Expressions of Freud's Jewish Identity

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Although Freud was not religious, his identity as a Jewish man in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid-to-late nineteenth century was central to his psychic life, as revealed through the interpretation of his own dreams. He describes strong impressions, dating back to early childhood, which engendered in him a deep sense of injustice in the face of anti-Semitism and a fierce desire to persevere in his professional ambitions, despite the restrictions Austrian society placed on its Jewish population.

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While Freud eventually became famous as the ‘‘father’’ of psychoanalysis, he began his career as a doctor, making his living from both a private medical practice and as a lecturer in neuropathology at the University of Vienna. Anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) caused the delay of a well-deserved promotion at the university for years after Freud had made a name for himself through a number of noteworthy publications. The equally deserved promotions of several of his colleagues were similarly denied or delayed due to their Jewish identity in the increasingly anti-Semitic climate of Austrian public affairs.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes several dreams that address his ambitious nature (the ‘‘wish’’ to be successful) in the face of the virulent anti-Semitism, which cast a shadow over his hopes and ‘‘dreams’’ of personal success, as well as over the future of his children. Although he makes the disclaimer, ‘‘I am not, as far as I know, ambitious,’’ his biographers frequently comment that Freud, in fact, was exceptionally ambitious.

In one dream, Freud associates two of his colleagues with his uncle Josef. He states in the ‘‘preamble’’ to this dream that he had just learned his own name had been proposed for a promotion to the prestigious title of professor extraordinarius. Freud explains that he had made a point of not getting his hopes up because he had witnessed the disappointment of several Jewish colleagues who had been denied such promotions. The day before the dream in question, he had also been visited by a colleague who had just learned that, once again, his own promotion had been denied due to ‘‘considerations of religion.’’

The ‘‘manifest’’ content of the Uncle Josef dream consists of two parts. Freud describes the first part as the thought: ‘‘My friend R. is my uncle—I feel great affection for him’’; the second part of the dream consists of the image of a ‘‘composite figure,’’ combining suggestions of his uncle, his friend R., and another friend, whom he refers to as N. This dream, though very simple at the level of ‘‘manifest’’ content, reveals upon analysis a complex cluster of associations expressing the wish that he be promoted on the basis of his own merit rather than being denied promotion on the basis of his religious identity.

Freud explains that the uncle referred to in the dream is his uncle Josef. He notes that he had always had negative associations with this uncle, who in 1866 was sentenced to ten years in prison in connection with the circulation of counterfeit money. He recalls that his father had told him his uncle Josef ‘‘had never been a bad man, he had been a numbskull.’’ Thus, through a string of associations, his dream equates his friends R. and N. with his uncle Josef to the effect that it represents R. as a ‘‘numbskull,’’ like his uncle, and N. as a ‘‘criminal,’’ like his uncle. (He makes it clear that, in his conscious mind, he respects and admires both of these colleagues and has no desire whatsoever to regard them in a negative light.)

Both R. and N. had recently been denied promotions at the university, no doubt because they were Jewish. Freud concludes that this dream is a wish fulfillment in the sense that it provides an alternative explanation for these men not getting the desired promotions—thereby discounting the real reason of their being Jewish. Because Freud himself was hoping for a professorship, he wished to imagine that he would not be denied the promotion simply because he was Jewish. He explains, ‘‘if I can ascribe their rejection to other grounds which do not apply to me, my hopes will remain undisturbed.’’ By imagining his Jewish colleagues to be incompetent or otherwise unqualified, he could conclude that his own qualifications were all he needed—as he is neither a ‘‘numbskull’’ nor a ‘‘criminal’’ and therefore ‘‘can look forward to my appointment as professor’’ without concern for being held back by anti-Semitism. (Although Freud did eventually receive the desired promotion, it was delayed for several years because of his Jewish identity.)

Freud further analyzes a series of dreams that take place in and around Rome and that center on wish fulfillments in regard to the status of Jews in Austrian society.

He mentions that, in a recent visit to Italy, he was disappointed when, having traveled to within eighty miles of Rome, he was obliged for various reasons to turn back before reaching the ‘‘Eternal City’’ he had always wanted to see. Freud makes the connection between his own experience of having to turn back just outside of Rome and the historical experience of Hannibal (247–183 B.C.), the ancient Carthaginian general who fought in the Second Punic War against Rome. Hannibal, though considered a great conqueror, brought his army within three miles of Rome but never successfully entered the city. Freud explains that, in being prevented from seeing Rome, he himself was ‘‘following in Hannibal’s footsteps; like him, I had not been granted a sight of Rome.’’

To demonstrate the importance of childhood experiences on the dream life of adults, Freud discusses several strong associations with Rome that date back to his childhood and that continue to influence his dreams. In his dreams of Rome, Freud identifies himself with Hannibal. He notes that Hannibal had been his ‘‘warrior ideal’’ and ‘‘favourite hero’’ while in grade school. When, in high school, he became increasingly aware of the forces of anti-Semitism and ‘‘the consequences of being descended from an alien race,’’ the figure of Hannibal, considered a ‘‘Semitic’’ general, ‘‘rose even higher’’ in his esteem.

As Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church, Freud associates it with anti-Jewish sentiment; thus, Hannibal, a Semitic warrior who came close to conquering Rome, became equated in his mind with the efforts of the Jewish (Semitic) people to overcome the oppressive powers of Christendom, as represented by the city of Rome: ‘‘Hannibal and Rome symbolized to me the opposition between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic Church.’’ Hannibal becomes an image of Jewish perseverance against the forces of anti-Semitism. (Yet he adds that the current efforts of Jews to overcome anti-Semitism seem as ill-fated as were Hannibal’s efforts to conquer Rome.)

Freud elaborates upon the childhood roots of his strong psychical associations with Rome and with Hannibal, as expressed in his dreams. He recalls that, when he was ten or twelve-years-old, his father related to him an experience of anti-Semitism from years earlier in their native Bohemia. Freud’s father, Jacob Freud, had been wearing his finest clothes and a new fur hat when a Christian, passing him on the sidewalk, knocked his hat into the street, shouting, ‘‘Jew, get off the pavement!’’ Passively submitting to this degrading treatment, Freud’s father merely stepped into the street to recover the hat. Freud recalls hearing of this passivity on the part of his father with dismay, noting, ‘‘That did not seem to me very heroic of the big, strong man who was leading me by the hand.’’

The young Freud at that time contrasted his father’s passiveness with an incident from Hannibal’s life in which his father ‘‘makes his son swear before the domestic altar to take revenge on the Romans.’’ Again, Hannibal becomes a symbol for Jewish resistance against the oppression of Christian society, as represented by Rome. Freud notes that after he had been told of the former incident in the life of his own father, the courageous and vengeful Hannibal ‘‘had a place in my fantasies.’’

Freud then traces his strong associations with Hannibal, the would-be conqueror of Rome, even further back in his childhood memories. He states that one of the first books he ever read as a child was a history of France and that afterward he stuck labels on the backs of his toy soldiers, designating each by the names of Napoleon’s military marshals. He notes that his ‘‘declared favorite’’ of the French marshals among his toy soldiers was André Masséna (1758–1817), a leading general in both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. By a parallel in military accomplishments, Freud later associated the armies of Napoleon with those of Hannibal. Like Hannibal, Masséna represented a Jewish war hero, as he was popularly believed to have been Jewish (although in fact he was not).

Thus, Freud’s many dreams of Rome represent a wish, deeply rooted in his childhood psyche, that Jews become triumphant members of society, rather than the increasingly oppressed population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which they became over the course of his life.

Ritchie Robertson has pointed out, in an Introduction to The Interpretation of Dreams, that the book is as much a work of autobiography on the part of Freud as it is a scientific treatise on the theory of dream psychology. Freud’s identity as an ambitious Jewish professional, with high hopes for the future success of his children, is central to his ‘‘dreams’’ of Jewish perseverance in the face of anti-Semitism.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Interpretation of Dreams, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan.

