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Dream Interpretation vs. Dream Appreciation

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 3, Summer 1998

Many years ago in a talk about dreams before members of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Marianne Horney Eckhardt uttered a phrase that resonated so deeply within me that I have used it ever since. In two words she precisely summed up what I, as a young psychoanalyst at the time, felt captured the essence of what dream work was all about. In her talk she eschewed the term "dream interpretation" when applied to the dream. She felt it was too restrictive and that it tended to pigeon-hole something that flowed through any interpretive net meant to catch it. She preferred a term that spoke to the essence of the dream as a creatively-crafted, unique and deeply felt expression of all aspects of the dreamer's life. She felt that "dream appreciation" was a more felicitous way of describing the nature of the engagement of patient and therapist. (I may be taking liberties with what I think she said).

Nearly 40 years after the talk I referred to, Marianne Horney Eckhardt offered some reflections on her career as an analyst:[1]

"I love working with dreams, as they show most clearly in imagery the direction in which the patient's energy is being mobilized .... Dreams show us the battleground with ourselves and with others and are the best point of departure for revealing the past, present and future. Obviously I zero in on spirit and energy." (p. 270)

Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can be potential as in the imagery of a dream or kinetic when the imagery comes alive as the dreamer is helped to spark across the metaphysical gap between image and life experience. Either way, potential or kinetic, it has an effect. As potential energy, something that could be alive is kept inert and maintains a given status quo. When kinetic energy is released in this form of the free flow of the feelings that shaped the visual metaphors of the dream, there is the relief that comes from granting full citizenship to that part of ourself seeking recognition at the moment. We may or may not like that part, but it is now in the public domain and can be openly dealt with.

Susan Sontag wrote a book about the misuse of interpretation.[2] Think about the following quotes in relation to your role as helper to a dreamer.

About interpretation generally:

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world. ("This world!" As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. (p. 7)

About art:

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable. (p.8)

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories. (p. 10)

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work that is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. (p. 14)

It might seem at this point as if I am against the use of the term "dream interpretation." I am not. I am against the improper use of the term. It can be properly used in formal therapy, if three conditions are met.

The first has to do with the fact that the dreamer is the ultimate arbiter of the authenticity of the message conveyed by the dream. Secondly, as Walter Bonime[3] notes, any interpretation that is made should be offered as an "interpretive hypothesis" and only after all the necessary data have been carefully and methodically elicited to give the hypothesis a reasonable chance of hitting home. An "interpretation" can then be viewed as a generalization offered to the dreamer linking the dream to other data that have emerged in the course of treatment.

Finally, the idiosyncratic nature of the dream takes priority over any a priori notion of the symbolic meaning of any given image. Any dreamer can use any image in his or her own way. Freud knew that but it became clouded over as the teaching of psychoanalysis became more and more formalized.

Hence, to me the concept of dream appreciation captures the nature of what we do in the group process better than the idea of dream interpretation.

Let me offer this analogy. The dreamer is seated in a theater witnessing the unfolding of a drama taking place on the stage. He is there in the company of a very close friend. As the performance gets underway, he has an uncanny feeling that the story being told has something to do with him. It gradually dawns on him that unbeknownst to himself, he has written the play, cast the characters, created the set, produced and directed the performance.

As they leave this magical theater he turns to his friend, shares the confusion he feels and seeks her help. She happens to be a dream worker who has encountered this predicament quite frequently. Sensitive to the delicacy needed to bridge the gap between being a witness and being the creator, she sees her task as engaging in a dialogue with the dreamer to explore the relevance of each actor and each event in the drama to the dreamer's life, past and present. She is prepared to follow rather than lead and to help clear the path the dreamer himself has embarked upon.

The end result is both an awareness of how aptly and how timely a truer version of our life emerges. Both dreamer and helper end up with a profound sense of what the play was all about and with that a shared sense of intimacy - appreciation if you will - for the personal impact of the drama that unfolded. This is what the group dreamwork process is all about.

[1]Eckhardt, M.H., (1997), Reflections, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol.57, No.3.

[2]Sontag, S. (1966) Against Interpretation, Dell, New York.

[3] Bonime,W., with Bonime,F., The Clinical Use of Dreams, Basic Books, (1962) Da Capo

Press (1982), New York.