Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams (Book Review)

Author:  Lippman, Paul
Publisher: Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2000
Reviewed By: Gemma M. Ainslie, Summer 2002, pp. 57-58

Dream Journeys

On June 1, in Austin, Texas, a group of about 75 people gathered at a local art gallery for a panel discussion among three members of the Division—Ricardo Ainslie, John Herman and myself—and visual artist, Susan Kae Grant. The event, co-sponsored by the Austin’s Local Chapter, was titled “Dreams and Art” and was occasioned by an exhibition of 24 of Ms. Grant’s photographic images and simultaneously broadcast recordings of her verbalizations generated by her experience in a sleep lab at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. In the lab, Herman, a member of the Dallas Chapter, and his staff had wakened Grant during REM sleep and asked her questions designed to gather images from her dream-in-process. These interviews provided Herman with data to further his exploration of various ways of bringing the unconscious into “immediate and vivid consciousness” and gave Grant the raw material for her exhibit, titled “Night Journey.” Before her sleep lab experience Grant, a self-described autobiographical artist, felt that her dreams were the one arena of her life she hadn’t tapped for inspiration. She acknowledged a lifelong interest in her dreams, including the belief that she “went somewhere” while dreaming and a wish to explore where she went via her dream-inspired creation, “Night Journey.” Having since read Nocturnes, I wish Paul Lippman could have been there, in that dream-filled place with gauzily focussed black and white photographs and an ongoing audiotape of free associations.

Lippman’s Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams starts at a point similar to Grant’s: he, too, has had a lifelong interest in his dreams; and he, too, wants us to examine where we journey in our dreams. Nocturnes is an often-lyrical expository essay, laced with autobiography and written to draw attention to communication about dreams. Very early on Lippman is explicit about this purpose: “Freud was predominantly interested in the role that wishes play in the psychological construction of dreams. I feel we can expand this to…wishes in relation to the experience of telling a dream and of thinking about a dream with another person”(p. 17). Indeed, with an interpersonalist’s respect for the intrapsychic, for the dyad in conversation, and for the cultural strata of one’s experience, Lippman focuses on the telling, the talking about, and the interpersonal as he considers the clinical dyad in conversation about dreams rather than dream interpretation per se. Lippman repeatedly returns to some themes such as our lineage as dream interpreters or his perception of the disadvantages of the relational school’s perspective. However he also notes briefly and almost in passing areas of potential inquiry, such as the impact of waking to the absence of a dream. One such aside that I find particularly fascinating is his understanding (explored in a l996 presentation at the Division’s Spring Meeting) that “…Freud, in his view of dreams, expressed the Jewish tradition of focus on the latent meaning, that is, on word and concept hidden in Torah and not on image; and…Jung in his view of mind and dream drew on the Christian tradition of focus on image. Both together, of course, are necessary for the full story” (p. 166). Among the questions he pursues more lengthily are: Over the course of our lives, to whom do we tell our dreams? How does the therapist’s personality style sculpt the process of talking about dreams in a clinical dyad? Does an emphasis upon the dream as disguise create more and more disguised dreams? “How does it affect us—dreamer and interpreter alike—that dreams are not mainly meant or the remembering, telling and interpreting but are mainly meant for the dreaming itself?” (p. 64) These are certainly ways of thinking about dreams that are not constrained by theoretical or technical loyalties.

Indeed the style of the book very much parallels Lippman’s suggestions for approaching the dream in treatment. This is not a book for clinicians wishing for technical or theoretical advice; instead, it is an expansive, evocative exploration of dreaming, based in the premise that, a dream is the idiosyncratic and to a great degree incommunicable creation of a human mind and that therefore every dream is beautiful and self-sufficient and telling, whether or not it is ever told. Rather like offering usable interpretations, he hints at awarenesses on the tip of one’s psychic tongue. Conjecture is both his stylistic forte and the bedrock of expert dream interpretation, so again and again he posits “what-ifs” that open new perspectives. Via this prismatic view of dreams, he encourages us to shift focus so that new light enters and refracts on the reported dream. He expertly draws our attention to the periphery of our trained, and therefore attenuated, awareness, thereby hoping to widen the scope of our potential listening to and engagement with what he calls the “controlled freedom” of dreams. I believe Lippman would agree that psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is such an intimate process in part because it extends the invitation to “dream together,” and our patients’ accepting that invitation privileges us with glimpses of their innermost parts. Indeed, in this way, Lippman asks us to re-engage with the wonder and pleasure that early dream interpretation in the context of the dawning discovery of the unconscious offered Freud and his early followers.