Interpreter and Seducer

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Once Freud questions whether the interpreter can provide a neutral statement of a dream’s meaning, he implicitly acknowledges the hazards of interpretive manipulation. Because the dream report invariably distorts and revises, Freud can hardly maintain his bipartite model. Even before interpretation begins, the dream report already modifies the dream.

The analogy between dreams and (censored) texts encourages an application of Freud’s methods of dream interpretation to his own writings. His bipartite model of meaning conceives the manifest contents as an outer layer that conceals the latent contents; Freud’s psychoanalytic approach implies, at the same time, that the dream work is itself essential. For a literary analysis of Freud, this would mean privileging the modes of figuration and conceiving Freud’s texts neither as a set of explicit propositions (for example, ‘‘The dream is a wish fulfillment’’ ) nor as a complex of hidden thoughts (the personal ambition and sexual dynamics revealed by his self-analysis), but as figures, examples, the turns and detours in Freud’s particular rhetoric of war and love.

In many respects, the talking cure resembles a battle and a seduction. Freud encourages the transference neurosis while concealing his own emotions. By presenting the mask of a blank screen, he allows full play to the man or woman who mistakes him for another; by avoiding any concession to the counter-transference, Freud assures that he will emerge from the emotional drama unscathed. Freud is thus a seducer in the tradition of Don Juan, who characteristically dominates the passions of others without allowing his own passions to become enslaved. His seductions entail a lack of mutual feeling, in which misguided men and women perceive a nonexistent mutuality. In order to rechannel the patient’s (impatient) passion, Freud exploits the authority of the analyst. If the frequency of the sessions and the intimacy of their dialogue is not sufficient to assure that the analysand will fall in love with the analyst, Freud discourages the formation of other emotional bonds during analysis.

Figures of war predominate at certain stages in Freud’s discussion of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. According to one early assertion, psychological normalcy may be determined by the degree of suppression (Unterdrückung) of the unconscious by the preconscious; the unconscious must be subjugated to the dominion (Herrschaft) of the conscious and preconscious mind. Freud’s language introjects a metaphysical battle between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, heaven and hell. A skeptical age transforms the opposition between life and death—or the worldly and the otherworldly—into that of waking and sleeping. The divine and daemonic mechanisms are within us. ‘‘Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo’’: Freud cites Virgil’s Aeneid on the title page of The Interpretation of Dreams. ‘‘If I cannot bend the powers above, I will move those of the underworld.’’ He later attributes this drive to the repressed impulses. But Freud ultimately proposes to mobilize and conquer the unconscious powers by delivering them to the rational control of the higher powers, the I.

Another essentially military metaphor is Besetzung, typically translated as ‘‘cathexis’’ but more aptly translated as occupation, deployment, or investment. This is one of the key metaphors that date from Freud’s Project of 1895, although the range of this term shifts in accordance with other developments in psychoanalytic terminology. The early passages refer to ‘‘cathected neurons (besetzte Neurone)’’; assuming an energetics of the psyche, Freud accounts for alterations in quantity by writing of full and empty neurons. After he has explained general psychological events in terms of neural energy transfers, Freud can account for dreams in relation to the emotional investment or wish fulfillment they represent. This terminology continues to operate in The Interpretation of Dreams, when Freud discusses the energy transfers and deployments associated with regression and wish fulfillment.

The patient’s Besetzungen (‘‘cathexes’’)—charged with love and hate, eros and thanatos, positive and negative transferences—suggest an economic model, but Freud’s heart is not merely a neutral cipher on which the patient places a wager. His deceiving heart cannot be conquered. Besetzen means to lay siege, to deploy one’s psychical forces around another, perhaps even to cut off supplies and force a surrender. A reversal occurs: at first, the patient’s Besetzungen resemble a military encirclement of the analyst. But Freud slips out of the trap, demonstrating that the campaign was really a battle within the psyche, between the patient’s present desires and past affects. The theory of transference insists that all emotional investments in the analyst are irreal, displaced from prior emotions. The patient’s laying siege around the analyst turns into an encirclement of the patient by the past. Freudian Besetzung implies a military campaign in which the patient is always conquered, occupied (besetzt) by the transference neurosis, in a kind of demonic possession or passion play. To become emotionally attached to a person or thing is, in Freud’s implicit rhetoric, to engage in strategic warfare. The psychoanalytic patient’s surrender is hastened by the imposed condition of abstinence during cure. Deployment and the overcoming of resistance are central to the Freudian method of treatment; the cure mimics a battle of the sexes.

Besetzung is further related to a matrix of terms that Freud does not explicitly consider. The root verb is setzen, to set or posit; emotional life, Freud’s choice of words implies, is a kind of self-positing. An Einsatz is a wager or bet; we place ourselves on the line when we invest in people and objects. The root noun is Satz, a sentence (in grammar) or movement (in music); our psychical energy plays itself out by transferring earlier commitments to new positions. The Satz does not merely rule over the Setzungen by which we posit our work and our passion. To the extent that love repeats previous patterns of emotion, it is a carryover (Übertragung) or repetition (Wiederholung) that brings back the past in order that we may relive it. The error behind every transference lies in the fiction of replacement, when we act as if another figure could stand in the place once held by the original. The dream itself is an Ersatz for hidden thought processes. But Ersatz is always a lie that ultimately betrays its counterfeit nature; and the other resists our transferences. Besetzung also names the cast of characters in a dramatic production. Wearing a mask of impassive, free-floating attention and sitting beyond the patient’s range of vision like a stage director who observes and intervenes in a rehearsal, Freud oversees the play of passions during which the patient remembers, repeats, and (perhaps) works through former emotional commitments. These linguistic resonances lead toward a conception of love and hate as translations (Übersetzungen), positive and negative transferences or carryovers (Übertragungen) of words and affects. Beyond conscious control, our Besetzungen speak a language of desire inside us, or in our relations with others.

The most revelatory essay in this metaphorical field is ‘‘On the Dynamics of the Transference,’’ which employs the terms Besetzung and Libidobesetzung. Freud argues that transference, when it arises during psychoanalysis, can be enlisted in the service of treatment. He opens by observing that every human being develops a particular cliché in the experience of love. Freud could have called it simply a repetition, but he chooses to frame this peculiarity in the linguistic terms of ‘‘a cliché (or even several), which in the course of life is regularly repeated, newly printed out (abgedruckt).’’ Life follows the literary patterns of a printed and reprinted cliché. Childhood relationships are the prototypes, and adults—like belated authors in literacy tradition—are exposed to the danger of simply reproducing their exemplars.

Freud’s novel method of cure allows the patient to transfer his or her love cliché onto the analyst within the confines of the analytic session. This transference is immediately associated with resistance to the treatment, and so necessitates a shift in the metaphoric texture, from the image of energy transfer to that of libidinal occupation or deployment (Libidoesetzung). Initially, when the patient transfers emotions or linguistic clichés onto the analyst, Freud becomes the object of unexpectedly intense emotional attachments. He strives to remain a blank screen on which the patient’s past is projected and analyzed, but counter-transference threatens to destroy the illusion of neutrality. The cure searches for blocked libido, and in so doing engages in a mutual struggle. The deployed forces of both patient and analyst maneuver to attain their ends: ‘‘Where the analytic research comes upon the withdrawn libido in one of its hiding places, a battle must break out.’’ This battle is highly sexualized, both in its origins and in the metaphors Freud uses to describe it.

The scenario is essentially one in which a man struggles to overcome a woman’s resistance to his sexual advances. The scene of Besetzung thus reverses, for the patient’s initial investment in the noncommitted analyst has become a full-fledged war. Freud elaborates the metaphors of war at the close of his essay: ‘‘This battle (Kampf) between doctor and patient, between intellect and the life of the drives (Triebleben), between recognition and the desire to act (Agierenwollen), plays itself out almost exclusively in connection with the phenomenon of transference.’’ Noting the great difficulties entailed, Freud adds that nevertheless ‘‘on this field the victory must be won.’’

