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Oneiric /oʊˈnairik/

Adjective

Oneiric is a word I first came across while studying a film called Persona, directed by Ingmar Bergman.  It’s a profoundly beautiful and troubling exploration of psychology, dream and reality and with that in mind, I recommend it. In any case, I believe it is a powerful illustration of this week’s word, oneiric. (While I’m on it, another oneiric film which I thoroughly recommend is The Science of Sleep, written and directed by Michel Gondry.  And do any of you remember that episode of The Simpsons when Homer and Bart enter another dimension, the animation becomes three dimensional, and the world expands and shrinks into a kind of black hole? That’s oneiric).

Oneiric means ‘of or pertaining to dreams’. Finally, a word whose definition is simple and uncontested! Oneiric is an adjective, so you can use it to describe something you see in the world, for example an object, a place, a situation or a person. Oneiric finds its origins in the Greek ‘oneiros’ – dream; with links also drawn to the Armenian anurǰ – dream. Oneiric is commonly used in film theory and criticism, where it is used to describe the depiction of dream-like states. It also refers to dream-like states as a metaphor through which a film can be analysed.

Unfortunately this lovely word is not used widely in daily conversation, but I think it is time that this changed :).  From my perspective, oneiric is like the sophisticated sister of words like ‘trippy’, ‘out there’, and the cousin of ‘surreal’ and ‘ethereal’. Which is not to say that these words all mean the same thing – they don’t, and in fact I am ignoring their beautiful precision by suggesting that the sentiment is similar. What I would like to say is that all of these words describe experiences or phenomena which are somehow out of the ordinary, somehow profound and otherworldly. By using oneiric, we can describe something which resembles a dream.

Dreams have long been a source of fascination in the worlds of art, literature, music and psychology. Despite enormous advances in the fields of clinical psychology, neurobiology and psychoanalytical thinking, the forces behind the dream world remain a mystery. And you know what, it’s interesting that in the case of the word oneiric, the way that you choose to use it may reveal much about how you experience dreams.

So how would I use oneiric? If I was being creative and not limiting my use of it to that which is conventional? What is dreamlike to me? Dreams can be horrifying, moving, beautiful, surreal, irrational, frightening, enlightening. And now I’m procrastinating by writing a long list of words describing dreams instead of exploring what oneiric means to me. Truth is it’s kind of hard.

I think that watching the sunset over the Alps can be oneiric. The world stopping in silence to observe that sublime descent, white heat sinking behind the proud grace of those snowpeaks. The world didn’t stop of course, but all around me was the thick silence of wonder and peace, the cold of the snow disappeared and I was just there. That was, in a sense, oneiric.

If I was going to describe someone as oneiric, what would that mean? That they are unrealistic? That they have their heads in the clouds, live in a fantasy world, are hopeless idealists? Or in fact that they are dreamy? Could I say, for example that Johnny Depp is oneiric? I reckon that could work  🙂

I don’t have much experience with drugs, but I just had the thought that drugs – especially hallucinogenic ones – are probably a great source of oneiric experiences. I generally prefer my brushes with the oneiric to be natural – stumbling through the moonlit kitchen at night, being pummelled like a leaf in the surf and crawling ashore to see the world anew, riding a snowboard or a motorbike and struggling to focus as the world passes faster than I can process.  Super oneiric man.

Or was it?  I’m not really sure if all this quite captures the oneiric . . . in my mind the oneiric is more surreal, more incomprehensible than that which I have described. There is steam rising from the sewers, there is a couple holding polka dot umbrellas silhouetted against the dingy wall and they’re speaking in tongues. The oneiric is concealed and irrational, it connects us with a dimension which is beyond the quotidian, beyond even the sublime.

The oneiric is not commonplace, so I don’t know why I am suggesting that we try to use the word as though it is. Perhaps it’s better that it remains a precise word with a specific application, somewhat mysterious and unknown, hidden and sacred.

In peace and wordliness.

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6 thoughts on “Oneiric /oʊˈnairik/

  1. I think, of all the wonderful words nina has helped to preserve, this is one of the more beautiful. Fantastic too, that such a precise words is so hard to nail down to its meaning. Perhaps it is simply because by descibing a thing as oneiric we’re comparing it to something we can barely remember half an our after it ocurrs.

    • Thanks Dan, so nice to get your feedback 🙂 I’m glad you like oneiric. What you say about it is exactly right: a precise word but hard to pin down to a sensation you can barely grasp. Which, even as you experience it slips through your fingers like wisps of woodsmoke. Hope you’re enjoying the Tassie winter.

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