BMCR 2002.01.09

Die Traumdarstellungen in der griechisch-römischen Dichtung

, Die Traumdarstellungen in der griechisch-römischen Dichtung. Munich/Leipzig: Saur, 2001. 487 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 3598730047

“As for the dreams, no two are alike in either character or appearance.” The notorious satire of Lucian of Samosata ( Verae hist. 2.34-35), in the course of ridiculing Homer’s grand epic tradition, exposes the potential problems for any study of dream representations in ancient literature. To be sure, a quick glance at the contents of Christine Walde’s book, spanning some 700 years of texts, immediately gives cause to shudder. What kind of systematic approach can contain, let alone organize, such an unwieldy variety of material without doing violence to each episode’s undeniable singularity? What kind of conceptual apparatus could resist reductiveness, while still maintaining so broad a scope? The difficulty of the task is, in my opinion, an index to Walde’s excellent accomplishment.

The book is a shortened and revised version of her Habilitationsschrift accepted at the University of Basel in 1998. As the title suggests, the study’s primary intention is to investigate the literary representations of dreams in antiquity. The formidable nature of the project requires from the outset important restrictions, which are outlined in the introductory pages. To begin, material is confined exclusively to the ancient Graeco-Roman tradition, from Homer to Lucan. This limitation, which of course already allows a huge number of texts to enter the study, unfortunately must keep to a bare minimum considerations of broader context and background. As a consequence, the author makes little use of Indo-European studies, a field that we have come to expect as particularly relevant in comparatist studies such as this one. Second, a fundamental and highly restrictive definition of “dream” as that which is “experienced during sleep” (“Ein Traum ist das Erleben während des Schlafs,” 2) precludes investigations into such visionary phenomena that might arise during hallucinations, intoxication, ecstasy, etc. Finally, the study will only treat actual, textual representations of dreams and not texts that merely depend on or allude to the phenomenon of dreaming. The reader will not find, for example, in the book’s second part on Greek literature, Athena’s nighttime appearance to Bellerophon in Pindar’s Olympian 13 (64ff).

In my view, Walde’s primary theoretical innovation is to introduce current psycho-physiological research on dreams to the semiotic and narratological study of literary texts. Hence, although a sharp distinction is maintained between the human experience of dreaming (“spontaner Traum”) and the dream as a literary motif (“literarischer Traum”), characteristics of the former are often adduced to illuminate aspects of the latter. However, contrary to other recent studies of dreams in Antiquity, for example Patricia Cox Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1994), Walde chooses not to apply the interpretive criteria of ancient dream theory, like Artemidorus’s Oneirocritica, directly to the study of the literary representations of dreams. This method, she convincingly claims, would overlook the literary function of the dreams in a poetic text and thereby undercut her fundamental thesis, namely that the dream-image constitutes a sort of complex trope, a persuasive means of narrative expression and not merely a representation of “reality.” On this basis, each episode is submitted to a more or less formal analysis, whereby the dream representations in the texts are treated as belonging to a larger repertoire of poetic strategies and devices. The poet, in other words, turns to observable elements of experiential dreams and employs them in the formulation of the dream-image, whose function contributes to the overall narrative intention.

The work is divided into four main parts. The first, an introduction, establishes the scope of the project and places this work within the context of previous scholarship. As the author attests, the theoretical positions of her work continues in the critical tradition of Antonino Grillone ( Il sogno nell’epica latina: Tecnica e poesia, Palermo, 1967) and the work of Joachim Latacz. Appended to these introductory remarks is a short glossary, which provides helpful definitions of key terms used throughout: for example, terms derived from Freudian and post-Freudian theory, like “Traumprozess,” “Traumentstehung,” and “Traumerzaehlung.” The last term I have listed evokes Freud’s discovery of the retroactive or “nachträglich” effect of dream narratives, where the morning’s retelling proves to be constitutive of the dream itself. It is but one of the sophisticated interpretive techniques that will lend Walde’s readings greater depth.

