On a rhetoric of dreaming: thoughts about a Freudian insight of Emile Benveniste

2018.09.29 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Sigmund Freud, in his book about the analysis of dreams, Die Traumdeutung (first published in 1899), found that the human unconscious, in dreams, can obliterate the difference between a given meaning and the opposite of that meaning. Influenced by the theories of Karl Abel (1884), Freud thought that such a mental pattern of obliteration, viewed as a kind of confusion, could be traced back to “primitive” phases of human language—where speakers get confused in referring to opposites. This view was challenged in an essay by Émile Benveniste (1966), whose linguistic approach to the analysis of dreams led him to argue, differently, that whatever is dreamed by the unconscious dreamer has a system of its own, related to the system of language as spoken by the conscious speaker. A dream, Benveniste argued further, can even have a rhetoric of its own.

§1. Benveniste was hardly the first linguist to show that there is no evidence to support the idea of self-contradictory meanings in “primitive” languages. But he can be credited with having made the best argument against the more basic idea of “primitive” languages. As Benveniste showed, all languages in all attested phases of their history are in fact systematic, not self-contradictory. Such an understanding of language as a system, however, did not stop Benveniste from engaging with Freud’s discovery procedures, and he even accepted the Freudian observation that the human unconscious, in dreams, occasionally cancels the difference between a given meaning and the opposite of that meaning. So, to that extent, we could say that the thinking of Benveniste here is Freudian. But now we come to a big difference: unlike Freud, Benveniste thought that the occasional cancellation of oppositions in meaning while we dream needs to be analyzed in terms of fusion, not confusion. I am using these terms fusion and confusion here to indicate a distinction between what is systematic and what is unsystematic. For Benveniste, a cancellation of oppositions in meaning when we dream is just as systematic as the active working of these same oppositions in language as spoken when we are awake. In brief, then, the Freudian insight of Benveniste is simply this: dreams can be analyzed linguistically, not only psychoanalytically.

§2. The linguistic analysis of dreams can be extended far beyond the study of the mental phenomenon that we have considered so far, where the mind cancels oppositions in meaning. At the conclusion of his essay on Freudian psychoanalysis as enhanced by a linguistic analysis of dreams, Benveniste offers a most suggestive list of further mental phenomena, as experienced in dreams, that can likewise be analyzed linguistically. And such linguistic analysis can become specialized, in that the language of dreams can be analyzed as special language—not just everyday language. Such special language can be seen as “rhetoric”—which is what Benveniste called it at the end of his essay—but it is clear from his usage that he intended such “rhetoric” to include the mechanics and aesthetics of poetry as well as prose—even of song as well as poetry.

§3. In his all-too-brief list of “rhetorical” devices, Benveniste used terminology found in schoolbooks of rhetoric. The list is eclectic, since he limited his inventory to phenomena related to the psychoanalytic idea of “taboo.” Here is his list, which I present in a different order by starting with the phenomenon that had inspired the writing of his essay in the first place: antiphrasis, euphemism, allusion, preterition, litotes. In a separate posting that I hope to produce for another occasion, I will analyze further, from the standpoint of linguistics, these as well as other traditional terms of rhetoric as applied to the analysis of dreams. I will also apply these same terms while selectively analyzing various devices used in prose, poetry, song—and even in the visual arts, including film making.

§4. With regard to the art of film making, I note here in closing a “rhetorical” device that I will call, for the moment, retardation. In film, this device is more simply known as slow motion, which produces a mental effect that I described as “dreamlike” and even “dreamy” in the posting for 2018.09.22. The effect of slow motion in the film that I analyzed in that posting can be seen as the making of a “good dream.” But of course the same kind of effect can make a “bad dream.” I am thinking here of the very first time I ever saw on film the use of slow motion as a way of representing an intensification of violence. It happened many years ago, when I first saw the “Death Scene” in Bonnie and Clyde, a film released in 1967, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. The representation of horrific violence by way of slow motion has by now become such a cliché in film making that the primal effect is lost, or at least bleached. But I still remember most colorfully as a first impression the bad dream, as it were, of seeing the horror and the pity of that violent Death Scene for the very first time.

After Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn (1967): the Death Scene.
After Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn (1967): the Death Scene.




Abel, K. 1884. Über den Gegensinn der Urworte. Leipzig.

Benveniste, E. 1966. “Remarques sur la fonction du langage dans la découverte freudienne.” Problèmes de linguistique générale I 75–87. Paris.

Freud, S. 1899. Die Traumdeutung. Leipzig.