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Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 6D


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We have hitherto been concerned with investigating the manner in which our dreams represent the relations between the dream-thoughts, but we have often extended our inquiry to the further question as to what alterations the dream-material itself undergoes for the purposes of dream-formation. We now know that the dream-material, after being stripped of a great many of its relations, is subjected to compression, while at the same time displacements of the intensity of its elements enforce a psychic transvaluation of this material. The displacements which we have considered were shown to be substitutions of one particular idea for another, in some way related to the original by its associations, and the displacements were made to facilitate the condensation, inasmuch as in this manner, instead of two elements, a common mean between them found its way into the dream. So far no mention has been made of any other kind of displacement. But we learn from the analyses that displacement of another kind does occur, and that it manifests itself in an exchange of the verbal expression for the thought in question. In both cases we are dealing with a displacement along a chain of associations, but the same process takes place in different psychic spheres, and the result of this displacement in the one case is that one element is replaced by another, while in the other case an element exchanges its verbal shape for another.

This second kind of displacement occurring in dream-formation is not only of great theoretical interest, but is also peculiarly well-fitted to explain the appearance of fantastic absurdity in which dreams disguise themselves. Displacement usually occurs in such a way that a colourless and abstract expression of the dream-thought is exchanged for one that is pictorial and concrete. The advantage, and along with it the purpose, of this substitution is obvious. Whatever is pictorial is capable of representation in dreams and can be fitted into a situation in which abstract expression would confront the dream-representation with difficulties not unlike those which would arise if a political leading article had to be represented in an illustrated journal. Not only the possibility of representation, but also the interests of condensation and of the censorship, may be furthered by this exchange. Once the abstractly expressed and unserviceable dream-thought is translated into pictorial language, those contacts and identities between this new expression and the rest of the dream-material which are required by the dream-work, and which it contrives whenever they are not available, are more readily provided, since in every language concrete terms, owing to their evolution, are richer in associations than are abstract terms. It may be imagined that a good part of the intermediate work in dream-formation, which seeks to reduce the separate dream-thoughts to the tersest and most unified expression in the dream, is effected in this manner, by fitting paraphrases of the various thoughts. The one thought whose mode of expression has perhaps been determined by other factors will therewith exert a distributive and selective influence on the expressions available for the others, and it may even do this from the very start, just as it would in the creative activity of a poet. When a poem is to be written in rhymed couplets, the second rhyming line is bound by two conditions: it must express the meaning allotted to it, and its expression must permit of a rhyme with the first line. The best poems are, of course, those in which one does not detect the effort to find a rhyme, and in which both thoughts have as a matter of course, by mutual induction, selected the verbal expression which, with a little subsequent adjustment, will permit of the rhyme.

In some cases the change of expression serves the purposes of dream-condensation more directly, in that it provides an arrangement of words which, being ambiguous, permits of the expression of more than one of the dream-thoughts. The whole range of verbal wit is thus made to serve the purpose of the dream-work. The part played by words in dream-formation ought not to surprise us. A word, as the point of junction of a number of ideas, possesses, as it were, a predestined ambiguity, and the neuroses (obsessions, phobias) take advantage of the opportunities for condensation and disguise afforded by words quite as eagerly as do dreams.[1] That dream-distortion also profits by this displacement of expression may be readily demonstrated. It is indeed confusing if one ambiguous word is substituted for two with single meanings, and the replacement of sober, everyday language by a plastic mode of expression baffles our understanding, especially since a dream never tells us whether the elements presented by it are to be interpreted literally or metaphorically, whether they refer to the dream-material directly, or only by means of interpolated expressions. Generally speaking, in the interpretation of any element of a dream it is doubtful whether it

(a) is to be accepted in the negative or the positive sense (contrast relation);

(b) is to be interpreted historically (as a memory);

(c) is symbolic; or whether

(d) its valuation is to be based upon its wording.

In spite of this versatility, we may say that the representation effected by the dream-work, which was never even intended to be understood, does not impose upon the translator any greater difficulties than those that the ancient writers of hieroglyphics imposed upon their readers.

