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‘Being’ Decentered in Sandman: History, Dreams, Gender, and the ‘Prince of Metaphor and Allusion’

By Rodney Sharkey1

I am also aware that we are not yet able to make a survey of the whole of the new acquisitions which these studies have brought to psychology. I will only point out the fresh proofs they have provided of the existence of unconscious mental acts and what an unimaginably broad access to knowledge of unconscious mental life we are promised by the interpretation of dreams.

Sigmund Freud, “The Dream Work, ” 107.

The concept of centered structure – although it represents coherence itself – is contradictorily coherent. And as always coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” 171.2


The concept of “story” – both the telling and the tale – is vital in Sandman.3 Early in the series we are introduced to characters and plot lines that stress the importance of stories and narratives to individuals. For example, Bette the waitress in “Waiting for the End of the World” (#6) imagines all of the stories of her customers as she serves coffee in the diner. In “Calliope” (#17) the eponymous heroine’s imprisonment is the price to be paid for providing a story for her captor. The stories from the (Inn at the) “World’s End” sequence (#51-56) emphasize oral telling as social bond, and in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” even Hamnet Shakespeare is heard to say that “all that matters to Dad is the stories” (#19/14). Moreover, in “Tales in the Sand” (#9) the paternal tribal ritual of passing on the story from male to male emphasizes the ritual of the storytelling beyond the specific story’s content value. More important here are the terms of the telling that maintain family lineage as the story is passed from father to son. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard remarks of the story telling traditions of the Cashinahua Indians that “the narrator’s only claim to competence for telling the story is the fact that he has heard it himself. The current narratee gains potential access to the same authority simply by listening. It is claimed that the narrative is a faithful transmission and that it has been told ‘forever'” (20). So it is with oral stories of patriarchal power; they have been told “forever.” They are, ostensibly, endless. In “Tales in the Sand” the tale told is of a man who loved a woman and of a woman’s duty to her people. It is a tale of love, responsibility, and of patriarchal revenge. In “Tales of the Sand” it is Nada’s tale. By the end of the Sandman series it is the tale of Morpheus, misogyny and transformation. In the end, Morpheus – the keeper of dreams – is incredibly tired, tired of his mistakes and tired of his positioning in a game that relies on him to be, in the words of Jacques Lacan, the “law of the father,” or, more simply, “the law.” (Écrits 74)

In Lacan’s explorations of dreams and desire, “the law,” the “Name-of-the-Father,” “the Other” and the “Phallus” are various designations for the center of authority within a system (or systems) of complex imaginary and symbolic relations. Such signifiers operate as a fulcrum that drives Lacan’s theory of a linguistic unconscious, helping to confer meaning in and through language. For example, Lacan believes that the young male child who loves his mother attempts to identify what she desires, so becoming a phallus for the mother. In this formulation a phallus is the desired object that satisfies maternal desires, and not a material penis.4 Nonetheless, the notion of the phallus is inextricably linked to the authority generated by the “Name of the Father” who, representing the threat of castration, occupies the role of a master signifier. As Lacan notes: “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law”… (Écrits 74).

For Lacan, patriarchal power is represented as a symbol and/or signifier of prohibition which carries the threat of castration. In Sandman we see that Dream is positioned as a potential patriarchal authority in the fictional heterocosm of the graphic novel, and yet for all of Morpheus’ domineering attitude and downright misogyny – for all of his ‘Name of the Father’ authority – his influence is somehow, simultaneously, gender pluralistic. For this reason Sandman succeeds in both constructing a realistic picture of relations between the sexes –where phallocentric discourse can often entrap and brutalize women – and in providing a space where a handful of women arrive at a form of liberation from this discourse. It is able to produce this contradictorily coherent paradox by alternating between two planes, or two worlds – that of the physical plane and that of the dreaming plane – where finally neither plane is the site of an originary, central form of authority.

In the heterocosm of Sandman the world of dreams produces a chain of displacements which appear – at first glance – to be linear and chronological but which always reflect back upon themselves to the site of an intense difference. At this place of shifting, littoral sand the notion of center is endlessly displaced into a paradoxical plurality that forecloses the possibility of singularity and, with it, the space for originary authority. In other words, Sandman succeeds in challenging patriarchal discourse, and the narratives that it incubates, by interrogating notions of story, narrative, and dream, and thus playing with the centrality of phallocentric authority. In conjunction with this deconstructive approach to the signs of patriarchal authority, the comic also serves as an interesting cultural text through which one can examine and interrogate the differences between a Derridean and Lacanian approach to both the signifying processes of language and their relationship to phallocentric discourse.

(The)Center (cannot hold)

In order to articulate these shifting sands it is necessary to identify how, in Sandman, conventional notions of God, history and story are – to use a term from Freud’s “The Dream-Work” – “differently centered and strange” (101). To Freud’s assessment of dreams we can also add Derrida’s observation, expressed in “Force and Signification,” that “meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning” (183). As a result of this deferred arrival, Derrida suggests that “the center is not the center” (SSP 177). By linking Freud’s theory of dreams to Derrida’s notion of deferred meaning it is possible to articulate much of what is different about Sandman. To do this, however, is to undertake an operation that utilizes Freud’s reading of dreams without returning interpretation to an Oedipal originary point; rather it is to imagine dreams as a form of differential discourse. In this regard, Jacques Lacan has done much to move psychoanalytic discourse away from the materiality of the father as physical motif in the story of human socialization, but his critique still requires the transcendent signifier of the “Name of the Father,” or “Phallus.” For Lacan, “man cannot aim at being whole while ever the play of displacement and condensation to which he is doomed in the exercise of his functions marks his relation as subject to the signifier” (Écrits 287).

