Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1995). Playing with Fire: The Object-Cause of Desire at the Heart of the Dream. Electric Dreams 2(4), www.dreamgate.com/dream/ed-backissues/ed2-4.htm  

Playing with Fire:

The Object-Cause of Desire at the Heart of the Dream

Richard Catlett Wilkerson


I was recently reading an article by Kelly Bulkeley reviving the idea of dreaming as play. (see bib) While he spoke about the necessary paradigm shift needed regarding dream theory so that it fits with new developments in science, anthropology and psychology, it is his second challenge to develop new roles for dreams along the line of play that I want to follow up on here.

There is a level of play that is... well, playful. Bulkeley relays how this functions in terms of exploration, experimentation and improvisation. Here the person is surrounded by a relative sense of security and safety and play is autotelic, play for play's sake. But if we are reviving the metaphor of play in the adult world or dreams and dream groups, we are entering the area of playing with really odd things, boundaries, playing with desire, playing with fire. As dangerous as this may sound, I want encourage and support work along these edges and see this as kind of sacred play, play that enters into the world of self exploration, meaning, value and creation for its own sake. But rather than tackle the enormousness of this task, I'd rather just play with a small part of this mystery, the play of desire at the heart of dreaming.

Playing with Fire:

Though many dream interpreters have been unhappy with Freud's view of libido as childish sexuality, I wonder if the alternatives don't sometimes distract us from the issue of desire itself. A hard view of Freud would be that dreams are a disguised expression of repressed childlike sexual wishes. Softer views begin to allow for a wider variety of repressions, including worries, anxieties, anticipations and a host of other left over daytime concerns that might disturb our sleep. Jung expands the idea of wish into the realm of desire for wholeness and contact with the Self. But whether the focus is on the repression, the revelation, or the obtaining of the object of desire there is a confusion or collapse of the object and of desire itself.

What I would like to do is introduce a notion by the French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan, that while biological appetites might be satisfied, desire cannot.

The first part of this involves seeing dreams and fantasy as a *staging* of desire rather than a fulfillment or even a disguised compromised fulfillment. Neither fulfillment nor complete repression, they are a circulating and playing out of desire. It might be said that the tensions that desire creates are the necessary poles or boundaries in which the fantasy or image take place. In this view the image or dream is held together and produced by absence - by what is desired and not obtained. The Lacanians usually say that fantasy is all about the drive just circulating around and around the object -cause of its desire, not the actual *getting* of that object.

The second part is that the desire isn't given in advance but must seem to be found or discovered. We don't consciously create our own desires. Neither do we create our own messages from heaven or the universe. These must all appear to us as found or presented by some Other. However, to continue to explore desire, we can't confuse this gift with an object we create, but must remember the first notion that fantasy is the staging of desire, not the obtaining of the object.

An example. When I was a cigarette smoker, there was an illusion of pleasure that circulated around the act and lasted for the duration of the cigarette. I still can't fully articulate the separation of the drug from the habit as they were intricately entwined, but while quitting I became painfully aware of how the cigarette/habit was holding my desire and allowing me to pleasurably circulate. Having used the cigarette/habit for so long, I found it a long and arduous path to relearning how to circulate, to play, without it. I had to find new ways of holding the desire without reaching for the object itself, new ways of holding tension that where once mediated by the smoking/habit. (By the way, I still scan my dreams as an early warning system. When I have dreams that I'm smoking, I see it as an indication that my methods of holding desire are slipping into the illusion that I _can_ really *get* it.)

Now we can look at a few examples from two Lacanians, Jean-Claude Milner and Slavoj Zizek, and compare these examples to common dream imagery. They reveal the fantasy aspect of desire through the paradoxes given by the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, and Eleatic school student of Parmenides. The school maintained that reality was one, unchanging and motionless, apprehended properly by the mind rather than the senses. Milner used Zeno's paradoxes *not* as statements of philosophical or empirical truth but as literary devices exemplifying the staging of desire in/as fantasy.

In the first scene, the Paradox of Continuous Approach, the object can never be obtained but always seems to be getting closer. Through clever philosophical argument, Zeno shows that Achilles can never catch Hector, but neither can Hector escape Achilles. (see Collinson, 1987 in bibliography for example) This is often experienced in dreams, either not ever being able to clearly catch someone or something, and not being able to clearly get away from some pursuer. Lacan points out that the issue here is the circulation, and that no matter what we do to obtain the object-cause, it always eludes us.

The second scene, the Paradox of Cheated Movement, tries to show that no matter how much we act to change, we are always in the same place. Hercules fires arrow after arrow but Zeno proves that its impossible and they go nowhere. Note the stories of Tantalus in Hades and the curse of Midas. Tantalus, after trying to steal the food of the gods (which might be seen as the object which would eternally feed us, with life as well as other hungers) is condemned to eternal need in Hades. "There he stood up to his chin in water, but whenever he bent to slake his burning thirst, the pool dried up. Boughs of fruit hung over his head, but when he raised his arms to pluck them, the wind blew them out of his reach. A stone, moreover, was suspended over him and threatened at any moment to fall and crush him" (Tripp, 1970, pg. 543). And for the famous Midas, everything he desired and touched turned to gold and became useless to him. Zizek points out that when we demand an object that the object goes through a magical transubstantiation. The object takes on fantasy and produces desire. Mother's milk becomes a token of her love and produces excess fantasy rather than just satisfying hunger.

