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How to do things in dreams

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: This essay presents Freud's theory of dream meaning as a pragmatic theory about the meaning of symbols in use, rather than a semantic (dictionary) theory of the kind which led to the production of the dream books and dream dictionaries and which Freud criticises in The Interpretation of Dreams. Ideas from contemporary philosophical and linguistic pragmatics are used to re-present Freud's theories. So too is Chomsky's distinction between linguistic competence and performance

In psychoanalysis, the object of an analyst's dream-interpretation is not immediately a dream, but a dream-narrative volunteered by the person being analysed, the analysand. As often as not, the analysand as much as the analyst believes that the narrative of the dream is the narrative of something which has a hidden meaning, and that it is the job of analysis to uncover this hidden meaning and formulate it in words. This formulation will be guided by whatever theory is being deployed - Freudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian, and so on.

In standard circumstances, a realist assumption will be made that there really was a dream, of determinate content, which is narrated in a dream-narrative, which may thus be more or less accurate, complete, and so on. This realist assumption or presupposition is being implied every time, for example, that we write down a dream 'before we forget it'.

However, even though I think that this realist assumption is fundamentally correct, some caution is called for. People who are in the habit of narrating their dreams, whether to professional analysts or sympathetic friends, may - consciously or unconsciously - reconstruct them with a view to saying something they want to be heard, but do not want to say directly. We are then dealing with a quite different phenomenon from the conscientious attempt to recall what we actually dreamt. The appropriate response to such audience-directed narratives is the question, "What are you trying to say to me?" rather than the dream interpretation question, "What did it mean?". And it may be that dream narratives are always inflected with at least some audience-directed element, which an analyst will need to locate and respond to. But from now on I leave this issue and problem aside.

As a narrative, what the analysand says can be studied with the apparatus of narrative theory, the theory which is interested in things like point of view, and beginnings, middles and ends. But insofar as the dream-narrative is a (faithful) narrative of something which happened in another mode, in a visual dream mode, the narrative will often be disconcertingly weak or confused in structure. Structurally, it may sound like a child's early attempts at narrative, where we often look in vain for good beginnings, middles and ends, and hear instead the groping of 'and then, and then, and then.. : .

Of course, it is partly because we often forget our dreams so rapidly that the structure of the dream-narrative is disturbed, but equally we know enough about our dreams to know that even apparently well-remembered dreams do not always have the clarity and order of a well-crafted story. There are individual differences in the completeness and distinctness with which dreams are recalled, but for many people dreams are bewildering, hard to keep track of, hard to get a grip on, both when we are dreaming them and subsequently in attempting a conscious narrative reconstruction of the experience. It is as if dreams were experimental movies which we do not quite follow.

Now there is a theory, and it is Freud's, that the manifest dreams we experience and subsequently recall can only do what Freud regards as their work of allowing expression of our dream thoughts if indeed we do not quite follow our dreams, do not quite see their meaning. For it is their meaning which is the object of repression, and should what is hidden become open, we respond with anxiety. Dreams are things to wish with, says Freud, but the wishes expressed are ones that we are not readily able to acknowledge. In waking life, we are familiar with the idea that we may not be able to acknowledge envy or jealousy or hate or love for someone. Freud's intuition is that in a dream we may express wishes (or, more generally, thoughts) which have been subject to repression, that is, barred from conscious acknowledgement by the operation of what he calls a dream-censorship.

It is a short step from this to seeing dreams as, in some way, coded expressions of the wishes (or, more generally, thoughts) which they both express and do not express literally or in a fashion in which they could be readily recognized and acknowledged. The question then arises, whether manifest dreams code their latent content in ways familiar to us from other domains of symbolic expression, or whether there are ways of encoding which are distinctive of the dream, bearing in mind that a dream mobilizes both pictorial material (moving images, like those in film) and linguistic material (characters in a dream speak, and written words appear in books, etc.).