Freud’s great initial discovery, which shocked his collaborator and senior colleague Josef Breuer, concerned the sexual etiology of hysteria. Freud explained neuroses as the consequence of sexual disturbances. If health resembles a freely flowing hydraulic system, illness appears to result from dammed energies. In the complex drama now called psychoanalysis, a neurotic returns to the points of resistance and blockage in order to overcome these obstacles to health.

The libido cannot be freed unless it is first engaged. Hence, after Freud discovers the phenomenon of transference, he enlists its aid in the treatment. From one point of view, therapy begins as does a gambling session in which the house calls to the patron: ‘‘Place your bets!’’ And the patient places more than a monetary fee on Freud’s desk. The serious wager is emotional: the patient makes a bid for love; desire errs. To lose, in this context, is to facilitate a discovery of the mechanisms of erotic error. Pokerfaced, Freud insists that he is merely a blank screen or mirror, the empty illusion onto which the neurotic projects desire, and he proceeds to show that the patient has mistaken the object of love. In Freud’s office, desire comes to learn the unreality of its objects; the repetition of emotions is replaced by analytic working through. Place your bets! Not with any prospect of winning the game, but only to discover that your strategies are insufficient and that the house always wins. Accumulating capital throughout the twentieth century, the house that Freud built has become an increasingly potent institution.

At the start of a psychoanalytic treatment, Freud seems to say: invest in me, bet on me, occupy me, bring your abandoned dreams or hidden wishes, and throw your past loves into the cure. The scene of battle is full of surprises, however, for Freud feigns a weak position in order to provoke an effort at conquest. From a position of illusory weakness, Freud turns the tide of the battle, craftily redirecting the patient’s deployments back toward their source. After Freud conquers the patient’s heart, he points the subdued psyche to the hidden cause of its ignominious defeat. The patient is necessarily the loser—unless a victory over the past ensues.

The repressed paradigm is defeat at the hands of parental figures. Suddenly Freud urges a revolutionary alliance, a joint overthrow of the mother country (or Vaterland). Psychoanalysis makes forgotten loves actual, ‘‘for ultimately no one can be slain in absentia or in effigy.’’ This concluding metaphor oddly typifies psychoanalytic treatment, because the distinction between real and imaginary slaughter does not obviously correspond to the difference between repeating and working through. Analysis does, nevertheless, attempt to ‘‘slay’’ parental figures in their absence. Freud suggests that the transference is necessary in order to reawaken slumbering affects that may then be re-educated. Continuing the prior images, a part of the patient appears to capitulate; the working through of repressed libido is figured as a murder. At best, a memory trace of the parental cliché has been destroyed, freeing the repressed energies for new investment. But if the cure appropriates and destroys the patient’s love cliché, how can this mangled narrative be replaced? Like a totalitarian regime, psychoanalysis succeeds when it rewrites the history of its subjects, and when the conqueror convinces the conquered that figurative seduction is beneficial.

Out of the metaphorical battles between Freud and his patients arise questions concerning the relationship between psychoanalysis and power. Despite his efforts to maintain scientific neutrality, Freud’s methods evidently involve him in rather irregular maneuvers. The founder of psychoanalysis not only engaged in symbolic battles with his patients; he also fought endlessly against his rebellious disciples, and in so doing he expressed his ambition to remain the absolute father of his figurative children.

Freud most explicitly discusses power and ambition when he interprets a minimal dream of ‘‘R.’’ that also raises issues concerning the Jewish condition. His preparatory account refers to Jewish doctors in Vienna who have been denied the title of Professor because of ‘‘denominational considerations.’’ Prior to the dream, Freud writes, he was nominated for this title, but the experience of his senior colleagues led him to fear the worst. Freud observes somewhat irrelevantly that he is, as far as he knows, ‘‘not ambitious.’’ Yet his interpretation of the dream of R. centers around a mixture of positive and negative feelings, tenderness and hostility, toward this colleague. By distortion into its opposite, the latent hostility is transformed into manifest tenderness.

Freud explains this dream distortion by analogy with the social situation of two people in which ‘‘the first possesses a certain power, and the second must show respect because of the power.’’ He observes that this condition is rather the rule than the exception: ‘‘The politeness which I exercise every day is in large part such a dissimulation; when I interpret my dreams for the reader, I am obliged to make such distortions.’’ Ambition and hostility seethe beneath the surface of Freud’s scientific persona; Freud conceives dream distortions on the model of social pretenses. Freud also compares the dream work to the activity of a political writer, who ‘‘has to tell unpleasant truths to those in power,’’ and disguises his opinions to escape censorship.

Freud suggests that every individual psyche operates as does a political regime. Long before writing his metapsychological essays on the tripartite psyche, Freud postulates the efficacy of distinct mental powers: ‘‘The first forms the wish that is expressed in the dream, while the second exercises censorship on the dream wish and through this censorship forces a distortion of its expression.’’ The self internalizes social hierarchies that assure a disparity between its deepest intentions and manifest expressions.

Freud relates a revealing episode of humiliation at a train station. That Freud was sensitive to such experiences is evident from his memory of an affront to his father—as a Jew. A certain Count Thun haughtily passes him on the platform while traveling to see the kaiser. Freud denies that he envies the count, for he is on vacation and pleasantly conceives himself to be the real Count Nichtsthun (‘‘Do-Nothing’’ ). Yet Freud is preoccupied by the evident social hierarchies. Full of ‘‘revolutionary thoughts’’ that oppose social divisions, Freud resolves to protest any signs of favoritism. In fact, a certain government official does claim a half-price, first-class seat, and Freud receives an inferior compartment without a lavatory. Freud’s uneasy reactions, and the dreams that result, show the signifi- cance of the issues involved in this experience. Social hierarchy has found its way into the recesses of the psyche, and this anecdote might be read as an allegory of tensions within Freud the individual. Freud the interpreter cannot be entirely separated from Freud the seducer. Janus-faced, he looks back in time with a pretense to uncovering past causes that explain the meaning of dreams; through transferences and free associations, he simultaneously engages the dreamer’s imagination in ways that project toward future possibilities. Provoked by Freud, the dreamer invents variations on the dream text. The transference ensures that, to some extent, Freud’s interpretation of these inventions will be realized or enacted.

The recognition that Freud sometimes employed self-fulfilling prophecies does not disqualify his results. Medical standards forced him to de-emphasize this aspect of the analysis, at least in his public statements; he knew that transference was the strongest ‘‘weapon’’ of cure, and had good reason to exploit the power of his interpretive influence. At the same time—to meet the expectations of scientific method—he dissimulated this influence. His ancient precursors provided the prophetic model he felt obliged to reject, since he was closer to them in practice, if not in theory, than he could admit.

Freud uncovers the psychological and rhetorical mechanisms that facilitate thematic awareness. Neither themes nor figures, taken alone, constitute his texts; meaning arises out of the interaction between manifest and latent elements. Freud’s discussions themselves show distortions analogous to those of the dream work: his examples, allusions, reversals, qualifications, denials, censorships, revisions, metaphors, and analogies all resemble the processes he discusses. This recognition does not justify a moralistic critique. Freud’s diction is unusual only in its eloquence; as with all authors, the rhetoric of his manifest contents appears to distort and recast elusive, ‘‘authentic’’ meanings. Authenticity and literal meaning are retrospective illusions fostered by an awareness of tropes and transferences.

