I the Interpretation of Dreams

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Sigmund Freud
Chapter 4: The Interpretation of Dreams and Other Theoretical Writings

Gerald Levin, "Sigmund Freud", In Twayne's World Authors Series Online New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999 Previously published in print in 1975 by Twayne Publishers.

I The Interpretation of Dreams

No masterpiece of scientific thought reveals more of its author or is written in a more personal style than The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud planned and wrote it in the late 1890's; and though he added and deleted a considerable amount of material through eight editions, the structure of the argument remained the same, and the personal note persisted; for critical remarks on Adler, Stekel, and Jung abound in the later editions. Though the work contains what Freud regarded as some of his most enduring discoveries, it is also a revelation of personal conflict and neurosis--more consciously planned, perhaps, than many commentators have assumed. His "splendid isolation" from his scientific colleagues and the intense relationship with Fliess freed him for a creative effort that, for the first time, joined thought and feeling by allowing ideas to unfold as they were discovered and felt.

Freud's dream theory is best understood in its mature form, and we shall consider it as such. Dreams are a form of wish fulfillment originating in the unconscious (or id) as a wish that momentarily escapes repression, or in what remains unfinished in preconscious waking activity. One purpose of dreams is to maintain sleep--a need of the conscious ego that Freud, in the Outline, identifies with "an instinct to return to the intra-uterine life that has been abandoned" XXIII, 166; IV, 234Dream thoughts originating in the unconscious are ordinarily incapable of entering preconsciousness owing to the censorship of the conscious ego. To enter the preconscious they transfer their "affect" to, and take cover in, ideas there; conversely, the conscious wish can originate a dream only if it awakens a similar wish in the unconscious that offers it reinforcement. These dream thoughts are "latent" material which the dream work--"an instance of the unconscious working-over of preconscious thought-processes," according to the Outline--renders into the "manifest dream." XXIII, 167 Because dreams serve to pacify both the unconscious (id) and the conscious ego, Freud refers to them in the Outline as "a kind of compromise-formation" XXIII, 170.

The distinction between the latent and the manifest dream had important consequences for Freud's general psychology because it led to the discovery and enumeration of unconscious processes. It is the manifest dream that the sleeper remembers on waking, and its interpretation discloses those processes--displacement of affect, condensation, and the like--basic to the primary process. Thus the seemingly illogical structure of the dream (illogical to the secondary process or waking thought) has a logic and a wholly consistent meaning of its own: an idea may be represented through its contrary, reflecting the phenomenon of antithetical words in ancient languages (discussed in an essay of 1910); or ordinary logical connections may be expressed through showing events to be simultaneous. In general, ideas are "represented" in concrete pictorial language. Finally, dreams have many meanings, for they represent a series of layered wish fulfillments, "the bottom one being the fulfillment of a wish dating from earliest childhood" IV, 219 and from the "archaic heritage" of the mind XXIII, 167.

"The whole thing is planned on the model of an imaginary walk," Freud wrote Fliess in August, 1899:

First comes the dark wood of the authorities (who cannot

see the trees), where there is no clear view and it is easy to go
astray. Then there is a cavernous defile through which I lead my
readers--my specimen dream with its peculiarities, its details, its
indiscretions and its bad jokes--and then, all at once, the high
ground and the open prospect and the question: "Which way do you want
to go?" IV, 122

With attention to this statement, one critic has stressed the involuntary revelation that Freud made in the book.1 The letters to Fliess show that the book helped him in a therapeutic way, but what may seem involuntary is perhaps the result or effect of a rhetoric that seeks to involve the reader in the very act of discovery.

Aware that he was presenting an epochal view of the mind and that the voluminous corpus of writings on dream theory would stand in the way of acceptance of his own view, Freud reviews the most influential ideas and exposes their shortcomings, at the same time suggesting how they could be incorporated into a more penetrating theory. The argument is built inductively, from example to idea, from the more obvious considerations to the less obvious and theoretical, the final theoretical chapter summarizing key ideas and developing the fundamental distinction between the primary and secondary process. The intellectual structure of the argument is, however, dialectical; that is, Freud explores the possibilities of ideas as he proceeds. "We have often seen that in unconscious thinking itself," he states, "every train of thought is yoked with its contradictory opposite" V, 468. If discursive thought is a secondary activity, guided by the "pleasure principle," and not the product of a separate rational faculty (as Dreams would show), the subjective presence of the scientist would not be merely an amiable intrusion into the work.