It is a central claim in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams that although symbols with a fixed meaning, borrowed from other areas of life, may appear in dreams, there is not anything like a set of symbols constituting a specific dream-symbolism, such that a dictionary of dream-symbols could, in principle, be constructed. The hidden (underlying or motivating or literal) meanings of dream-material are meanings attaching to the explicit, manifest dream-material on some particular occasion of dreaming. There is no reason to proceed in dream-interpretation on any other basis than this. than semantic meaning, a matter of meaning in use rather than meaning in a dictionary.

By way of example, if I dream of a Painted Lady butterfly, I may on some particular occasion of dreaming really be dreaming about my friend Cynthia, who is not a butterfly but a woman. What may link them in my mind is the fact that the Linnaean name for the Painted Lady is Cynthia cardui. But this is not to say that every time I dream of a Painted Lady I must be reckoned to be dreaming of Cynthia, and still less that when you dream of a Painted Lady you are dreaming of Cynthia - you have never met her! The meaning of my dream-symbolism is pragmatic just in this, that the meaning is indexed to a particular occasion of use, by a particular dreamer.

If this is true, as Freud generally insists that it is, it dictates very particular strategies of dream interpretation. In particular, the only person who can link the Painted Lady to Cynthia is me; my analyst, in general, will not be able to do so, unless already considerably informed of people I know and my knowledge of the Latin names for butterflies. But the principled point is this, that although my analyst may have some pretty good ideas about how meaning is made in dreams, there cannot be any dream book which will give the analyst authority to pronounce that my Painted Lady = Cynthia. The authority is all with me, although I may be in analysis not least because to acknowledge that my Painted Lady = Cynthia may be hard for me to do, and part of a symptomatology.

But what of the analyst's 'pretty good ideas' about how things are done in dreams?

One important claim of Freud's is that things to dream with - the dramatis personae and props of the manifest dream - are largely taken from the residues of very recent, every-day experiences. So that if, to introduce a new example, I dream of reading the Daily Mail (something I have not actually done in thirty years), then I will find something in very recent experience which connects me to the Daily Mail. Perhaps yesterday my newsagent gave me a copy in error, and I indignantly returned it; perhaps I watched someone reading the Daily Mail on the train going to work; perhaps I heard the words `the Daily Mail' on the radio; and so on, indefinitely. Patient investigation of the sources of dream material in recent waking experience can be startlingly productive:

Yes, I watched someone reading the Daily Mail on the train; the person reminded me of my mother, who read the Daily Mail. She read it until she died, I had recalled, and suddenly felt her presence a grief away . . .

The original fragment of dream is well on the way to yielding itself to an interpretation, through the chain of associations which I made while awake, employed while sleeping, and am now recovering in analysis.

In this way, using free association, analysand and analyst can piece together a dream-interpretation, bringing more and more of the manifest material within the scope of an interpretation which - in classical Freudian analysis - will take the dream as eventually the expression not only of a set of thoughts, but of some definite wish or wishes. The procedure for interpretation is a traditionally hermeneutic one, in which it is presupposed that the fragments of dream offered for analysis are really parts of a single jigsaw and that the jigsaw can be given, if you like, a description or a title: a dream, like a painting or a film is a dream about something.

Now I want to look more closely at these associative links through which one thing in the manifest dream is able to stand for another thing in the dream-thoughts (the latent dream). I will take as starting point the two examples of dream material so far deployed: the Painted Lady butterfly which stands for Cynthia, and the Daily Mail which stands for my mother.

A smattering of school rhetoric will allow most readers to recognize that if the Painted Lady stands for Cynthia, then it does so metaphorically. It's a visual metaphor. The routine question which follows on from this recognition asks about the aptness of this metaphor, and this may be answered in terms either of origin or effect. What made the butterfly image apt to stand for Cynthia? How effective, how resonant, is the metaphor?

The question about aptness can, in the analytic context, be answered in terms of motivation, and it is central to Freudian analysis to say that the motivation of a metaphorical dream image is likely to be overdetermined.That is to say, there will be more than one causally effective motive for the choice of the metaphor. In the case of my Painted Lady, I can provide an open list that would include at least the following as motives for the choice of metaphor:

  • As an amateur lepidopterist, I know that the Latin name for this butterfly is Cynthia cardui
  • Cynthia is a lady - a woman - who is noted for wearing lots of make-up, and so counts as 'painted'
  • I was walking with Cynthia when the Painted Lady butterfly skimmed across the field beside us, and we both remarked on its migratory, transient qualities; and these are qualities which I feared existed in Cynthia
  • Starting another chain of thought, I recall the Utopian philosopher Charles Fourier's idea of the butterfly passion, the human passion for change and variety, and recall that Cynthia and I had once discussed his work, and recognized the passion in ourselves.