Psychoanalysts have pragmatic reasons for borrowing and systematizing certain Freudian concepts while revising and rejecting others, but Freud discouraged his followers from conceiving psychoanalysis as a system. A literary approach takes Freud at his word, or takes seriously the ways in which his words signify, by considering the varied forms of his theories, figures, disavowals, and concealed polemics. According to Freud, the tensions expressed by symptoms, slips of the pen or tongue, and transferences characterize everyday life. To read Freud as Freud read is to observe the distortions or disfigurements that are essential to expression and to discern the movement of texts rather than the congealed meanings they seem to produce. This undertaking runs counter to the forms of psychoanalytic practice that demand routines and standardization: while Freud strives to develop scientific techniques, he also associates dream interpretation with the unpredictable methods of art criticism.

The Interpretation of Dreams is at once a treatise, an episodic novel, and a collection of case studies in which theories, confessions, and fantasies compete. Applied to his own texts, Freud’s methods of dream interpretation reveal a system in flux, distorted by condensations, displacements, graphic illustrations, and revisions. Freud searches for concealed wishes, and his own writings acknowledge moments of censorship that veil hidden meanings. As the manifest content of a dream is no random husk behind which the kernel of meaning may be found, however, so Freud’s particular dream examples, and the poetic structures of his work, are significant.

Freud’s psychological theories are inseparable from the verbal texture of his essays. Recent studies observe some flagrant distortions that have resulted from translation of Freud into English. Yet the present goal is not prescriptive, because no fully adequate translation of Freud into another language is possible. Freud himself anticipated the difficulties that would beset the translator of The Interpretation of Dreams. Rather than work toward a better English version of Freud’s texts, we may modestly observe linguistic pathways through which his texts operate. The metaphorical range of Freud’s ideas cannot be controlled or reduced to a univocal system; at best, the interpreter attends to meaning on multiple registers.

Critics of Freud have repeatedly questioned the scientific status of psychoanalysis. They argue that Freud fails to impose the highest experimental standards upon his nascent science; some current researchers seek to show that psychoanalytic ideas may be verified or falsified, at the same time that other authors emphasize the necessarily speculative, unprovable character of psychoanalytic theory. If we accept the inevitability of figuration, however, there is less reason to be dissatisfied with Freud’s procedures. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is consequently more a book about interpretation than it is about dreams. According to his theories, repression and the concomitant disguise necessitate interpretations that return to the hidden form of the distorted dream contents.

The interpreter of Freud’s text can hardly extract fixed theses: as the dream work is essential to the dream, rhetorical devices are essential to the dream book. The Interpretation of Dreams tells elaborate stories toward an autobiography of its author, in which the demands of scientist and novelist contend. Beyond conscious control, rhetoric governs the psyche and its textual presentation. The operations of the distorting dream work are analogous to figures of speech. What lies beyond, in the textual unconscious? In a footnote, Freud cites James Sully’s image of the dream as a palimpsest that ‘‘discloses beneath its worthless surface-characters traces of an old and precious communication’’ (quoted in English and italicized by Freud). Freud’s own writings on dreams are palimpsests over ancient sources.

Source: Ken Frieden, ‘‘Interpreter and Seducer,’’ in Freud’s Dream of Interpretation, State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. 37–46.

Critical Responses to Freud's Dream Interpretation

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Charles Rycroft explains his use of the word ‘‘innocence’’ in the title of his The Innocence of Dreams as a reference to ‘‘the idea that dreams back knowingness, display an indifference to received categories, and have a core which cannot but be sincere and is uncontaminated by the self-conscious will.’’ Such an explanation is itself innocent and hardly accounts for the polemical force of the title, since the book is largely written against Freud where Freud is strongest, in the interpretation of dreams. The actual rhetorical force of Rycroft’s title is that it contains an implicit interpretation of Freudian theory, in effect making the title of what Freud called the ‘‘Dream Book’’ into The Guilt of Dreams. So many years after the publication of Die Traumdeutung (1900), it is an admirable act of audacity for an experienced psychoanalyst like Rycroft to dissent so completely from the Freudian theory of dream interpretation. But whether Rycroft has much more than audacity to offer in this book is a question that thoughtful readers must decide by returning to the text of Freud. That impetus to return, like analytic audacity, has its own value, and also must be judged a service that Rycroft has helped perform.

These are still the days, in many critical circles, of ‘‘French Freud,’’ meaning Jacques Lacan and his influence. Lacan and his admirers assert continuously that the principal virtue of Lacan is that he has gone back to the problematics of a serious reading of Freud’s text as text. Whether one credits this assertion, or takes precisely the contrary view with Richard Wollheim, who insists that Lacan gives us psycholinguistics and not Freud’s psychoanalysis, the issue is clearly one of accurately reading Freud. Rycroft takes no part in this debate, but I fear that his performance as a reader of Freud will encourage the disciples of Lacan. Unlike Wollheim, whose Sigmund Freud (1971) is a close and formidable reading, and unlike Philip Rieff in this country, Rycroft gives us an account of Freud that I am compelled to judge as a weak misreading. My judgment, if correct, will not remove all value from Rycroft’s book, since its constructive aspect stems not so much from his argument against what Freud truly never said as it does from his own experience as an analyst.

Rycroft starts out by setting himself against the analogical method that is always central to Freud’s work. So Rycroft argues: ‘‘Freud maintained that dreams are neurotic symptoms or, to be more precise, are analogous to neurotic symptoms.’’ This is to begin by missing a crucial point, precisely stated by Rieff in Freud: The Mind of The Moralist:

The inclusiveness of Freud’s idea of a symptom should be kept in mind: ultimately all action is symptomatic. There are ‘‘normal’’ symptoms, like the dream, as well as somatic symptoms like a facial tic or a paralyzed leg.

Rycroft believes that for Freud ‘‘dreams and neurotic symptoms betoken failures of repression.’’ Freud’s largest actual statement about dreams has a different emphasis: ‘‘a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish.’’ Though Rycroft does not say so, I suspect that his reaction away from Freud on dreams begins with his distaste for the crisis-like aspect of The Interpretation of Dreams, which seems to me the book’s most literary quality. The crisis for Freud was double, involving both the death of his father and the agonistic relationship with Fliess. Doubtless Freud’s greatest work pays a price in darkened knowledge because of its origin in Freud’s path-breaking self-analysis. Freud’s own dreams became for him ‘‘normal’’ occurrences of what in others he would have judged to be the ‘‘psychopathological.’’ It can be argued against Freud that the dream need not have been the inevitable paradigm of hallucination, but though the choice was arbitrary, it was analogically workable. Most powerful interpretive models tend to be arbitrary in their origins, but become inescapable in later interpretive traditions. It was for Freud that dream-interpretation proved the royal road to the Unconscious. Coming after Freud, we inherit his insight at the expense of his dominance over us.

Rycroft’s fundamental dissent from this dominance comes in his account of the Primary and Secondary Processes, an account which is again not Freud’s own. But rather than contrast each of Rycroft’s summaries with the actual Freudian text, a wearisome process, I advance to Rycroft’s list of the four defects he finds in the Freudian relation of Primary Process to dreaming. These are:

1) Since everyone dreams, Freud implicitly argues that everyone is neurotic.

2) To assume that acquiring the capacity for rational or Secondary Process thinking depends on repression of the Primary Process ‘‘implies that human beings enter the world totally unadapted to meet it, an inherently improbable assumption.’’

3) By supposedly relating imagination and creative activity to the Primary Process, Freud had to characterize them as ‘‘in principle neurotic, regressive and symptom-like.’’

4) Freud’s formulations belong to his ‘‘mechanistic assumption that the mind is a mental apparatus within which energy circulates. . . . Unfortunately, however, we really have no idea what mental energy is or what the concept means.’’