Derrida, on the other hand, sees all signifying practices as deferred presence and as links in the chain of the process of meaning: a process without closure because it has no transcendent or central signifier. Reading dreams and Dream through a Derridean treatment of Freud allows us to perceive a seminal trace of what Cixous calls “a feminine practice of writing” (323). However, in order to suggest that all discourse in Sandman is non-self identical (without a governing sign) and so offer an alternative to Lacan’s belief that human experience is grounded in patriarchal discourse, it is first necessary to establish if there is a primary patriarchal figure at the center of the Sandman‘ s symbolic order. In this regard, both Derrida and Lacan have recognized – socially and historically – that the ultimate social (and most typically) transcendent phallus is the idea of god, the sign that structures the male order of discourse under and through which the symbolic order functions.


Figure 1. Sandman #22, p. 15. The angels who fell to hell: Duma and Remiel. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 2. Sandman #27, p. 8. God talks through his angel. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

Does god exist in Sandman? Apparently he does and he does not. If one monotheistic center does wield power in the world of Sandman, then he is partially recognizable as the Judeo-Christian godhead the Western world imagines. He is known as “One”– “the Shaper” – who put the mark of protection on Cain’s head and who sent Lucifer Morningstar, Remiel and Duma to supervise hell (#22-27, see Figure 1). He condemns Lucifer to dream of heaven (#4), and through his angels he communicates to Morpheus that the restoration of hell was necessary for balance (#27, see Figure 2). Whoever he is, he is certainly a creature of binary thought and his influence is all pervasive. For example, in “The Sound of Her Wings” (#8) Death reminds Dream of his function, which is to offset human terror at the inevitability of death, thus contrasting dreaming with dying. Destruction too announces that “a coin has two sides” (#47/11). Another recognizable feature of this Shaper is that he is a non-interventionist god. For example, the exercising of free will is everywhere present in Sandman and even for Morpheus himself the option is a catalyst for great angst. Before the Sandman series begins, Destruction has already walked away from his responsibilities and during the series Lucifer walks out on hell.

Figure 3. Sandman #25, p. 8. Paine’s private hell. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

Yet the notion of the Shaper as a ruling, monotheistic God is problematic. Death, even after she has reminded Morpheus of his role in the order of things, refers to hell as “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate” (#24/13), which indicates that hell is more properly psychological and therefore symbolic. This is best exemplified in “Season of Mists” by the young Paine’s recurring hell, which is one of school corridors in which something “sad and lonely and terrible” is always following (#25/8, see Figure 3). He finally concludes: “I think Hell is something you carry around with you, not somewhere you go” (#25/22). So although in “A Hope in Hell” (#4), Lucifer tells Morpheus that hell is dependent on Dream for its power (because dreams allow demons to dream of heaven), Lucifer nonetheless leaves hell. He walks away and so challenges the necessity of the binary relation between heaven and hell prevailing. Destruction too departs the Endless family, convinced that human destruction will continue unabated in his absence.

Figure 4. Sandman #40, p. 21. Abel draws a subtle distinction between earth and The Dreaming. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

For Morpheus, both freely-willed departures redouble the role of dreams in the order of things, and as with order, responsibility follows. Thus Morpheus broods over responsibilities and interminable rules. Morpheus even tells Remiel that he does not see the point of hell (#27), a conclusion that underscores his belief in binary relationships and his contradictory tendency to maintain power structures despite not believing in them. In this regard, Morpheus stands in clear contrast to Delirium, who is part-mistress, part-subject of her own pluralistic discourse and functions without any perceived sense of responsibility. Morpheus is burdened with the responsibility of maintaining a universe very similar to what Lacan calls “the symbolic order.” As a result, he shows fidelity to a binary world he knows to be illusory and even seems to believe in the transcendent sign of hope. We are forced to ask ourselves why he places so much faith in his responsibilities when all around him others are losing theirs. And then we are suddenly made aware of something very important in “The Parliament of Rooks.” In this story Matthew asks Abel “All this biblical stuff. I mean, how true is it?” Abel responds that it happened but it “whuwasn’t on earth.”(#40/ 21, see Figure 4). In other words, in dreams religion is. In Dream god is.

At first glance Abel’s suggestion would appear to have a certain metaphysical symmetry to it. Although there is a divine Shaper in Sandman (deliberately not referred to as “god” throughout the series), it is Dream who is the center and locus of humanity’s transcendent expectations, and therefore religious values. Thus, in Sandman, the shaper shapes humanity with absolute free will and hell is no more than the product of guilt produced by conscience (hence the reason that Lucifer finally realizes he need no longer rule in hell). Notions of guilt, salvation and redemption are “such stuff as dreams are made on” (#75/27) and they originate in Dream.5 In “the Dreamtime” the notion of god must arise from within dreams. Morpheus himself informs us in “Imperfect Hosts” that “The Dreamworld, the Dreamtime, the unconscious, call it what you will – is as much part of me as I am part of it” (#2/17). Thus, god too is a part of him.

