Noun. A state of abstracted musing; daydreaming.

‘Reverie is not a mind vacuum. It is rather the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude of the soul’.   Gaston Bachelard

Some of have warned of the dangers of reverie as a kind of portal through which the devil might enter (e.g. Charles Simmons, the American author and editor, suggests that minds given over to reveries ‘have a thousand avenues open for the entrance of evil’). However, reverie is often defined in positive terms too – a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts, and therefore to be welcomed.  Bachelard’s quotation points to a deeper, more inscrutable aspect of reverie, as a gift that connects us to a more profound (and ‘plentiful’) self.

The sense of being lost in one’s thoughts perhaps points to the less definable aspects of this lovely word too. It does not refer to ‘thinking’ as such, at least not as a purposeful, insatiable pursuit of a goal, problem, niggle. Neither does it refer to a clearly discernible practice of inner-narration – an internal voice. It is akin to floating down stream in one’s consciousness.  The English philosopher John Locke described reveries in similar terms as ideas that ‘float’ because they are untethered from the usual shackles of reflection or understanding. It is the lack of friction, the unfastening from directed cognition, that is behind the pleasure associated with reverie.

Reverie is a valued state in psychoanalytic forms of psychotherapy.  Wilfred Bion understands reverie to be the ability to render one’s self ‘unconsciously receptive’ to the other – i.e. the client (or ‘analysand’ in psychoanalytic terminology), so that s/he is willing to project their unconscious desires and anxieties onto the analyst, with minimal hindrance, as the basis for working through unconscious anxiety ‘out in the open’. The psychoanalytic take on reverie is more fascinating still, as it is elaborated by Thomas Ogden, not as an individual state of being but as a shared one. It ‘invokes (a partial) giving over of one’s separate individuality to a third subject, a subject that is neither analyst or analysand, but a third subjectivity unconsciously generated by the analytic pair’.  The sense of reverie as a ‘third subjectivity’ or intersubjective state is intriguingly suggestive.

In a related sense, reverie is also associated with a state of connectedness, to the extent that boundaries between self and other, self and nature, are relaxed, even transcended. This connectedness is understood as a form of communication, or even communion (another word worthy of A-ZofTTCBS?) with others and/or nature that does not occur in language or voice. This reflects a broader application of the psychoanalytic understanding of a ‘third subjectivity’. It is broader in terms of human relationships beyond formally therapeutic ones, but also in terms of a relationship to nonhuman others of nature. To this end, the 19th Century politician and colonial governor James Douglas recommends being ‘alone in a garden at dawn or dark so that all its shy presence may haunt you and possess you in a reverie of suspended thought’.  This is a quote which highlights both the cessation of language, voice or cognition as we routinely experience it, and the transcendent absorption of reverie.

Finally, reverie is also a potentially subversive state to some extent, in that it challenges formulations of freedom and self-liberation nicely identified by Theodore Adorno as ‘the conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle’. Adorno wistfully imagines a world where a state akin to reverie is valued more highly, where ‘lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction’. Judith Butler’s account of identity springs to mind again here, in that she echoes the potential of ‘less codifiable’ forms of subjectivity to resist the imposition of dominant and dominating ways of being. Butler, in approaching ‘non-narratable’ forms of identity, rereads ‘being’ as ‘precisely the potentiality that remains unexhausted by any particular interpellation’. Reverie, surely, is a practical example of being that at least potentially, ‘remains unexhausted by any particular interpellation’? 

These hints of hidden connections, of a third subjectivity, and depths in our states of being, where thought is suspended, clearly make reverie a most esteemed member of an A to Z of things that can’t be said. 

Adorno, T. (1974 [1951]). Minima Moralia. London: Verso 1974. Pages 156-7 quoted here.

Bachelard, G. (1971[1960]). The poetics of reverie. Beacon Press.

Bion, W.R. (1962). A Theory of Thinking. In E. Bott Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today: Developments in theory and practice. Volume 1: Mainly Theory. 1988. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1997) The psychic life of power: Theories in subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Page 131 quoted here.

James Douglas (1803-1887). Quotation cited here:

Locke, J. (1690). An essay concerning human understanding.

Ogden, T. (1999). Reverie and Interpretation: Sensing Something Human. London: Karnac Books. Page 9 quoted here.

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