The Oceanography of The Night

by Parker Biehn

Gaston Bachelard, Evan Thompson, and the Oceanography of the Night

Chapter 8 of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie, entitled “The Cogito of the Dreamer,” is furtive discussion of the soul of both the dreamer of reveries and of the nocturnal dreamer. It is a chapter that stands, tonally, in stark opposition to the other chapters that are happy to play within reverie and take the reader into deeper, more poetically intricate depths of thought: the first proclamation of the world of the night dream is that it “abducts our being from us” (Bachelard, 145). We swim with Bachelard in rather uncharted waters, not only not well known but muddied and obscured from the vantage point of waking life. The chapter is a journey into the constitutive aspects into the who that dreams, and the investigation will unravel a frontier between the Cartesian cogito of the waking world and the yet-unclear soul of the dreamer. Although Bachelard presents us with many doorways, the passages are in need of further study to bring out the thoughts lying underneath. These thoughts very rarely come to the level of precise explication, mirroring the obscured nature of the soul of the dreamer. In order to help clear some of the muddy waters, I would like to enlist the help of Evan Thompson’s work Dreaming, Waking, Being. Thompson’s taxonomy of dreaming will help us understand many of Bachelard’s claims and even introduce new levels of dreaming—that of hypnagogic dreaming and lucid dreams—that will deepen our understanding of the soul of the dreamer. I believe that both authors eventually arrive at very similar conclusions: Thompson’s writings on awareness within dreamless sleep will greatly mirror Bachelard’s scattered sentences on “absolute dreaming.” The intention of this paper, therefore, is to use the anchors cast by both authors as guide lines to plumb the depths of the dream world in order to potentially uncover new lines of inquiry towards a more refined understanding of the kind of being lying at the bottom of our deepest sleep.

Bachelard remains unconvinced in this chapter that a dreaming cogito can be found in the nocturnal dream in the same way that one can be posited in our waking lives. As we have read far too many times already, dreaming and sleeping commonly present issues for theories of consciousness; Descartes and Leibniz could not agree on whether consciousness ceases or not during sleep, and dreaming became somewhat of a whipping post by which to contrast the epistemological certainty of the waking world against (Hill, 6). Bachelard would not disagree with thinkers who claimed differences between waking and nocturnal worlds. Our task here is not to prove the similarity between the two, but to help rescue a forgotten nocturnal life by way of a refreshed metaphysics of the night. The differences appear at once. Within Bachelard’s nocturnal dream, we do not find much evidence for the metaphysical substance of a subject; in the dream “the I dissolves and is lost … In the nocturnal dream, the cogito of the dreamer stammers.” (Bachelard 149) Here we find meaning for that first preparatory declaration stated above: the night dream abducts from us the structured form of the subject that demarcates the experience of waking life that positions itself over and against objects in the world. Any loss of being occurs as the “non-cogito” arises in the dreamworld, robbing the dreamer of the structure of the subject-object dyad and giving way to a more evasive form of being which does not feature the same relationships as the cogito exists within. Thus two landscapes emerge: the nocturnal dream and waking life—each with distinct structures of being.

We cannot merely dismiss the nocturnal dream as a mere shadow of waking life simply because it the contents of the dream are less epistemologically verifiable than those of waking life. Instead, Bachelard seeks to affirm that “there are two centers of being within us, but the nocturnal center is a blurred center of concentration. It is not a ‘subject’.” (Bachelard, 148) By affirming sleep as a nocturnal center of being instead of a derivative form of waking life, we are hoping to gain new insight about the structure of the kind of being found within the dreamer. Although Bachelard uses the language of loss and abduction (“the dreamer of the nocturnal dream is a shadow who has lost his self” [Bachelard, 150]), it is necessary to proceed understanding that the loss of the cogito does not intimate that the non-cogito is a weakened form of the cogito, but that the two are set up in distinction to each other. It is more correct to say that the non-cogito is more primordial and than the center of being arranged during waking life. Before proceeding to a more detailed account of how the non-cogito functions, I must first clear up some enigmatic passages that appear in chapter.

