Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Narrative and Rhetoric of Dreams: Six Literary Fragments by a Novelist

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Narrative and Rhetoric of Dreams: Six Literary Fragments by a Novelist

Article excerpt

To study dreaming and storymaking as parallel creative acts, two fragments of a novel are presented along with four contemporaneous dreams by the novelist. These six works show how Lacan's ideas about the language structure of the unconscious are particularly powerful in understanding the function of narrative in resolving trauma and constructing personal meaning.

Dreams, like literature, represent the crossing and recrossing of many cultural paths,l not least of all the relation of unconscious processes to art.2 They also show the relation between narrative and the need for meaning,3 and a moment's reflection will show that meaning is more important than pleasure, more important even than preserving one's life (otherwise history would not record wholesale sacrifice in wartime, denial alone cannot account for it).

The present argument turns on dreams of a novelist and the fiction she was writing at the time she had them. She produced these while she was in psychoanalytic therapy, yet this is not a clinical paper. Access to her literary productions was an accident of treatment in a sense, and her psychotherapy is not necessary to understand the relation of dreams to fiction. The treatment, of course, contained the typical elements of psychotherapy, but the reader is asked to pretend that the fiction and dreams and perhaps a sketchy bit of biography emerged by happenstance-perhaps found in an attic somewhere. Otherwise, the neglect below of issues of process and transference will prove frustrating and annoying to the clinician.

The Narrative of Trauma

Our point of departure is the traumatic dream, the recurrent nightmare of the individual who has suffered some terrible experience and remains embedded in it. Lacan4 delineated three "registers of experience," which he called the "real," the "imaginary," and the "symbolic." The "real" is too stark, too traumatic for human beings to stand more than a few seconds. The "imaginary" register refers to the primitive or even paranoid flight from reality into denial and delusion about the ultimate attainability of desire. (For Lacan, the object of desire is never captured.) The "symbolic" register of experience figuratively depicts the "real" without incapacitating us with terror. If we were to try to recast trauma dreams into Lacan's registers of experience, we might say that the traumatic nightmare is tilted toward the terrifying "real" and the paranoid "imaginary" but away from the "symbolic." Ideally, Lacan's "real" is depicted within the constraints of symbolic linguistic conversions by means of metaphor and metonymy.

Metaphor, of course, compares an abstract concept with a concrete thing. "My love is a red, red rose." Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole, more complex concept, as "the White House" and "Ten Downing Street" refer to executive branches of government. This process of one thing standing for another-signifier for signified-is a basic fact of dreams,5 (e.g., pp. 339-353) and metaphor and metonymy correspond to condensation and displacement, respectively.6 The capacity for symbolization is the wellspring of language and of dreaming. Without the use of figurative language, we would get "stuck" in the literal, the concrete, and this failure of symbol formation seems a hallmark of the recurrent stereotyped traumatic nightmare.

The Dreamer and the Artist

"Miss R" is the pen name of the 45-year-old, twice-widowed woman who provided typescripts of her dreams and some of the discarded sections of one of her romantic novels for purposes of this study. They are edited and changed somewhat to guard her privacy, and it is best not to tell you much about her, except that she was the mother of two and had already published a romantic novel when she came to treatment some years ago because of a severe depression that had biological, developmental, and traumatic roots. Her work was stalled at the time psychotherapy began but, after many months of work, she felt well enough but wanted to continue, now focusing on her writing. …

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