I have already given several examples of dream-representations which are held together only by ambiguity of expression ('her mouth opens without difficulty', in the dream of Irma's injection; 'I cannot go yet after all', in the last dream related, etc.). I shall now cite a dream in the analysis of which plastic representation of the abstract thoughts plays a greater part. The difference between such dream-interpretation and the interpretation by means of symbols may nevertheless be clearly defined; in the symbolic interpretation of dreams the key to the symbolism is selected arbitrarily by the interpreter, while in our own cases of verbal disguise these keys are universally known and are taken from established modes of speech. Provided one hits on the right idea on the right occasion, one may solve dreams of this kind, either completely or in part, independently of any statements made by the dreamer.

A lady, a friend of mine, dreams: She is at the opera. It is a Wagnerian performance, which has lasted until 7.45 in the morning. In the stalls and pit there are tables, at which people are eating and drinking. Her cousin and his young wife, who have just returned from their honeymoon, are sitting at one of these tables; beside them is a member of the aristocracy. The young wife is said to have brought him back with her from the honeymoon quite openly, just as she might have brought back a hat. In the middle of the stalls there is a high tower, on the top of which there is a platform surrounded by an iron railing. There, high overhead, stands the conductor, with the features of Hans Richter, continually running round behind the railing, perspiring terribly; and from this position he is conducting the orchestra, which is arranged round the base of the tower. She herself is sitting in a box with a friend of her own sex (known to me). Her younger sister tries to hand her up, from the stalls, a large lump of coal, alleging that she had not known that it would be so long, and that she must by this time be miserably cold. (As though the boxes ought to have been heated during the long performance.)

Although in other respects the dream gives a good picture of the situation, it is, of course, nonsensical enough: the tower in the middle of the stalls, from which the conductor leads the orchestra, and above all the coal which her sister hands up to her. I purposely asked for no analysis of this dream. With some knowledge of the personal relations of the dreamer, I was able to interpret parts of it independently of her. I knew that she had felt intense sympathy for a musician whose career had been prematurely brought to an end by insanity. I therefore decided to take the tower in the stalls verbally. It then emerged that the man whom she wished to see in the place of Hans Richter towered above all the other members of the orchestra. This tower must be described as a composite formation by means of apposition; by its substructure it represents the greatness of the man, but by the railing at the top, behind which he runs round like a prisoner or an animal in a cage (an allusion to the name of the unfortunate man[2]), it represents his later fate. 'Lunatic-tower' is perhaps the expression in which the two thoughts might have met.

Now that we have discovered the dream's method of representation, we may try, with the same key, to unlock the meaning of the second apparent absurdity, that of the coal which her sister hands up to the dreamer. 'Coal' should mean 'secret love'.

No fire, no coal so hotly glows
As the secret love of which no one knows.

She and her friend remain seated[3] while her younger sister, who still has a prospect of marrying, hands her up the coal 'because she did not know that it would be so long.' What would be so long is not told in the dream. If it were an anecdote, we should say 'the performance'; but in the dream we may consider the sentence as it is, declare it to be ambiguous, and add 'before she married'. The interpretation 'secret love' is then confirmed by the mention of the cousin who is sitting with his wife in the stalls, and by the open love-affair attributed to the latter. The contrasts between secret and open love, between the dreamer's fire and the coldness of the young wife, dominate the dream. Moreover, here once again there is a person 'in a high position' as a middle term between the aristocrat and the musician who is justified in raising high hopes.

In the above analysis we have at last brought to light a third factor, whose part in the transformation of the dream-thoughts into the dream-content is by no means trivial: namely, consideration of the suitability of the dream-thoughts for representation in the particular psychic material of which the dream makes use -- that is, for the most part in visual images. Among the various subordinate ideas associated with the essential dream-thoughts, those will be preferred which permit of visual representation, and the dream-work does not hesitate to recast the intractable thoughts into another verbal form, even though this is a more unusual form, provided it makes representation possible, and thus puts an end to the psychological distress caused by strangulated thinking. This pouring of the thought-content into another mould may at the same time serve the work of condensation, and may establish relations with another thought which otherwise would not have been established. It is even possible that this second thought may itself have previously changed its original expression for the purpose of meeting the first one half-way.

Herbert Silberer[4] has described a good method of directly observing the transformation of thoughts into images which occurs in dream-formation, and has thus made it possible to study in isolation this one factor of the dream-work. If while in a state of fatigue and somnolence he imposed upon himself a mental effort, it frequently happened that the thought escaped him, and in its place there appeared a picture in which he could recognise the substitute for the thought. Not quite appropriately, Silberer described this substitution as 'auto-symbolic'. I shall cite here a few examples from Silberer's work, and on account of certain peculiarities of the phenomena observed I shall refer to the subject later on.