Freud supplemented clinical observations, on which his previous papers, reports, and encyclopedia articles depended, with materials drawn from his self-analysis. This new resource had a momentous effect on his writing, for it brought the play of imagination and wit to the psychological materials of the essay. The 1899 essay "Screen Memories" shows that Freud was willing and able to disguise his presence and experiment with new "voices." Though drawing on his self-analysis, he identifies the source of an important screen memory only as "someone who is not at all or only very slightly neurotic," and, disguising the facts of his neurosis, adds that the patient "has taken an interest in psychological questions ever since I was able to relieve him of a slight phobia by means of psychoanalysis" III, 309.2 The voice here is probably more playful than ironic.

Problems relating to the extensive use of personal materials were clearly on Freud's mind, as the preface to the first edition indicates:

But if I was to report my own dreams, it inevitably

followed that I should have to reveal to the public gaze more of the
intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or than is normally
necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet. IV,

His solution was to omit details which bore chiefly on sexual matters, with the result that the value of his examples was "very definitely diminished" (xxiv). His statement to Fliess that the "involved sentences . . . bolstered up on indirect phrases and with sidelong glances at their subject-matter, have gravely affronted some ideal within me" (xx) shows that his reticence was not feigned. A more open revelation would have better satisfied scientific candor.

There was a gain, however, in these omissions, as there had been in the Studies. In the course of the book Freud refers to Schiller's statement that creative writing is hindered if reason looks too closely at ideas that pour in, particularly those of a transient and extravagant quality IV, 103. If there was to be no total candor in the reporting of his own dreams, there was to be a free flow of ideas and uninhibited revelation of his "private character" V, 453. As if to compensate for what had been omitted, Freud is candid about his early failures in experimenting with cocaine and sulphonal, his indirect responsibility for the illness and death of a patient and a friend, and his hostility toward medical colleagues who had rejected his ideas on hysteria. He discusses his wish for promotion to a professorship, his sensitivity to anti-Semitism, problems with urination in childhood, his ambivalent feelings toward his father, his fear of ridicule. A recurring theme is his ambition and sense of personal destiny: he mentions his admiration of Hannibal and other world conquerors and reports a prophecy that his mother's first-born would become a great man.

How uninhibited this personal revelation could be is seen in his analysis of a dream in which, like Hercules cleansing the Augean stables, he urinated on a long seat in a privy. He was reminded of how much his patients honored him:

Indeed, even the museum of human excrement could be given
an interpretation to rejoice my heart. . . . The stream of urine which
washed everything clean was an unmistakable sign of greatness. It was
in that way that Gulliver extinguished the great fire in Lilliput. . .
. V, 469

He was reminded, too, of Gargantua urinating upon Paris from Notre Dame. The dream originated, he indicates, at a lecture he delivered. A member of the audience

began to flatter me; telling me how much he had learnt
from me, how he looked at everything now with fresh eyes, how I had
cleansed the Augean stables of errors and prejudices in my
theory of the neuroses. He told me, in short, that I was a very great
man. My mood fitted ill with the paean of praise; I fought against my
feeling of disgust. . . . V, 470

Freud concludes that the form of the dream expressed two contradictory states of mind--megalomania and "delusions of inferiority" V, 470.

As if to heighten the dramatic character of this sort of revelation, Freud returns to motifs of dreams analyzed in earlier pages. For example, the analysis of an important dream involving Fliess and another friend is continued in a later discussion of affects in dreams; it is in this discussion that Freud states that all of his friends have been "reincarnations" of a nephew who had been his close friend in youth. Referring to his emotional need of "an intimate friend and a hated enemy," he concludes that "the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual--though not, of course, both at once or with constant oscillations" V, 483.

