Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dreams, Death and Transformation

A friend of mine recently recommended I read James Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).  Hillman, who passed away just before Halloween of last year, was a Jungian psychologist best known for his work on dreams.  I came to this delightful little book expecting a theory of dream interpretation, and what I got instead was an anti-interpretation theory.

Hillman makes a convincing case that the function of dreams can best be understood through mythologies of the Underworld.  Hillman begins with a careful analysis of Greco-Roman underworld mythologies, showing how precisely they reflect the human experience of dreaming, even hinting that underworld/afterlife mythologies are the product of dreaming.  Hillman then goes on to argue that if you want to understand how to approach dreams, you have to understand and accept the rules and etiquette of Hades.

One of the most obvious underworld/afterlife-like features of dreams is the fact that we can and frequently do meet and interact with the deceased in our dreams.  I've had a number of dreams in which I've interacted with my grandfather -- who passed away long before I was even born!  In another underworldly dream, I encountered a friend who has been dead many years, who invited me and Göran into his home and offered us a meal of pizza topped with caviar.  Göran was afraid to eat food with the dead, and so declined.  I was not afraid to join my deceased friend in a meal, but unfortunately, as is quite often the case with food offered in the house of the dead, it wasn't the tastiest.

Initially, I found Hillman's book a tad frustrating.  I kept wanting him to finish critiquing Freudian and Jungian dream analysis methods, and start telling me how he thinks we should analyze.  He never does.  At the very end of the book, he does have a chapter entitled "Praxis," in which he discusses possible meanings of very common dream tropes and images.  Though he prefaces this chapter essentially by saying: Well, I'm putting this chapter in here because I have to.  Because you'll get mad at me if I don't, and because I can't resist the urge to critique some more.  But please ignore everything I'm about to tell you, because it may or may not be useful in working with your own dreams!

What I did find both fascinating and helpful was his insistence that most dream analysis is an exercise of the ego.  We tend to impose our "dayworld" preoccupations and interests on our dreams, and this, he suggests, is a violence.  Dreams are not symbolic recapitulations of what goes on in our waking life.  They are underworldly (from the viewpoint of death/the dead) commentaries on or critiques of our waking life.  The question is not, "How can understanding my dreams help me to achieve my goals?" so much as, "What does my dream-self think of my goals?"

I was particularly intrigued by Hillman's discussion of the impact of what he calls "Christianism" on dream work.  Bottom line: it's bad.  Hillman sees Christian doctrine undermining a healthy valuation of "the Underworld," of the "psyche" and the subconscious.    Christianity substituted pneuma (spirit) for the old pagan psyche (soul), an impoverishment in Hillman's opinion.  In the Christian worldview, the Underworld is transformed into Hell, and Hades into the Devil -- a very unhealthy development in his opinion.  "Christianism" as he describes it sees "death" and "Hell" as bad things that are vanquished or banished by Christ.  He discusses, at length, the psychological significance of the biblical doctrine of Christ's descent into Hell, and his resurrection from the dead.  Christ, he says, went into hell so that we would not have to.  He vanquished death.  And what this means, in psychological terms, is that "Christianism" provides no healthy context for wrestling with our demons.  (The old Greek word daimones had a more morally neutral connotation -- not evil minions of the Devil, but powerful sacred beings.)  Hillman argues that modern psychology is finally setting right what a couple of millennia of "Christianism" set wrong, by recovering a classical understanding of the subconscious/Underworld.

That critique was interesting to me because Mormon doctrine and belief, I think, rescued and rehabilitated the Underworld from what Hillman describes as "Christianism" long before modern psychology.  First of all, Mormons believe in a literal Spirit World which, for all intents and purposes, functions in many ways like the classical Underworld.  The Mormon Spirit World, in addition to being coterminous with the literal, physical "dayworld" (much as Hillman describes the classical Underworld being), is a world with which Mormons communicate through visions, partings of "the veil," and -- significantly! -- through dreams.  For Mormons, Christ's descent into Hell was not a vanquishing of or annihilation of Hell, but simply an opening up of missionary work.  Thus, Mormons have a concept of being "saviors in Mount Zion," which boils down to the notion that not only did Christ descend into Hell, but so can we, for the sake of carrying on the missionary work he initiated -- an activity that our salvation is considered to depend on.  Many Mormons imagine that the most valiant of our dead family members are already doing that work "on the other side of the veil."  And we participate in that work on "this side of the veil" through genealogy and vicarious ordinance work, among other things.  From Hillman's point of view, surely Mormonism at the very least should be acknowledged to have opened up a psychological space within which dream work and work with the subconscious is both possible and meaningful.

One of the insights I particularly appreciated from Hillman's book had to do with the function of death, disease, chaos and degeneracy in dreams.  Nightmarish dream images usually point us toward the transformation that death promises.  I guess how we feel about this depends a lot on how we view death.  Hillman argues that one reason dream work is important is because it allows us to integrate death into a healthier understanding of the meaning of life.  This is why it is important to let death, in essence, speak to us, speak to and critique our dayworld life.


This insight helped me understand a particularly puzzling or troubling dream I had this past weekend.  In the dream, I was at some kind of high school prom.  It was the kind of social event that I dreaded when I was in high school.  I was not one of the "popular" kids in high school.  (I guess most of us weren't.)  I guess I was what you would call socially awkward, so these kinds of events often left me feeling isolated or lonely.  The prom in my dream was no exception.

