The Grammar of Dreams
I often have strange, bizarre dreams, as I’m sure most of us have. But I’m also persuaded dreaming has an implicit grammar, and that “grammar” — and not logic — is the most appropriate way to reflect on the structure of our dreaming.
And perhaps not just our dreaming, but of our experience of ourselves and our reality more generally. Grammar rules over speech as an ecology of species and forms and of their mutual interactions and transformations — verbs, nouns, words, names, pronouns, participles, enumeration, declensions, adverbs, persons, infinitives, prefix and suffix, definite and indefinite articles, morphemes, phonemes, etc. Dreams, likewise, have their own grammar — an implicit ecology of species and forms — in terms of images and symbols.
That is what Freud and Jung attempted to discover in their own dreams and in the dreaming of others — an implicit grammar of dreams — even if they didn’t explicitly suggest that term (or, at least, not that I recall).
I muse that there may be probable worlds where other beings communicate using nothing but a syntax of feelings and a grammar of images (which probable world would surely be telepathic). To a linguistically structured mentality such as ours, however, this would appear to be total chaos and confusion. Perhaps we would not even recognise it as communication or as evidence of intelligence at all? Such a probable world would be, in all likelihood, highly artistic.
If our dreams often appear mad to us, perhaps it is only because we don’t have insight into their grammar, or understand why the dreaming self or inner ego selects certain elements of our daily experience that our outer ego may have dismissed or overlooked as irrelevant or insignificant. Experience is the food of the dreaming self.
What is accomplished by grammar? The word “grammar” itself (as mentioned earlier) is connected to words for magic or spell-casting. It is quite understandable. Grammatical speech is magical. Without grammar, the noises we make with our mouths would not be much different from the grunting, roaring, bellowing, squealing, mewling, whimpering, crying, chirping, twittering of our fellow creatures. Grammar, by imparting order, discipline, structure, articulacy, and coherence to the mere noises of our mouths, generates meaning by lending pattern and structure to noise. The “creative forces” are grammatical. In the beginning was the Logos (“the Word”) may well mean grammar, or that represented in-and-as grammar — that which summons order from the chaos, or which noise suffers to have imposed upon it (or perhaps, indeed, is ecstatically redeemed by it).
I detect something also of a grammar to my dreams. There is, for example, a number of recurring themes and elements. A “department store” is one such recurring element. This “department store” seems to be my dreaming self’s understanding of contemporary commercial or market society — a society of buying and selling. This dream department store is always full of kitsch or, when not full of kitsch, the shelves are barren save for a few useless items. In one dream, there is nothing but eyeglasses and pens on the shelves. At another time, there is nothing but stacks of pillows and bedding. In another, there is only the gaudiest of clothing, all hounds-tooth pattern, all sharply reduced in price. I often find myself having to pass through this department store on my way elsewhere at some point in my dream, served by surly or morose help who are themselves crying for help. The “help” needing help. Such is the irony of my department store dream.
The recurrence of the number “4” is another dominant theme, yet one which is represented in the oddest of ways. In one dream, it may occur as a piece of green plywood affixed with swivel casters at each corner. In another dream, it occurs as a pulley, such as one finds as part of the belt drive mechanism on a car motor. This pulley has four holes through it, and inside the wheel is an urchin or imp driving the wheel and shouting out an apparently meaningless number “3036” (shouldn’t that be “360”?). I do, in fact, work with such pulleys on occasion, but it never occurred to me in my waking period to acknowledge them as an incarnation of the cosmic wheel and the fourfold. Yet for my dreaming self, all experience, even the most overlooked, which seems the most banal or trivial, is food and sustenance.
So it was yesterday that a casual remark by a friend about the hyper-sanitary whiteness — the anti-biotic, laboratory-like interiors of modern homes — becomes the theme for an extensive and involved dream about white buildings (almost all of which I’ve forgotten). I have no inkling whatsoever why my dreaming self finds this so engaging.
Another persistent theme of my dreams is my being in a city I call my “spiritual Vancouver” (which is somewhat akin to William Blake’s “spiritual London”). I recognise it as Vancouver even though no part of its physical form ever corresponds to the actual city of Vancouver as I know it from my sense experience. It is the form of Vancouver as perceived by my inner self — a city of the imagination rather than of actual geography. Yet, I recognise it as Vancouver, and I seem to know my way around this “spiritual Vancouver”. It’s complex layout is always the same in my dreams, and my dreaming self knows its way around this “spiritual Vancouver”. Why Vancouver? I’ve no idea except that I have strongly ambivalent feelings about the city, finding it both beautiful and yet also a desolate, congested, soulless mechanism. Blake’s “spiritual London” has this same character. His “spiritual London” was something he was thoroughly and completely familiar with. Even if his physical London only vaguely resembled his “spiritual London”, it was this perceived spiritual London that was, for Blake, the most real and the truer form of London.
That is, I believe, the secret of William Blake. He is a lucid dreamer. His inner awareness and his outward consciousness are not in disagreement or in conflict and contradiction, and he can, indeed, perceive the rising sun as a jubilant heavenly host celebrating the victory of life, light, and creation over death, darkness and the Void. There is no dissonance between Blake’s imagination and his thinking or between his sensual grammar and the grammar of his dreaming and of his inner self. They are unified. In Blake, perhaps more than anyone else, the grammar of the Imagination is made completely explicit. There is, for Blake, no “unconscious” as such — nothing which is sound asleep despite resting “in beams of light”
Once that is acknowledged, it is fairly easy to understand what he means when he ends his “Auguries of Innocence” with the words,
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro’ the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
For Blake, “the true man” and the true reality springs forth from the grammar of the Imagination, from the dreaming self become lucidly awake, when “Man’s perceptions are not bound by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” His “fourfold vision” is the grammar of the Imagination.