In Sandman, Gaiman has generated a binary notion of ‘God’ in which the physical and mental are complementary and symbiotic. Morpheus has not been responsible for creating humanity “in the darkness before time” (#24/14) but he is the source of their aspirations. The Shaper shapes and Morpheus gives the shapes meaning in the form of dreams. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Donna Haraway has noted that binary oppositions, or dualisms, fuel Western epistemology (commonly known as metaphysics) towards particular ends:

[Binary oppositions] have all been systematic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals – in short domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, active/passive, truth/illusion, God/man. (177)

In such a paradigm the Shaper and Morpheus would represent “reality/imaginary” and “ontology/epistemology” or, in a more simplified form, “bodies/thoughts.”

When one takes into account Morpheus’ familial relations, the Shaper and Dream are not alone in this type of dualism, or binary complementarity, and as the Dream/Death conversation above illustrates, almost any two of the Endless (but, crucially, not them all) can be thrown into binary relief with each other, generating a self-defining dualism in the process. The fact that there are other god-like figures in the pantheon of the Endless does not, at first, disturb the metaphysical equation. In metaphysics these relations maintain a binary structure wherein “the finite” is contrasted with “the eternal” (Endless) in the shape of “gods” and “man.” Such figures – which represent the infinite domain of the non-human – reinforce the all pervasive logic of Platonic metaphysics in which meaning is conferred on the shadowy world of human reality by the perfect world of forms that defines it. Jacques Derrida, in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” writes that

there is no sense in doing without the concept of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language – no syntax and no lexicon – which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest (178).

At first glance, so it is with the concepts of gods and center in Sandman. Myth is metaphysical by nature, offering explanation and meaning for all human desires through recourse to ideas that govern and organize our symbolic realities. In formulating the mythic domain of Sandman, Gaiman creates a metaphysical universe that can grow exponentially. In simple terms, humanity requires god, or gods, to mean and to function, and invests in these figures unceasing projections of desire. Thus the metaphysical relation between man and god becomes reciprocal and infinite. However, Derrida suggests that a strategy for challenging the pervasiveness of metaphysics

consists in conserving all of these old concepts within the domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used. No longer is any truth value attributed to them; […] their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. (SSP 182)

Following this approach – what Derrida calls “bricolage” (after Lévi-Strauss) – it is possible to argue that although he employs the architecture of myth, Gaiman also invests his mythic family with libidinal drives that characterize rebellious daughters as Goths and Ravers, and elder sons as feckless hedonists. In short, he deconstructs the notion of family, be it Endless or not, by emphasizing the turbulence and irruptions within; the very thing that challenges the logic of family. The Endless bitch, backbite and maliciously undermine each other like every other dysfunctional family in this material realm. The Endless, as portrayed in Sandman, are the self-destructive family par excellence.

Another way Gaiman deconstructs metaphysical binary thought is by depicting the Endless primarily as discursive elements rather than corporeal beings. Derrida also identifies what he refers to as “the linguistic turn” in philosophy (which implicitly rejects the transcendent place Lacan affords the phallus) as a crucial moment in the destabilizing of metaphysics.6

The linguistic turn is the moment when language invaded … the moment when … everything became discourse … that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside of a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain of play and of signification infinitely. (178)

And this, to a large degree, is the crux of the matter. Morpheus not only has differences with his siblings, he is also different to himself. If one accepts that a sign only has meaning in its difference from other signs – as Derrida suggests in “Force and Signification” – then it follows that “meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning” (183). Derrida’s notion of “différance” is important in this regard. Focusing on the French verb “différer” and the fact that it incorporates both English terms “to differ” and “to defer,” Derrida suggests that this double movement of both spatial and temporal difference is silenced by the semantic delimitation it receives when contextualized within a sentence, or phrase. This contextualization is undertaken in order to deny its purely differential identity.7

In relation to Sandman, Morpheus has a ‘similarly differential’ identity. For example, he is not an individuated subjectivity but is part of a chain of meaning incorporating the Shaper and the Endless family. In a coherent but contradictory way, the Shaper and Morpheus dualism is both the center of metaphysical thought in Sandman and, paradoxically, not the center. Morpheus has his center elsewhere. Dream is then the non-self-identical difference that constitutes “meaning.” Although he is responsible for dreams as the predominant human symbol of hope, it is a responsibility entrusted upon Morpheus by others rather than one that derives from his own beliefs. In short, Dream is the locus of a metaphysical logic that he himself resists. Given that the Shaper is given meaning through Dream and that Dream is less than convinced of the Shaper’s design, Morpheus is emblematic of a shifting différance.