Our first challenge arises within this chapter as we begin to notice the prevalence of the term “absolute dreams.” The absolute dream appears in several locations, always right as the prose of the text reaches out into its deepest depths. Although we are lacking in an exact description of what the absolute dream is, we have select few descriptions of what these absolute dreams look like. They are “dreams without a history, dreams which could light up only in a perspective of annihilation are in the Nothing or in the Water.” (Bachelard 147) The situation of absolute dreams in the ‘universe of the Nothing’ (ibid.) stands in contrast and in a much deeper relationship to commonplace thematic nocturnal dreams (which Bachelard rarely finds useful for his metaphysics of the night). The absolute dream appears at the limit of our sleep, where we push up against the nothingness that characterizes the nocturnal center of being. It is therefore in the absolute dream that the ontology of the non-cogito is revealed to us. Whereas the cogito of the nocturnal dreamer stammers, the dispersion of the being within the absolute dream is much more dramatic and exhaustive. The cogito is dispersed entirely to reveal the still Water, the “substance” of our new metaphysics of the night. Within these absolute dreams, the fundamental levels of the subject-object dyad no longer apply: “The dialectics of black and white, of no and yes, of disorder and order are not sufficient to frame the nothingness at work at the bottom of our sleep.” (Bachelard 147)

The nocturnal dream thus arises out of the absolute dream and acts as a midway point between the nothingness of sleep and constructed waking life by borrowing images and themes from waking life, but cannot structure these objects firmly enough to play out in a matter consistent even with the Principle of Non-Contradiction. Whereas the world of the cogito is ordered in a fully dualistic manner, the blurring of the non-cogito in the nocturnal dream is the blurring between the boundaries that dichotomizes substantial objects from the ego. At the level of nocturnal dreams, the distinction between the beings set against our normally structured cogito blur—a compression, although not a full leveling, of the ontological plane. It is not until the absolute dream that the distinction between beings is erased altogether by submersing the dreamer into the Water, into absolute nothingness. By utilizing the possessive “our nothingness,” (Bachelard 147, my emphasis) we see now that these absolute dreams reveal a more fundamental ontology free from the distinctions of objects set against a subject—one that is immersed within an equalizing ocean of nothingness.

Despite moving towards a clearer metaphysics of the night, we are still unsure of what absolute dreams are. Only scant references to the nothingness of the absolute dream exist in the reading, and nowhere do we find a specific explication of these dreams. Here it is necessary to employ the help of Evan Thompson, who may be able to help us find the missing piece to the puzzle. While Thompson makes no reference to Bachelard in his work Waking, Dreaming, Being, the later chapters discussing—surprisingly—dreamless sleep may provide us with a potential answer to the question, “what is an absolute dream?” If dreamless sleep is our answer, it means that the absolute dream actually features no dream at all and this dreamlessness (and subsequent lack of intentional objects) is the critical feature in the investigation of the non-cogito. It is first necessary to prepare the work of Waking, Dreaming, Being before using it to solve questions from the Poetics of Reverie. Thompson’s “metaphysics of the night” are not the same as Bachelard’s, and the differences must be laid bare before continuing. Firstly, Thompson has a much more detailed hierarchy of the nocturnal/dream world, which proceeds from hypnagogic dreaming on the border of sleep to commonplace thematic dreams to lucid dreams, and, finally, dreamless sleep. Each of these states will differ somewhat to Bachelard’s descriptions, but will help shape the first questions and steps of a metaphysics of the night.

