Symposium: Ernest Hartmann's "A Contemporary Theory on the Nature and Functions of Dreaming"
Response by Kelly Bulkeley
The Interplay of Connecting and Disconnecting in Dreaming
My first concern regards the theory's heavy reliance on the particular case of post-traumatic nightmares to help in explaining the general nature and functions of dreaming. This move is similar to what Freud does in The Interpretation of Dreams when he uses the neurotic symptoms of his patients as a basis for explaining the formation of the dreams of all people. Freud's strategy of reasoning from pathology to normality leads to an unduly narrow view of dreaming, and I think the theory under discussion suffers the same problem. In this case, the effect is to overvalue the role of connection, and undervalue the role of disconnection, in dreaming. Dreams don't only make new connections; they break old connections. Dreams break us away from our usual ways of looking at things: they regularly tear people and objects and emotions out of their familiar contexts; they rudely challenge our waking life assumptions, and they gleefully subvert our waking world conventions. The wonderfully creative power of dreaming depends on an interplay of making and breaking, connecting and disconnecting, creating and destroying. This theory, because it starts with the particular case of post-traumatic nightmares, focuses too heavily on the "connection" side of this interplay, and ignores the lively forces of "disconnection," the irrepressible "trickster" elements in our dreaming.
My second concern about this theory regards its portrait of the motivation impelling the formation and functions of dreaming. The theory refers to "emotions"; using to nice effect an aquatic metaphor, it says dreaming essentially helps to soothe the roiling waves of excessively strong emotions, calming the troubled psychic waters. But here again, I think the theory follows Freud down an unfruitful path in postulating a kind of "homeostatic" model of psychological functioning. In this model (which Freud outlines in chapter 7, emotions are conceived as quanta of excitation which disturb the smooth operation of the psyche; dreams serve as one important means of modulating that excitation (by discharging, in Freud's view, or by connecting, in this theory) and of thus restoring emotional balance, which is the ultimate psychic goal in this model. Seeking to restore some kind of emotional balance is unquestionably an important goal for victims of severe trauma, and dreams do seem to play a kind of natural, auto-therapeutic role in the recovery process for such people. But is a quest for "emotional balance" the ultimate motivation behind all dreams of all people? I don't believe so, and here again I think the theoretical move from pathology to normality is very misleading. Indeed, I think that this is where we finally reach the limits of psychological language entirely, and enter into the realm of religious reflection.
If we look at the full range of human dreaming experience (and not just at what goes on in 20th century Western sleep labs and clinician's offices), we find powerful evidence of spiritual forces at work in many people's dreams: forces that stimulate the emergence of a more complex, creative, and sophisticated self-consciousness, forces that bring the dreamer into a closer experiential relationship with whatever it is that he or she recognizes as the ultimate power and reality of the cosmos. Dreams don't just react to; they also reach towards. Dreams don't simply smooth out our emotions; they also spur us to new and vigorous growth, often by whipping up our emotions. Think of your own dreams of being terrified, of crying, of being angry, of being sexually aroused. In this theory the ultimate motivation behind our dreams, an impulse towards balance, is essentially static; what's missing, as I've said, is the trickster: the wild, unpredictable energies that help to create all the violent passions, all the comic absurdities, and all the awe-inspiring wonders which fill our dreams.
To close, I'd like to say that this gathering reminds me a little bit of the fabulous banquet that was once held for all the gods of Mount Olympus, all the gods, that is, except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Eris deeply resented not being invited to the party, and so she mischeviously threw into the banquet hall a golden apple, marked with the words "for the fairest." Naturally all the goddesses wanted the apple, and as they fought for possession of it the stately gathering of Olympian deities erupted into chaos. I worry that if we repeat this insult against the goddess Eris, if we fail to acknowledge in our theorizing about dreams the disconnecting, unbalancing, tricksterish elements that are always present in them, we too will find ourselves vainly arguing over whose theory is "the fairest."