The dependence on analogy and other figurative devices analyzed by Hyman opened the way to the representation of instinctual trends as imperative forces. His statement that we regain the paradise of childhood in our dreams is merely parabolic, yet the idea increasingly takes on the status of imperative fact as Freud found himself able to deal with psychological ideas free of the restriction of physiological theory, and as these ideas could be fitted into a theory of culture. Thus he applies the idea of the paradise of dreams literally to poetry. The "deepest and eternal nature of man" which the poet evokes is rooted in "a childhood that has since become prehistoric" IV, 247. A related and important idea is that thinking is "a substitute for a hallucinatory wish" V, 567. Freud was to make more of this idea in the 1914 essay on narcissism. Commenting that the self-reproaches of conscience coincide with the perceptions on which these reproaches are founded, he comments that

the activity of the mind which has taken over the function
of conscience has also placed itself at the service of internal
research, which furnishes philosophy with the material for its
intellectual operations. This may have some bearing on the
characteristic tendency of paranoics to construct speculative systems.
XIV, 96

It is, in fact, primary thinking that is the chief theme of the book. As Ricoeur has indicated, the thrust of the analysis is to establish the primacy of primary thinking and "to give a schematic picture of the descending degrees of desire all the way to the indestructible." There is, by contrast, little consideration of the secondary process.3 Freud's rhetoric is expended in establishing the primacy and power of those "prehistoric" impulses that are the nucleus of the unconscious. And throughout the book he does not allow the reader to forget that behind the operations of the dream work is the mysterious human personality, of which he is himself the exemplar. He is, in effect, Oedipus answering the riddle of the Sphinx, and he dramatizes that encounter through the book itself. Freud thus projects an image of man in confrontation with irreconcilable and mysterious forces, and he does so by surpassing the objective detail (limited as in the Studies) and the objectivity of technical discourse.

II The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

In a footnote added in 1924, Freud described his book on parapraxes as popular in nature, intending through a series of examples to prove without a theoretical discussion that unconscious mental processes must be assumed VI, 272. Even in new material added to later editions Freud kept to this intention: his analysis of the mechanisms governing slips of tongue and pen, errors and forgetting, and the like, is brief, and at the end of the book he comments without explanation that parapraxes show that the primary process is operative in our waking life as well as in dreams. He adds that psychoneurotic behavior exhibits these same mechanisms, for there is no clear distinction between normal and abnormal states of mind: "we are all a little neurotic" VI, 278.

The statement of these ideas in simple language, brilliantly illustrated from clinical experience, continues the advance in style evident in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud recounts how he had promised two books on Venice to a patient who was travelling there against Freud's wishes; one of the books he gave the patient was a study of the Medicis. Recognizing his error, he admitted it at once: "It may, in general, seem astonishing that the urge to tell the truth is so much stronger than is usually supposed. Perhaps, however, my being scarcely able to tell lies any more is a consequence of my occupation with psychoanalysis. As often as I try to distort something I succumb to an error or some other parapraxis that betrays my insincerity" VI, 221. It is an achievement of style as much as of content that these insights emerge for the reader in much the way Freud reached them himself. As in Dreams, narrative is joined with analysis in semifictional modes. And as in his book on Jokes, Freud illustrates not only from his own experience but also from his wide reading and his knowledge of Jewish humor and ideas. His interest in linguistic phenomena is evident throughout the book.

The comment just quoted serves a major purpose of the study: to show that "nothing in the mind is arbitrary or undetermined" VI, 242. Freud was attacking orthodox assumptions about the nature of man. The structure of the argument reveals this clearly: beginning with ordinary experiences and moving to such phenomena as self-injury that stops short of actual suicide (a compromise between the instinct to self-destruction and forces in the world that oppose it), he concludes with comments on determinism and superstition.

Though he does not mount an attack on religious ideas as he would do later, he leads the reader to the view that what is not explained by conscious motivation is explained by the unconscious: there is no "gap" in the life of the mind once we understand this fact VI, 254. And he states, in discussing superstition and paranoia, that much of the "mythological view" promoted by religion is the projection of "psychology" into the world VI, 258. To mount a critique of the Christian-bourgeois view of man, which he believed was at the root of opposition to radical scientific progress such as psychoanalysis fostered, he would have to establish, in Ferenczi's phrase, "the animal nature of the unconscious" VI, 20. The undramatic narrative and Freud's connecting commentary undoubtedly blunted the impact of these conclusions for most readers.

