This*Other-Ness and Dreams

Appeared in The Variety of Dream Experience, Montague Ullman and Claire Limmer, eds., New York: Continuum, 1987.

John Briggs, Ph.D.


This is an account of my thought experiment to explore the question of whether dreams are like literature. It's a good question but I was not able to answer it satisfactorily. The experiment failed, but in what seems to me a subtle and interesting way.


The quality of literature that seems most crucial to the question of whether dreams are like literature is the "this*other-ness" of literature. This made-up word is an effort to throw light on the structural dynamics that engages us in a great poem or story. (Briggs, 1986)

Let me illustrate what I mean with a short poem by Robert Frost:


	A Patch of Old Snow
There's a patch of old snow in a corner,
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
small print overspread it,
The news of a day I've forgotten-
If I ever read it.


Frost's poem turns upon a central metaphor which compares a patch of old snow to a newspaper. In other words, it's a poem about a "this" (snow) which is clearly something "other" than this (it's a newspaper, the bearer of "news"). The focus here is not simply on the fact of the comparison--everybody knows what a literary metaphor is. The focus is on the very peculiar dynamic that is going on between the metaphor's terms. It is also what is going on in the poem reader's head. To get a sense of the richness of that dynamic, suppose we ask, How does the fictional narrator of this poem feel about his comparison of snow to a newspaper? Is he expressing regret over not having read the news of that forgotten day or is he waxing cynical about it? For example, the poet's supporting metaphor comparing "grime" to "small print." Is the grime the variety that's messy and sordid or the kind that's an insignificant nuisance? Was the "news" missed in the patch of old snow a grimy news or has it been made grimy by time?

In trying to interpret what the "other" is in the poem (what the metaphor means, in other words), the reader is immediately swept into an undertow of such questions. Add to this the fact that the grimy, cynical side of the metaphor is offset by other things in the poem which seem to point to quite a different feeling - a poignant loss about the news that's been missed. In other words, the central metaphor seems pervaded by irony. The word "should" is a microcosm of that irony.

"Should" can be read at least three ways: A) The narrator ought to have guessed that the patch of snow was a newspaper because making such a guess enables him to enter a metaphoric world where one can realize the kind of news that nature and the passage of time regularly 'publish'; B) he ought to have guessed because there is some kind of universal imperative for us to notice the 'news' of things and there is a guilt associated with our failing to notice this 'news', or C) he might have guessed the snow was a newspaper (but he didn't) in which case the whole metaphor is much more frivolous , almost a throw-away fancy.

Literary metaphor and literary irony are of course fundamentally ambiguous. Possible meanings are not resolved in favor of one of them; rather, they all hang together like the facets of a chaotic crystal, if one can imagine such a thing. We could also put it that the multi-dimensional meanings of a metaphor exist in harmony with each other--harmony in the musical sense, where both differences and similarities take part in a movement that is order.

The made-up word "this*other-ness," is an attempt to express the dynamics of this harmony. It has seemed to me that the movement of literature is to see the universe in a white whale, a grain of sand, a patch of old snow - in "this" which is also an "other" and an "other" which is always also a "this." The back- and-forth simultaneity of meaning between the "this" and the "other" is represented by the asterisk *. In a great literary work the elments (characters, images, setting, and so on) are perceived as neither simply "this" nor something wholly "other" than "this" - they are experienced as (somehow) both. Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse put the sensation this way. It is, she said, "to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy." This*other-ness in the dining room and kitchen - the kind of effect that abounds in Woolf's novels.

In the case of the Frost poem, I could describe the movement of this*other-ness as follows: The central metaphor tells us explicitly that the patch of snow is something other than just a patch of snow. First, the other is a newspaper, then it's a more mysterious "news." At that point the snow becomes so much an other that it might seem almost an abstraction, an image of the fleetingness of time and the slipperiness of memory. Just there, however, we encounter the irony. The snowpatch is a "this," covered with grime like an old newspaper. It's not a vast abstraction; it's one of the perfectly ordinary objects of life. And yet this ordinary object can bring us news of a forgotten day. And so on. The snowpatch is a this*other-ness without resolution.

In other words, a great work of literature always expresses a kind of profound and interesting ambivalence towards its subject. In ambivalence of a psychological kind, if we feel two ways about something or someone (love-hate, secure-insecure), we want to resolve the contradiction because it creates conflict or leaves us with a sense that we're powerless. We usually resolve an ambivalence by giving precedence to one side and suppressing the other (insisting we feel secure and denying our insecurity, for example), or by finding a new way of thinking about the ambivalence that joins the thesis and antithesis of the conflict into a synthesis of resolution. Literary ambivalence is dramatically different.

