A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud

Fifteenth Lecture

The Dream

Doubtful Points and Criticism

Let us not leave the subject of dreams before we have touched upon the most common doubts and uncertainties which have arisen in connection with the new ideas and conceptions we have discussed up to this point. The more attentive members of the audience probably have already accumulated some material bearing upon this.

1. You may have received the impression that the results of our work of interpretation of the dream have left so much that is uncertain, despite our close adherence to technique, that a true translation of the manifest dream into the latent dream thoughts is thereby rendered impossible. In support of this you will point out that in the first place, one never knows whether a specific element of the dream is to be taken literally or symbolically, since those elements which are used symbolically do not, because of that fact, cease to be themselves. But if one has no objective standard by which to decide this, the interpretation is, as to this point, left to the discretion of the dream interpreter. Moreover, because of the way in which the dream work combines opposites, it is always uncertain whether a specific dream element is to be taken in the positive or the negative sense, whether it is to be understood as itself or as its opposite. Hence this is another opportunity for the exercise of the interpreter’s discretion. In the third place, in consequence of the frequency with which every sort of inversion is practised in the dream, the dream interpreter is at liberty to assume such an inversion at any point of the dream he pleases. And finally you will say, you have heard that one is seldom sure that the interpretation which is found is the only possible one. There is danger of overlooking a thoroughly admissible second interpretation of the same dream. Under these circumstances, you will conclude there is a scope left for the discretion of the interpreter, the breadth of which seems incompatible with the objective accuracy of the results. Or you may also conclude that the fault does not rest with the dream but that the inadequacies of our dream interpretation result from errors in our conceptions and hypotheses.

All your material is irreproachable, but I do not believe that it justifies your conclusions in two directions, namely, that dream interpretation as we practice it is sacrificed to arbitrariness and that the deficiency of our results makes the justification of our method doubtful. If you will substitute for the arbitrariness of the interpreter, his skill, his experience, his comprehension, I agree with you. We shall surely not be able to dispense with some such personal factor, particularly not in difficult tasks of dream interpretation. But this same state of affairs exists also in other scientific occupations. There is no way in which to make sure that one man will not wield a technique less well, or utilize it more fully, than another. What might, for example, impress you as arbitrariness in the interpretation of symbols, is compensated for by the fact that as a rule the connection of the dream thoughts among themselves, the connection of the dream with the life of the dreamer, and the whole psychic situation in which the dream occurs, chooses just one of the possible interpretations advanced and rejects the others as useless for its purposes. The conclusion drawn from the inadequacies of dream interpretation, that our hypotheses are wrong, is weakened by an observation which shows that the ambiguity and indefiniteness of the dream is rather characteristic and necessarily to be expected.

Recollect that we said that the dream work translates the dream thoughts into primitive expressions analogous to picture writing. All these primitive systems of expression are, however, subject to such indefiniteness and ambiguities, but it does not follow that we are justified in doubting their usefulness. You know that the fusion of opposites by the dream-work is analogous to the so-called “antithetical meaning of primitive words,” in the oldest languages. The philologist, R. Abel (1884), whom we have to thank for this point of view, admonishes us not to believe that the meaning of the communication which one person made to another when using such ambiguous words was necessarily unclear. Tone and gesture used in connection with the words would have left no room for doubt as to which of the two opposites the speaker intended to communicate. In writing, where gesture is lacking, it was replaced by a supplementary picture sign not intended to be spoken, as for example by the picture of a little man squatting lazily or standing erect, according to whether the ambiguous hieroglyphic was to mean “weak” or “strong.” It was in this way that one avoided any misunderstanding despite the ambiguity of the sounds and signs.