Figure 5. Sandman #53, p. 22. Morph-ing into Italian. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 6. Sandman #73, p. 21. Morph-ing into Chinese. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 7. Sandman #7, p. 20. The many faces of Morpheus, or Dream in different ink strokes. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

Delirium ploughs a similar furrow to Dream in that she is contradictorily coherent and a further example of non-self identical difference. Delirium by her nature is unfixed; in “Brief Lives,” she announces she likes “airplanes. I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in-betweens” (#48/4).8 As a result she and Dream make complementary travel companions in the “Brief Lives” story. Indeed, an example of Dream’s perpetual différance is to be found in Delirium’s surprise that he will help her find Destruction, and all that this will entail for Morpheus. Moreover, he is also different to himself in action such as when he assumes the moral center in agreeing to act as Executor of Hell (#23), and when he is utterly immoral and unethical in his imprisoning of Nada (#9 & 22); he speaks, we learn, in the different languages of those to whom he speaks (e.g. #53 & #73, see Figures 5 & 6); he is a different god to different people at different moments in history – Oneiros, Morpheus, the Sandman – and in each incarnation different to himself (e.g. #29 & #51); in issue by issue of the Sandman series he is a different figure drawn and pencilled and coloured by different artists (compare Figures 5, 6, 7 & 8), and his appearance differs from race to race and from historical moment to historical moment (compare Figures 8 & 9). He is the site of infinite play, despite his own dour demeanour, because he is the fluidity and unfixity of dreams themselves. Ultimately he is a littoral being on whom is based the interplay of dreams and reality.

Figure 8. Sandman #14, p. 19. The Elizabethan Morpheus. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 9. Sandman #50, p. 19. Morpheus of the Middle East. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.


Allied to Dream’s ‘difference to himself’ is the fact that Morpheus is only one signified in the chain of the Endless family. Within the family, each figure is different to each other and they derive meaning through this difference. In other words, in Sandman there is no center because as Derrida suggests the “original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside of a system of differences” (SSP 178). Hence, Delirium is touched by Desire and Despair, and Dream must offer solace to humanity in the face of Death because he feels responsibility for a world generated by a Shaper, and for which he functions as the locus of meaning.

In Lacan’s formulation of unconscious dependence, neurosis produces aggressive paranoia and “aggressivity gnaws away, undermines, disintegrates; it castrates; it leads to death” (Écrits 110). Death then is entwined with fear of both castration and the disintegration of the imaginary ego. In Sandman, however, Morpheus is half in love with Keats’s “easeful death” that is his sister and the relationship is not founded on fear, aggressivity or lack (manqué), but on mutual respect. In Sandman, Death would appear to represent escape from patriarchal responsibility rather than the feared outcome of the failure to perpetuate patriarchy and/or gratify desires within the symbolic order.

Derrida has noted that “the concept of centered structure – although it represents coherence itself – is contradictorily coherent. And as always coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire” (SSP 171). Whereas for both Lacan and Derrida contradiction reveals (and revels in) desire, in Lacan the dialectic of desire is necessarily generated by the threat of castration. Lacan believes that “The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire” (Écrits 318). For Lacan, desire drives language prompting the often-quoted phrase that “the unconscious is structured like a language” which carries desire in a metonymic chain that never allows for its consummation or gratification (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis 203).

However, in Sandman, Dream is conscious of Desire’s machinations. He is not the unconscious dupe of Desire, nor are any of the other siblings. This is not to say that they are not affected by desire. Dream desires Nada and Destruction desires peace of mind, away from the killing fields. Death too desires to help Dream in the difficulties that lead to the ‘birth’ of Daniel as Dream King. The difference, however, is that all three know the role that Desire plays in their choices so that they cannot be manipulated unconsciously. Because “the Dreamworld, the Dreamtime, the unconscious […] is as much part of [them] as [they] are part of it” (2/17) their motivations are known each to each with the result that they can be motivated by desire but not unwittingly driven by it. As a result, “Desire” signifies the difference generated between signifiers such as “Death” and “Destruction” and these symbols remain unburdened by unconscious impulses. In the symbolic order of Morpheus’ domain, Desire is subject to the “Law of the Dreaming” rather than the other way around.

In Sandman, Desire frequently attempts to drive Dream towards Destruction, but Dream – by his/its very nature – is a mechanism for releasing Desire’s worst excesses.9 This suggests that Dream holds patriarchal sway over the feminized Desire. In this regard, Derrida notes “the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of play based on a fundamental ground … and on the basis of [which] anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game” (SSP 171). Similarly, the anxiety that builds in Morpheus throughout the Sandman series is just such; it is the anxiety of being centered in a game as the source of the polarized opposite of the other.

Figure 10. Sandman #71, p. 4. The wisdom of Abel: Morpheus as a point of view. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

For Lacan, to become an individual self is to be intersubjectively generated through desire as a direct result of absence, or lack, as the object of the gaze of “the Other”; what Lacan famously formulates as “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” (Écrits 682). When Morpheus dies in Sandman, a recognizable form of patriarchy dies too. Something obvious takes its course. Yet rather than ascribing to Morpheus the role of patriarchal authority, or phallus, it is arguably better to side with Abel in calling Dream’s demise the passing of “A puh, point of view” (#71/4, see Figure 10). Further, this point of view passes precisely because it was too antiquated and anachronistic; the result of being positioned in binary relations that enforce all forms of metaphysical thought, including the symbolic dominion of patriarchy. Another way of saying this is that it was not necessarily even Morpheus’s ‘point of view,’ but one “objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other” (Écrits 49). Consciously aware of this objectification and unwilling any longer to assume his position as the ostensibly central conduit of such meanings, he abdicates his realm, becoming Daniel, a new Dream for a different age.