Example 1. -- I remember that I have to correct a halting passage in an essay.

   Symbol. -- I see myself planing a piece of wood.

Example 5. -- I endeavour to call to mind the aim of certain metaphysical studies which I am proposing to undertake.

   This aim, I reflect, consists in working one's way through, while seeking for the basis of existence, to ever higher forms of consciousness or levels of being.

   Symbol. -- I run a long knife under a cake as though to take a slice out of it.

   Interpretation. -- My movement with the knife signifies 'working one's way through'. . . . The explanation of the basis of the symbolism is as follows: At table it devolves upon me now and again to cut and distribute a cake, a business which I perform with a long, flexible knife, and which necessitates a certain amount of care. In particular, the neat extraction of the cut slices of cake presents a certain amount of difficulty; the knife must be carefully pushed under the slices in question (the slow 'working one's way through' in order to get to the bottom). But there is yet more symbolism in the picture. The cake of the symbol was really a 'dobos-cake' -- that is, a cake in which the knife has to cut through several layers (the levels of consciousness and thought).

   Example 9. -- I lost the thread in a train of thought. I make an effort to find it again, but I have to recognise that the point of departure has completely escaped me.

   Symbol. -- Part of a form of type, the last lines of which have fallen out.'

In view of the part played by witticisms, puns, quotations, songs, and proverbs in the intellectual life of educated persons, it would be entirely in accordance with our expectations to find disguises of this sort used with extreme frequency in the representation of the dream-thoughts. Only in the case of a few types of material has a generally valid dream-symbolism established itself on the basis of generally known allusions and verbal equivalents. A good part of this symbolism, however, is common to the psychoneuroses, legends, and popular usages as well as to dreams.

In fact, if we look more closely into the matter, we must recognise that in employing this kind of substitution the dream-work is doing nothing at all original. For the achievement of its purpose, which in this case is representation without interference from the censorship, it simply follows the paths which it finds already marked out in unconscious thinking, and gives the preference to those transformations of the repressed material which are permitted to become conscious also in the form of witticisms and allusions, and with which all the fantasies of neurotics are replete. Here we suddenly begin to understand the dream-interpretations of Scherner, whose essential correctness I have vindicated elsewhere. The preoccupation of the imagination with one's own body is by no means peculiar to or characteristic of the dream alone. My analyses have shown me that it is constantly found in the unconscious thinking of neurotics, and may be traced back to sexual curiosity, whose object, in the adolescent youth or maiden, is the genitals of the opposite sex, or even of the same sex. But, as Scherner and Volkelt very truly insist, the house does not constitute the only group of ideas which is employed for the symbolisation of the body, either in dreams or in the unconscious fantasies of neurosis. To be sure, I know patients who have steadily adhered to an architectural symbolism for the body and the genitals (sexual interest, of course, extends far beyond the region of the external genital organs) -- patients for whom posts and pillars signify legs (as in the Song of Songs), to whom every door suggests a bodily aperture ('hole'), and every water-pipe the urinary system, and so on. But the groups of ideas appertaining to plant-life, or to the kitchen, are just as often chosen to conceal sexual images;[5] in respect of the former everyday language, the sediment of imaginative comparisons dating from the remotest times, has abundantly paved the way (the 'vineyard' of the Lord, the 'seed' of Abraham, the 'garden' of the maiden in the Song of Songs). The ugliest as well as the most intimate details of sexual life may be thought or dreamed of in apparently innocent allusions to culinary operations, and the symptoms of hysteria will become absolutely unintelligible if we forget that sexual symbolism may conceal itself behind the most commonplace and inconspicuous matters as its safest hiding-place. That some neurotic children cannot look at blood and raw meat, that they vomit at the sight of eggs and macaroni, and that the dread of snakes, which is natural to mankind, is monstrously exaggerated in neurotics -- all this has a definite sexual meaning. Wherever the neurosis employs a disguise of this sort, it treads the paths once trodden by the whole of humanity in the early stages of civilisation -- paths to whose thinly veiled existence our idiomatic expressions, proverbs, superstitions, and customs testify to this day.

I here insert the promised 'flower-dream' of a female patient, in which I shall print in Roman type everything which is to be sexually interpreted. This beautiful dream lost all its charm for the dreamer once it had been interpreted.