We recognize in the ancient systems of expression, e.g., the writings of those oldest languages, a number of uncertainties which we would not tolerate in our present-day writings. Thus in many Semitic writings only the consonants of words are indicated. The reader had to supply the omitted vowels according to his knowledge and the context. Hieroglyphic writing does not proceed in exactly this way, but quite similarly, and that is why the pronunciation of old Egyptian has remained unknown to us. The holy writings of the Egyptians contain still other uncertainties. For example, it is left to the discretion of the writer whether or not he shall arrange the pictures from right to left or from left to right. To be able to read we have to follow the rule that we must depend upon the faces of the figures, birds, and the like. The writer, however, could also arrange the picture signs in vertical rows, and in inscriptions on small objects he was guided by considerations of beauty and proportion further to change the order of the signs. Probably the most confusing feature of hieroglyphic writing is to be found in the fact that there is no space between words. The pictures stretch over the page at uniform distances from one another, and generally one does not know whether a sign belongs to what has gone before or is the beginning of a new word. Persian cuneiform writing, on the other hand, makes use of an oblique wedge sign to separate the words.

The Chinese tongue and script is exceedingly old, but still used by four hundred million people. Please do not think I understand anything about it. I have only informed myself concerning it because I hoped to find analogies to the indefinite aspects of the dream. Nor was I disappointed. The Chinese language is filled with so many vagaries that it strikes terror into our hearts. It consists, as is well known, of a number of syllable sounds which are spoken singly or are combined in twos. One of the chief dialects has about four hundred such sounds. Now since the vocabulary of this dialect is estimated at about four thousand words, it follows that every sound has on an average of ten different meanings, some less but others, consequently, more. Hence there are a great number of ways of avoiding a multiplicity of meaning, since one cannot guess from the context alone which of the ten meanings of the syllable sound the speaker intended to convey to the hearer. Among them are the combining of two sounds into a compounded word and the use of four different “tones” with which to utter these syllables. For our purposes of comparison, it is still more interesting to note that this language has practically no grammar. It is impossible to say of a one-syllable word whether it is a noun, a verb, or an adjective, and we find none of those changes in the forms of the words by means of which we might recognize sex, number, ending, tense or mood. The language, therefore, might be said to consist of raw material, much in the same manner as our thought language is broken up by the dream work into its raw materials when the expressions of relationship are left out. In the Chinese, in all cases of vagueness the decision is left to the understanding of the hearer, who is guided by the context. I have secured an example of a Chinese saying which, literally translated, reads: “Little to be seen, much to wonder at.” That is not difficult to understand. It may mean, “The less a man has seen, the more he finds to wonder at,” or, “There is much to admire for the man who has seen little.” Naturally, there is no need to choose between these two translations, which differ only in grammar. Despite these uncertainties, we are assured, the Chinese language is an extraordinarily excellent medium for the expression of thought. Vagueness does not, therefore, necessarily lead to ambiguity.

Now we must certainly admit that the condition of affairs is far less favorable in the expression-system of the dream than in these ancient languages and writings. For, after all, these latter are really designed for communication, that is to say, they were always intended to be understood, no matter in what way and with what aids. But it is just this characteristic which the dream lacks. The dream does not want to tell anyone anything, it is no vehicle of communication, it is, on the contrary, constructed so as not to be understood. For that reason we must not be surprised or misled if we should discover that a number of the ambiguities and vagaries of the dream do not permit of determination. As the one specific gain of our comparison, we have only the realization that such uncertainties as people tried to make use of in objecting to the validity of our dream interpretation, are rather the invariable characteristic of all primitive systems of expression.

How far the dream can really be understood can be determined only by practice and experience. My opinion is, that that is very far indeed, and the comparison of results which correctly trained analysts have gathered confirms my view. The lay public, even that part of the lay public which is interested in science, likes, in the face of the difficulties and uncertainties of a scientific task, to make what I consider an unjust show of its superior scepticism. Perhaps not all of you are acquainted with the fact that a similar situation arose in the history of the deciphering of the Babylonian–Assyrian inscriptions. There was a period then when public opinion went far in declaring the decipherors of cuneiform writing to be visionaries and the whole research a “fraud.” But in the year 1857 the Royal Asiatic Society made a decisive test. It challenged the four most distinguished decipherors of cuneiform writing, Rawlinson, Hincks, Fox Talbot and Oppert, each to send to it in a sealed envelope his independent translation of a newly discovered inscription, and the Society was then able to testify, after having made a comparison of the four readings, that their agreement was sufficiently marked to justify confidence in what already had been accomplished, and faith in further progress. At this the mockery of the learned lay world gradually came to an end and the confidence in the reading of cuneiform documents has grown appreciably since then.