The result is that mutation and change is maintained as the perpetual rhythm of Dream, mutations in meaning generated by the play of signifiers that produce it. Further, and in relation to the notion of God in Sandman and its very idea of center, it would appear that neither Dream nor the Shaper nor any of the Endless family properly represents the singular source of such signification. Similarly, and with regard to Lacan’s patriarchal system, it would appear that there is no transcendent signifier in Sandman outside the play of a system of differences.


Derrida has also recognized that another illusory center in the history of human representation is the notion of “history – whose origin may always be reawakened or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence” (SSP 171). In this regard, Sandman draws attention to the manner in which hegemonic power formulates institutionalized histories, and how such powers frequently erase the presence of ‘dream(s)’ in doing so. In Metahistory, the narratologist Hayden White has noted that in the construction of a history,

First the elements in the historical field are organized into a chronicle by the arrangement of the events to be dealt with in the temporal order of their occurrence; then the chronicle is organized into a story by the further arrangement of the events into the components of a ‘spectacle’ or process of happening, which is thought to possess a discernible beginning, middle and end. (15)

White also notes that the nature of a chronicle’s conclusion will provide its meaning and that

providing the ‘meaning’ of a story by identifying the kind of story that has been told is called explanation by emplotment. If, in the course of narrating his story, the historian provides it with the plot structure of a tragedy, he has explained it in one way; if he has structured it as a comedy, he has ‘explained’ it in another way. Emplotment is the way by which a sequence of events fashioned into a story is gradually revealed to be a story of a particular kind. (16)

Given then that historians adapt dates and events into a dramatic paradigm it is hardly surprising that as Francis Barker notes in 1642: Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century,

Enough of the past is lost, and looks in any case so different from different points of vantage, for history itself to be regarded as no more (and, indeed no less) than a present fiction which must be constructed obliquely or directly according to the only half apprehended order of contemporary needs and struggles (74).

With Gaiman aware of the nature of historical emplotment, Sandman exhibits a clear understanding of the narrative distortions and concomitant received authority that arises from a control of history. Stories such as “Dream of a Thousand Cats,” (#17) which suggests that humans have rewritten history in their own image, and “Ishtar” (#45), whose eponymous character knows that all history is written by men, point towards the silenced struggles not facilitated by contemporary hegemonic needs. Similarly, the potential renaming of the months of the calendar year that we encounter in both “Thermidor” (#29) and “August” (#30) indicate how history is utterly subject to the whim of men who, at any particular point in history, may choose to alter not only history’s detail but the manner in which it is recorded. History10 (particularly the brutal portrayal of Caesar in “August”) is one that is emplotted and encoded by patriarchy.

As we have seen, Sandman disturbs the received notions of story and history as originating from the self-presence of man and god by displacing the center into both endless substitutions of center, and dividing the center within itself. This constitutes an attack on the notion of presence. Derrida notes that

the center receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix … is the Determination of Being as presence in all senses of the word. (SSP 177)

Against this, as documented above, Derrida argues that “the moment when language invaded […] the moment when […] everything became discourse” (SSP 178) is a linguistic turn that prioritises the play of meaning as first principle, and it is this play which disrupts the notions of center, history and presence. In this regard Derrida writes:

Besides the tension between play and history, there is also the tension between play and presence. Play is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Play is always play of absence and presence, but if it is to be thought radically, play must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence. Being must be conceived as presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way around (SSP, 189).

Arguably the most effective way in which Morpheus constitutes an assault on metaphysics (through his difference which constitutes “meaning”) is the manner in which dreams operate to divide the notion of presence through the play of difference. Seymour Chatman recognizes that

it has been argued since Aristotle that events in narratives are radically correlative, enchaining, entailing. Their sequence, runs the traditional argument, is not simply linear but causative […]. But the interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and they will provide it if necessary. (111)

If the mind seeks structure when it is not immediately present, then it follows that a Sandman reader will attempt to structure visual/verbal narratives that make at least a cursory distinction between the binary realms of dreams and reality. However, in Sandman this organizational capacity turns on the fulcrum of an essential metaphoric displacement; the center of things is always already elsewhere, because once in dreams we have abandoned reality, and yet in dreams the raw material of the experience disguises its meaning. In other words, although a host of theorists have attempted to produce a taxonomy of narrative devices wherein any one element (such as character, place and/or plot) can be substituted for another one without the notion of narrative losing its essential narrativity, in Sandman such metaphoric substitutions are the primary narrative of the story.11 It is in the moments when the dream plane invades the physical plane that the condensations and displacements of the dream-work confound the reader’s ability to properly distinguish between supposed ‘dreams’ and ‘reality.’ Further, it is in this moment that it becomes impossible to offer history as a monologic male vision.


