of thought Hillman has in mind is Gestalt therapy, and the attempt to keep us subjected to the dream is called “role identification”: “Yes, it says, you are indeed only one subject among several in a dream, so subject yourself to them. Let them enter you; become them; identify.” (Ibd.) And the problem, according to Hillman, with this attempt is that it aims to integrate each of the dream subjects with the ego, and thus, if successful, becomes a case of ego inflation (which, of course, Jung famously warned against in the second of the Two Essays). I’m not concerned here with the question whether Hillman’s representation of Gestalt therapy is accurate, nor with the validity of the charge that it would lead to ego inflation. But his mention of the technique of role identification helps to understand the meaning of his requirement that we should “keep us subjected to the dream”.

The feature of role identification that seems to make it comply with this requirement is that role identification de-centers the perspective from which the dream events are experienced. For example, if I find myself in a dream talking to my sister, role identification would encourage me to leave the perspective of “me” (the dream ego) and identify with (the dream image of) my sister, experiencing the scene from her point of view as well. Rather than merely taking the dream to tell a story from a single perspective (“mine”), I thus take it to tell the story from multiple perspectives, each of which expresses a vantage point of my subjectivity, and consider them all in turn. In Hillman’s terminology, I consider the events of the dream as if they happened in “a polycentric realm”, an “inscape of personified images” (RVP 33). But each of these images (dream people) represents an aspect of my subjectivity, and therefore taking such polycentricity seriously means to respect all the elements of my subjectivity equally, rather than simply giving preference to one of them (the ego).

And this, I take it, is what it means to keep “me” subjected to the dream. The role identification technique of Gestalt therapy may eventually fail to do so (according to Hillman) because of its tendency to then integrate all these newly found subjective viewpoints into the ego after all, resulting in ego inflation. But the essential point here — what Hillman calls a “true subjective level of interpretation” would at a minimum have to dissolve the single-centered point of view, which the waking ego habitually tends to assume, into a polycentric overlay of perspectives.

Notice that there are still perspectives here, rather than an entirely acentered view structure (cf. TL 80-81, 102-104). The reason is that in Hillman’s account of the basic structure of the psyche, just as in Jung’s, images tend to personify, and thus the subjective realm generally crystallizes into perspectives. This makes it easy to understand how I might be subjected to the “subjectivity” presented by the dream, since that “subjectivity” generally appears in the shape of dream people. It is much harder to extend this account, however, so that it would include all “figures and landscapes of dreams” (DU 97, my emphasis).

4. And there is a further complication here: so far, we have taken pride of center away from the single viewpoint of the ego in the dream (that is, the “dream ego”) and distributed it in a de-centralized manner to all dream figures. But the habitual move of thinking of the dream as something “I had” is not usually made by the dream ego (except perhaps in lucid dreaming). It is something the waking ego does: “in the morning I say, I had a dream” (DU 98). If this is what needs correction, then it won’t suffice to merely re-interpret the dream as a polycentric imaginal scape — there would also have to be a revision of what perspectives we take dream memories (which appear in the waking ego’s stream of consciousness) to imply.


  • […] Loose talk in the mold of “I had a dream” leads us quickly into thinking that the “I” is the author or owner of the events and imagery in the dream — that we “dreamed it all up” in some sense. But there is a world of a difference between, say, a writer making up a conversation between two people and describing it in a novel, and a person having a dream about two people having that same conversation. In the former case, we can say that the writer “created” the conversation, but in the latter, it is rather that the conversation simply happened to the dreamer, and they did no more “create” it than any conversation they might overhear in a coffee shop. […]

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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