2. A second series of objections is firmly grounded in the impression from which you too probably are not free, that a number of the solutions of dream interpretations which we find it necessary to make seem forced, artificial, far-fetched, in other words, violent or even comical or jocose. These comments are so frequent that I shall choose at random the latest example which has come to my attention. Recently, in free Switzerland, the director of a boarding-school was relieved of his position on account of his active interest in psychoanalysis. He raised objections and a Berne newspaper made public the judgment of the school authorities. I quote from that article some sentences which apply to psychoanalysis: “Moreover, we are surprised at the many far-fetched and artificial examples as found in the aforementioned book of Dr. Pfister of Zurich. . . . Thus, it certainly is a cause of surprise when the director of a boarding-school so uncritically accepts all these assertions and apparent proofs.” These observations are offered as the decisions of “one who judges calmly.” I rather think this calm is “artificial.” Let us examine these remarks more closely in the hope that a little reflection and knowledge of the subject can be no detriment to calm judgment.

It is positively refreshing to see how quickly and unerringly some individuals can judge a delicate question of abstruse psychology by first impressions. The interpretations seem to them far-fetched and forced, they do not please them, so the interpretations are wrong and the whole business of interpretation amounts to nothing. No fleeting thought ever brushes the other possibility, that these interpretations must appear as they are for good reasons, which would give rise to the further question of what these good reasons might be.

The content thus judged generally relates to the results of displacement, with which you have become acquainted as the strongest device of the dream censor. It is with the help of displacements that the dream censor creates substitute-formations which we have designated as allusions. But they are allusions which are not easily recognized as such, and from which it is not easy to find one’s way back to the original and which are connected with this original by means of the strangest, most unusual, most superficial associations. In all of these cases, however, it is a question of matters which are to be hidden, which were intended for concealment; this is what the dream censor aims to do. We must not expect to find a thing that has been concealed in its accustomed place in the spot where it belongs. In this respect the Commissions for the Surveillance of Frontiers now in office are more cunning than the Swiss school authorities. In their search for documents and maps they are not content to search through portfolios and letter cases but they also take into account the possibility that spies and smugglers might carry such severely proscribed articles in the most concealed parts of their clothing, where they certainly do not belong, as for example between the double soles of their boots. If the concealed objects are found in such a place, they certainly are very far-fetched, but nevertheless they have been “fetched.”

If we recognize that the most remote, the most extraordinary associations between the latent dream element and its manifest substitute are possible, associations appearing ofttimes comical, ofttimes witty, we follow in so doing a wealth of experience derived from examples whose solutions we have, as a rule, not found ourselves. Often it is not possible to give such interpretations from our own examples. No sane person could guess the requisite association. The dreamer either gives us the translation with one stroke by means of his immediate association — he can do this, for this substitute formation was created by his mind — or he provides us with so much material that the solution no longer demands any special astuteness but forces itself upon us as inevitable. If the dreamer does not help us in either of these two ways, then indeed the manifest element in question remains forever incomprehensible to us. Allow me to give you one more such example of recent occurrence. One of my patients lost her father during the time that she was undergoing treatment. Since then she has made use of every opportunity to bring him back to life in her dreams. In one of her dreams her father appears in a certain connection, of no further importance here, and says, “It is a quarter past eleven, it is half past eleven, it is quarter of twelve.” All she can think of in connection with this curious incident is the recollection that her father liked to see his grown-up children appear punctually at the general meal hour. That very thing probably had some connection with the dream element, but permitted of no conclusion as to its source. Judging from the situation of the treatment at that time, there was a justified suspicion that a carefully suppressed critical rebellion against her loved and respected father played its part in this dream. Continuing her associations, and apparently far afield from topics relevant to the dream, the dreamer relates that yesterday many things of a psychological nature had been discussed in her presence, and that a relative made the remark: “The cave man (Urmensch) continues to live in all of us.” Now we think we understand. That gave her an excellent opportunity of picturing her father as continuing to live. So in the dream she made of him a clockman (Uhrmensch) by having him announce the quarter-hours at noon time.