The list could be extended, making the choice of the visual metaphor ever more overdetermined. Recent connectionist theories of the mind would elucidate the idea of overdetermination in terms of separate mind (or brain) modules converging on a causally effective (sufficient) 'vote' for the Painted Lady to stand for Cynthia - but always, one must add, on this particular occasion.

The little discussion just conducted in terms of aptness or motivation can be turned around and re-done as an analysis of the resonance of a metaphor, which it has in virtue of the number and importance of the underlying thoughts and feelings which it condenses. And where I have written of metaphor, Freud writes of processes of condensation, with many chains of thought and feeling condensed into the manifest dream image:

The first thing that becomes clear to anyone who compares the dream-content with the dream-thoughts is that a work of condensation on a large scale has been carried out. Dreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dreamthoughts. If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space. This relation varies with different dreams; but so far as my experience goes its direction never varies. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. PFL 4, 383: SE IV 279)

Metaphoric condensation could be looked at in another way. Suppose, as many theorists have argued, that all metaphors are basically similes. In that case, one gets at the aptness and resonance of a metaphor by unpacking what it condenses into a series of statements which fill out a set of pro formas all of which begin either `Cynthia is like a Painted Lady in that she...', or else begin 'A Painted Lady is like Cynthia in that it. . .'.

Now this is undeniably part of what is done in dream interpretation and, in the present case, filling out the pro formas involves not just the repetition of what has already been offered in analysis, but points readily towards formulations of underlying, latent dream-thoughts or wishes, as follows:

  • Cynthia is like a Painted Lady in that she is or may be migratory and transient (the latent wish might then be: And I wish she wasn't).
  • Cynthia is like a Painted Lady in that she (metaphorically) appears only in warm weather, that is, when things are easy. (The latent wish might be: And I wish she was more committed, 'for better or worse'.)

If anything like (1) or (2) can legitimately come out of analysing this dream-fragment, then it should be evident that complex and charged psychic material can be expressed and represented in an image (a butterfly for a woman) which might seem to be motivated by nothing much more than a not-very-clever association ofa butterfly and a person through the accidental link provided by Linnaean taxonomy, which by naming the butterfly Cynthia cardui is plainly to blame for this particular dream.

Freud fully realized that apparently incidental detail in a dream could be enabling the expression and representation of powerful psychic concerns. He realized too that the analyst could not expect to cope with such material unless his or her own fund of general cultural knowledge was really very considerable, enabling him or her to follow (and occasionally, to lead) the patient's associations.

A friend narrates to me a dream in which she saw herself reading The Tempest, a detail recorded by her but by no means central to the manifest dream-content. But on informal analysis, it emerged that the plot of The Tempest was analogous to the tempestuous plot of the dream, and so in some way doubled or indicated what the plot was. Now an analyst with no knowledge of Shakespeare might to some considerable extent rely on the analysand's own knowledge - in this case considerable - to amplify the bare reference to The Tempest. Equally, an analyst with knowledge of the play might well be able to assist in developing the analysis past points of resistance. But the analyst would still lack knowledge of such idiosyncratic associations as helped give The Tempest a part in this dream.

I now turn to consider in more detail my second dream-fragment, the example of the Daily Mail.

There was a connection between the Daily Mail and my mother; she read that newspaper, day in and day out. It was part of her life. Seeing someone else reading it now reminds me of her. In dreaming of myself reading the Daily Mail, it turns out - on analysis - that the dream thoughts underlying the manifest dream-image are thoughts about my mother and my relationship to her. In the dream, I have managed to express and represent those thoughts by substituting an image of the Daily Mail for an image of my mother.