Nocturnes is organized into in a series of discreetly constituted chapters, each of which might easily stand alone as a seminar topic. For example, early on Lippman highlights that the dream discussed in much of our literature is but one version of the dream, the dream as interpreted. Lippman cautions us against confusing the interpreted dream with either the real dream or its meaning. Thus, he both reinstates the primacy of the manifest dream, “the dream as dreamt,” and reminds us of the power of the dream to elude our “knowing.” “The latent dream is generally synonymous with the interpreted dream, that is, the meanings ascribed to the dream images” (p. 37; italics added). I would like to add to this portion of the conversation about dreams consideration of yet another facet of the prism: the analysand’s dream as imag(in)ed by the analyst. It is the images in the analyst’s mind evoked by the dreamer’s verbalizations that are inevitably what the analyst interprets. I enter this cautiously, as I am certain Lippman would, because the use of this intersubjective set of images must be guided as much as possible by the details of the dreamer’s associations and tempered by the analyst’s commitment to interpreting the analysand’s inner process, the intra-psychic, via this best-approximation. Indeed, Lippman seems especially sensitive to what he views as the intrusive over-emphasis of the analyst’s person as represented in newer strains of analytic thought, especially the relational school, and he repeatedly cautions the reader regarding such a skew away from the intrapsychic. Perhaps the most powerful salvo in Lippman’s battle with the relational school also indicts classical Freudians’ tunnel-vision: “It may be that the history of psychoanalysis from the classical to the relational can be briefly summarized as the shift from prurience to narcissism, as we move from pushing our sexual theories to pushing our theories of the primary importance of our own role in the therapeutic relationship” (p. 150). Lippman also tweaks post-modernists, implying that they do not sufficiently acknowledge psychoanalysis’s history of subverting acceptance of the literal “…we understand with our postmodern colleagues, that meanings are overdetermined, multiple, never-ending, layered, or otherwise architecturally arranged…Students of dream-meaning were early to the understanding that interpretation is in the eyes of the beholder, and therefore many sided” (p. 65).

Another prominent theme throughout Nocturnes is Lippman’s determination to remind us that psychoanalytic dream interpretation is but our edition of a long history of dream interpretation, i.e., that our lineage is that of shaman and soothsayers, prophets and wise men, and that that tradition carries with it special responsibility as well as special status. Certainly the tradition Lippman refers to most intently is his own Judaic tradition, however he does note others. While perhaps beyond the scope of Lipmann’s book, I believe the reader would benefit from considering alternative interpretive traditions. For example, I once treated a young anthropologist whose work with an isolated South American group included her discovering that one of their rites of passage required that adolescents dream the same dream that all the adult members of the tribe dreamed. Their “identical” dreams offer a reminder that others continue to explore night journeys along different paths.

So, how does Lippman exhort us to demonstrate our status as “experts” in relation to the dream? “An expert, “ he tells us, “is not one who ‘knows,’ but is one who can assist in creating the conditions for good dream discussion and conversation, one who engages the dreamer in a process of collaborative play, of wondering and imagining together, one who finds matters of interest and curiosity in every turn… Dreams are often experiment, for both, in what can be told and heard” (pp. 189-190). And what, in his opinion, is the status of conversation about dreams in psychoanalysis? “Permitting the unconscious, through dreams, to alter the proceedings as it wishes to, whenever it wishes to, represents an act of faith that the unconscious will guide us to essential matters. In my opinion, this act of faith in the unconscious is a defining characteristic of psychoanalytic therapy and is essential in our kind of psychological treatment.” In the end, then, Lippman tries to engender in the reader a curiosity about dreams, a reverence tempered with playfulness, a willingness to be seduced by what may be the ultimate seductress. Just as we have seduced our patients into a most intimate of relationships by suggesting that they lie down and dream with us, Lippman implicitly asserts that we must be willing to be seduced by the dream’s call.

Back in Austin, as Susan Kae Grant and the rest of us continued our conversation about her art—the gallery space lined with images of chairs and outstretched arms, of a kangaroo and a Aladdin’s lamp, and echoing with the voice-over reiterations of her post-REM interviews with Dr Herman—“I am the cat and the mouse,” “I need a secret,” “afraid because we found each other’s secret,” “there is an understanding…” -- I am impressed that no one asks Ms. Grant what her night-journeys “mean,” and no one ventures an interpretation. It is unusual for gallery visitors not to venture or to request an interpretation. But then, in the gallery as in our consulting rooms, we as listeners—to a Nocturne or to “Night Journeys” or to a dream—are one step outside of it, and, as Lippman exhorts us, we may be called to something other than interpretation—“…we can do better than interpret. Perhaps we can learn to appreciate” (p. 172).

Reviewer Note

Gemma Ainslie is a Member-at-Large on the Division Bard, in private practice in Austin, Texas, and has written and presented on the analyst’s images of the patient’s dream.

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