You may not be able to disregard the similarity which this examples bears to a pun, and it really has happened frequently that the dreamer’s pun is attributed to the interpreter. There are still other examples in which it is not at all easy to decide whether one is dealing with a joke or a dream. But you will recall that the same doubt confronted us when we were dealing with slips of the tongue. A man tells us a dream of his, that his uncle, while they were sitting in the latter’s automobile, gave him a kiss. He very quickly supplies the interpretation himself. It means “auto-eroticism,” (a term taken from the study of the libido, or love impulse, and designating satisfaction of that impulse without an external object). Did this man permit himself to make fun of us and give out as a dream a pun that occurred to him? I do not believe so; he really dreamed it. Whence comes the astounding similarity? This question at one time led me quite a ways from my path, by making it necessary for me to make a thorough investigation of the problem of humor itself. By so doing I came to the conclusion that the origin of wit lies in a foreconscious train of thought which is left for a moment to unconscious manipulation, from which it then emerges as a joke. Under the influence of the unconscious it experiences the workings of the mechanisms there in force, namely, of condensation and displacement, that is, of the same processes which we found active in the dream work, and it is to this agreement that we are to ascribe the similarity between wit and the dream, wherever it occurs. The unintentional “dream joke” has, however, none of the pleasure-giving quality of the ordinary joke. Why that is so, greater penetration into the study of wit may teach you. The “dream joke” seems a poor joke to us, it does not make us laugh, it leaves us cold.

Here we are also following in the footsteps of ancient dream interpretation, which has left us, in addition to much that is useless, many a good example of dream interpretation we ourselves cannot surpass. I am now going to tell you a dream of historical importance which Plutarch and Artemidorus of Daldis both tell concerning Alexander the Great, with certain variations. When the King was engaged in besieging the city of Tyre (322 B.C.), which was being stubbornly defended, he once dreamed that he saw a dancing satyr. Aristandros, his dream interpreter, who accompanied the army, interpreted this dream for him by making of the word Satyros, [Greek] sa Turos, “Thine is Tyre,” and thus promising him a triumph over the city. Alexander allowed himself to be influenced by this interpretation to continue the siege, and finally captured Tyre. The interpretation, which seems artificial enough, was without doubt the correct one.

3. I can imagine that it will make a special impression on you to hear that objections to our conception of the dream have been raised also by persons who, as psychoanalysts, have themselves been interested in the interpretation of dreams. It would have been too extraordinary if so pregnant an opportunity for new errors had remained unutilized, and thus, owing to comprehensible confusions and unjustified generalizations, there have been assertions made which, in point of incorrectness are not far behind the medical conception of dreams. One of these you already know. It is the declaration that the dream is occupied with the dreamer’s attempts at adaptation to his present environment, and attempts to solve future problems, in other words, that the dream follows a “prospective tendency” (A. Maeder). We have already shown that this assertion is based upon a confusion of the dream with the latent thoughts of the dream, that as a premise it overlooks the existence of the dream-work. In characterizing that psychic activity which is unconscious and to which the latent thoughts of the dream belong, the above assertion is no novelty, nor is it exhaustive, for this unconscious psychic activity occupies itself with many other things besides preparation for the future. A much worse confusion seems to underlie the assurance that back of every dream one finds the “death-clause,” or death-wish. I am not quite certain what this formula is meant to indicate, but I suppose that back of it is a confusion of the dream with the whole personality of the dreamer.