These readings begin in the book’s second part, which is devoted to Greek poetry. It begins with the Homeric poems, works through the tragic poets, and ends with the Argonautica and Moschos’s Europa. The third part, on the Latin tradition, moves from Ennius’s dream in the Prologue to the Annales, through Propertius, Virgil and Ovid, to a discussion of the dreams of Pompeius and Caesar found in Lucan’s Bellum civile. Throughout these two main sections the material is presented strictly in chronological order, without being governed by any continuous or overriding argument. Still, I found most of the readings to be very comprehensive and persuasive on their own, with a marvelous sense for detail and for the subtleties of poetic language. And in fact, an argument does emerge over the course of the study, if not on the level of content, then certainly on the level of general structure. Walde’s methodological choices are no doubt responsible for this. I am thinking of the good deal of work that is given over to semiotic theory, which cannot fail to generate some over-arching comparisons. For example, in her opening discussion on Agamemnon’s dream in the second book of the Iliad, she employs the structural-linguistic difference between saying (“Sagen”) and intention (“Meinen”) to illustrate and further specify the distinction between manifest and latent dream-content (23). This insight can be and is applied to subsequent episodes where the same doubleness occurs. A repertory of hermeneutic approaches thereby develops, which works via dream episodes, toward a profounder understanding of their contexts. The dream emerges as a privileged motif within the literature. As Walde points out, the dream conventionally occurs at night, at a break in the plot, i.e., when no “real” action is taking place; and upon waking, the dreamer, reflecting on the night’s vision, acts on it and thereby pushes the plot along, usually in quite a significant manner.

It is this kind of narratological argument that informs the book’s final part, entitled “The Laboratory of Dreams,” where the preceding texts are given more explicit theoretical ground. First there is an essay devoted to the dream as a poetic device, which is followed by a very useful index of motifs organizing all the material beneath various rubrics and subheadings. Passages are grouped together under categories of themes, situations, structures, and typologies, which together with the actual readings, furnish wonderfully enlightening interpretations of an entirely complex tradition. Indeed, it is especially here in the final section, where one may gain a conceptual overview that can lend the isolated readings a fair degree of intellectual cohesion, albeit in outline form. I do not mean to suggest, that Walde’s readings are in any way too aphoristic, without answering larger questions of literary interpretation. On the contrary, the suspension of a single, traceable argument throughout a textual history of eight centuries attests to a hermeneutic integrity that refuses to reduce literary representations to a simplistic, schematic plan. Her single interpretations are in general brilliant and insightful, all the richer insofar as they continually demonstrate both the poetic singularity and the infinite variability of the basic motif of dreams.

I found the concluding essay, entitled “The Palimpsest of Dreams,” to be a particularly interesting, if brief, attempt to ground the historically and generically disparate material in a conceptual basis of some sort. Its focus is derived from the formulation of two explicit theoretical questions. The first line of inquiry works to identify the conditions that enabled ancient poets to assign such a prominent role to dreams as a representational strategy or as a bearer of meaning. The second question more specifically seeks to determine how literary dream representations relate to the contemporaneous understanding of dreams in general (417). Here again, the premise that motivates both questions is Walde’s strict distinction of literary usage from the non-literary phenomenology of dreams. Homer’s representations of dreams are different in kind from the dreams observed in the work of professional dream interpreters, physicians or philosophers. The “literarischer Traum” must be held separate from the “spontaner Traum.” Primarily, it is the remarkable versatility of dreams, their easy suitability to any number of narrative situations, as well as their highly specific, singular qualities, which make them so attractive to poets. Invariably, the particular dream motif cannot be exchanged with any other and yet can be applied in a variety of circumstances. This conclusion nicely demonstrates how Walde is anchored exclusively in the practical concerns of narratology. She does not venture any definitions of the dream that might be labeled as essentialist. For example, she does not have recourse to or take advantage of the altogether provocative and, I believe, quite illuminating thesis put forward by Cox Miller, namely that dreams give concrete representation to abstract emotions and concepts, that dreams are the means of giving intellectual material articulate, imaged expression. Nonetheless, the restrictions that Walde imposes on her study, restrictions that never pass over relevant issues from present-day dream theories, do produce stunning results.