It is not a conflict of meanings or an immobility of meanings which have been jammed together in a small space. Neither is it a synthesis of previous contradictions. It has no resolution. Rather, it is a richness of meanings, none subordinated to the other, all (somehow) standing together. It is something like taking the wild inhabitants of a zoo and bringing them all close enough so they can be in the same picture. Literary ambivalence is a sense of meaning beyond meanings. It might better be called "omnivalence." Omnivalence is an order which arises subtly out of the piece like a fragrance. This*other-ness is the dynamic form from which a sense of omnivalence emerges.

I have found that this*other-ness and omnivalence are related to another important aspect of literature which I've already alluded to in the discussion of "should" in the Frost poem. The elements of a piece of literature are isomorphic or fractal, that is, they reflect one another. "Should" is a microcosm of the overall ironies of the poem; grime like small print also contains these ironies, but from another direction; the word "news" contains them. Thus each element is a microcosm of other elements and of the poem as a whole.

Now we come to the crux. For me to accept as valid an analogy between literature and dreams I'd need to see that isomorphism, omnivalence, and this*other-ness actually exist in the dream. Of course, I'm not saying one could not make this analogy based on some other criteria, but for me these are the most fundamental, the most important, aspects of literary order. I see them as so crucial because I see them as intimately connected with my experience through literature of universality and truth.


A poem or a novel is an artifact. Embedded in the structure of that artifact, I believe, is an isomorphism, this*other-ness, and omnivalence which evokes a reciprocal sense of this*other- ness, omnivalence, and order in the reader. The moment dreamer awakens and remembers the dream, it becomes an artifact. So, can these two artifacts be compared?

Knowing about my interest in dreams, a neighbor of mine, Joanne Fuller, brought me a long, panoramic dream that seemed well suited for my thought experiment comparison. In one passage of the dream, the dreamer Joanne visits the apartment of a friend, Bob, who is living with a girl the dreamer thinks might be mentally retarded. Joanne reported that in the dream this girl "stayed in the background, very humbly, not looking into our eyes. He (Bob) ignored her, I think." A little later in the dream:

The mentally retarded girl was very quietly and shyly moving around like a servant who is not supposed to be talked to. We started talking. She was very nice and quiet, intelligent. She told me she was a queen. We went to her planet and she turned very beautiful and peaceful. It occurred to me that this was Mars and the queen probably had a mask on so as not to frighten me. She took it off. The body was the same but the face was like a "comedy and tragedy" drama mask. The eyes had no eyes, just holes. The mouth did not have a smile but a sad, blank look. I turned to the queen and said, "I'm not afraid."

The passage is striking and seems as close to being a literary artifact as one could hope for. It is evidently a wonderful nocturnal parable on the theme of disguise, reality, and illusion. There is metaphor in the retarded servant who is also a queen. There is irony in the fact that beneath the mask of the queen is a sad, blank look (like the look of a retarded girl?). There is irony in the dreamer's statement, "I'm not afraid," which raises the question of whether she is really not afraid or is trying to convince herself she's not, in which case she is. All this reeks of omnivalence and this*other-ness. For example, is the retarded girl a queen or a retarded girl? a "this" or an "other?" In the Frost poem we were introduced, among other things, to the mysterious transience of news in the world. Here we confront, among other things, the elusiveness of identity.

There is isomorphism or fractal self similarity in the dream as well. In the segment I'm considering, for example, the "comedy and tragedy" drama mask is a microcosm of the comedy and tragedy tone of the whole passage. If the girl is really retarded, it's a tragedy; if she's really a queen, it's a comedy in the Shakespearian sense of that word. In fact, it seems both and neither. The self-similarity also extends to the other parts of the dream, which I have not presented. In the opening section, the dreamer is walking down a street with a friend and sees homosexuals, one of them wearing "long insulated underwear." Underwear is a mirror of masking, as in one possible view of homosexuality: one sex in the mask of another.

This*other-ness, self-similarity, omnivalence. So far it looks as if a dream is very much like a piece of literature. However, at this point I find myself growing a bit nervous. I begin to feel that I'm reading in.

