A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, which could more properly be entitled “Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis,” probably remains the most widely used and popular means of introducing Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the psyche. Given during World War I, these lectures embody the results of Freud’s analytical research between 1895 and 1910, when the basic groundwork was set for his revolutionary ideas about the role of the unconscious and the power of sexuality in the life of the mind. Freud undertook several other introductory surveys in later years, but these lectures remain the most concise and useful of the Freudian surveys. Although a veritable army of subsequent Freudian scholars and psychoanalysts have explicated the Viennese pioneer, none can replace Freud’s own writings, for he is an excellent stylist and the power of his mind speaks in every paragraph, even in translation. Freud reproduces his own quest for meaning in these lectures and involves the reader in what is, among other things, one of the greatest detective stories ever written. Another device, which Freud employs here as elsewhere, is to have frequent recourse to dialogue between himself and an imaginary, quasi-hostile critic. With this rhetorical procedure, Freud succeeds in half convincing his readers even before he has begun to present his arguments in full.
In his first four lectures, Freud gives an analysis of the psychology of errors as a simple means of introducing what was at that time an extraordinary subject. The slip of the tongue or pen, misreading, forgetting, or mislaying things is often not due to chance but comes from something contrary to our rational intention that slips out and distorts speech or action. From the device of the errors that often are not what they appear, Freud turns in the next ten lectures to dreams. Freud is concerned to stress that his subject is not abnormal psychology, and that his analysis applies to all. It was because his patients spoke of dreams so often that Freud began this area of investigation. It was another radical idea, for the reading of dreams was tantamount to Gypsy soothsaying. According to Freud, the dream must be interpreted, for the manifest dream content always condenses, displaces, or elaborates the latent content and replaces feelings with visual images. In interpretation, the analyst ignores surface confusion and waits for the central theme to emerge from the dreamer’s retelling. In sleep people regress; the conscious mind idles at its customary control, and the mind returns to something like the womb. Moreover, dreamers know the meaning of their dreams, but they generally do not know that they know. Freud maintains that all the manifest or surface content of the dream comes from experience of the previous waking day. Because dreamers fear the censor or dread reality, their minds distort and condense. Thus all dream material is symbolic. To someone who knows the environment and circumstances in which a dreamer has dreamed, interpretation is simple. Although, however, it is unclear to Freud at this time why certain elements are symbolic and others are not, he is convinced that the overwhelming number of dream symbols are sexual.
As Freud notes in his introduction, the greatest resistance to his work came because of his insistence on the importance of sexuality in the formation of character. In dreams, the male organ is represented...
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