I dreamt that I was late for the train again. I’ve been dreaming about that a lot lately. Sometimes I manage to stop time or recall the train by sheer force of will, other times the train is late as well, so I often catch it. It’s an effort though. I run the the station, I fly, I fight past obstacles on the way.
Usually I’m in Katoomba, my home town, heading down to Sydney. I’ve spent a lot of time at that station over the years, commuting to school, uni and work. Katoomba is where I sit in the cafe on a weekend, study, think, walk, and work in the garden. Beyond Katoomba, down the train line, is the rest of the world.
I’m tempted to say that this station means something to me. It’s the launch pad, the place where the journey begins, a kind of doorway that leads to the rest of my life — work, education, friends and relationships. To miss the train is to miss out on all of these things.
For me, that connection is quite literal, but it’s a common metaphor as well (in the English language, at least). Catching the right transport means success.
Get on the boat
On the right track
Getting in on the ground floor
Be on a fast track
Be in the driver’s seat
If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask which seat.
Missing transport, transport going wrong, means failure.
Miss the boat
Failure to launch
My plans have been derailed
Run out of steam
Crash and burn
This relationship is on the rocks
This project is a train wreck
The wheels have come off.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their book ‘Metaphors We Live By’, describe this as a metaphorical field, a collection of metaphors that share an underlying logic. In this case, the idea that “successful transport experiences = successful life direction” lies behind dozens of metaphors in English.
To me, my dreams of missing the train aren’t that obscure. I’m 33, back at university, with no long-term employment or relationship to speak of. The fact that somehow, usually, I manage to catch the train in my dreams is some cause for hope!
The idea that dreams and language should share similar symbolic system isn’t that far-fetched. Lakoff himself notes the connection to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, in which Freud writes that “this symbolism is not peculiar to dreams, but is characteristic of unconscious ideation… to be found in folklore, and in popular myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial wisdom and current jokes, to a more complete extent than in dreams.”
To Freud, the symbol is a way of obscuring the truth — a kind of censorship that the brain imposes on unwanted or taboo thoughts. That might be true as well, but I think that the reason we dream in symbols is something more than that. As Lakoff and Johnson say, “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”.
Scratch the surface of any sentence, no matter how banal, and you’ll usually find a metaphorical system at work. It’s in the most basic concepts of a language. In English for example, the future is ahead of us, and the past is behind (the spatial symbolises the temporal). Metaphorical fields are everywhere. Money is a liquid (cashflow, freezing an account, liquidity), and a reasoned argument is a building (you construct an argument, you support or buttress it with solid facts, it needs a structure and a strong foundation, or otherwise a shaky argument collapses). Even the simplest prepositions are often metaphorical — we do things “on Monday” and “in 2018”, as if dates were containers and blocks to get into and climb onto. Everywhere you look in language, the abstract is understood in terms of the concrete. If not in terms of the concrete, the abstract is understood in the context of a story, narrative or scene.
In other words, the systems of symbolism and narrative that our dreams employ is not something strange and foreign, but a reflection of how our mind works. You could say that we don’t associate things with meanings, things are our source of meaning, they are the means by which we understand.
To loop back to my dreams of Katoomba station — it would be possible to say that the place has associations for me, but I would word it more strongly. Katoomba station is part of my conceptual system, it is a source of meaning, a concrete means by which I understand the abstract concepts of my life.
That’s the nature of abstraction. It’s built up in layers, and at the bottom is the concrete and physical. My idea of a “bird” is built up of all the birds I’ve seen, my idea of an animal is built up of birds, and dogs, and everything else. My idea of a living organism is built up of animals and plants and people. Katoomba station is one of those things that lies at the bottom of my understanding of life. I can’t imagine all the concepts that it’s part of, but success and failure and life direction are definitely some of them.
The more you look into the inner workings of things, the more concrete they get. Behind the very page you’re looking at now, you’ll find code. The pretty abstractions of windows and icons are made out of words and numbers. Perhaps someone wants to
<button> with a colour like
rgb(214, 52, 52). Those things themselves are abstractions, which are built on more abstractions. Eventually you’re moving little numbers from one part of your computer to another, and soon you’re left with silicon, metal and electricity.
I think that when you dream, you’re getting a view of the inner workings of yourself. Abstract ideas are stripped away, and you’re left with the things, the places, the events, the people, the whole cast and crew that make up your abstract thought. To go into a dream is to go behind the curtain, where the pulleys and levers are. This is the land behind the world¹, down the rabbit hole, inside the looking glass. The places and people are familiar but strange — not things as they are, but things as they mean, within the conceptual system that allows you to think.
Perhaps at the base of it all, behind even the things and the people, we’re left with sensations. Falling, running, feeling and touching, the universal dreams, are what thoughts are made of. They’re the silicon and electricity of the machine. We know that time goes forward because we walk. As a transport metaphor, love might be a journey, but at a physical level it touches and moves us. And we suspect that to fall in love, we also have to fall.
¹ Incidentally one of my very favourite books: http://www.pinchgut-press.com.au/landbehindtheworld.html