February 2008

Jason B. Jones


Against Dream Interpretation

It's probably fair to say that The Interpretation of Dreams is Sigmund Freud's most influential work. If one asked a general reader to name what, if anything, they knew about Freud, they would probably mention the Oedipus complex or the theory of dream interpretation, or perhaps the idea that he reduces everything to sex. (They might also mention the cigars or the cocaine, or ask whether he really slept with his sister-in-law, but let's set that to one side, ok?) All of these notions come up in Freud's dreambook, which is, as I mentioned a couple of months ago, his own favorite book.

I think, however, that most people -- even people well-disposed to analysis -- misunderstand what Freud has to say about dreams. That is to say, people generally expect that psychoanalysis proposes that dreams are meaningful, that they reveal to us the truth about ourselves. Have a look at this post at the indispensable Mindhacks.com, which quotes an early psychoanalytic researcher as claiming daydreams are "less sibylline" than night dreams. Vaughan Bell comments: "I had to look up 'sibylline'. Apparently it relates to the Sibylline oracles and in this context it means 'knowledge giving'."

Not a bit! In this context, as in almost all contexts involving the Sibylline oracles, the meaning is vatic, enigmatic, or oracular -- i.e., mysterious. The psychoanalytic researcher's point is not that proper dreams are more "knowledge giving" than daydreams -- he's saying that they're far more enigmatic and mysterious. (Possibly even deceptive.)

Because that's the point, really, about dreams in psychoanalysis: They introduce an element of enigma into our mental lives. "Understanding" a dream is not a process of lining up symbols against a key, or finding connections to one's parents, but rather simply the recognition that something else speaks within us. On that other stage, dreams enact very little that is coherent and directly meaningful, but in the process of unpacking them, one can recall to life desires, conflicts, fantasies, and other mental constructs that silently influence our conscious selves.

Such a view is not, perhaps, the dominant cultural view of psychoanalysis. I would bet that most people who have read The Interpretation of Dreams have done so in the Avon/Bard edition, a small paperback with "FREUD'S REVOLUTIONARY THEORY" emblazoned on the back. The back cover copy includes a series of bullet points that Freud's dreambook will apparently solve: "What do dreams of swimming, falling, or flying symbolize? What is expressed in dreams about baldness or loss of teeth?" The front cover goes further, offering to tell us "the meanings of common dreams."

Inconveniently, Freud's method of interpreting dreams cannot tell us any of these things, because elements in dreams do not mean the same thing to different people.

My procedure is not so convenient as the popular decoding method which translates any given piece of a dream's content by a fixed key. I, on the contrary, am prepared to find that the same piece of content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts.

The Interpretation of Dreams actually makes clear an interpretive enigma at the heart of psychoanalysis: Whatever answers you were expecting to find in it -- including those apparently promised by Freud himself -- will probably not be there.

The example of dream symbolism wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. Freud himself can't make up his mind whether symbolism has any validity or not, and, over the course of the book's several editions, he changes his mind frequently on the issue. In 1911, he praises Wilhelm Stekel's contribution to the theory of symbols, but by 1925, he sneers at "that writer, who has perhaps damaged psycho-analysis as much as he has benefited it." Freud's vacillating judgment on the question of symbols can lead to some truly comical moments:

Dreams make use of this symbolism for the disguised representation of their latent thoughts. Incidentally, many of the symbols are habitually or almost habitually employed to express the same thing. Nevertheless, the peculiar plasticity of the psychical material [in dreams] must never be forgotten. Often enough a symbol has to be interpreted in its proper meaning and not symbolically; while on other occasions a dreamer may derive from his private memories the power to employ as sexual symbols all kinds of things which are not ordinarily employed as such... This ambiguity of the symbols links up with the characteristic of dreams for admitting of "overinterpretation" -- for representing in a single piece of content thoughts and wishes which are often widely divergent in their nature.

So, symbols disguise meaning, except when they all mean the same thing, or except when something that looks symbolic isn't, or when something is a wholly personal symbol -- plus, don't forget, symbols, like dreams, themselves can be interpreted to an almost limitless extent.

It's no wonder that many people assume that Freudian dream-interpretation is pointless! How can such a method propose to tell us something meaningful about our mental life? Clearly this is all fashionable nonsense, or worse!

The problem with such responses to Freud is that they wholly misunderstand the role of the analyst. The analyst does not know the meaning of your dream. In fact, there are many meanings to your dream. In an analysis, however, some of those meanings are dead-ends. Once you've stated them, there's nothing more to discuss. Other possible meanings, however, seem to jar something loose, and all of a sudden you can't stop talking. That flood of speech is the point of dream interpretation, not uncovering some predigested maxim about your life. The more you talk, the more you unfold to yourself the meaning of your unhappiness, or, perhaps, the more you start to notice ways that you deceive or flatter yourself. Dream interpretation is training: It teaches you, not that your life has a specific meaning, laid down in early childhood, but rather that your little actions and words are meaningful. Being mindful of them might be helpful.

Perhaps it is not quite accurate to say that dreams don't have a meaning. I think all dreams do have one meaning: They all mean that there is more to our mental life than our conscious sense of self, and they remind us that the road not taken frequently remains with us to some extent. Dream interpretation responds to this meaning, but in a dangerous way. Here's how Jonathan Lear puts it in his wonderful book, Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life:

Although it may be true that humans are trapped in unconscious fantasies, this is not the reason they cannot get to the good directly. Rather, it is constitutive of human life -- life influenced by fantasy, life in society, ethical life -- that there is an experience that there is something more to life, something left out. There is an inchoate sense that there is a remainder to life, something that is not captured in life as it is so far experienced. Thus there is pressure to construct an image of what lies outside.

Dreams vividly present this inchoate sense that there is more to life than what we know of it. And dream interpretation offers to lend a sure meaning--that's why people come to analysis, and that's why people buy this book by Freud instead of Dora or Civilization and Its Discontents.

But that's not what analysis is for. Analysis helps us come to terms with that "remainder to life," a remainder that can't quite be expressed, but can nevertheless tie us into knots. What's brilliant about The Interpretation of Dreams is its insistence that there is always something to interpret. It makes us temporarily strangers to ourselves, so that we can recognize, with John Clare, that "I am the self-consumer of my woes."

Up next: The second half of The Interpretation of Dreams, plus HBO's new show, In Treatment, and Jeff Warren's The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness.