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 physic o-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'; 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 then 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 wherby 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 then 'menttal 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 sin gle example 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 improperiety (which Freud explicitly denies), he had strong theoretical reason for preferring to concentrate on the indirect methods of expression which he attrributed to dreams.
Just as he had previously seen hysterical symptoms as a body-language or somatic metaphor reflecting underlying conflict, a product of supressed emotion and inhibited desire, Freud now saw dream 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 thought which revealed hitherto unknown wishes. A concealed narrative or 'latent 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 gaps.
Freud's virtuosity in tracing associative links to his dream 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 konigstein, this is how he unpacks the single word 'botanical':
To botanical belong the recollections of the person of Professor Gartner (German: Gartner = gardener, of his blooming wife, of my patient, whose name is Flora, and a lady concerning whom I told the story of the forgotten flowers. Gartner again leads me to the laboratory and the conversation with Konigstein, 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 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 reminiscence of a scene in my childhood in which I first formed an aquaintance - 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 conversations referred to.
Reference : Freud The Interpretation Of Dreams
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