Psychopathology exhibits a powerful quality of Freud's thinking that we have noted frequently: a recognition of the importance of generalizing discoveries. It is worth commenting in more detail on this recognition here, for it is a mistaken view that most or all experimental scientists do recognize this importance. Hans Selye points out that taking notice of a phenomenon is not "discovery" until that phenomenon has been generalized sufficiently to serve as a fruitful hypothesis and increase our understanding of other phenomena and processes: Banting "discovered" insulin as a treatment for diabetes, not a rival, Marcel Gley, who had performed similar experiments seventeen years earlier and described them in sealed notes deposited with the Societe de Biologie. Gley had "seen" but had not "discovered" insulin.4 The distinction is worth noting, given the numerous claims that the unconscious and related ideas were known before Freud. The French psychologist Pierre Janet had made a claim to the discovery of psychoanalysis; in the course of his critique of Janet's views in the autobiographical study, Freud applies the conception of discovery suggested by Selye: "Janet's works would never have had the implications which have made psychoanalysis of such importance to the mental sciences and have made it attract such universal interest" XX, 20, 31. In other words, Freud not only announced his discovery of the unconscious and associated it with repression: he derived wholly new and unexpected conclusions about its functioning. "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime," he stated in the Third English Edition of Dreams IV, xxxii.

III Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Though Freud wrote forcefully on sexual hypocrisy and masturbation in his essay of 1898, "Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses," his treatment of sexual topics before 1905 tended to be cautious and restrained. Perhaps the added confidence gained through a widening circle of followers changed his attitude, for in the Three Essays (and the "Dora" analysis) he was prepared to present his ideas frankly and aggressively: "So far as I know, not a single author has clearly recognized the regular existence of a sexual instinct in childhood," he wrote VII, 173. The tone of this statement is typical of much of his writing from this time on. It should be added that the book as we have it today contains ideas incorporated into successive editions--additions notably on the child's researches into sexuality, the castration complex, and the phases of sexual organization--and these were put to use as polemics against opponents of the theory of infantile sexuality proposed.

It was undoubtedly the break with Adler and Jung that led to Freud's concern with enlarging his frame of discourse. The preface to the fourth edition of 1920 comments on the "stretching" of the idea of sexuality into unsuspected areas of behavior and reminds the reader "how closely the enlarged sexuality of psychoanalysis coincides with the Eros of the divine Plato" VII, 134. But the search for correspondences in human and cultural experience is apparent earlier, and Stekel's theory of symbolism (incorporated into Dreams) and Jung's and Rank's investigations into mythology and art before 1913 strengthened this concern. The enlargement of the frame of discourse in the Essays is achieved through a search for similarities in human behavior--for what was typical in men and women and their culture--and for definitions that would incorporate these similarities into a theory of culture.

All of Freud's writings on sexuality from 1905 on reveal this concern. The 1908 essay on childhood theories emphasizes the consequences of ignorance and sexual hypocrisy, in examples like that of the bewildered bride who thought her husband was urinating into her during sexual intercourse IX, 224. In the Essays Freud prepares for a theory of culture by challenging ordinary concepts of "normality" and seeking thereby to free language from misleading connotations. Thus, in the course of an exhaustive examination in the first essay into sexual aberrations, he reminds his reader that "perverse" behavior is normal in every human being, or at least plays a part in normal sexual behavior, which he explains is constituted of diverse trends not widely understood. It is a mistake, then, to use "perversion" as a term of judgment VII, 160. It is important also to divorce "inversion" from the notion of "degeneracy," for there is no psychoanalytic evidence to distinguish homosexuals as a group distinct in character; and indeed homosexual feeling is encountered in all neuroses VII, 138, 166. "Normal" social behavior is consistent with abnormal sexual habits, though the latter are always in the "background" of abnormal social behavior VII, 161. Comments such as these are scattered throughout the book, and though they do not shape the argument, they do influence the use of language.

To state this point in another way, there is an increasing tendency to choose terms that offer the possibility of "extension." Freud's discussion of masculine and feminine characters in the first essay provides a significant example. In the 1915 edition Freud states:

We should rather be inclined to connect the simultaneous

presence of these opposites [sadism and masochism] with the opposing
masculinity and femininity which are combined in bisexuality--a
contrast whose significance is reduced in psychoanalysis to that
between activity and passivity
. VII, 160, italics mine

In the 1924 edition the italicized words were altered to:

which often has to be replaced in psychoanalysis by that
between activity and passivity

--clearly a gain in generality since the new formulation does not exclude or "reduce" the original opposition between masculinity and femininity. The whole discussion reveals an assumption pervasive in Freud: that traits will be encountered as "pairs of opposites"--Freud's characterization of sadism and masochism VII, 160. This is perhaps why he is careful to keep his semantic categories as open as possible.