While Bachelard takes the onset of nocturnal dreams at the point where the cogito begins to falter, Evans points to the hypnagogic state—the state just before sleep where images freely dance in the imagination—as a critical point where the inner/outer divisions begin to break down. As the hypnagogic images play freely before us in the pre-sleep state, the attention becomes absorbed within the images and the subject-object relationship seems to slacken or exit altogether (Thompson 112, 113). While images freely dancing in our imagination is not necessarily anything new to write home about, either in reverie or in dreaming, the experience of the hypnagogic state is unlike both. Those who experience hypnagogic dreaming report a blurring of the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. Proust reported an important account in Swann’s Way: “It seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.” (Proust 1, my emphasis added) Referencing the subject matter of a book he was reading as he dozed off, Proust reports the most important aspect of hypnagogic dreaming, what Thompson describes as the “spellbound identification of consciousness with what it spontaneously imagines” (Thompson 122). This identification is crucial to provide an opening into the blurring of the cogito that Bachelard hinted at beforehand, only here we can see that the subject-object dyad begins to break down and stammer even before the onset of nocturnal dreaming, when hypnagogic dreamers are still awake. Here the perceptive imagination recedes into a more unified experience, obscuring the border between the inner and outer worlds to reveal an experience of consciousness that does not proceed as a subject over an object but rather as a constantly-flowing process that is identical with the images and forms it perceives.

The self we identify with a self that is being played out in the dream world—there is no such vantage point and no such self in the hypnagogic state. We identify, either implicitly within normal nocturnal dreams or explicitly within lucid dreams, with only a small part of the dream world (the dreaming subject) and interact with dreaming content in a typical subject-object relationship. I must use the term “restructured” to describe the dreaming subject because it does not experience the dream in the same way that the cogito experiences waking life: it is almost impossible to make intentional decisions, direct attention to other content in the dream, or even think! It is more as if a movie were being played directly onto our consciousness than if we were freely exploring the dreamworld. This would be doubly so in the case of dreams in the third person instead of the first person, where we view ourselves from a vantage point entirely outside ourselves. Nonetheless, aspects of the self-as-subject still carries over from our waking state. Even if we have no control over the actions of the dreamed subject that we implicitly identify with, the psychological structure of the nocturnal dream is vaguely similar to that of waking life at least on the terms of a subject that can be identified with.

Lucid dreams, however, revive the aspects of normal waking consciousness that are lost in the non-lucid dream. “Mental capacities, especially meta-awareness and the ability to direct attention intentionally” (Thompson 138) are among the waking life-consciousness functions resurrected within the nocturnal world by the lucid dream. Some event in the lucid dream—perhaps a contradiction too flagrant to be present in waking life—triggers a realization within the dreamer that they are dreaming and the entire dream reframes itself around this realization. Awareness itself is reframed: the lucid dreamer is no longer immersed in the dream world in the way as the non-lucid dreamer is, but instead the “sense of self now encompasses the witness awareness of the whole dream state.” (Thompson 143) What is now immediately available to awareness in the lucid dream is the fact that a dream is happening. One can watch a dream unfold in real time, both with the understanding that a dream is happening (unlike in normal thematic dreams) and that both the dream ego and the entire universe of the dream appear to the dreamer as the contents of imagination. Our attention therefore is explicitly drawn to the dreamlike state of the dream itself, rather than being immersed and caught up in the limited experience of the dream ego. It is not surprising, then, that a commonly-reported experience of lucid dreams is that vividness increases (Thompson 163).

Thompson’s two-fold description of thematic nocturnal dreams and hypnagogia underscores a potential hazard for Bachelard’s linear movement of the non-cogito in the dream state. Whereas Bachelard’s path is relatively straightforward from the structured stability of waking life down into the dispersion of the absolute dream, Thompson’s more detailed dream cartography presents a less linear picture. Thompson’s description of the lucid dream presents us with a definitive instance where the waking cogito reappears somewhat clearly as a thinking and intending subject that is able to freely navigate in the dream, which presents issues for readers of Bachelard wishing to hold on to a growing stammering of the cogito in dreaming. While non-lucid dreams feature a subject whose very subjectification we could agree looks (or at least feels) somewhat like the aforementioned blurred center of concentration, the waking cogito does seemingly make a cameo in the lucid dream. (While the subject matter of dreams is outside of the scope of this paper, John Sallis’ Logic of Imagination discusses in great depths the special content of the dream world and suggests new ways to affirm unique features of the dream world [such as how we can sustain contradictions therein]—aspects that will help us further refine our metaphysics of the night.) While it is necessary to heed the detour of lucid dreaming, both authors converge at our depths. In dreamless sleep for Thompson, at the absolute dream for Bachelard.