In “The Dream-Work” Sigmund Freud suggests that there is “the manifest content of a dream as a whole” from which we can extract “the latent dream as it is revealed by interpretation.” Dreams that are “obvious fulfilments of wishes” often are “transformed from a wish into an actual experience” (99). However, dreams that betray repressed desires are subject to “dream-distortion” which must be explored by extrapolating the dream-distortion’s twin strategies of condensation and displacement. One feature of condensation is brought about “by latent elements which have something in common being combined and fused into a single unity in the manifest dream” (100). During displacement

a latent element is replaced not by a component part of itself but by something more remote – that is, by an allusion; and in the second, the physical accent is shifted from an important element on to another which is unimportant, so that the dream seems differently centered and strange. (101)

To provide some examples of how a Freudian reading of dreams complements Sandman, let us consider how women are portrayed in its dreams (the irony here, of course, is that Freud is being used to tease out a feminist impulse in Sandman despite his own uneasiness with what he called the “dark continent” of female sexuality). Both Unity Kinkaid and Hippolyta Hall echo each other in their circumstances. Both have been pregnant during prolonged dreaming and as a result of this they tend to ‘morph(eus)’ into each other. As a result they are intra-subjective women. Their borders are not fixed; their identities are not entirely separate, their experiences are shared. In the end of “A Doll’s House” (#10-16), Rose, Miranda and Unity Kinkaid are literally “fused into a single unity in the manifest dream”. Similarly, “In a Game of You” (issues #32-37), Barbie and Martin Ten-Bones bear intra-subjective relation to Rose and Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green in “A Doll’s House”.

Such associations can only be articulated through a theory that allows for individuals to be simultaneously displaced onto others and condensed within each other. Further, their intra-subjective relationships only become apparent through a process of difference wherein Barbie’s story follows Rose’s story and the eerie familiarity of these individuals as intra-subjective “others” constitutes “a chain of substitutions,” a center for center effect. In other words, the contradictorily coherent paradigm within which they are both the same and different represents the discourse of the feminine in its otherness and alterity. In their temporal and spatial difference from each other, which nonetheless is generated from within each other, they reveal an intra-subjectivity that is denied in the symbolic order of the waking plane. Further, such dreams are not repressed desires for wish fulfilment but rather the fabric of Dream him-itself.

For example, when Rose is revealed as the mistress of the dreaming (#15), narrative sequentiality briefly collapses. In the double image spread of pages 18 and 19 (see Figure 11) we have a representation of the potential intra-subjectivity of dreams and reality. Rose Walker is in dreams but her dreams are also reality. Here dreams and reality cannot define each other as opposites because Rose, as a dream vortex, constitutes the site of the play which gives rise to them. Within the context of how the Sandman series treats gender, she is also the site of the silenced difference (the feminine) on which the illusory distinction of reality and dreams is based (in much the same way that Wanda/Alvin is the silenced difference from which masculine/feminine binaries construct themselves in “A Game of You”). In this way, an institutionalized and thoroughly rationalized patriarchal subjectivity is challenged and a more democratic notion of the social is articulated through dreams which erode rationalist conceit.12

Figure 11. Sandman #15, pps. 18 & 19. Gaiman’s intra-subjective dream-reality: World’s collide. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.


While reading Sandman the reader can continually absorb the condensed/displaced dreams/realities of characters and subject them to her/his own interpretation. Moreover, with the manifest content always available, it is possible for the reader to return to the site of the dream and extrapolate ever-richer latent content from the manifest material. The experience invariably is one in which contradiction is established as the plane of interpretation so that all further interpretations are profoundly aware of what they elide. Meaning, as it were, exists only as a condition of this grounding difference. In this regard, Wolfgang Iser has observed the following with regard to reading experimental texts in “The Reading Process”:

[They] are often so fragmentary that one’s attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between the fragments; the object of this is not to complicate the spectrum of connections, so much as to make us aware of our own capacity for providing links. In such cases, the text refers back directly to our own preconceptions – which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process. With all literary texts then we may say that the reading process is selective, and the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations. This is borne out by the fact that a second reading of a piece of literature often produces a different impression from the first. … Herein lies the dialectical structure of reading. The need to decipher gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity – i.e., we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious. The production of the meaning of literary texts does not merely entail the discovery of the unformulated, which can then be taken over by the active imagination of the reader; it also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what has previously seemed to elude our consciousness. These are the ways in which reading literature gives us the chance to formulate the unformulated. (79, 81 [emphasis mine])

In other words, while reading Sandman we too become intra-subjective and our received barriers regarding modes of representation (dreams, reality, gender) are temporarily (at least) transgressed. For example, Hayden White has noted that “narrative is the fundamental organizing principle of our lives” (17) and, as mentioned earlier, Ishtar knows that men write the narrative of history. When Lyotard writes that a narratee gains access to authority simply by listening, he is considering a world where language is power and where narrative is recognized as a means through which authority is transmitted and maintained. Contrary to this is Delirium’s realization in “Brief Lives”: “Change change change change CHANGE chaaange. When you say words a lot they don’t mean anything so maybe they don’t mean anything anyway and we just think they do” (#41/8, see Figure 12).

