Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”

transl. 1913

Freud begins, “in the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state” 183. (This is aligned with what Best & Marcus, in “Surface Reading,” identify as Freud’s influence on symptomatic reading – looking for surprising meaning and extrapolating it to larger concepts – like Jameson & the Marxists, too.) He speaks briefly of Aristotle and “the ancients,” who saw the dream, like other aspects of the psyche, as aspects of an external reality or demonic influence 185.

The Method of Dream-Interpretation: Freud’s desire is to “specify [the dream’s] meaning, to replace it by something which takes its position in the concatenation of our psychic activities as a link of definite importance and value” 188. (This is interesting for criticism – the idea of “replacement.”) Dream-content is not a whole, however, and “symbolic interpretation” thus “goes to pieces” in dreams that are “not only unintelligible but confused” 188-9. He mentions Artemidorus, who accounts not just for symbols, but class and personality 190. This leads to great uncertainty and instability: “the work of interpretation is not applied to the entirety of the dream, but to each portion of the dream-content severally, as though the dream were a conglomerate in which each fragment calls for special treatment” 190. Freud’s key difference is to “impose upon the dreamer himself the work of interpretation… instead of taking into  account whatever may occur to the dream-interpreter” 190.

This may proceed by a “psychic concatenation, which may be followed backwards from a pathological idea into the patient’s memory… to treat the dream itself as a symptom, and to apply to it the method of interpretation which had been worked out for such symptoms” 192. (Thus the interest in the solution is less a focus than the detection of the narrative symptoms!) The patient must be made “attentive” and less critical of “such thoughts as come to the surface,” dismissing nothing and relating everything 192. (Again, this suggests that surface observation is blinkered and dismissive. It also feeds into the “confessional” mode Foucault identifies.) Freud distinguishes between reflection and observation of one’s own psychic process, with reflection showing “a greater play of psychic activity… critical… tension [vs] tranquillity” 192. The latter is superior in that it imitates phases before sleep and hypnosis 192. “Undesired ideas are thus changed into desired ones” 193. Freud actually compares this to Schiller, in an idea like Kantian disinterestedness, where the mind allows ideas to rush in before judging or dismissng them 193.

Because “the theme to which these dreams [of neurotics] point is, of course, always the history of the malady that is responsible for the neurosis,” Freud will analyze his own dreams first to demonstrate the method on a “normal” person 194. His first example is a dream in the summer of 1895 after writing the case of a mostly-cured Irma and feeling judged by her brother Otto, who perhaps believed his sister was not fully cured or had been promised a too full recovery 196. In the dream, he examines Irma’s throat, as she complains of pain, and finds a number of white scabs all over the interior of her mouth, probably stemming from an injection of propyls with what Freud and other doctors fear must have been a dirty syringe 197. As he analyzes it, Freud determines that he perhaps wishes he has misdiagnosed her so as not to be to blame for her partial recovery 198. He also wonders if he has replaced her with her dear friend, who suffers from hysterical choking, and whom Freud has wanted a chance to cure 197. He respects this woman more and her mouth opens easily, so it must be that she would yield more easily. (Interestingly, Freud is close reading specific syntactic structures of his own verbal rendering of the situation, as if they were foretold!) He reads the supposition of dysentery as his belief of the other doctor’s foolish prognoses 202. In blaming Irma and jesting at the doctor, he sees that he has “revenged himself on two persons” already 202. Freud connects the mention of propyls to an ill-smelling liquer and trimethylamin to “the products of sexual metabolism” studied by a friend of his 203.

“This substance thus leads me to sexuality, the factor to which I attribute the greatest significance in respect of the origin of these nervous affections which I am trying to cure. My patient Irma is a young widow… in what a singular fashion such a dream is fitted together! The friend [of Irma’s] who in my dream becomes my patient in Irma’s place is likewise a young widow” 203.

The turbinal bones, according to Freud’s friend, has also noted “several highly remarkable relations betweent the turbinal bones and the female sexual organs” 204. The syringe fear is another way of blaming Otto, since Freud prides himself on clean utensils 204. Now he extrapolates a meaning of this dream: its content and its motive are the fulfillment of the wish that Otto, and not he, is to blame for Irma’s incomplete recovery 205. (Interesting that content and motive are the same, though form is not!) He also replaces his patient with “a more sensible and a more docile one” 205 (ew, misogyny). This is “a plea” for “professional conscientiousness” in Freud’s mind 206. “The material is apparently impartial, but the connection between this broader material, on which the dream is based, and the more limited theme from which emerges the wish to be innocent of Irma’s illness, is, nevertheless, unmistakeable… dreams do really possess a meaning, and are by no means the expression of a disintegrated cerebral activity, as the writers on the subject would have us believe. When the work of interpretation has been completed the dream can be recognized as a wish-fulfillment” 206.

The Dream as Wish-Fulfillment: Freud gives the example of a drink about thirst as “a dream of convenience,” where he suggests not that the dream is designed functionally to wake the dreamer and to satisfy the thirst, but instead “if I succeed in appeasing my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking, I need not wake up in order to satisfy this” 209. (This is a perfect example of symptomatic reading – where the dream is actually capable of sufficing for the real!) He addresses the cliche “in my wildest dreams” to suggest that dreams are an act of anticipation and wishing 216.

Distortion in Dreams: “Wish fulfillment is the meaning of every dream” 217. (And here we see the grounds of the paradigm that will lead to such things as the death drive; if we die in our dreams, it must be a wish.) “Let us compare the manifest and the latent dream-content” 218. “That the dream actually has a secret meaning, which proves to be a wish-fulfillment, must be proved afresh in every case by analysis” 225. Freud notes that almost all his patients try to stump him with dreams that run contrary to wish-fulfillment, such as an “intelligent lady patient” who wishes to give a dinner but has nothing available but salmon, and must give up the dinner because the market is not open on Sunday 225. He asks her for the stimulus from the preceding day that led to this dream. He presses beyond the teasing relationship she has with her husband and the latter’s idea that he is getting fat and shouldn’t go to any more dinners 226. Freud finds that she has a thin friend (lucky for her, her husband prefers plumper women) who wishes to be plumper and wants to come to dinner for the patient’s good food 226. Now Freud is able to read this as the wish-fulfillment of preventing her friend from getting rounder and thus more attractive to the patient’s husband, and she has learned that one gains weight this way through her husband’s refusal of more invitations 227. The friend’s favorite food is salmon, so this is also a “hysterical identification” on the patient’s part with her friend 227.

“In hysteria identification is most frequently employed to express a sexual community. The hysterical woman identifies herself by her symptoms most readily – though not exclusively – with persons with whom she has had sexual relations, or who have had sexual intercourse with the same persons as herself. Language takes cognizance of this tendency: two lovers are said to be ‘one.’ In hysterical phantasy, as well as in dreams, identification may ensue if one simply thinks of sexual relations; they need not necessarily become actual… she expresses her jealousy of her friend… by putting herself in her friend’s place in her dream, and identifying herself with her by fabricating a symptom (the denied wish)… she would like to take her friend’s place in her husband’s esteem” 228.

The Material and Sources of Dreams: “in every dream we may find some reference to the experiences of the preceding day”  – “the experiences on which one has not yet slept” 239-40. (Think narrative, Genette.) Freud considers a) The Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness, b) Dreams of the Beloved’s Death, and c) Dreams of Examination for source material. In the first case, he wonders why we are embarrassed if our dream-spectators are indifferent 293. Here, “the impostor is the dream, the Emperor is the dreamer himself, and the moralizing tendency betrays a hazy knowledge of… the latent dream-content, of forbidden wishes” 294. Freud claims that children love to expose themselves, and that exhibitionism makes a large part of the history of neurotics and paranoids. The “strangers” are “the counter-wish” to the one person who remains absent, the “objects of our sexual interest in childhood” who never appear in the dream, though paranoids remain “fanatically xonvinced of their presence” 295.

