In March 1900, shortly after its publication, Freud wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, '. . . not a leaf has stirred to reveal that The Interpretation of Dreams has had any impact on anyone'. He was convinced that others found his ideas odious, and a hunger for immediate recognition led him to underestimate the general interest evoked; yet if the people whose good opinion he craved -- his medical and scientific colleagues -- did not reject the book outright, their judgement was nonetheless circumspect.
Romantic psychology, with its focus on introspective investigation of the mind's mysteries, was the province of writers and poets; but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had given way to a philosophy of science which venerated empirical observation and looked askance at anything speculative. The Helmholtz school of thought, a reaction to earlier 'vitalism', contended that all psycho-biological phenomena must ultimately be reducible to physico-chemical events. Freud was well schooled in this positivist point of view, indeed he subscribed to it; but he saw psychology as an interim level of explanation that could be systematically explored through self-observation. His claim to have successfully captured dreams for science was bound to be treated with caution; but his skill in arguing the case left many reviewers with an uneasy sense of having been persuaded, almost in spite of themselves -- 'ingenious' and 'stimulating' were the words most commonly employed to characterise his work.
The Interpretation of Dreams is much more than its title suggests. It is at once an exposition of a model of the mind (Freud's first 'topography', which divided the mind into unconscious, preconscious and conscious domains, in which different principles of mental functioning obtained), an investigation of imaginative processes and a personal confession. Freud came to see the writing as a response to his father's death, 'the most important event, the most poignant loss in a man's life'; and in it he records his discovery of the 'Oedipus complex', the still controversial claim that there exists in all men an (infantile) unconscious disposition towards maternal incest and patricide.
Whereas the theoretical demonstration in Chapter 7 is difficult to understand and harks back to his mechanistic Project for a Scientific Psychology (an audacious but inevitably doomed attempt to solve the mind-body problem), the examination of the 'dream-work' contained in the previous chapter makes compelling reading. Rather than focusing on hypothetical memory systems and the transmission of 'excitation' in some kind of speculative neurophysiology, it describes a kind of 'metabolism of meaning' and concentrates on the means whereby ideas are embellished and represented in the mind, foreshadowing the author's extraordinary transition from neurologist to psychologist.
Freud's point of departure was a defence of the traditional attitude towards dreams as significant events rather than 'mental rubbish'. The incoherence of dreams was not to be dismissed as the random firing of unruly neurones, some kind of semantic epilepsy. Nor, however, was it a mysterious message concerning the future. Neither somatic aberration nor mystical visitation, it was, according to Freud, nothing other than a disguised wish.
To assert that people often dream of what they desire might have been uncontroversial, but Freud saw such straightforward representation of wish-fulfilment as relatively uninteresting, and most typical of child psychology, where conflict was not yet in evidence. It was precisely the unintelligible features of dreams, the logical impossibilities and bizarre happenings, that he set out to explain, and came to see as resulting from an unstable compromise between desire and prohibition. Like Plato, he saw mental life as a struggle between 'the beast' in man and some higher moderating influence; but whereas Plato's nocturnal beast was rampant, not shrinking in fantasy 'from intercourse with a mother or anyone else, man, god or brute', Freud's (almost) always appeared in disguise, covered in guile, a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, 'Freud very commonly gives what we might call a sexual interpretation. But it is interesting that among all the reports of dreams which he gives there is not a single example of a straightforward sexual dream. Yet these dreams are as common as rain.' Taking into account the social mores of the time, Wittgenstein is perhaps expecting too much, but it is clear that over and above concerns of social impropriety (which Freud explicitly denies), he had strong theoretical reasons for preferring to concentrate on the indirect methods of expression which he attributed to dreams.
Just as he had previously seen hysterical symptoms as a body-language or somatic metaphor reflecting underlying conflict, a product of suppressed emotion and inhibited desire, Freud now saw dreams as symptom-equivalents, susceptible to the same mode of deconstruction. He proceeded to transpose the method of 'free-association' developed in the treatment of hysterical patients to the content analysis of his own dreams.
The nub of the method consisted of inducing in himself a twilight state analogous to hypnotic trance by deliberately relinquishing the conscious organisation and editorship of ideas. If the mish-mash of thoughts that surfaced in this open-minded state was not consciously organised, Freud reasoned, then any pattern it revealed must be a reflection of the unconscious mind. And this functioned according to the 'pleasure principle', knowing only wishes whose fulfilment admitted of no contradiction and was unbound by logic or time.