In the present instance, a smattering of school rhetoric is unlikely to include the knowledge that the substitution here is called metonymy, which is elucidated as a procedure in which a part of something, or something associated with that thing, comes to stand for (substitute for) that thing itself. Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, does not use the term metonymy, but writes of displacement, explained as a way of handling psychically intense dream-thoughts:

It thus seems plausible to suppose that in the dream-work a psychical force is operating which on the one hand strips the elements which have a high psychical value of their intensity, and on the other hand, by means of overdetermination, creates from elements of low psychical value new values, which afterwards find their way into the dream-content. If that is so, a transference and displacement of psychical intensities occurs in the process of dream-formation, and it is as a result of these that the difference between the text of the dream-content and that of the dream-thoughts comes about. The process which we are here presuming is nothing less than the essential portion of the dream-work; and it deserves to be described as 'dream-displacement'. Dream-displacement and dreamcondensation are the two governing factors to whose activity we may in essence ascribe the form assumed by dreams. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. PFL 4, 417: SE 1V, 307-8)

The term 'displacement' seems absolutely right for the process being characterized: if the Daily Mail stands for my mother, it does so by way of displacement from her to something associated with her. The fact that she read the newspaper that she did provides a motivation for the metonymic displacement, catalysed by an experience of the previous day in which I was reminded of my mother by seeing someone else reading the Daily Mail.

But in the course of any day, I could - no doubt - find many things to remind me of my mother. So there is a question about why the experience in the train struck me in a particular way and, in relation to my dream, a question about why the displacement effected was apt and resonant, allowing the expression of a complex of dream-thoughts and wishes. In other words, I now want to find out at least some of the ways in which the dream-metonymy was overdetermined. Some possibilities immediately present themselves to mind, and I simply list them without seeking to prioritise them or claim that they are exhaustive. It should be reasonably clear that what is being offered is a routing from the dream-image to latent thoughts and wishes, which I may to a greater or lesser extent be able to acknowledge, prompted by the search for truth which is central to any psychoanalytic quest. And so I think:

  • My mother left school in 1921, just before her fourteenth birthday; I did graduate work at several universities. Perhaps I could have stayed emotionally closer to my mother if I had stayed educationally closer. Such a wish could be represented (symbolized) by the manifest dream-image in which it is I, not my mother, who is reading the Daily Mail.
  • There may also be a play on words in the use of the Daily Mail and Freud certainly believed word play endemic to the linguistic material which appears in dreams. So 'mail' is also letters through the post, and it happens that I had recently come across some of the hundreds of letters which my mother wrote to me when I was at university. I had been thinking about them, and perhaps in the dream-fragment reading them rather than the newspaper.
  • 'Mail' is also homonymic with `male'. As the only child of a woman living apart from her husband, I was for several years, by choice and default, my mother's daily male, and the dream thus expresses or represents thoughts and wishes about this excessive closeness.

In sum, the metonymic displacement from my mother on to a newspaper in the manifest dream, allows the expression of dream-thoughts and wishes which are, first of all, multiple (and thus overdetermine the choice of the image) and, second, include thoughts and wishes which when directly expressed and represented may be to various degrees anxiety-creating or uncomfortable, and liable to repression. The dream has enabled these thoughts and wishes to find expression in non-literal ways which have protected the dreamer's sleep from anxiety which might bring sleep to an end.

Our contemporary ability to see Freud's characterization of the dream-work mechanisms of condensation and displacement as characterizations of metaphor and metonymy is largely due to a remark of the linguist Roman Jakobson. In a 1956 essay, 'Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbance', Jakobson wrote:

A competition between both devices, metonymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, either intrapersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences used are based on contiguity (Freud's metonymic 'displacement' and synecdochic 'condensation') or on similarity (Freud's 'identification and symbolism'). (Jakobson 1956, 80-1)

This is actually all that Jakobson has to say about Freud in his essay, and later theorists, led by Jacques Lacan in a 1957 paper 'The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud' (Lacan 1957), have realigned Jakobson's categorization so that condensation is simply equated with metaphoric processes (which include what we normally think of as symbolism) and displacement is equated with metonymy. This realignment strikes me as fully justified, both by Freud's text and theoretical requirements. A convenient summary of all the relevant material can be found in the entries for 'Condensation' and 'Displacement' in Laplanche and Pontalis's dictionary, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1973).