Of Rycroft’s four objections, the first has been met already by Rieff’s accurate account of Freud’s idea of a symptom. The second is indeed Freud’s tragic premise, and ultimately explains why there is a civil war in the human psyche, so that the Unconscious and not nature or the state is what most inescapably threatens each of us. The third, to which I will return later, is wholly inadequate to Freud’s quite troubled and finally evasive view of art. The fourth begins by accusing Freud of a reductionism that he proudly espoused and then goes on to a complaint that Freud met quite cheerfully by acknowledging that his theory of drives was the necessary mythology that psychoanalysis had to exploit. To sum up Rycroft’s objections, their common element is an inability to accept what is most basic in Freud’s theories of the mind, which means that Rycroft has become another ‘‘humanistic’’ revisionist of Freud, or most simply, if Rycroft is still a psychoanalyst, then Freud was something else.

If I myself were to criticize Freud’s theories of dream-interpretation, I would start with what seems to me his most striking notion about dream-thought, which is that such thought is truly marked by clarity, although its clarity has been repressed. For Freud, the manifest ‘‘text’’ of the dream, its telling by the patient to the analyst, carries the stigma of being the work of the Unconscious, but the ‘‘latent’’ content or true significance of the dream is itself not Primary but Secondary Process labor. Something Secondary and rational has been repressed, and the work of analytical interpretation undoes the repression and yields a clear account of a ‘‘normal’’ thought. Jung scorned the Freudian idea here in both respects. For Jung, the true thought at the origin of the dream and its true interpretation must both come up out of the Primal or Gnostic Abyss of a truly creative Unconscious. Though I accept Freud and not Jung on dreams, there is little doubt but that Jung shows more affection for dreams than for their interpretations, whereas what delights Freud is what he can make out of dreams. It is in this rather ironic sense that Rycroft actually teaches ‘‘the innocence of dreams.’’

Wollheim, who seems to me as faithful an expositor as Freud could find, usefully emphasizes that the element of wish in dreams is not expressed by dreams, and so Freud was able to posit what he called the dream-work as something that disguised wish. This must mean that wish is repressed before it gets into the dream. Such a conclusion also serves to devalue dreams and reminds us again that the Freudian Unconscious is a deliberate reduction of the rich, dark Abyss of the ancient (and now Jungian) Unconscious.

What gives Freud the interpretive self-confidence to so reduce dreams, and to insist so mercilessly that dream-thought, as opposed to dreamwork, is at one with his own rationalizing interpretations? Part of the answer, and another vulnerable aspect of Freudian procedure, is that Freud’s dreamtext for interpretation is partly written by Freud himself, since it is a version of dream that emerges from the analytic session. This means that it is subject to the dynamics of the transference, and so is a telling that takes place within the context of the analyst’s authority.

Rieff gallantly attempts to rescue the dream from the full consequences of Freud’s authority by seeing every dreamer as a natural poet and intellectual precisely in the effort to outwit his interpreter, the force of culture as personified in Freud: ‘‘The chief quality of the dream as interpreted is not so much its meaning as the elaborateness of its meaningful disguises.’’ Upon this, two observations: first, that Freud would have disagreed with Rieff here, though my own sympathies are with Rieff, and second, it is exactly this aspect of Freudian interpretation that partly justifies Lacan. If there is so large a gap between the elaborations of manifest content and the simplicity of latent content, then dreams (in their Freudian context of the transference) provoke the Lacanian strong misreading of the priority of signifier over signified or the contrast between rich figuration and poverty-stricken meaning. It is worth recalling that Rieff anticipated many of the major insights of the Lacanian school and indeed set their pattern when he remarked: ‘‘In radical opposition to constitutional psychology, Freud puts language before body.’’

Rycroft would have profited by pondering Rieff again before he too easily dismissed the cunning intensities of Freudian dream-interpretation. Freud characteristically condemns the dream as an unfaithful translation of the dream-thoughts, and so ‘‘a highly incomplete and fragmentary version of them.’’ Rieff invokes Hazlitt, with his dictum that ‘‘poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms, feelings as they suggest other feelings.’’ Commenting upon this as analogue to Freud, Rieff catches the essential agonistic relationship between Freud and the dream:

Assuming a dream never means what it says, that it is always a substitute for something else which cannot be said and leads to further associations which are in themselves substitutes, Freud may compliment a dream so far as to call it an ‘‘exceptionally clever dream production.’’ But this is the compliment paid by a gracious antagonist; Freud treated a dream as an opponent in the work of interpretation, trying by its cleverness to outwit the interpreter.

This means that a dream, however elaborate, is only a substitute for a truer text, indeed an interpretive substitute and so particularly suspect. A dream, in the Freudian view, is thus a belated text, an inadequate commentary upon a missing poem. Its plot is probably irrelevant; what matters is some protruding element, some image that seems hardly to belong to the text. In this sense, Freud is a legitimate father to Lacan and Derrida, with their deconstructions of the drive, except that he would have urged them to the abysses of the dream and not of his own texts.

Rycroft, once he has moved on from Freud to various types of dreams, their relations to sleep, and to cultural patterns, transcends the drubbing I have been administering. This makes me wish he had not taken on Freud, but that is the burden of the writing psychoanalyst, who is tempted to a battle he is doomed to lose. Rycroft is drily persuasive when he writes that neither he nor anyone he has known seems to have had what Ernest Jones would classify as a true nightmare, the criteria of Jones’s On the Nightmare (1910) being too severe for mere reality to satisfy. Similarly, Rycroft is able to use the later Freud against the author of The Interpretation of Dreams on the difficult issue of anxious dreams. Anxiety is a subject by which Rycroft’s intellect is kindled, and he makes an original contribution (at least to me) when he shows that it is possible to dream about anxiety without necessarily having a dream that itself causes anxiety. I wish he had done more, in this book, to demonstrate that Freud’s later modifications of his theories of defense and anxiety render his ideas on dreams less valid or stimulating.

Freud is a weaker antagonist on the subject of sleep and the physiology of dreams, which seems to me Rycroft’s best chapter. Freud was not much interested in sleep, and he assumed that the function of the dream was just to keep the dreamer from waking. Here Rycroft has the universal advantage of all latecomers: more facts. Freud did not know that there was normal sleep, with several depths, and also paradoxical sleep, during which the sleeper in some ways hovers near wakefulness. Evidently most dreams, perhaps even all, take place during paradoxical sleep, which seems to be as much a necessity as normal sleep. Rycroft will not go so far as to say we sleep in order to dream, but he goes back to the great neurologist Hughlings Jackson (died 1911) who thought that sleep both got rid of the previous day’s useless memories and consolidated the necessary ones, probably during dreamless sleep. If Jackson yet proves to be correct, then one function of dreams is quite unlike anything Freud conceived, since without dreams we would be burdened by more data than we could bear.

In a witty, brief penultimate chapter, Rycroft offers a reprise, saying that the manifest content of his book is his attempt to go back beyond Freud (and Jung) to what he calls the traditional, literary view of dreams, with the difference of holding on to certain Freudian ideas, particularly body symbolism in dream imagery and the genetic inheritance of the family romance. The latent theme of the book then would have to be, as he says, the question of the origin of creative or imaginative energy. This is the subject of Rycroft’s final chapter, but unfortunately there is little here that is either new or important. Rycroft falls back upon unanalyzed Coleridgean Imagination and undiscussed Keatsian negative capability, while he largely dismisses Freud upon art and artists. Psychoesthetics is a still inchoate field, but Rycroft seems to know nothing of it, whether British, American, or French.

I conclude, in a coda, by suggesting what I wish Rycroft had discussed, if only he had felt more respect for the Freudian achievement in dream interpretation. Rieff’s assertion that psychoanalysis parodies the traditions of religious hermeneutics is still valid and provocative. But psychoanalysis is also a reductive parody of poetry, which may be another way of saying that poetry has always been a transcendental kind of psychoanalysis, a mode marked by patterns of transference and counter-transference, or of influence and in anxieties. Freud spoke truly (and also somewhat anxiously) in his repeated admissions that the poets had been there before him. Certainly Lacan, at his rare best, gives us what the poets have given more fully and freely. Dreams, like psychoanalysis, parody and reduce poems, if we follow Freud by treating dreams in terms of their latent content or ‘‘meaning.’’ But dreams, in their manifest content, in plot and imagery, share in the poetic elements that tend to defy reduction and reductiveness.