Figure 12. Sandman #41, p. 8. Delirium speculates on the relativity of language. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

Since the event that has become known as the “linguistic turn” – what Derrida referred to earlier as everything “becoming discourse” – we have come to recognize words as a means of stabilizing differences; as a way of representing experience in a universe built not on permanence, or centered being, but on play. Indeed, in Sandman we are made aware that “Destiny is the oldest of the Endless; in the beginning was the Word, and it was traced by hand on the first page of his book, before ever it was spoken” (21/10). Words function in the same way today. Vocal expression, for example, attempts to delimit the signifying capacity of words through intentionality, and yet it is only through the play of meaning’s difference that they signify at all. Destiny, in possession of the first word, is aware of this disjunction and is correspondingly different to himself. Because, as Derrida notes in “Force and Signification,” “meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning” (183), Destiny frequently divides within himself, or doubles, like the differential nature of the word in his book (#63/11, see Figure 13). This division is summed up by Derrida in “Speech and Phenomena”:

There is no longer a simple origin. For what is reflected is split in itself and not only as an addition to itself of its image. The reflection, the image, the double splits what it doubles. The origin of the speculation becomes a difference. What can look at itself is not one. (36)

Figure 13. Sandman #63, p. 11. As Destiny divides, the future is double. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

In terms of gender play, this is best exemplified by Wanda’s argument with George’s head in “A Game of You” (#35/19, see Figure 14) regarding what constitutes a woman. As Haraway noted earlier, the binary logic of male/female has been systematic in its practice of dominating women once biological difference becomes a marker for gender acculturation. In “A Game of You,” the extended dream functions as a metaphor for Barbie releasing her trapped id in order to finally jettison socially received notions of femininity. The nature of “woman” is set in play. For both Wanda and Barbie, “There is no longer a simple origin.”

Figure 14. Sandman #35, p. 19. Wanda gives George’s head a gender lesson. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.

The story arc of “A Game of You” culminates in a wiser Barbie returning from the yellow brick road to Kansas in order to inscribe (in lipstick traces) Wanda’s name on the latter’s headstone (see Figure 15). Barbie, who like Unity Kinkaid and Lyta Hall was once trapped within patriarchal discourse, comes to self- consciousness and self-awareness. It is in the subtleties of just such intra-subjective play that Sandman explores notions of gender with remarkable freshness. Barbie realizes that her idea of “woman” was unified and self-identical. Although they were friends, at a fundamental level she denied the difference that was Wanda as something more masculine than feminine, something that she could never be herself. Wanda was “Bizarroman” (#32/22, see Figure 16), forceful and determined; Barbie was a princess – polite, demure and insecure. By recognizing the difference in herself – by recognizing, like Wanda, that “What can look at itself is not one” – she broke free from the silence imposed by the binary logic of gender. Finally, and in a similar anti-rationalist metaphor to Rose Walker’s dream vortex, Barbie announces to Wanda’s Aunty Dora (an obvious inter-textual allusion to the famous Kansas ‘Dorothy’) that “I used to be a princess. I had a cuckoo in my head” (#37/22, see Figure 17). She is finally and positively touched by the delirium of change. Interestingly, Lacan came to recognize the liberating nature of such delirium, even though its genesis, for him, was still founded in phallic centrality. In “God and the Jouissance of Woman” he asserts in relation to woman that

she has, in relation to what the phallic function designates of jouissance, a supplementary jouissance […] a jouissance proper to her, and of which she herself may know nothing, except that she experiences it – that much she does know (144-145).

Finally, and perhaps always, there remains the feminine supplement that exceeds ‘being’ determined by phallocentrism.

Figure 15. Sandman #37, p. 21. Barbie establishes lipstick traces. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 16. Sandman #32, p. 22. Bizarroman confides in Barbie.© 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.
Figure 17. Sandman #37, p. 22. Barbie confides in Dorothy. © 1989 – 1996 Neil Gaiman.


The Difference with Dreams is that God is not the Center of History

Given the amount of story arcs in Sandman that interrogate the symbolic acculturation of women and their attempts to define a more fluid identity, it is reasonable to argue that Gaiman’s creation is a feminist text and perhaps even approaches a feminine practice of writing. Indeed, regarding the latter notion, Cixous has suggested that:

It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination. It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate (323).

Morpheus is just such a peripheral figure, a fluid contradiction through whom passes both discourses of subjugation and the traces of liberation. However, he is neither history nor God, center nor truth. Further, and in relation to Cixous’s notion of place, Morpheus exists in comics and dreams which are both places so far unsubordinated to absolute theoretical domination. Is it possible that a feminine practice of writing may exist in dreams, and because that shifting ground is where it thrives, it is only a patriarchal idiom that imagines it may finally be encoded? In “A Doll’s House” we learn that “Chantal is having a relationship with a sentence. Just one of those things that grew into something important for both of them.” However, it troubles her, because “she has no idea what her sentence is about” (#15/6). If not an ending, such a sentence may well be a beginning. If it is a sentence that she generates in a dream then (rather like the Word that begins Destiny’s book) it is already different to itself. To quote Iser, it may allow her to “formulate [herself] and so discover what has previously seemed to elude her consciousness, [for] these are the ways in which reading literature gives us the chance to formulate the unformulated” (81). And if Delirium were to ask “what’s the word for that?” (#43/21), Morpheus might well respond with ‘in-Difference.’


[1] “Prince of Metaphor and Allusion” Sandman (#63/11). This is a phrase that Destiny uses to describe Dream, and it is primarily with Dream’s metaphoric aspect that this paper deals.

[2] Although I quote from four Derrida texts in this essay, most quotations are taken from “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” To avoid unnecessary repetition of this title all further references to “Structure, Sign and Play” will appear as “SSP” in the parentheses that acknowledge page numbers and follow the quotations in the main body of the essay.