At a key moment in the dream, the Prom King and Queen arrived.  They were a male-female couple, but there were a number of things about them in the dream that were very bizarre.  First of all, they arrived dressed totally in winter clothes -- scarves, overcoats, gloves, hats, etc.  Second, they looked kind of alien.  They had long limbs and tiny bodies, and their skin was whitish and rubbery, and crinkled like the skin of a reptile or an amphibian.  Actually, up close their flesh looked like it was flaking and diseased, about to be sloughed off, so it might even have been leprous.  Also odd: even though I knew them to be male and female, they looked totally androgynous.  The only way I could tell which was the guy and which was the girl was the eyes.  Something about the (big, googly, amphibian) eyes gave away that they were masculine or feminine, but that was it.

Everybody was ooh-ing and ah-ing over them.  They became the immediate center of attention.  People hung on their every word, and everyone was gathered around them in a big circle.  In my dream, I had other duties I needed to attend to...  Specifically, I had a student who was taking an exam, and I needed to proctor the exam.  So instead of getting caught up in the buzz around the Prom King and Queen, I attended to my duty of taking care of my student.

I woke up with a sense of: "Yes, don't get caught up in worrying about status or popularity, focus on your duty."  That was my "dayworld" sense of the dream's significance.  But the bizarreness of certain aspects of the dream bothered me.  Hillman said death images point to transformation.  And the diseased, "leprous" appearance of the Prom King and Queen (as well as their winter clothing) suggested there was something "special" about this heterosexual pair, that they were undergoing some sort of "transformative" process.  Was this communication from the Underworld/Other World telling me that heterosexuality is indeed special?  That only heterosexuals get to experience the kind of "transformation" that Mormons imagine in terms of apotheosis?

Of course the hitch in the imagery of my dream was that the transformation experienced by the Prom King and Queen seemed to be erasing or dissolving sexual difference.  The "male-female" couple in my dream were being rendered androgynous by their transformation.  It was only the eyes (the perspective, the way of viewing the world?) that seemed to remain gendered in any way.

Hillman stressed that dream messages frequently are ambiguous.  They are both/and.  Simultaneously black and white.  So this dream was, perhaps, reaffirming my sense that I need to learn to live and work without envy; while also pointing me toward a sense of marriage as sacred, as transforming.  And on the question of whether transformative marriage is gender exclusive in a way that would invalidate my relationship with my husband, the dream seemed ambiguous.


A dream I had earlier this week, after the Prom dream seemed like a sequel, at least in relation to this question.  In this dream I was engaged in genealogical research with my family.  We were in a big genealogical library.  Some of us were doing research, while others of us were tending children.  The kids were being occupied through arts and crafts projects.

Later, Göran and I went to a big conference.  The conference was in a Heavenly Convention Center.  It was literally high up in the sky.  There was sort of an infinitely tall highway we drove up to get there.  And I expected it to be crowded, but it was not.  Somehow, Göran and I ended up approaching the center from a direction different from everyone else.  So I couldn't get immediate access to the parking across the street.  I had to push our vehicle -- a faded red (pink?) convertible across the highway meridian by hand, and then pick the car up and place it in its parking space.  Apparently the car was super light, or I had super strength, because picking it up and putting it down in the right space was easy for me.  Then I rejoined Göran at the front entrance, where we could enter the Heavenly Convention Center.

This dream began with an activity (genealogical work) Mormons see as central to the plan of salvation, that has to do with our relationship to the dead, and that situated me in both an immediate and extended family.  The presence of the kids, and adults who were tending the kids, seemed to say to me that in achieving the tasks necessary for exaltation, some of us might be delegated different roles.  Some of us might be having kids -- tending to the future of the family.  Others of us might be doing genealogy -- tending to the family's past, and to its larger relationships.  But we were all part of the same team.

The end of the dream had me and Göran entering together into what was, essentially, a symbol of Heaven, of the Divine Presence.  The pink convertible was, like the Leprous Prom Couple, also a symbol of transformation from the mortal to the heavenly, a convertible, of course, being a car that changes from one form to another, and the faded red/pink color of the car being an obvious symbol of the flesh, of embodied existence.  The final step in Göran's and my journey involved getting out of the car, and literally putting it away for a time.  The fact that we were arriving by an unconventional route, from a direction different from most others seemed to speak to the fact that even when we don't fit the typical mold, there was a way for us.  There was plenty of space there for us.

Again, there is ambiguity in the dream symbolism.  The "putting away" of the car could symbolize a desexualization of our relationship, necessary to enter into Heaven.  Yet, we had arrived at Heaven together, partners traveling as "one flesh" (in one shared automobile).  If putting away the car symbolized putting off the flesh, it could have been a putting off the flesh only in the conventional sense of death as the threshold we need to cross at the end of this existence.  In that sense, the "transformation" Göran and I went through in this dream was not fundamentally different from the transformation of the Prom King and Queen that seemed to efface their sexuality too.


The gift of Hillman's book was to help me be more OK with the ambiguity of these dream symbols, to let me be more OK with just puzzling over them, letting the dream images puzzle me, challenge me, and perhaps speak to me at some more subconscious level.  It was partly because of Hillman's discussion of dream work that I let my mind explore more fully the imagery of the Leprous Prom Couple which had initially troubled me, and disinclined me to much want to think about this dream at all.  So thank you, Dr. Hillman, for your words literally from beyond the grave.  It has renewed my hunger for the next installment, my next meal with the dead.

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