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Dreams, the Unconscious Mind, and Rhetoric

Posted by on February 15, 2012

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.   The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Earnest Hemingway’s famous quote from Death in the Afternoon not only applies to the writing of fiction, but to rhetoric in general. The link between writer and audience is as psychic as it is textual, but only if the writer truly understands and anticipates his or her reader: expectations, experience, values, etc. The writer must strive to understand the 7/8ths of the iceberg beneath the water, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect that 7/8ths, at least in part, to the unconscious mind.

But how do we understand the unconscious mind, and thus rhetorically appeal to those symbolic aspects in our own writing? Sure, we can study psychology, pour over Freud, Jung, and Campbell, swim in the murky waters of philosophy with Plato and Nietzsche and Sartre, and that will certainly provide a foundational set of terms, structures, and principles. But we also need practical experience, an understanding of our own unconscious mind. This is where the analysis of our dreams can come into play.

I’ll do a little exercise here as an example. This is a dream I had about a month ago, right smack in the middle of the Interterm where I was teaching two sections of a three-hour, four-day-a-week (for four weeks) course, while simultaneously planning for the Spring semester. I was a bit stressed.

I’m in the waiting room of a massive hospital. This isn’t any ordinary hospital, though, but one that feels ancient, cathedral, columns and high ceilings, walls of olive brick, old oak floors and intricate, chipped crown molding. There are barred windows and I can see that the building is tall, a dozen or more stories, and I am somewhere in the middle. My three-year old daughter is sitting on the red vinyl chairs with me, and we seem to be waiting for something, I’m not sure what. There are a few people in this foyer, a creaking elevator off in the distance, echoes of footsteps, hushed voices.

What’s bizarre, however, and what has everyone’s attention, are the banks of black and white closed-circuit television monitors hanging from the ceiling. Each monitor shows a static image, security cameras focused on a halls or room in the hospital, and I somehow know that these locations are on abandoned floors, locations heavy with dust and cobwebs. The monitors are windows into the catacombs of this ancient edifice.

The reason we are all breathlessly watching the black and white security monitors is because there is a killer in the hospital, an animal of a man dressed in the scrubs of an orderly, bald and pale and wiry. He appears at random, crawling across the screen like lizard, like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. And when he appears, he attacks, snatching an unsuspecting nurse and dragging her off screen, only to appear on another monitor.

He doesn’t kill his victims so much as he ravages them, breaking their necks and ripping their throats out with his teeth. We watch this occur again and again: an unsuspecting person walks into frame, and we scream at the monitors in hopes that the next victim will see the shadow creeping behind her. But he or she never does.

It’s horrifying, yet I know that I am the only one who can end this terror, that the others in the waiting room are looking to me to save them. I know that I could search the floors above and find this monster, but it would mean leaving my daughter behind. And I can’t do that. It scares me more than anything. I’m stuck there in this stasis, caught between the social pressure to eradicate this horror and the paternal instinct to stay and protect my daughter.

Let’s start with the hospital setting first, since it played such a visual role in my dream. I see this ancient, massive edifice, with its barred windows and multiple floors, as a representation of a labyrinth, symbolizing a feeling of being trapped and needing to get to the center of something. In this case, that center is the lair of the killer, whom I will get to in a moment. This labyrinth is a hospital, or institution, so perhaps I am feeling trapped by the obligations of my work. This would make sense, since I am caught between the choices of spending time with my daughter versus the obligations of my job (eradicating the killer in my dream).

I found the age of the hospital, a relic of some forgotten era, interesting, since it contrasts so much with my general experience and impressions of hospitals as sterile, white environments. This could mean that this is an issue that I have been unconsciously struggling with for quite some time.

The closed-circuit security monitors create a voyeuristic element to the dream, a separation between the object (the killer) and the self. The fact that the monitors display black and white security images of the killings seems to heighten this sense of objectivity. I am looking at the problem from a distance, perhaps a distance that I can’t achieve in my conscious life, and thus, better able to recognize the issue or make a decision.

Then there is the killer. At first, I was quite disturbed by this figure in my dream, worried that perhaps the killer represented a horrific shadow that I was repressing (seriously; he ripped the throat out of a lady with his teeth!). But I decided that the terrible nature of this image was merely representing the intensity of the issue in my mind. I desperately wanted to meet my obligations (eradicate the killer), but to do so meant that I must abandon—if even for a brief time—my daughter.  And perhaps this was the shadow, my professional ambition that was encroaching on my personal and familial life.

My response to reflecting upon this dream was to re-evaluate the time I spent at home on my work, and recommit myself to spending quality, personal time with my daughter. I haven’t had any anxiety dreams (at least of this sort) since.

Certainly the argument can be made that one can overanalyze one’s dreams, but the simple act of recording and reviewing a dream can provide insight into the various theories of myth, Jungian psychology, and philosophy, and in turn develop a stronger control of the rhetorical use of the unconscious mind in one’s writing.

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