In the preceding discussion of metaphor and metonymy, condensation and displacement, the emphasis has inevitably been on the understanding of dream-fragments - and, indeed, piecemeal reconstruction of underlying dream-thoughts and wishes from dream-fragments is central to the practice of Freudian psychoanalysis. Nothing has so far been said about the connectedness of dreams, their beginnings, middles and ends or about point of view. But this is not to say there is nothing to be said. The narrative structure of a dream or point of view can also be used to express and represent thoughts and wishes: there is no reason in principle or practice why a complicated dream should not be used as a means of expressing a wish for a complicated life, or a dream in which I am a distant observer used to express the desire for a calm life.

But it would be wrong, I think, to seek too hastily to formalize dreams and submit them to a linguistic or narratological formalization in which each individual dream would be seen as an instance of one of the possibilities licensed by, or derivable from, the formalization (such a project is attempted in Foulkes 1978). One needs first of all to take on board the realization that dreams - like the jokes and slips of the tongue also studied by Freud - are places where a very varied and rich assortment of our mental powers manifest themselves. It is unlikely that a theory of our mental competences can readily do justice to the bravura of our mental performances, though they may easily capture something of those performances in a fairly abstract and schematic way. By analogy, a narratology which tells us that stories have beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order, captures all or nearly all stories, abstractly and schematically, but should give us no satisfaction if it claims to reveal the mysteries of story-making. In contrast, the narratology developed by Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folktale (1928) or Gerard Genette in Narrative Discourse (1980) may well provide us with a sense that stories, in their complexity and mystery, can be made to yield to narratolagy. This is because they offer a much more fully specified range of constraints and possibilities than the schema of beginning, middle and end. Propp, for example, is bold enough to claim that all folk-tales are built from a subset of elements taken from a full set of just thirty-one abstractly specifiable functions, and that such elements occur in the tales in more-or-less invariant narrative order. This is a very bold - and almost certainly false -claim, but in being bold (and false) it does exactly what we expect of any scientific enquiry: it yields some non-obvious, non-tautological insight into the way the world is. Any scientifically interesting theory of dream-narratives must say comparably non-obvious, non-tautological things.

The contrast between competence and performance, as far as contemporary thought is concerned, is due to Noam Chomsky's linguistics, as it has developed from the time of his essay Language and Mind (1968). The ability to speak a language consists (in part) of a mental representation of that language, of its phonology, vocabulary, and of the syntactic rules by which grammatically well-formed sentences may be produced. Competence is generative of performance, though many more factors are involved in speaking than the purely grammatical. Grammar does not help us with the question of what to say and when to say it. Grammar helps only with the ability to say whatever it is that we do wish to say.

Likewise, the capacity to dream whatever it is we wish to dream (about), does not determine what we dream, when. That is determined, on Freud's view, by (unconscious) thoughts and wishes, given shape by what he calls the 'dream-work' which converts latent thoughts and wishes into manifest and visual content.

Now Freud's notion of the dream-work is analogous to the idea of linguistic competence. Our capacity (strictly, our liability) to dream is just our ability to do the dream-work necessary to express (unconscious) thoughts and wishes in manifest visual form. Our abilities to turn a metaphor or select a metonymy are examples of our capacity for dream-work. Freud also identifies other dream-work processes such as 'secondary revision', the capacity to tidy up a dream and give it shape and coherence, and an original need for 'figuration', to render abstract dream thoughts in visual form. He spends many pages in The Interpretation of Dreams (see Chapter VI, sections F and G) discussing, for example, the figurability of abstract and logical relationships, of mathematical calculations. He regards this discussion as an important part of the work and concludes the discussion of the particular topic of absurdity in dreams with these words:

Thus I have solved the problem of absurdity in dreams by showing that the dream-thoughts are never absurd - never, at all events, in the dreams of sane people - and that the dream-work produces absurd dreams and individual absurd elements if it is faced with the necessity of representing any criticism, ridicule or derision which may be present in the dream thoughts. (The Interpretation of Dreams. Chapter VI, section F, subsection VI)