If he jumped off from a particular element in a dream, he could trace a series of thoughts which revealed hitherto unknown wishes. A concealed narrative or 'latent content' could then be inferred, which were thoughts underlying the 'manifest content' of the dream. The 'latent content' was concealed because it was invariably unacceptable to the conscious mind which (in its 'normal' self-critical state) functioned according to the 'reality principle'. The 'manifest content', on the other hand, might appear as 'hieroglyphics', but this was a mere disguise for the undesirable latent dream thoughts. Even so some attempt to iron it into coherence by a process of 'secondary revision' was made rather as a person with memory loss might invent plausible stories to fill in gaps.
Freud's virtuosity in tracing the associative links to his dreams is breathtaking. The dream, as he says, is 'meagre, paltry and laconic in comparison with the range and copiousness of the dream thoughts.' For example, in his brief dream of the 'botanical monograph' which occurred the evening after an interrupted conversation with a medical colleague, Dr Königstein, this is how he unpacks the single word 'botanical':
To botanical belong the recollections of the person of Professor Gärtner (German: Gärtner = gardener), of his blooming wife, of my patient, whose name is Flora, and of a lady concerning whom I told the story of the forgotten flowers. Gärtner again leads me to the laboratory and the conversation with Königstein, and the allusion to the two female patients belongs to the same conversation. From the lady with the flowers a train of thought branches off to the favourite flowers of my wife, whose other branch leads to the title of the hastily seen monograph. Further, botanical recalls an episode at the 'Gymnasium', and a university examination; and a fresh subject -- that of my hobbies -- which was broached in the above-mentioned conversation, is linked up, by means of what is humorously called my favourite flower, the artichoke, with the train of thought proceeding from the forgotten flowers; behind 'artichoke' there lies, on the one hand, a recollection of Italy, and on the other a reminiscence of a scene in my childhood in which I first formed an acquaintance -- which has since then grown so intimate -- with books. Botanical, then, is a veritable nucleus, and, for the dream, the meeting-point of many trains of thought; which I can testify, had all really been brought into connection by the conversation referred to.
Clearly there is no limit to the web of meaning spun by 'free association', or to put it the other way round, in Freud's language, 'the degree of condensation is -- strictly speaking -- indeterminable'. But Freud found that not only did each element of a manifest dream tend to lead to some latent common denominator; but a single latent thought was also prone to be represented by several manifest elements -- an interrelationship he referred to as 'over-determination'.
Freud attempted to unravel the principles or 'grammar' which governed the transformation of underlying thoughts into a remembered dream, a process which he designated 'dream work'. As well as 'condensation' and 'over-determination', he invoked 'displacement', by which he meant the shift in value that enabled elements in the manifest dream to seem important when they appeared peripheral to the underlying content; and 'symbolisation', the process whereby images of one thing came to suggest or stand for another.
Perhaps the most vulgar misconception concerning The Interpretation of Dreams is that in it Freud 'invented' sexual symbolism -- the representation of male sex organs by objects such as cigars and umbrellas or wild beasts, female sex organs by round or hollow containers, flowers, fruit, etc. But witness for example the 'Song of Songs':
Sweet dove, already you are in the cleft of my rock, enclosed in my cavern. Look up, let me see your handsome face. Speak to me, let me hear your sweet voice. GROOM:
Let us fetch us little foxes, little foxes that plunder the vineyards; for our vineyards are full of grapes. BRIDE:
My beloved is mine, as I am his. He browses among my lilies. Until the day dawns and the shadows fade, turn again to me, my beloved! Be like a wild goat or a hart grazing on the hills of Boter.
Such symbolism, as Freud points out, has been prevalent in folklore, myths, legends, idiomatic phrases, proverbs, and witticisms since time immemorial. Freud merely expanded the list to include dreams. In fact, the general currency of sexual symbolism presented a problem for the main thesis of the book, since Freud found that the meaning of a symbol could not be derived (as his method demanded) from the idiosyncratic associations of the dreamer. His recognition of the role of symbolism in dreams forced him to modify the method to include direct interpretations based on the analyst's knowledge of common usage.
All the tropes and conceits familiar to the literary imagination, Freud attributes to the language of dreams. But he was certainly not unique among his generation in doing so. The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, also fascinated by the anatomy of dreams, expressed a similar idea several years earlier in a letter to his friend Owen Wister: '. . . dreams are merely novels, they are made with every sort of literary trick; a word stands for a year, if it is the right word, equally with the reader and the dreamer.'
What distinguishes Freud's approach from Stevenson's is the emphasis on the dream as an agent of misinformation. Where a novelist employs imaginative devices in order to breathe life into a fictional world, to create and communicate a 'narrative truth', Freud's hidden author (albeit in order to make his work acceptable to the mind's putative Victorian censor) is set upon telling lies.