[3] Neil Gaiman, Sandman (1989-1996). Throughout this essay I have used “#” to denote the number of the issue which is often followed by the page number. For example, (#56) indicates “number 56” and (#56/4) “number 56, page 4.”

[4] For detailed treatment of “the phallus” in Lacan see Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, pps. 34-71. For a more immediately comprehensible version see Shuli Barzilai, Lacan and the Matter of Origins, pps. 219-226. I am indebted to Robert D’Alonzo for taking the time to discuss a Lacanian interpretation of Gaiman with me, and for making many helpful suggestions.

[5] In Sandman #75 Shakespeare recites Prospero’s concluding speech to Anne Hathaway while she peels potatoes. The line in question is from The Tempest, Act IV, Sc.v, l. 198.

[6] For Derrida’s critique of the phallus in Lacan see “Le Facteur de la Vérité” in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (411-498) which disputes the non-metaphysical status Lacan gave the signifier in his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter'” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955 (191-206).

[7] For a detailed meditation on difference see Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” pps. 279-298.

[8] Some context for Delirium’s delight in airports is provided by Walter Benjamin, who wrote of the anxiety experienced by the ordinary traveller when the self experiences the displacement of the “in-between.” Benjamin notes that “the traveller is familiar with all the mythical ordeals and perils … and the vertiginous succession of innumerable thresholds of time and space that they move through, from the famous ‘too late’ of those left behind, the archetype of all loss, […] the anxiety of missing one’s connection, to the horror of entering the unfamiliar arrival hall. Bewildered he feels caught up in a giant machine” (Gesammelte Schriften, p. 17. Translation provided by Scott McCracken, Pulp, p. 5). Similarly, Anthony Giddens observes that modern society is characterised by large impersonal self-referential systems. These systems, such as airports, are “largely autonomous and determined by their own constitutive influences and within them the self loses its sense of agency and is beset by doubts and anxieties” (Modernity and Self-Identity, p. 42). Conversely, Delirium enjoys these spaces as her own sense of herself is always already displaced by nature of her being. That which challenges the identity of the fixed subject in the real world is of second nature to Delirium.

[9] The inter-play between Destruction and Desire in Sandman is also intriguing. For example, just before he relinquished his post in the eighteenth century, Destruction informed Dream that “they [humanity] are using reason as a tool. Reason. It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream. But it has the potential to be far more dangerous for them” (#44/18). By the time they meet again in the late twentieth century, Destruction has come around to the view that “the Endless are merely patterns, ideas, repeating motifs” (#48/6). It is clear that the atomic terrors Destruction first foresaw in the experiments of Newton have formed a part of his identity. They are after all weapons of destruction. In other words, Destruction left the Endless because he saw how enlightenment logic would speed ever more powerful forms of destruction, and he recognized the human ‘desire’ for this progress, but he is unable to escape how Enlightenment logic (realized as indifferent destruction) must inevitably become his own point of view. As a result of the fact that he is Destruction, modern science prompts him to question his own mythic status, and to abscond his realm, as does Dream later. In both instances both characters can clearly see how human behaviour will be altered by unconscious desires, yet remain unmoved themselves. Nonetheless, the changes wrought in human behaviour change the Endless too, in time. In Dream’s case, where once there was a human society of unquestioned patriarchy, now there is one of increased gender plurality. Time for a change in “puh-point of view.”

[10] “History” is used here as a counterpoint to the concept of “Herstory” as coined by Robin Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful.

[11] For useful analyses of the component aspects of narrative see Aristotle, Poetics, pps. 11-14; Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, pps. 23-77; and Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, pps. 38-53. An interesting analysis of disjunctive work in the verbal/visual terrain of comics is Gene Kannenberg Jr.’s treatment of verbal-visual interaction in “The Comics of Chris Ware.” Kannenberg suggests that Ware practices “visual polyphony – presenting two narratives within one contextual space – [which] brings with it the possibility of a third field of interpretation” (184). However, in the manner in which dreams and reality alternately collide with and displace each other in Sandman, the objective is not to fuse the verbal/visual into a third form, but to divide the existing planes within each other as the principle of their existence.

[12] Another example of how Sandman is a more “democratic social” model of inclusiveness is the manner in which its pluralistic point of view challenges other binary distinctions established and designed to deny difference. One common binary in this regard is that between “high and low” forms of cultural practice where the notion of “high culture” takes the corresponding high (and hierarchical) position in the cultural dualism as a result of a history of economic privilege and bourgeois aspiration. Conversely, in Sandman high and low cultural distinctions are obliterated and the reader finds that the lyrics of Ian Curtis are as valued as the poems of John Keats (#6); that posters featuring the Watchmen logo jostle for space beside Matisse (#8&12); that The Velvet Underground play at a serial killers convention (#14) and a madman called Dr. Destiny quotes Macbeth (#7); that the voice of Iggy Pop liberates an ancient mythic Goddess to dance her last dance in a strip club named after a Bowie song (#45); that Chaucer and Shakespeare sip ale in their local inn, over a hundred years apart (#13&75); and that the words of Byron, Kipling, Milton and Yeats echo in the relationship between two sibling Goths who can also be found feeding the pigeons in Washington Square (#8).


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–. “Le Facteur de la Vérité.” The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

–. ‘Speech and Phenomena’ and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

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