(a) Preliminary dream: She goes to the two maids in the kitchen and scolds them for taking so long to prepare 'a little bite of food'. She also sees a very large number of heavy kitchen utensils in the kitchen, heaped into piles and turned upside down in order to drain. Later addition: The two maids go to fetch water, and have, as it were, to climb into a river which reaches up to the house or into the courtyard.[6]

(b) Main dream:[7]She is descending from a height[8]over curiously constructed railings, or a fence which is composed of large square trelliswork hurdles with small square apertures.[9]It is really not adapted for climbing; she is constantly afraid that she cannot find a place for her foot, and she is glad that her dress doesn't get caught anywhere, and that she is able to climb down it so respectably.[10]As she climbs she is carrying a big branch in her hand,[11]really like a tree, which is thickly studded with red flowers; a spreading branch, with many twigs.[12]With this is connected the idea of cherry-blossoms (Blüten = flowers), but they look like fully opened camellias, which of course do not grow on trees. As she is descending, she first has one, then suddenly two, and then again only one.[13]When she has reached the ground the lower flowers have already begun to fall. Now that she has reached the bottom she sees an 'odd man' who is combing -- as she would like to put it -- just such a tree, that is, with a piece of wood he is scraping thick bunches of hair from it, which hang from it like moss. Other men have chopped off such branches in a garden, and have flung them into the road, where they are lying about, so that a number of people take some of them. But she asks whether this is right, whether she may take one, too.[14]In the garden there stands a young man (he is a foreigner, and known to her) toward whom she goes in order to ask him how it is possible to transplant such branches in her own garden.[15]He embraces her, whereupon she struggles and asks him what he is thinking of, whether it is permissible to embrace her in such a manner. He says there is nothing wrong in it, that it is permitted.[16]He then declares himself willing to go with her into the other garden, in order to show her how to put them in, and he says something to her which she does not quite understand: 'Besides this I need three metres (later she says: square metres) or three fathoms of ground.' It seems as though he were asking her for something in return for his willingness, as though he had the intention of indemnifying (reimbursing) himself in her garden, as though he wanted to evade some law or other, to derive some advantage from it without causing her an injury. She does not know whether or not he really shows her anything.

The above dream, which has been given prominence on account of its symbolic elements, may be described as a 'biographical' dream. Such dreams occur frequently in psychoanalysis, but perhaps only rarely outside it.[17]

I have, of course, an abundance of such material, but to reproduce it here would lead us too far into the consideration of neurotic conditions. Everything points to the same conclusion, namely, that we need not assume that any special symbolising activity of the psyche is operative in dream-formation; that, on the contrary, the dream makes use of such symbolisations as are to be found ready-made in unconscious thinking, since these, by reason of their ease of representation, and for the most part by reason of their being exempt from the censorship, satisfy more effectively the requirements of dream-formation.

[1]cf. Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious.

[2]Hugo Wolf.

[3][The German sitzen geblieben is often applied to women who have not succeeded in getting married. -- TRANS.]

[4]Bleuler-Freud Jahrbuch, i, 1909.

[5]A mass of corroborative material may be found in the three supplementary volumes of Edward Fuchs's Illustrierte Sittengeschichte; privately printed by A. Lange, Munich.

[6]For the interpretation of this preliminary dream, which is to be regarded as 'causal', see p. 199.

[7]Her career.

[8]Exalted origin, the wish-contrast to the preliminary dream.

[9]A composite formation, which unites two localities, the so-called garret (German: Boden = floor, garret) of her father's house, in which she used to play with her brother, the object of her later fantasies, and the farm of a malicious uncle, who used to tease her.

[10]Wish-contrast to an actual memory of her uncle's farm, to the effect that she used to expose herself while she was asleep.

[11]Just as the angel bears a lily-stem in the Annunciation.

[12]For the explanation of this composite formation, see pp. 202-03; innocence, menstruation, La Dame aux Camélias.

[13]Referring to the plurality of the persons who serve her fantasies.

[14]Whether it is permissible to masturbate. ['Sich einen herunterreissen' means 'to pull off' and colloquially 'to masturbate'. -- TRANS.]

[15]The branch (Ast) has long been used to represent the male organ, and, moreover, contains a very distinct allusion to the family name of the dreamer

[16]Refers to matrimonial precautions, as does that which immediately follows.

[17]An analogous 'biographical' dream is recorded on p. 242, among the examples of dream symbolism.

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