Sigmund Freud – from “The Dream Work”

Sigmund Freud, from “The Dream Work.”
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916), pp. 204-18

I’ve been looking forward to actually reading Freud’s writing; outside of Theoryland, almost no one knows about any of the authors I’ve been assigned to read, except for two: Marx and Freud. Although most people in my generation have some idea of who Marx is and what he taught, almost everybody knows, or at least think they know, about Freud (probably because he talked about sex a fair bit). Hence, I’ve been anticipating the chance to actually hear what the man himself has to say, and thankfully, he did not disappoint my expectations of fascinating, useful, and ultimately questionable writing.

After spending time with Saussure, Marx, and Engels, Freud’s writing was mercifully comprehensible. After some introductory remarks on some of the general concepts of his interpretive praxis for dreams, Freud tells us that we’re going to be chiefly concerned here with “comparing the manifest content of a dream as a whole with the latent dream as it is revealed by interpretation.” To accomplish this, Freud defines two processes: the first, “dream-work,” is “the work [done by the dreamer] which transforms the latent dream into the manifest one,” and the second, the “work of interpretation,” is “the work which proceeds in the contrary direction [and is done by the analyst], which endeavours to arrive at the latent dream from the manifest one.”

[NB I thoroughly enjoyed Freud’s admonition “not to try to understand too much of what I tell you. It will be a piece of description which should be listened to with quiet attention.” Although somewhat condescending, it’s also comfortable, liberating, and perhaps generally good advice for listening to (or reading) any theory.]

Freud then proceeds to talk about three types of work done by the dream-work: condensation, displacement, and the work of “transforming thoughts into visual images.” In reading his description of these three processes, I had two reactions. First, that, while I suppose that the human brain perhaps does carry out this type of operation while dream, I am extremely suspicious of Freud’s claim that one can work backwards from the transformed data of the manifest dream to get to the original latent dream; however, that claim is not necessarily related to literature, and I haven’t studied psychoanalysis or its opponents enough to have a legitimately informed opinion of its (in)validity. Second, and more importantly, each of these processes describes (or, possibly, prescribes, since it predates much of it) literary techniques used by Modern and postmodern authors.

Condensation, which refers to Freud’s belief that “the manifest dream has a smaller content than the latent one, and is thus an abbreviated translation of it,” often by seeking out “an ambiguous word [or image, symbol, etc.]” in which one can “condense two different thoughts,” is a good descriptor of the work of metaphor and figurative language in general, and is specifically descriptive of a good bit of Modernist imagery and symbolism. For example, Freud’s assertion that the condensation done by the dream-work “is not a word-for-word or a sign-for-sign translation… nor… a selection made according to fixed rules” is directly applicable to much of the work of Faulkner, in which characters from one novel may share a name and some apparent similarities with characters from another book, but many in fact exist as two separate people; or, for example in Absalom, Absalom!, wherein Faulkner uses the story from II Samuel of Absalom and David as a source for many of the themes and general plot elements but does not seek to create a simple modern “one-for-one” retelling of the biblical text.

Displacement is either “a latent element replaced not by a component part of itself but by something more remote – that is, by an allusion [or a shifting of] the physical accent… from an important element on to another which is unimportant, so that the dream appears differently centered and strange.” This process can be seen in literature, as Freud himself says, in allusion, but also in non-emblematic symbols, too so prevalent in the work of Modernist authors (T. S. Eliot immediately comes to mind).

The “transforming [of] thoughts into visual images,” which Freud sees as analogous to pictorial (as opposed to alphabetical) writing, is reflected in the use of image clusters as organizational units in Modernist works (Jean Toomer, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, and others) which tend to eschew or neglect more traditional organizational structures (stanzas, rhyme schemes, chapters) for their works. (At this point, I should point out that, of course, Freudian critics not only see these processes as analogous to the techniques authors use but also as explanatory of character’s behaviors within literary works, as well, or even as explanations of an author’s creative forces, i. e. seeing a work as the unconscious projection of parts of the author’s own life).

Before moving on, Freud notes “that nonsense and absurdity in dreams have their meaning [because] dreams become senseless when a piece of criticism included in the dream-thoughts – a judgement that ‘this is absurd’ – has to be represented.” This claim is based his earlier assertion that non-concrete, relational concepts (such as “between,” “against,” etc.) find sometimes odd representation in the creation of visual images from thoughts that the dream-work does.

In the next section of the excerpt, Freud discusses the ways in which processes in the dream-work are similar to (causal of, maybe?) certain operations in linguistics that Freud calls “contraries,” or, as they are more commonly known, binaries. He discusses how binary concepts (high / low, wet / dry, etc.) are often represented by the same or extremely similar words or word roots in languages. He also discusses how words are often syllabically or otherwise inverted between languages and still retain the same meaning. Freud sees these two effects as exemplary of the way that the “topsy-turvy” world of dreams is created, wherein, for example, a dog might be walking a man on a leash.

To conclude, Freud give a smattering of various thoughts about dreams. In his view of dream interpretation as regressively undoing the linguistic act of joining word to thought, Freud presents a view of linguistic development with which Saussure would have had, as one might say, issues. He warns against seeking an inherent logic in the world of the manifest dream itself, for this goes against the intrinsically illogical world created by the revision and even “secondary revision” carried out by the dream work in attempts to censor the latent dream (claims like this are, again, why I’m skeptical of Freud’s interpretive methodology). Freud also asserts that “it is natural that we should lose some of our interest in the manifest dream. It is bound to be a matter of indifference to us whether it is well put together, or is broken up into a series of disconnected separate pictures.” This quote interests me because it in some ways reflects the structuralist idea that the underlying system (latent dream) is more important that any one surface phenomenon (manifest dream).

On the whole, Freud’s writing, while at times questionable in its scientific assertions, reveals a mind that was highly associative, inquisitive, and innovative; these qualities of his thoughts and writings, more than any one particular conclusion (well, except perhaps that of the unconscious mind), are what make him and his relevant today.


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