An unjustified generalization, based on few good examples, is the pronouncement that every dream permits of two interpretations, one such as we have explained, the so-called psychoanalytic, and another, the so-called anagogical or mystical, which ignores the instinctive impulses and aims at a representation of the higher psychic functions (V. Silberer). There are such dreams, but you will try in vain to extend this conception to even a majority of the dreams. But after everything you have heard, the statement will seem very incomprehensible that all dreams can be interpreted bisexually, that is, as the concurrence of two tendencies which may be designated as male and female (A. Adler). To be sure, there are a few such dreams, and you may learn later that these are built up in the manner of certain hysterical symptoms. I mention all these newly discovered general characteristics of the dream in order to warn you against them or at least in order not to leave you in doubt as to how I judge them.

4. At one time the objective value of dream research was called into question by the observation that patients undergoing analysis accommodate the content of their dreams to the favorite theories of their physicians, so that some dream predominantly of sexual impulses, others of the desire for power and still others even of rebirth (W. Stekel). The weight of this observation is diminished by the consideration that people dreamed before there was such a thing as a psychoanalytic treatment to influence their dreams, and that those who are now undergoing treatment were also in the habit of dreaming before the treatment was commenced. The meaning of this novel discovery can soon be recognized as a matter of course and as of no consequence for the theory of the dream. Those day-remnants which give rise to the dream are the overflow from the strong interest of the waking life. If the remarks of the physician and the stimuli which he gives have become significant to the patient under analysis, then they become a part of the day’s remnants, can serve as psychic stimuli for the formation of a dream along with other, emotionally-charged, unsolved interests of the day, and operate much as do the somatic stimuli which act upon the sleeper during his sleep. Just like these other incitors of the dream, the sequence of ideas which the physician sets in motion may appear in the manifest content, or may be traced in the latent content of the dream. Indeed, we know that one can produce dreams experimentally, or to speak more accurately, one can insert into the dream a part of the dream material. Thus the analyst in influencing his patients, merely plays the role of an experimenter in the manner of Mourly Vold, who places the limbs of his subjects in certain positions.

One can often influence the dreamer as to the subject-matter of his dream, but one can never influence what he will dream about it. The mechanism of the dream-work and the unconscious wish that is hidden in the dream are beyond the reach of all foreign influences. We already realized, when we evaluated the dreams caused by bodily stimuli, that the peculiarity and self-sufficiency of the dream life shows itself in the reaction with which the dream retorts to the bodily or physical stimuli which are presented. The statement here discussed, which aims to throw doubt upon the objectivity of dream research, is again based on a confusion — this time of the whole dream with the dream material.

This much, ladies and gentlemen, I wanted to tell you concerning the problems of the dream. You will suspect that I have omitted a great deal, and have yourselves discovered that I had to be inconclusive on almost all points. But that is due to the relation which the phenomena of the dream have to those of the neuroses. We studied the dream by way of introduction to the study of the neuroses, and that was surely more correct than the reverse would have been. But just as the dream prepares us for the understanding of the neuroses, so in turn the correct evaluation of the dream can only be gained after a knowledge of neurotic phenomena has been won.

I do not know what you will think about this, but I must assure you that I do not regret having taken so much of your interest and of your available time for the problems of the dream. There is no other field in which one can so quickly become convinced of the correctness of the assertions by which psychoanalysis stands or falls. It will take the strenuous labor of many months, even years, to show that the symptoms in a case of neurotic break-down have their meaning, serve a purpose, and result from the fortunes of the patient. On the other hand, the efforts of a few hours suffice in proving the same content in a dream product which at first seems incomprehensibly confused, and thereby to confirm all the hypotheses of psychoanalysis, the unconsciousness of psychic processes, the special mechanism which they follow, and the motive forces which manifest themselves in them. And if we associate the thorough analogy in the construction of the dream and the neurotic symptom with the rapidity of transformation which makes of the dreamer an alert and reasonable individual, we gain the certainty that the neurosis also is based only on a change in the balance of the forces of psychic life.

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