I ask myself, as lyrical as this passage is, what if I didn't know the images were from a dream, what if I thought they were from, say, a sketch by a writer, would I find them so intriguing? The answer is clearly no. There's no plot, no character development, no dramatic context for this scene. Taking into account the whole of Joanne's dream, I realize, would only make this problem worse. There, in a manner typical of dreams, scenes and characters change without any accessible internal logic. In great poems and poetic literature--no matter how experimental--there is always an internal logic that can be apprehended in some fashion by the reader and which requires little or no input of information from outside the work itself (presuming one understands the language in which it is written). In other words, each great work constructs or sketches in its own context. In the Frost poem the context economically limed is the familiar three-dimensional world where patches of old snow can easily be taken as looking like blow-away newspapers. In Kafka's The Trial, a dreamlike context is created. But The Trial is not a dream. Joseph K is seen in various situations which, though extremely bizarre, are all connected in some way to his trial. The trial is the context which supports the contextual development and revelation of Joseph K's character. Context creates a this-ness from which the other-ness that is the whole elusive meaning of the trial emanates, and the this-ness and the other-ness are always in an unfolding harmony.

Every writer and every piece uses different means for establishing a context and making it relatively self-consistent and self-contained. Not so with the dream. I mentioned that in the section of Joanne's dream just preceding the mask passage, she is in Bob's apartment. Bob does not appear again in the dream, and his contextual significance evidently lies outside the dream-as-artifact.

The dreamer's life experience is, of course, the actual context of the dream. Many of the images, words, personalities, objects, have a private significance for the dreamer which the artifact of the dream itself does not provide. Poets and fiction writers use a very public language, with shared connotations; or they find ways to make their private language accessible. Dreams are filled with images that have idiosyncratic connotations. I can try to gather enough detail about those connotations to supply a context, but then I feel myself stumbling toward a different dilemma. If I knew who Bob was then I would be on my way to seeing the dream as a kind of code, an information game in which the dream's apparent other-ness can be reduced to an apprehensible and relatively unambiguous this-ness.

In fact, decoding is the common way the dream artifact has been handled by the waking mind. The image of a snake in a dream was decoded by the Greeks as a sign of disease; the Egyptians saw it as a sign that a dispute had been settled; Freud saw it as a symbol of the penis and sexual drives. The Iroquois engaged in "dream guessing," which assumed that the dream expresses some unfulfilled wish that needs to be placated. All these approaches assume the dream is, at best, ambivalent, not omnivalent. Even the Jungian approach sees the dream as a code. The idea, for example, of a feminine aspect and a masculine aspect to a dream is not omnivalent unless one were to see that the masculine is the feminine and that the dream is expressing something beyond both aspects and including them. Joanne's dream would yield easily and splendidly to a number of decoding systems.

Dream: Code or Metaphor?

Could all these decoding approaches be wrong? I cannot be so bold as to draw that conclusion. In fact there seem good reasons to suppose that a dream does contain information and that it can be decoded. Dreamers who take their dreams public seem to engage in some kind of encoding for decoding purposes, suggesting truth to the old joke about the patient in Freudian analysis who begins to dream in Freudian symbols. So the dilemma is this:

In so far as a dream is a code, it threatens the analogy that dreams are like poems, because a poem is not a code. Of course, not everyone agrees with that assertion. Certainly many critics think of works of literature as codes. But creative writers traditionally dispute this position, and I strongly take their side. When someone asked Robert Frost what one of his poems meant, he replied sharply with, "What do you want me to do, say it again in worse English?" In effect Frost was saying the intended meaning of his poem is immediately apprehensible and irreducible. It is not a hidden meaning but an omnivalence, a simultaneous sense of order and ambiguity which should strike the reader's mind with the vividness of the warmth on a spring day or the abruptness of an auto accident.

So what troubles me about the analogy that dreams are like literature is that although poets usually bridle at attempts to approach their work as a code, dreamers on awakening generally have the opposite reaction. They welcome any help in making sense of the dream. Unlike a poem, the order of its ambiguity is not immediately apparent. It seems that when a dream is brought out of the night into the day as a crystallized artifact, it either begins to fade away into pure other-ness ("Wow, it was too weird") or its other-ness is transformed by some process, theory, or sign system, into a this-ness and information.