In b), if “a painful affect is felt,” it means that at some point, the dreamer wished that person to die, thought maybe not at present (competition with family members, like siblings or the same-sex parent, may engender this) 297. According to Freud, all women have this dream 301. (Groan. Although it’s interesting that the sense of injustice, competition, and the anguish of being replaced would be more pronounced in women at this point in history.)  This is of course related to “the sexual wishes of the child… in their nascent state,” where “the earliest affection of the girl-child is lavished on the father, while the earliest infantile desires of the boy are directed upon the mother,” making the same-sex parent a sexual rival 304. He goes into the analysis of Oedipus, unable to avoid his fate, which he of course reads as the wish-fulfillment and subsequent castration (eyes) of the ‘hero’ 308. He mentions the sex-dream with one’s mother (as does Artemidorus, who details all the different positions and possibilities), and then moves on to Hamlet 309. In Freud’s reading, Hamlet’s hesitation to kill Claudius shows that his uncle has actually fulfilled his wish, and his aversion to Ophelia is furnished as proof of his desire for his own mother 310. This becomes symptomatic of “the poet’s own psychology” 310. In sum, our affects of concern and sympathy often conceal egotistical concerns and desires 313.

In c), we simply fear the burden of responsibility suggested by exams, usually by someone who has already passed a similar trial, so that it serves to allay our fears by fulfilling the wish that it will be as ridiculous to be afraid as the last time 317. For Freud, somehow, it also has to do with sexual maturity, though he doesnt explain how.

The Dream-Work: “the dream-thoughts and the dream-content present themselves as two descriptions of the same content in two different languages… the dream-content appears to us as a translation of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose symbols and laws of composition we must learn by comparing the origin with the translation. The dream-thoughts we can understand… the dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated, one by one, into the language of the dream-thoughts” 319. (Recall Pynchon in Lot 49 – Oedipa’s hierophany a critique of this?) The dream is “a work of condensation” – dream-content is laconic, dream-thought is prolix 320. (Again, poetry?)

“The psychic activity in dream-formation resolves itself into two achievements: the production of the dream-thoughts and the transformation of these into the dream-content. The dream-thoughts are perfectly accurate, and are formed with all the psychic profusion of which we are capable; they belong to the thoughts which have not become conscious… on the other hand we have the process which changes the unconscious thoughts into the dream-content, which is peculiar to dream-life and characteristic of it… much farther removed from the pattern of waking thought than has been supposed” 466-7.

“the dream has above all to be withdrawn from the censorship, and to this end the dream-work makes use of the displacement of psychic intensities… the regard of the dream-work for representability… condensation… the logical relations of the thought-material… ultimately find a veiled representation in the formal peculiarities of the dream. The affects of the dream-thoughts undergo slighter alterations than their conceptual content… they are suppressed” 467.

The Psychology of the Dream-Processes: “Is the ethical significance of the suppressed wishes to be lightly disregarded, since, just as they now create dreams, they may some day create other things? … I believe that the Roman Emperor was in the wrong in ordering one of his subjects to be executed because the latter had dreamt that he killed the Emperor. He should first of all have endeavored to discover the significance of the man’s dream; most probably it was not what it seemed to be. And if a dream of a different content ahd actually had this treasonable meaning, it would still have been well to recall the words of Plato – that the virtuous man contents himself with dreaming of that which the wicked man does in actual life” 548. (vs. ancient idea of prophecy, also vs. idea of control of thoughts, conscious or otherwise.) “Psychic reality is a special form of resistance which must not be confounded with material reality” 548.  For Freud, we should accept the immorality of our dream lives because when we understand how the psychic apparatus works, it abolishes us of much that is offensive – in Sachs’ words, “the monster in the magnifying glass… is a tiny little infusorian” 548. Rather than predicting the future, dreams for Freud are projections of fulfilled wishes that are nevertheless always based on information from the past 549.


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