Freud wanted and needed his reductions, his quest being scientific and therapeutic. As a therapeutic diviner of dreams he is beyond all competition, ancient and modern, and this more because of than in spite of his interpretive overconfidence. But dreams are not poems, not even bad poems, and Freud was too wary to expend his formidable energies in reducing poems. Rycroft has an honorable nostalgia for treating dreams with a more literary respect than Freud accorded them. It would be more interesting to accept Freud’s voluntary limitation and then to see just what kind of an enabling act was constituted by this pragmatic disrespect for dreams. Beyond this acceptance, and this seeing, might come a fresh awareness of the multiple ways in which poetry and psychoanalysis converge and yet differ as modes of interpretation. Freud found his peers in the poets because of their power of interpretation, but his aims were not compatible with the largest ambitions of poetry, as I think he came to understand.

Source: Harold Bloom, Introduction, in Sigmund Freud’s ‘‘The Interpretation of Dreams,’’ edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 1–7.

An Analysis of Freud's Study of Dreams

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4798

I shall begin with Freud’s study of dreams, which is in many ways the most distinctive and the most remarkable single element in his vast survey of the mind. It is the topic of his most important work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which, besides being what its title indicates, is also a work of confession, in that Freud committed to its pages many of the findings of his self-analysis. And Freud continued to feel a special attachment to dream-interpretation, both for the exactness of its findings and for the precious evidence it provided for the deeper workings of the mind in normality and abnormality alike. The view expressed in the maxim ‘‘The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’’ is one from which he never wavered.

Let us start with the most general statement about dreams, which is repeated with slight variations at several places: ‘‘A dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish.’’ One feature of this thesis, which calls for immediate comment, can best be brought out by considering an objection to it, now standard: If the wish that finds fulfillment in a dream is invariably disguised, how can we tell of its existence? Or, How can we tell that there is disguise, unless we know of the existence of the wish and what it is? The point that this objection effectively makes is that the thesis falls into parts—the assignment of a fulfilled wish to each dream, and the predication of disguise or concealment of that wish—and, consequently, it insists that there should be separate evidence for each of the two parts of the theory. I shall respect the objection, or its implicit point, to the extent of expounding the two parts of the thesis successively.

First, then, that dreams are wish-fulfillments. This, we can see, is itself a composite thesis: for it traces dreams to wishes, and it asserts that these wishes belong to the primary process. They belong, that is, to that mode of mental functioning within which, characteristically, no distinction is observed between a desire and its satisfaction—indeed, even to use these terms is perhaps anachronistic, in that as yet the difference has not manifested itself. For the wisher the experience is unitary, and, in consequence, dreams cannot be said merely to express a wish, for, wherever the wish belongs to the content of the dream, so also does the fulfillment of the wish. ‘‘A dream does not simply give expression to a thought, but represents the wish fulfilled as a hallucinatory experience.’’ And Freud goes on to say that if the wish ‘‘I should like to go on the lake’’ instigates a dream, the dream has for its content ‘‘I am going on the lake.’’

Freud at various stages considered the objection that not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, and that surely some derive from other types of mental state; the most obvious counter-examples being anxiety dreams. But, with minor exceptions, Freud held to the universality of his thesis, and he was at pains to point out that in every case brought against it there is either an inadequate analysis of the dream or an inadequate conception of the wish. It was in development of the second point—the first we shall have to take up at greater length—that Freud was led to make a distinction in Lecture 14 of the Introductory Lectures. ‘‘No doubt,’’ he wrote,

a wish-fulfilment must bring pleasure; but the question then arises ‘‘To whom?’’ To the person who has the wish, of course. But, as we know, a dreamer’s relation to his wishes is a quite peculiar one. He repudiates them and censors them—he has no liking for them, in short.

Freud then went on to distinguish between two separate people amalgamated in the dreamer, one of whom has the wish whereas the other rejects it, and it is only the former who is satisfied. Freud’s distinction could be made, less dramatically, as one not between two different people, but between two different roles—the man insofar as he has the wish, and the man insofar as he rejects it; or, weaker still, we could contrast the satisfaction of the man and the satisfaction of the wish; and the point would hold. A wish can be satisfied, even though the man who has it isn’t. Of course, we might press for an explanation why this was so, and the answer in the case of dreams is obviously connected with the deviance of wish or its discrepancy from the man’s other wishes. It is no gross anticipation of Freud’s argument to say that we are here approaching—though now from the other side, from consideration of its consequences, not its causes—the issue of the ‘‘incompatible’’ idea with which Freud had been struggling since the first drafts for the ‘‘Preliminary Communication.’’ For the wish that, when satisfied, leaves the wisher unsatisfied is ‘‘incompatible.’’

Secondly, the wishes expressed in dreams are disguised. Here we come to a central notion of Freud’s, that of the dream-work. To understand this notion, we must first understand a distinction upon which it rests and which he claimed was always to some degree or other misconceived by his critics: that between the ‘‘manifest content’’ and the ‘‘latent content’’ of the dream. The manifest content is that which we experience or remember; it constitutes the subject of the dream report. The latent content is that which gives the dream its sense or meaning: it is sometimes called the ‘‘dream-thoughts,’’ where these are contrasted with the dream content. On the distinction two points are to be observed. First, the dream-thoughts are not restricted to the wish that instigates the dream. Rather they include the whole setting or context of the wish. Secondly, the distinction between manifest and latent content is a functional distinction: that is, it refers to the role the thoughts play, so that the possibility is open that the manifest and the latent contents may coincide.

Once this distinction is clear, the dream-work may then be regarded as the process, or piece of mental activity, by which the dream-thoughts are converted or transcribed into the dream content. Note ‘‘dream-thoughts’’: for it is crucial to Freud’s conception of the dream that the latent content of the dream goes piecemeal, element by element, into the manifest content, inside which only a halfhearted attempt is made to mold it into a unity. For this reason a metaphor which it seems natural to invoke in this context, and which Freud himself employed, that of translation from one language to another, is inexact. For the dream lacks that which is most characteristic of a language: grammar, or structure. A more appropriate comparison that Freud makes is to the rebus, or picture puzzle, in which pictorial elements, words, letters of the alphabet appear side by side and it is only by replacing each element with a syllable or word that sense can be made of the whole.

There are four activities in which the dreamwork consists: condensation, displacement, representation (or consideration of representability), and secondary revision. On whether the last properly forms part of the dream-work Freud was later to have his doubts. Each of these activities is, more or less, explained by its name.

Condensation is exemplified in the fact that ‘‘the manifest dream has a smaller content than the latent one,’’ or, more exactly, that this abbreviation is achieved without omission. Freud lists various results of condensation—such as the preference given to items that occur several times over in the dream-thoughts, and the formation of composite or intermediate figures. But condensation is seen at its clearest in the handling of words or names, which makes it, from an expository point of view, peculiarly vulnerable in translation. It is condensation that prevents there being any neat one-one correspondence between the elements of the manifest content and those of the latent content. And it is also condensation that permits a more general feature of the dream: that is, overdetermination, according to which, for any given manifest content, there can be more than one latent content, or any one dream can express several quite separate wishes.

By ‘‘displacement’’—or ‘‘transference’’ as Freud sometimes called it in the early years, before the word took on its technical sense in psychoanalytic theory—Freud meant two distinct but related processes. One is that whereby the dream is differently ‘‘centered’’ from the dream-thoughts, so that it does not reflect the relative importance of those thoughts. The other is that whereby elements in the dream do duty for elements in the dream-thoughts, the substitution being in accordance with a chain of association. Displacement is peculiarly connected with the disguise that the dream wears.