Our first clue into what dreamless sleep looks like comes from our waking state, although just the first few moments of waking immediately after deep sleep. The waking experience we’re looking for is not the kind of waking up that we’re used to, where we normally feel somewhere between groggy and refreshed. These first moments of waking after deep dreamless sleep are characterized by confusion: it feels difficult to place ourselves in time and space, we feel very disoriented, and we feel completely ignorant of whatever is going on around us. Along with these, Thompson identifies a key characteristic of waking from dreamless sleep: our identity is not readily available upon waking, and is only rebuilt and available to us several moments (or even longer) after waking up. This lack of an ego sense is critical to Thompson’s analysis into the structure of dreamless sleep:

“In deep sleep, ignorance completely envelops the mind. Since the ego sense is inoperative, it doesn’t appropriate this ignorance to itself, so there’s no feeling of the ignorance belonging to an ‘I.’ At the moment of awakening, however, the ego sense, grounded on the felt presence of the body, reactivates, and the mind starts up its cognitive workings. Immediately the ego sense appropriates the lingering impression or retention of not-knowing and associates this retention with itself, thereby generating the retrospective thought, ‘I did not know anything.’” (Thompson 249)

Those disoriented moments upon waking from deep sleep are a keyhole into what deep dreamless sleep looks like precisely because these moments are held over into waking life from deep sleep. We panic and scramble to orient ourselves coming out of this state because of the demands of waking life, but our experience in these moments are the experience of a kind of awareness that occurs without the ego sense, without a structured ‘I’. The moments of waking after deep sleep, then, would be a waking experience of consciousness without the support of the cogito, which Thompson is clear to state is an experience of “the true self … the egoless witness consciousness, which endures throughout waking, dreaming, and deep sleep” (Thompson 250). We cannot deem this kind of experience a mere nothingness or absence, but “rather an experience of nothingness” (Thompson 247).

Thompson believes that this kind of awareness is possible in dreamless sleep as lucid dreamless sleep (see the concluding paragraph at the end of this paper), and this awareness would constitute a phenomenal state of consciousness, the fundamental phenomenal state. In Thompson’s description, consciousness would then begin most purely as the witness consciousness that experiences object-less and subject-less nothingness at the bottom of dreamless sleep, and move upwards through dreaming to waking from “subtler to grosser levels of consciousness and embodiment.” (Thompson 260). This would run contrary to contemporary neuroscientific and classical philosophical theories of consciousness, which place the waking cogito at the center of consciousness, only to collapse or disappear altogether in sleep. Nonetheless, Thompson’s intention is to reverse the directionality of these theories by planting witness awareness as the ground for consciousness and proceeding towards the cogito; these waking moments after deep dreamless sleep serve to show that cogito is neither permanently enduring through sleep nor the foundational state of consciousness, but a phenomenal state of consciousness assembled upon waking.

We should now draw back to Bachelard’s original thoughts in order to compare what we have discovered from Thompson. A less abstract description of Bachelard’s nocturnal center of being, critical steps in the development of a metaphysics of the night, should begin to arise now. The power of absolute dreams and the deepest of sleeps lies in how this sleep submerges us back into our primary states of being—what has been referred to as the Water, the universe of the Nothing, the ante-subjective state, the abyss of non-being. Here, in the Water, all dyadic relationships—which have been expanded to include much more than the mere subject-object relationship, such as logical agreement and disagreement, structure and disorder, even bringing together states of contradiction—disappear, and the beings of our being are consequentially dispersed. In the nocturnal dream, the cogito stammers and we find difficulty edifying any subjective state; in the absolute dream, we experience the obliteration of being. The absolute dream, then, is the key to the metaphysics of the night by revealing the Water in which all things are on the same plane of being. The dispersion of beings here is total and Nothing is all-consuming. We do not need to stray too far into the depths of nothingness as we do find a positive formulation of the absolute dreamer: “A cogito is assured in the soul of the dreamer who lives at the center of a radiating image” (Bachelard 153). This radiating image, then, is Nothingness: the blissful peace from the waking cogito that only the witness awareness has access to. This encompassing non-being which delimits the very bottom of our nocturnal center of being is the fundamental ontological substance of the cogito of the dreamer. Thompson quotes the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali for a very concise description thereof: “in deep sleep, awareness is simply aware of the dense motionless darkness … in which it is enveloped.” (Thompson 239) Without objects of consciousness, awareness is no longer able to form a cogito by differentiating it from things it would otherwise stand in distinction to. The witness awareness brings the sleeper in full identity with Nothingness, an identification that we have already been prepared for in the experience of hypnagogic images.

