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Setting Words to the Music of Dreams

BY MONTAGUE ULLMAN, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter vol 4 nr 4, Fall 1999

 

We have two recurring states of consciousness - ordinary waking consciousness and dreaming consciousness. The trick is how to connect one to the other. After all, we are the same person awake or asleep and dreaming.

Or are we?

The problem is we speak two different languages in these two different states.

Awake we rely mainly on words to get us from here to there in a world made up of people and objects. We have something to say and we say it. In the dream we rely mainly on pictures. There is something that needs saying, but it is being said to us in a world of people and objects of our own creation. We are bereft of that comforting feeling of having some degree of control over what we wish to say or not say.

That degree of volitional control is absent in the dream. There, at best, we are reactive to what is being said to us from some inner domain where the laws and limitations of waking life do not apply. The distinction between the observer and the observed, so characteristic of waking life, is blurred. We are both at the same time in the dream.

The task of integrating these two states presents problems. Aside from the form of the communication, there is also a difference in the nature of what is being communicated. We will have a good deal to say about the nature of these differences as we go along. For the time being I will just note what I consider to be the major one. Awake our communication to others or to ourselves is often tinged (sometimes more than tinged) with expediency. Dreams manage to consistently and insistingly get at the truth. If it weren't for that distinction, there would be no point in writing books on dreams.

Some dreams are so transparent that we immediately grasp their connection to our waking life. More often the dreamer needs help in working through the differences in form and content of the two states before that connection comes alive. Perhaps a musical analogy can help.

It generally takes two people to write a song, the composer and the lyricist. Let the first be the dream and the latter be the dreamer. The music wells up from some inner creative source in the composer. The lyricist searches for the words that are just the right fit for the feelings conveyed by the music. We end up not just with words and not just with music, but with a song set to music.

For the dreamer, as for the musician, the music comes by itself rising to the surface from that inner creative source. Words have to be formed to fit the music, not the other way around. They, too, have to come from an inner creative source if they are to fit in so natural a way as to make it seem the two were destined to be together from the beginning.

I recall, on leaving the theater after seeing South Pacific, I had the feeling the lyricist didn't write the lyrics, he just pulled them out-of-the-air. They were there ready to be formed so that a song could be born.

There is another aspect to this analogy that is pertinent to dreams. When the words and music come together in this way, a new song enters the public domain as a gift to others. The song is socialized. It can now be sung and enjoyed by others. In the case of a dream shared in a group, a new felt insight is born. Not only is it of benefit to the dreamer, it is also a gift to others in the group who shared in the birthing process and who benefited as participants in the healing process. Healing is a two-way street. The members of the group have been accessories to the dreamer who is the lyricist in charge.

For the composer, the notes on the page come alive when they are played. For the dreamer, the pictures in the dream are the notes that have to come alive. As notes are the indicators of musical melody, the pictures are the indicators of potential metaphorical references to the emotional life of the dreamer. The developments of the moving visual metaphors of the dream convey the melodic line of the dream.

The group members start with the same notes as the dreamer and, in a variety of ways, help the dreamer find the right words for the song. Just as the right words for the music are cast in song, the right words for the pictures in the dream are cast in metaphorical meaning.

There are two skills the dreamer and any helpers to the dream have to develop. They have to learn how to appreciate the way metaphorical imagery conveys feelings (the musical ear of the composer) and to find the right words to express those feelings (the poetry of the lyricist).

The image realized as metaphor is the poem set to music. I refer to this process as dream appreciation because, just as a musical effect goes deeper than anything that can be conveyed by ordinary language, so the metaphorical power of the dream goes deeper than our verbal interpretations. The verbal meanings that occur to us in working with dream imagery are the only tools needed to help the metaphorical image do what it is supposed to do, namely create a felt metaphorical impact.

All that anyone can do is to help the dreamer find the song that goes with the given music provided by the dream imagery. When these come together, either for the dreamer or the musician, what we are left with is a satisfying experience that words alone cannot capture. Something dormant has come to life in a way that promises to bear more fruit in the future. Both bring us to the edge of discovery. Both bring us closer to our own humanity. In both we are the creator and the audience to our own creation. In both a wider audience can benefit from what we have created.

To sum up: Asleep and dreaming, we resort to a sensory-like pictorial experience to express to ourselves whatever feeling tones are surfacing at the moment. We use the resulting imagery in a metaphorical way, to do what metaphors do so gracefully, to express feelings coming into being that have not yet found their proper place in our lives. For that to come about with the very original metaphorical representations in the dream, the dreamer often needs help to clear the way for the images to find their way back into the waking life of the dreamer. For that to happen, they have to be socialized by discovering their connection to the relevant recent and past context of the dreamer's life.

The use of ordinary discourse in uncovering these linkages is a tool but not the answer in itself. Like the lyricist we have to seek out the proper words to the music in the poetry of a song. In the case of the dream, that means we have to re-metaphorize the dream. The end point to dream work is closer to another metaphor than it is to an interpretation in an ordinary sense.

In one dream the metaphorical succession of pictures in the dream was re-metaphorized with the dream depicting the artful dodges the dreamer resorted to in order to maintain himself as the invisible man. That was experienced by the composer of the dream as the proper fit of lyrics to the music. It is the composer as the only lyricist of his own dream who knows when the proper fit is reached. While a dream as nachtmusic can stand alone, the addition of the lyrics is a necessary enrichment for the daytime appreciation of the dreamer primarily and of the daytime audience (the helpers) as well.

Just as words and music are qualitatively distinct forms of expression that can come together in a unified experience, the nature of this distinction is of great importance in understanding the problem the dreamer has awake in trying to connect with the night time experience of the dream.

It should be obvious by now that I am fond of analogies. The one I find most apt with regard to this distinction I am going to borrow from physics. I refer to the fact that although the electron is some kind of unified entity, it can only be known to us in one of its two possible manifestations, either as a particle or a wave, depending on the context in which it is observed.

By the same token, waking consciousness experiences the world in its discreteness, while dreaming consciousness experiences this same world in its interconnectedness. The first accepts the world as made up of discrete objects and represents an obligatory way of relating to a world seen as such. The second is not a learned accommodation to such a world, but is there from the beginning as a natural felt sense of the interconnectedness of all that exists. It has the character of a deeper underlying domain registering the subjective rewards and costs of adapting to a world of objects.

What is happening to our organismic potential as a consequence of this adaptation? What has been the cost of our human potential for the technological gains we have made since the Industrial Revolution?

If a certain level of objectifying the world is necessary in the course of the evolution of any society, have we carried this to such a self-defeating extent that we have become objects to each other? Have our technological gains in designing objects of destruction so far outpaced our capacity for moral growth that ours and future generations will continue to live under a cloud - a mushroom cloud?

You can see from this projection where our dreaming psyche might have a very extended agenda to ponder. We, as individual human beings, are faced with what filters down to us as conscious or unconscious moral choices at every turn throughout our lives.

Bette Davis once said, "Old age is not for sissies." She might as well have extended that to every age. If we were to pay more attention to our dream life from an early age on, we might evolve a greater sensitivity to the moral issues that confront us. We have the intrinsic honesty of the dreaming psyche to help us.