The flexibility of the terms cited is best illustrated by the 1908 essay "Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality," concerned mainly with the role of unconscious phantasy in the formation of hysterical symptoms. Phantasies, Freud states, may originate in the unconscious or in conscious daydreams; if the latter provided satisfaction during masturbation, they become unconscious through repression, and pathogenic if the libido remains unsatisfied or unsublimated. To undo or resolve hysterical symptoms, both a masculine and a feminine phantasy must be uncovered, one of them homosexual. Freud does not refer to active and passive traits in this context, but his comment that the daydreams of women are "invariably" erotic and those of men erotic or ambitious seems to imply such a difference in the popular sense of these words--which is the sense Freud seems to have in mind in the Essays. The gain for discussion in the later distinction is that the range of extension is greater. Freud is able through such an extension to show that his theories encompass a range of phenomena either unexplained or (as he shows in additions to the Essays) wrongly explained by opponents.5

The second and third of the Essays (concerning infantile life and puberty) further challenge ordinary views by emphasizing that reality is harsh and unremitting. Not only can children be seduced into becoming "polymorphous perverse"--that is, capable of many kinds of erotic pleasure--they are innately so. Furthermore, growing up means that the child becomes alienated from the deepest sources of personal pleasure, from parents, and perhaps also from the total environment. The dangers and barriers to happiness are immense, for the earliest attachments are the strongest in the life of the child, and excessive parental love may lead to neurosis and emotional and sexual impotence. Equally serious, "premature sexual activity diminishes a child's educability" VII, 234.

Passages in the Essays suggest that many people do escape neurosis, but the weight of the discussion as a whole implies the opposite. Freud was to show in later additions and essays like the 1908 "Character and Anal Erotism" the extensive influence of the pregenital organizations on our lives--frugality, orderliness, and other traits that we consider civilized originate in fixations to these organizations. Freud was in this way attacking the view that the positive goods and values of living are freely and consciously chosen. At the same time, he was not seeking in these essays or later ones to exonerate man from responsibility for his neurotic unhappiness. Unconscious wishes are willed like conscious ones--and will implies responsibility. The language of a comment on Sophocles in the later Introductory Lectures is characteristic of how he thought about the matter:

It might easily be supposed that the material of the

legend had in view an indictment of the gods and of fate; and in the
hands of Euripides, the critic and enemy of the gods, it would
probably have become such an indictment. But with the devout Sophocles
there is no question of an application of that kind. The difficulty is
overcome by the pious sophistry that to bow to the will of the gods is
the highest morality even when it promotes crime. XVI, 331

To accept that "fate" is a "pious sophistry," but Freud does not state directly why it should be. A comment on the secret power of the Oedipus supplies the explanation. The auditor

reacts as though by self-analysis he had recognized the
Oedipus complex in himself and had unveiled the will of the gods and
the oracle as exalted disguises of his own unconscious. XVI, 331

The auditor wills the death of Laius and the marriage to Jocasta in imagination as he observes the play, and he is to carry the moral responsibility for this choice.

The dilemma for mankind is not to be resolved through easy formulas; Freud prefers in the essays of this period to stress the need of insight and exerted effort, as in his comment in the 1908 essay on sexual morality that "indulgence" in masturbation weakens the character; for "it teaches people to achieve important aims without taking trouble and by easy paths instead of through an energetic exertion of force" IX, 199-200. It is an effort, Freud implies, that must be exerted against society itself. For the price that suppression of instinct and high-mindedness exact is too high; some people would be "more healthy" if they had learned how to be "less good" IX, 191. Unimpaired sexual experience is desirable, not because it is pleasurable, but because it is therapeutic. And part of the therapy would seem to be resistance to an authority that does not know itself: to a social morality that provides a kind of sexual therapy for the man in countenancing the double standard, but denies it to the woman who is expected to safeguard her virtue at the cost of serious neurotic illness. If happiness is preferable to neurosis, then man and woman must take the responsibility for their own therapy, though Freud does not directly state how this therapy is best achieved. "Psychoanalysis is a therapy for the healthy," Rieff states, "not a solution for the sick--except so far as the sick themselves become analysts, and find in this therapeutic their personal solution, as Freud did."6

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