Does that mean my analogy has failed, that the dream as an artifact can't be apprehended the way a poem is? No, I can't go that far, either. Indeed, I've worked with dreams as if they were poems and, had some modest success. The process I've used involves developing contextual connotations from the dreamer's life (who Bob is, for example), spinning out all kinds of interpretations about the images and their connections, seeing how these interpretations are mutually exclusive or contradictory, and then letting the sheer immensity and elusiveness of meaning emerge. In that way all specific meanings are dropped and what is left is a this*other-ness in which omnivalence pervades. Obviously the last step is the most important one. The process is a lot of work and tends to make the dream a poignant but somewhat impersonal and public thing, like a poem. Unlike traditional dream work where the point is to connect the images of the dream to the dreamer's personal life dilemmas, here the point is to experience the dream as a window into the this*other-ness of existence in general. For that purpose it seems better to have an older dream rather than a fresh one, so that the dreamer, like an author, can have some "distance" on its material. By employing some such process, we make the artifact of the dream, as dream researcher Ellen Foreman puts it, a "first draft" that has to be worked on in order for its poetry to emerge.

The analogy of dreams-as-like-literature can be rescued by this approach, but the rescue is not really satisfactory. This is because I think of a piece of literature as something that has an immediate effect. The this*other-ness is simply there as the reader perceives the work.

If this immediacy is not in the dream as an artifact, I wonder, is it somewhere in the dreaming process itself? What about the experience of the dreamer in the throes of the dream? Do omnivalence and this*other-ness reside there?

When Joanne told me her dream she reported feeling a shifting anxiety and uncertainty as the events of the dream unfolded. This typical kind of dream angst is closer to ambivalence than omnivalence. Nightmares are an even starker example that the dreamer inside the dream is generally in no poetic position. It might be possible to view a nightmare poetically in the light of day, but for the consciousness within the dream it is a literal, not a metaphorically penetrating, event. It's a "this," not an "other." It may be a very strange "this," but the dreamer is in no shape to see if it is "other"- wise ironic. Of course the same could be said for Joseph K, who fails to see the metaphoric other-ness of his life and for whom the bizarre events of his trial are so literal that he is left full of paralysis and conflict. That is an interesting similarity between a dream and a work of literature. The characters in the work are like dreamers in a dream, caught up in their reality. The writer and the reader, however, are in a different position. They have distance. They can experience the this*other-ness and omnivalence.

For some reason, this line of thinking suggests to me a rather extraordinary possibility. Perhaps that immediacy of this*other-ness and omnivalence, that self-similar perception which poets and artists of all kinds participate in and evoke through their works isn't in the dreamer in the dream; it isn't in the dreamer awake who is trying to decipher the dream--it is the act of dreaming itself. That would mean that the dreamer in the dream is not aware of the omnivalence because he is immersed in the omnivalence, like a character in a story. That would mean that the act of dreaming, making a dream, is an expression of the fact that the world as a whole is a this*other-ness , a grand ironic epic in which we ourselves take a part. It would mean that dreaming is like seeing, or hearing, a perception, an irreductible awareness. Imagine it as something like the actual sensation of an event compared to a memory of the sensation. Is the dream we awaken with merely an abstract residue of some fundamentally metaphorical perception, like a conch shell after the gastropod that once inhabited it has vanished? Like the shell, the dream artifact is beautiful but in some sense lifeless (omnivalent-less). But we can put life back into it if we work on it like the draft of a poem or story, attempting to recover not the original perception but something with the life of that perception in the moment it occurred. By this I mean not the perception of the characters in the dream but the sensation of dream as perception. That is what Kafka did, it appears.

I find this little journey of mirrors appealing but I am stubbornly suspicious of it. The evidence seems strong that both dreaming and the dream are a coding process which gives information about the particular situation of the person who has the dream. So,should we propose that the act of dreaming is both encoding and omnivalent? Perhaps, but it seems merely contradictory to say that we can have determinate information and at the very same time undercut that information by recognizing it as ironic. How can something be both a determinable this-ness and an indeterminable this*other-ness? It would be like saying a literary work could be both an allegory and an ironic metaphor. The one cancels out the other. Or does it?

Are dreams like literature? The analogy seems neither proved nor disproved by these reflections. At this point I would be inclined to argue with anyone who denied that dreams are like literature as much as I would be inclined to argue with anyone who thought they were. So far, no one knows for certain why we dream and perhaps we will never know, though there are many theories. Some even say it's simply a random discharge from the brain.

Then again... a great piece of literature always remains beyond anything we can say about it. So I begin to wonder. Hasn't my little thought experiment suggested that in some unfathomably different way the same thing is true for a dream?



Briggs, J."Reflectaphors: The Universe as a Work of Art," in B. Hiley and D. Peat (Eds) David Bohm: Physics and Beyond. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1987

J. Briggs & R. Monaco. Metaphor: The Logic of Poetry. New York: Pace University Press, 1990