We can begin to explore this switch of use-value to exchange value in our dreams that have similar predicaments and then use the unobtainable object as an index of our intersubjective relations. For example, that others comply or don't comply with our demands shows how they confirm various attitudes towards us. And again, all this requires that we let go (at least momentarily) of the idea that the dream is *revealing* our secret obtainable object, but rather the reverse - that the withheld object is creating or revealing our style of desire. The point in reference to dream work being the shift from finding ways to get the hidden object to ways of helping it display and play itself out.

In the Paradox of Increasing Diminishment we can never get where we want to go because of an infinite amount of half distances we would have to cross to get there. Here the drive is revelling in its circulation again, in the path itself, in play. Lacan says in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, " When you entrust someone with a mission, the *aim* is not what he brings back, but the itinerary he must take, The *aim* is the way taken... If the drive may be satisfied without attaining what, from the point-of-view of a biological totalization of function, would be the satisfaction of its end of reproduction, it is because it is a partial drive, and its aim is simply this return into circuit." (p. 179). The real purpose of a drive is simply to reproduce itself. Half is double. And thus our horror when we diet and try to diminish our desire simply to find it has increased. Note the common dream theme of the desire to get somewhere and always having a million diversions, sub-plots, mazes and distractions along the way. In dreams, we often take the long road home.

These literary paradoxes give us a way to approach the dream imagery which allows for a new relationship with and to desire. Regardless of the technique or style we use to approach dream imagery, there emerges now an option to note the element which, from the viewpoint of desire, is producing the image. And an opportunity to come into a relationship with dream imagery in a way that speaks to the circulation, or with the desire.

Since the Lacanians deal with structure more than content and see the object of desire as only visible indirectly (like the clue qua missing-clue found by a detective at the scene of a crime: "Did you here those dogs Watson." "I hear no dogs Holmes." "Exactly!") I'm going to shift for a moment back into a Jungian paradigm to build a quick model that can be used with manifest dream content.

Jung spoke of how important it is to hold the irreconcilable opposites of the psyche in consciousness. If held long enough, a reconciling symbol will emerge. The opposites spoken of here are incompatibles in one's life - like desires and needs for mutually exclusive things. Jung felt it was always a disaster to try and force these things together (identification with the Self) or allow oneself to be tossed back and forth between them. Rather he suggested that we differentiate them as far as humanly possible, that we hold the tension between them until a symbol or image is produced that can carry both the conscious and unconscious elements and allow us to reconcile the incompatibles.

The question is always what kind of containers do we have to hold and examine these incompatibles. I want to live forever with I'm going to die. I want to be monogamous with I want to mate with everyone in sight. I want to be thin, after I finish this bag of potato chips. One approach is to see the dream itself as the container or holder of that which cannot yet be expressed in consciousness any other way. To see our dreams as an already mapped out playing and continuing of our unreconcilable desire means that every dream is already a furthering of desire's project and is its own reconciling symbol. The degree to which we want to come into relationship with this process as co-creators will have more to do with our ability to stay in the play of desire rather than our ability to "get" the objects we seem to want in our dreams. This shifts the dream from just being a working out of frustrations to an imaginary theater that uses frustration to produce works of art and pleasure.

Models for dream-work then shift to models of dream-play. The skills needed shift from abstracting and pulling back to embodying and drawing in. Examination fantasies gives way to images of exploration and experimentation. The tensions, rather than being worked out, are sought after like the tensions of a stringed instrument. Structure shifts from predetermined rules to trust and support found in the interplay. The older structures, views and rules are not thrown away, but become revisioned as imaginary platforms, each with their own desires and styles of presentation. In this way we not only get to see the desire of which the fantasy is a play, but also begin to participate and find enjoyment.

And so these dream paradoxes, the home we never get to, the lover who eludes us, the crime for which we are eternally punished, the monsters we can never escape, become imaginary, improvisational platforms, theaters of our desire. And it is in this sense that they are gifts that allow us to remain in that place where possibility and desire blow kisses to each other across the gap that holds them together.

Bibliography and notes:

Bulkeley, Kelly (1993). Dreaming is play. _Psychoanalytic Psychology_, 10:(4), 501-515.

Collinson, Diane (1987). _Fifty Major Philosophers_. New York: Croom Helm.

(Achilles and the tortoise: "Suppose a race run over 100 meters in which the tortoise is given a 50-metre start on Achilles, It is impossible for Achilles to overtake the tortoise; for by the time Achilles reaches the tortoise's starting point, S, the tortoise has moved on to S1, and by the time Achilles arrives at S1, the tortoise has advanced to S2, and so on. thus Achilles never catches up with the Tortoise. The distance between them will diminish _ad infinitum_ as they move from point to point but it will never disappear." Collinson, pg. 14).

Freud, Sigmund (1924-50). _Collected Papers_. London: Hogarth Press.

Jung, C. G. (1953). _Collected Works_ . (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lacan, Jacques (1977). _The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis_. London: Hogarth Press.

Tripp, Edward (1970). _The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology_ New York, NY: New American Library.

Zizek, Slavoj (1993). _Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture_. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Richard Wilkerson