Poetics of Reverie is a work devoted to displaying how swimming in deep reverie can deepen our relationship with the world around us, how deep reveries can elevate our being. It is no surprise that Bachelard brings us to the bottommost depths of that relationship—the absolute dream. “The Cogito of the Dreamer” makes explicit an ontological project lying just under the shores of the work, an excavation that works to slowly erode the rigid boundaries of the cogito itself to make way for the soul of a dreamer that thinks the world through more thoroughly than merely manipulable objects. We enlisted the help of Evan Thompson for this project, who has helped us greatly in refining our dream taxonomy and introducing a key aspect of the dreamworld, hypnagogia, that prepared more radical ontological revelations. In hypnagogia, the cracks of the cogito begin to come bare: the subject-object relationship begins to break down and dreamers lose the frontier separating themselves from the dancing images of the consciousness, which is blissfully ready to play within these images. Bachelard’s dream world is not Thompson’s dream world, however. Bachelard describes a linear path of the cogito, from most structured in waking life, stammering and faltering within the dreamworld, and thoroughly smeared in the absolute dream. Thompson would of course agree that the cogito of the waking world is unstable in the dream world, but this path is not nearly as linear. From waking life, hypnagogia is the first real wrench in the cogs for the waking cogito, which would descriptively appear as an ontological compression of such strength that we don’t find again until much later on. The non-lucid dream would then be a strengthening of the nocturnal cogito, wherein we identify a dream ego that moves around in a dream world. The non-lucid dream gives way to the lucid dream, where, although the dream ego remains present, the dream is reframed and the dreamer is able to witness the dream world as creative imagination in action; functions of waking consciousness (such as the ability to direct attention intentionally) reappear here as well, strengthening the parallels between waking life and the dream ego. While Thompson’s taxonomy is much more clearly defined, Bachelard’s prose is constantly preparing us for a radical departure into the absolute dream, where the two writers reconvene. It is within the absolute dream (lucid dreamless sleep for Thompson) that we find sustained dialogues on the metaphysics of the night and of the cogito of the dreamer. In this sleep, the dreamer is situated within the Nothingness that lies at the very bottom of sleep, that is, the true ground for the nocturnal metaphysics. Any dualism here is incorrect. To say “the dreamer perceives Nothingness” does not accurately capture the total uniformity between the stillness of the absolute dream and the dreamer. It is the fulfillment of both projects: the ultimate deepening of the relationship between world and dreamer, where the heart of darkness is ultimately revealed as the radiating image by which the dreamer finds assurance.  

It should be said in conclusion that awareness in dreamless sleep is an uncommon phenomenon, one that may only be available to experienced dream yoga practitioners. Thompson is a steadfast proponent of the possibility of awareness in dreamless sleep, as shown by his book and his short paper “Dreamless Sleep, the Embodied Mind, and Consciousness.” The study of awareness in dreamless sleep is virtually non-existent in the world of western philosophy. Nonetheless, Thompson does point to several (at least anecdotal) reports of awareness in the writings of Dream Yoga, and other schools of eastern thought. These writings always came from experienced meditators, and never from laymen. We should not expect to be able to scuba dive into the oceans of nothingness by wishful thinking before bedtime, but should consider writings and the very possibility of experiencing awareness during dreamless sleep as a potent line of inquiry that would grant exciting new insight into phenomenology, metaphysics, the philosophy of consciousness, and beyond.