Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Interprettion of Dreams

The Tragedy of King Lear
Woodcut: Claire Van Vliet

I've been re-reading The Interpretation of Dreams. More than a century after the publication of Die Traumdeutung in 1899, it is simply impossible to imagine the impression this book must have made on its first readers. Freud's ideas have so assimilated themselves into our culture, have been taken up, rejected and reimagined on so many levels by so many movements that everyone thinks they know something about Freudian theory, especially if they've never read anything he wrote. The Interpretation of Dreams is a multi-faceted work: a record of the early development of psychoanalytic theory, a fascinating glimpse of late 19th Century Viennese middle class culture and intellectual life, a study in the transformation of traditions from their diverse contexts of origin: mythological, aesthetic, classical--recasting them within a new, over-arching ideological framework. One could draw a parallel between this process on the broader, more general level of ideological transitions to that of the clinical theories: the tracing of etiologies from origin to symptom to re-vision. Indeed, the method of dream interpretation, broken down to its basic elements, is a model for this process on both levels. Take the dream apart, identify and name the constituent elements, trace these to their immediate sources--a two-fold deconstruction, removing each from its larger context, and so preparing the way for the final step, the bricolage of putting them together again in a new package, the latent, and of course, truer meaning. Not unlike, I think, how we have invented the idea of "art," though perhaps, as a psychological phenomenon, one that works in reverse.

We view, say, a Benin bronze--a fetish object--but now, a piece of sculpture in a museum. The label informs us of its place in the culture of origin, not to bring us to an imaginative appreciation of that place, but by intellectualizing it, freeing it from its original significance, allowing us to break it down into a newly named set of components: composition, harmony and tension, and by the terms we use to recreate it as an aesthetic object--grant it a new existence as a work of art.

I am struck on this reading by how often Freud turns to literature, how profoundly important these literary sources are for the formation of his ideas, how--unlike his treatment of scholarly and scientific predecessors--literature stands for Freud as ready confirmation of his theories, as examples (properly interpreted, of course), of latent meanings made manifest. Even when he strikingly over-determines his analysis, say, of Lear in the Three Caskets, there is something of his treatment that releases it from claims of ownership, that, paradoxically--in the very act of making the Lear of his essay so entirely his own, he leaves us the Lear that remained beyond him, the Lear that came from the mind of its mysterious and unknowable creator. What more could you ask from a critic? Through the concentrated power of a strictly limited interpretation, reveal the unlimited depths that remain beyond those limits. No wonder, then, the fecundity of Freud's writing on literature and critical theory.

Jonathan Lear compares the recent Oxford University Press translation of The Interpretation of Dreams to the Strachey Standard Edition (the one used in the Avon paper back) HERE. Fadi abou-Rihan has also posted on the problem of translations of Freud on The Psychoanalytic Field


  1. Bloom of course tells us that Freud ripped off all he knew about psychology from Shakespeare.

    Funny, the only thing I recall of The Interpretation of Dreams was how Freud seemed to see a penis in almost verged on the laughable...

    Despite this, Freud was I think, as you suggest, a great writer.

  2. I spent an hour and a half writing a reply... which has vanished into cyder nothingness... and spent the next hour delivering curses to all manner of dead and nonexistent entities...I will try to reconstruct my thoughts in the morning, if I haven't initiated a cerebral accident at my railing over the loss.

  3. Jacob,
    I remember reading "The Interpretation of Dreams" for an undergraduate class and being opposed to Freudian theory beforehand, for feminist reasons. I analyzed some of my own dreams according to his theories by "free associating" to particular or vivid images in the dream, to demonstrate Freud's bias or irrelevancy I suppose.

    Then an unexpected thing happened. In the process of analyzing the dream in this way, I broke through to a deeper, more profound understanding of myself and the dream. It was all about the "latent content" it was right there and not there at all. It left me with an appreciation for Freud that the most determined critics can not undermine. And critics there are. I appreciate your understanding of him in context of literature and culture and I agree that complex variables can't be separated out.

    I haven't thought about that dream in years and I'm going to look for it. It was the most vivid dream I ever had. I woke up right after having it, got up and wrote it down (a few typed pages long.)

  4. It's been many years since I read this for the first time. When I return to Freud's writing, I'm always struck by how much I missed, how powerfully he both invites and eludes reductionist readings.

    Niglel's impression that "there was a penis in almost everything"... is itself a kind of parody, unintentional or not, that can't possibly have come reading The Interpretation of Dreams, but has imposed itself so forcefully on his assumptions about what Freud was about, that the presuppositions, or distorted memories that accompanied the reading, have replaced it entirely with a kind Simpson's episode version...

    I comvinced that the methodology in this book, removed from the object of interpreting dreams... deconstructionists aside, still opens a broad field of possibilities for literary analysis.

    I've been playing with this idea... Emily Dickenson, for one, and John Ashbery...

    I wish I had more time...