The third process, of representation, is the transposition of thoughts into imagery. Freud, in one of his many apt analogies, compared the diffi- culty under which the dream labors as a representational device to the limitations that, according to classical aesthetic theory, are inherent in the plastic arts of painting and sculpture in contrast to poetry, and he revealed the ingenuity with which the dream-work tries to incorporate the most recalcitrant or abstract material. Freud said—and it may sound surprising—that this third process is ‘‘psychologically the most interesting.’’ Possibly what he had in mind is the way in which the plasticity of dreams links them to the prototype of the primary process: the hallucinatory experience of satisfaction.

The processes of condensation and displacement can be economically illustrated from the so-called ‘‘Autodidasker’’ dream from Freud’s own experience. One evening Freud’s wife, who had been reading some stories which he had given her, by J. J. David, an Austrian writer and a friend of Freud’s brother, told him how moved she had been by one of them about a man of great talents who went to the bad: and she then went on, after a discussion of the talents their children might have, to express the wish that a similar fate would not be theirs. Freud reassured her, and talked of the advantages of a good upbringing. That night he had a dream in which two wishes were expressed: one for his son’s future, and the other that his still unmarried brother, Alexander, might have a happy domestic life—and both wishes are represented as fulfilled. The dream fell into two distinct parts. The first consisted simply in the made-up word ‘‘Autodidasker.’’ The second was the reproduction of a phantasy recently entertained to the effect that the next time Freud saw a colleague of his, Professor N., he would say, ‘‘The patient about whose condition I consulted you recently is in fact only suffering from a neurosis, just as you suspected.’’

Let us now see how the dream-thoughts that Freud somehow collected are transposed into the dream content by the means we have been considering. As to the dream-thoughts Freud enumerated the following: an author; a good upbringing; Breslau, as a place where a friend of Freud’s who had married had gone to live; then the names of two men, both of whom lived in Breslau and who had come to a bad end through women—Lasker, who died of syphilis, and Lassalle, killed in a duel; a novel of Zola’s, L’Oeuvre, in which the author introduces himself, with his name ingeniously altered, as a happily married character; and the desire, pertaining to both wishes, that Freud might be proved wrong in his fears. The last thought is expressed fairly directly in the second part of the dream, where it is shown as fulfilled—for Freud is apologizing. The other thoughts are all crammed into the first or prefatory part of the dream. Author, Lasker, and Lassalle figure fairly evidently inside ‘‘Autodidasker.’’ A good upbringing is represented through its opposite, i.e., ‘‘autodidact.’’ L’Oeuvre appears more obliquely, in that the transformation, in the book, of Zola’s name into ‘‘Sandoz’’ exhibits a parallel to that of ‘‘Alex(ander)’’ into ‘‘Autodidasker’’—in both cases an anagram of the original is buried at the end of the substitute name, which contains a prefix for disguise.

If this dream very well illustrates the processes of condensation and displacement in action—indeed, in joint action—the third element in dream-work is present to a degree so peculiarly low as to elicit comment from Freud. To illustrate visual representation, I shall follow Freud and cite specific details from dreams. So, a man dreams that he is an officer sitting at table opposite the Emperor: and this represents his putting himself in opposition to his father. Or a woman dreams that she is walking with two little girls whose ages differ by fifteen months; and this represents the fact that two traumatic events of childhood, of which she is dreaming, were fifteen months apart.

As to secondary revision, this is the attempt by the mind to order, to revise, to supplement the contents of the dream so as to make an acceptable or intelligible whole. Even in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud distinguished this factor from the rest of the dream-work by pointing out that it makes no new contribution to the dream in the way of representing dream-thoughts not otherwise included, and he suggested that it should be attributed to the very psychic agency that the dream is otherwise intended to evade. In the encyclopedia article of 1922 entitled ‘‘Psycho-analysis,’’ Freud definitely excluded secondary revision from the dream-work.

Freud insisted that the dream-work is confined to these three (or four) processes. Other activities, which appear to take place in dreams—mathematical calculations, or the making of a speech—are simply to be regarded as items or elements that constitute the content of the dream. In reporting them, we report not what we did, but what we dreamt of. For in a dream we do not do things, we only dream of doing them.

At this stage, I should perhaps introduce a topic mentioned only briefly in the original text of The Interpretation of Dreams but which figured increasingly in later editions, and which is widely assumed to be central to Freud’s theory of the dream. I refer to the symbolism according to which there are certain invariants in dream representations so that certain basic thoughts or preoccupations find a regular form of expression: for instance, the parents are represented by kings and queens; the penis by sticks, tree trunks, umbrellas, nail files, or long, sharp weapons; the womb by boxes, cupboards, ovens, or hollow objects like ships. In one way, such symbolism must be classified with the dream-work, since it provides a transition from the latent to manifest content; yet in another way it must be contrasted to it, precisely because it reduces the element of work on the part of the dreamer. It is a corollary of this last point that, where symbolism is employed, the dreamer is unable to associate to his dream. Furthermore, Freud pointed out that, insofar as dream symbolism is found plausible, it exhibits a capacity of the mind more general than the phenomenon of dreaming. In the Introductory Lectures Freud spoke of an ‘‘ancient but extinct mode of expression’’ or ‘‘a primal language’’ which legitimizes the occurrence of symbols in dreams: seemingly an old idea with Freud, which we first catch sight of in a letter to Fliess of 1897, where he talks of a new subject, ‘‘psychomythology.’’ But in the massive application of symbolism to dream interpretation it would seem that Freud was heavily influenced by a pupil later to go astray, Wilhelm Stekel.

So much for the nature of the dream-work. Two questions now arise, Why is the dream-work necessary? and, Are any limits imposed upon its scope?—of which the first is really about the latent content of the dream and the second about the manifest content.

In answer to the first question, Freud said that the dream-work is necessary because the wish that finds expression in the dream is invariably a repressed wish. In a footnote added in 1909, Freud said that ‘‘the kernel of my theory’’ lies in the ‘‘derivation of dream-distortion from the censorship.’’ Two other characterizations of the dream-wish—that it is infantile, and that it is generally (though not always) sexual—are intimately connected with this thesis, but at the time that Freud was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, he was not yet in a position to establish the connections.

In answer to the second question, Freud said that the material for the dream comes from varying sources, and in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams he classified them: recent and indifferent events, infantile experiences, somatic needs, and the repertoire of what Freud called ‘‘typical dreams’’—dreams of flying and falling, of being naked, of examinations, of the death of loved ones. But Freud laid particular weight on the first of these sources. Indeed, he committed himself to the thesis that every dream contains ‘‘a repetition of a recent impression of the previous day.’’ The impression itself may have been significant or it may have been indifferent—where significance and indifference mean, respectively, belonging or not belonging to the latent content of the dream.

Putting together the answers to these last two questions, we may now follow Freud in reconstructing the immediate history of the dream. There is a persisting repressed wish, which forms the motive behind the dream. In the course of the day, this wish comes into contact, or forms an association, with a thought or train of thought. This thought has some energy attached to it, independently of this contact, through not having as yet been ‘‘worked over’’: hence the phrase, the ‘‘residues of the day.’’ The upshot is that the thought—or an association to it—is revived in sleep, as the proxy of the wish.

The question that remains to be asked about this alliance is, Why should it assert itself while we are asleep? The answer is not that sleep is peculiarly well-disposed to the alliance, but that it prefers it to any more naked version of the same forces. If the wish did not express itself in the disguise of the dream, it would disturb sleep. And so we come to the overall function of dreams: they are ‘‘the guardians of sleep.’’

I now want to ask, What is the evidence for the Freudian theory of dreams? I have already argued that we require separate evidence for the two parts of the theory—for the ascription of dreams to wishes, and for the characterization of the wishes as disguised.

The first piece of evidence comes to us just because the thesis that the wishes involved are disguised admits of a few exceptions. There are dreams that directly express wishes. Such dreams, which Freud referred to in The Interpretation of Dreams for their evidential value and to which he devoted a whole lecture in the Introductory Lectures, are commonest among children. Freud cited the story of his daughter, then nineteen-months-old, who, after an attack of vomiting, had spent the day without food and in her sleep called out, ‘‘Anna Fweud, stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pudden.’’ At this time the little girl used to use her own name to express the idea of taking possession of something. Undisguised dreams also occur to people subjected to extreme privation, and Freud quoted from the explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, who tells how on an Antarctic expedition his men would dream of food and drink in abundance, of tobacco piled up in mountains, of a ship arriving in full sail, or of a letter delivered after a long delay for which the postman apologized.

Turning to the great majority of dreams which do not overtly express wishes, Freud adduced evidence to show that these dreams are disguises. The evidence is that we can, i.e., we have a capacity to, undisguise them. In the majority of cases, we can produce associations to each element in the dream in turn, and these associations, after running for a certain while, will terminate on a point that seems natural. Here Freud is using as evidence something he had already used in therapy as a method of collecting evidence; for in therapy he had used the associations themselves, here he is using the fact that such associations are forthcoming. This capacity, Freud argues, finds additional support in the thesis of psychic determinism (which, as we have seen, was equivalent for Freud to a commitment to science), and also in the word-association experiments devised by Wundt and taken up in Zurich by Bleuler and Jung, which constituted ‘‘the first bridge from experimental psychology to psycho-analysis.’’ Of course, the appeal to association as establishing the existence of a disguised thought instigating the dream is plausible only if we already accept the far more general assumption that a man may know something, or something about himself, without knowing that he knows it: a point which Freud thought was proved beyond doubt by hypnosis and hypnotic suggestion.

That the process of association should sometimes run into difficulty is no argument against its evidential value. For if disguise has been found necessary, should we not expect the process of removing it to be attended with difficulty? Indeed, if no difficulty were encountered, disguise would be inexplicable.

If we now assume that dreams are disguises and that they can be undisguised along paths of association, and we then proceed to undisguise them—or ‘‘interpret’’ them, as the activity is usually called— we find that we are led to a wish whose existence can be independently established. Alternatively, if association is not forthcoming, though there is evidently disguise, and we proceed to interpret the dreams as examples of primal symbolism, we once again find ourselves led to wishes that are independently verifiable. This is the third piece of support that the theory receives. A related argument starts from the character of the wishes that dreams express. Given that they are, as Freud tersely put it, ‘‘evil,’’ by which he meant evil in our estimation, it is only to be expected that they should find expression in a disguised form. Neither of these last two arguments, it should be pointed out, offends against the evidential requirement that the two parts of the theory should be confirmed separately, for this is compatible with one part of the theory being used to confirm the other.

Fourthly, the infantile form of dreams—for instance, their plasticity—does much to suggest that they have an infantile content, which means, in Freud’s view, that they deal with wishes. Or, to use the terminology of The Interpretation of Dreams, the regression in dreams is both formal and material.

Nevertheless, much of the plausibility of Freud’s theory of the dream must derive from a somewhat more general conception of the mind and its engagement in the primary processes. As Freud later, somewhat laconically, put it:

It was discovered one day that the pathological symptoms of certain neurotic patients have a sense. On this discovery the psycho-analytic method of treatment was founded. It happened in the course of this treatment that patients, instead of bringing forward their symptoms, brought forward dreams. A suspicion thus arose that the dreams too had a sense.

By the time Freud came to write The Interpretation of Dreams, not merely had his suspicion hardened to a certainty, but the parallel between dreams and symptoms had allowed his two sets of findings to confirm each other.

Finally, I want to turn to the application of the dream theory, to that remarkable feat of prestidigitation, the interpretation of dreams. The dream I shall select is cited in all three places where Freud talked extensively of dreams—The Interpretation of Dreams, the essay ‘‘On Dreams,’’ and the second section of the Introductory Lectures, in the latter receiving its most elaborate treatment.

A lady, who though still young had been married for many years, had the following dream: She was at the theater with her husband. One side of the stalls was completely empty. Her husband told her that Elise L. and her fiancé had wanted to go too, but had only been able to get bad seats—three for 1 florin 50 kreuzers—and of course they could not take those. She thought it would not really have done any harm if they had.

As a preliminary the dreamer disclosed to Freud that the precipitating cause of the dream appears in its manifest content. That day her husband had told her that her friend Elise L., approximately her contemporary, had just become engaged. She then produced the remaining dream-thoughts by association to different elements in the dream. Thus: The week before she had wanted to go to a particular play and had bought tickets early, so early that she had had to pay a booking fee. Then on arrival at the theater, one whole side of the stalls was seen to be empty, and her husband had teased her for her unnecessary haste. The sum of 1 fl. 50 kr. reminded her of another sum, a present of 150 florins (also alluded to during the previous day) which her sister-in-law had been given by her husband, and which she had rushed off to exchange, the silly goose, for a piece of jewelry. In connection with the word ‘‘three,’’ introduced in a context where we would expect ‘‘two,’’ all the dreamer could think of was that Elise, though ten years her junior in marriage, was only three months younger than she. But to the idea in which the word was embedded—that of getting three tickets for two persons—she could produce no associations.

In reaching an interpretation, Freud was struck by the very large number of references, in the associations to the dream, though, significantly, not in the manifest content of the dream, to things being too early, or done in a hurry, or got over hurriedly, to what might be called temporal mismanagement and the absurdity that attaches to this. If we put these thoughts together with the precipitating cause of the dream—the news of her friend’s belated engagement to an excellent man—we get the following synthesis or construction: ‘‘Really it was absurd of me to be in such a hurry to get married. I can see from Elise’s example that I could have got a husband later.’’ And perhaps, if we take up the ratio between the two sums of money: ‘‘And I could have got one a hundred times better with the money, i.e., my dowry.’’ If we pause at this stage, we can observe massive displacement, in that the central dream thoughts, i.e., the preoccupation with time, do not figure in the dream. And there is an ingenious piece of representation in that the important thought ‘‘It was absurd (to marry so early)’’ is indicated simply by a piece of absurdity, i.e., three tickets for two.

But this last element has gone uninterpreted and, since there were no associations to it, Freud invoked the symbolic equivalences of ‘‘three’’ with a man or a husband and ‘‘going to the theater’’ with getting married. So, getting three tickets for 1 fl. 50 kr. and going to the theater too early also express the idea of a marriage regretted: too early, and to a man of low value.

It is to be observed that the link whereby a visit to the theater can symbolize marriage presupposes that marriage is seen in a happy light. For not merely can young wives go to the theater and see all the plays which respectability had hitherto prohibited, but marriage initiates them into an activity which hitherto it had been their secret desire to gaze on: sexual intercourse. (We can see here how a universal symbolism gains its authority from widespread ways of thinking and feeling.) Now this put Freud on the track of another interpretation, showing another wish-fulfillment in the dream, this time relating to an earlier phase in the dreamer’s life. For who is not at the theater? Elise, as yet unmarried. So the dream expresses, as fulfilled, an older wish, that she, the dreamer, should see what happens in marriage, and that she should see it before her friend and near-contemporary. In this case, of course, the two dream wishes are not unconnected. Indeed, Freud suggests that the new angry wish could not have instigated a dream without support from the older, more obviously sexual, wish. Within the dreamer’s world, ‘‘an old triumph was put in the place of her recent defeat.’’

Source: Richard Wollheim, ‘‘Dreams,’’ in Sigmund Freud’s ‘‘The Interpretation of Dreams,’’ edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 77–87.

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Critical Overview