Because Freud works backwards from manifest dream to latent content and then retraces his steps, inserting a causal arrow that points from latent content to manifest dream, his logic is open to question. The philosopher Frank Cioffi has argued that condensation, displacement and symbolisation are not attributes of dream production at all, but post hoc instruments for imposing a spurious burden of meaning, 'not mechanisms by whose operation the symptom, dream etc., was constructed, but rules for ''working a piece of fancy into it''.' It is for the reader to judge the force of this sceptical challenge.
Two features of Freud's rhetoric, however, stand out. They account both for the seductive appeal of his argument and for its vulnerability to philosophical criticism. The first is a creeping tendency to excessive generalisation, and the second a blithe indifference to self-contradiction. If we look at the development of the wish-fulfilment hypothesis, we can see him slide from a moderate, almost self-evident, proposition into an outrageous generalisation that requires all the ingenuity he can muster to defend.
When reviewing the scientific literature, he quite reasonably states that in the analysis of dream-life, 'we are reminded at every step that it is inadmissible to frame general rules without making provision for qualifications by introducing such terms as ''frequently'', ''as a rule'', ''in most cases'', and without being prepared to admit the validity of exceptions.' Yet shortly afterwards he has moved from the demonstration that wish-fulfilment often occurs in dreams to the assertion that disguised wish-fulfilment is the meaning of every dream.
Naturally such a gauntlet was taken up by patients, readers and critics alike who proceeded to furnish Freud with counter-examples -- dreams of painful and frightening experiences which could not possibly have been desired. And one by one, Freud supplied the answers. The wish is latent not manifest. A woman who dreams that she wants to give a supper but cannot find the food is satisfying her wish to refrain from inviting a friend of whom her husband is fond and she is jealous. A woman who dreams that her fifteen-year old daughter is lying dead in a box is satisfying her earlier wish for an abortion when pregnant. The experience of anxiety is the distorted satisfaction of a sexual desire, and so on. It is typical of Freud to have enthusiastically claimed that the accuracy of this last statement 'has been demonstrated with ever increasing certainty', and equally characteristic that he himself was subsequently to reject the theory as untenable. When confronted by dreams whose content would not yield to any interpretive manoeuvre, Freud played his trump card -- the latent wish of the dreamer was to prove him wrong.
If Freud's sweeping generalisations are unsustainable, it does not follow that his theories are inapplicable to a narrower set of circumstances. Take his second major hypothesis -- that the function of the dream is to protect the sleeper from waking up. We do not have to deny research indicating that the dream has other functions (information processing, emotional modulation, creative thinking) in order to acknowledge the face validity of its role as a 'guardian of sleep'. When I depress a 'snooze' button on my clock, the alarm temporarily stops in order to allow me to continue sleep and drift gently into wakefulness. Recently, however, I noticed that I had improved upon this system by obviating the need to press the button. When the persistent beep began, I simply dreamt myself pressing it, and hallucinated the ensuing silence.
It is almost a hundred years since The Interpretation of Dreams was first published, and it is pertinent to ask whether Freud's ideas are still relevant. During the 1950s researchers discovered that sleep was characterised by phases of rapid eye movement (REM), which occurred about every 100 minutes. When volunteers were woken during such phases they frequently reported dreams; and when repeatedly woken at such times and thus deprived of REM sleep, a compensatory increase in REM sleep occurred. It was further suggested that a person deprived of REM sleep would become mad and that dreams therefore were necessary, not merely to preserve sleep but more importantly to preserve sanity. Little evidence has emerged to support this view, and subsequent work revealed that volunteers woken from non-REM sleep also reported dreams, though they were on the whole less colourful. In any event, whatever the somatic correlates of dreaming, they come no nearer to discrediting Freud's central idea -- an understanding of dreams in terms of intentionality -- than does human physiology to discrediting our normal daytime experience.
Two Freuds present themselves in The Interpretation of Dreams. One Freud draws on prevailing concepts in the science and technology of his time to generate models of the mind. Were he alive today, he would no doubt be likening the mental apparatus to a computer rather than a camera, and talking in terms of silicon-based intelligence. But another Freud is concerned with meaning rather than mechanism, the metaphorical transformations of desire as opposed to the oscillation of energic impulses. From today's perspective, this Freud is not so much wrong as over-dogmatic. Some dreams certainly seem to mislead and disguise, but others are given to truth telling. The prevalence of clearly comprehensible dreams, the creative activity, the intellectual achievements and the emotional experience available together indicate that dreams are as various in their nature as all of mental life - their non-discursive aspects as much poetry as propaganda. Freud's essay into the mind's activity while we sleep was faulted by logical inconsistency and extravagant generalisation. It was not the universal key he took it to be. Nonetheless its seminal genius is beyond doubt.