If dream-work is thought of in this way, as the exercise of dreamcompetence, then - in principle - there could be impairments of the capacity to dream, analogous to the kinds of impairment of linguistic competence and performance which arise from brain or motor disorders. In principle, we can ask such questions as: Are some people unable to dream, lacking the capacity to dream? Are some people unable to do certain kinds of dream-work, lacking the capacity for metaphor, metonymy, and so on? An affirmative answer is sometimes and plausibly given. In psychosis, one aspect of the general incapacity to symbolize is the incapacity to dream `properly', and in place of dreaming the psychotic suffers from insomnia and nightmares. Such connections have been explored in some interesting writings by Masud Khan (1993), who argues that patients who cannot have a 'good' dream also cannot make appropriate use of the psychoanalytic situation. A psychotic who seeks real satisfactions rather than symbolic ones from dreaming will also seek real rather than symbolic satisfaction from the analytic situation. Likewise, a person whose overwhelming anxiety produces nightmares rather than dreams may resist any dependence in the analytic situation as too threatening. They may simply be unable to continue in analysis, or be unable to work productively with what the analyst has to offer.

Freud's problems with anxiety dreams, which appear to contradict the idea that dreams are wish-fulfilments, might find a resolution in this way. An anxiety dream is a failed dream - a dream which fails to symbolize the anxiety-creating wishes which it represents in such a way that the dreamer can sleep on without having to wake up in order to escape the dream anxiety. Repressed material which is inconsistent with our waking self-image finds its way into an anxiety dream and obliges us to wake up in order to be rid of the threat the material poses.

This is a speculative suggestion of my own; it is not an exegesis of what Freud says. Nonetheless, it is a possibility opened up by thinking of the ability to dream as a kind of mentally represented competence, analogous to linguistic competence, and - I should add - other kinds of competence such as musical abilities.

We could also ask developmental questions about this competence, about how it grows in childhood and about how children s dreams and competences differ from those of adults. Developmental studies of dreaming have indeed been made. In a summary of an extensive project reported in Children's Dreams (Foulkes 1982), David Foulkes writes that the development of dreaming follows a course parallel to the stages of waking cognitive maturation:

In the case of children's dreams, we have shown that the content seems to be more a function of what children are able to portray symbolically than, as traditional dream theory would have had it, of what their anxieties, conflicts, fixations, and so forth force them to portray symbolically. Developmentally dreams reveal more about the unfolding of human representational abilities than they do - or can do - about the sources or meanings of children's waking behaviours. This is so because, until children are reasonably capable of reflecting on and symbolically elaborating on their own waking experience and behaviours, they must remain incapable of dreaming effectively about these experiences and behaviours. Our data, as well as (waking) cognitive-developmental theory, suggest that effective nocturnal self-reflection and symbolic self-expression generally cannot occur until the consolidation of concrete-operational reasoning [that is, roughly from age seven on, TP]. (Foulkes 1982, p. 275)

I have taken it for granted that the dream-thoughts which dreamwork converts into the manifest dream have a propositional character. That is to say, although the dream thoughts may express wishes or feelings, they express ones which have a propositional or propositionally expressible character. This distinguishes them from bodily (somatic) sensations and from (obscure) feelings which are `free-floating' and not attached to definite objects - just as free-floating anxiety about I-know-not-what is quite different from being anxious about tomorrow's interview. To put it precisely, Freud's assumption is that a person's dream-thoughts can be stated, in linguistic propositional form, without loss of meaning. Dream-thoughts are, to use technical terms of philosophy, effable rather than ineffable - where the ineffable is here taken to be anything resistant to full characterization in linguistic propositional form.

Insofar as Freudian analysis claims that the latent dream thoughts can and do express wishes going back to earliest childhood, there is implied a presupposition that the infant (and even the pre-linguistic infant) is capable of propositional thought. This might be put, for example, by saying that an infant boy or girl does not just need their mother's presence; they desire it - a way of putting things which implies the ability to focus the mother as an object of desire (What do you desire? I desire my mother's presence). This is not an unproblematic claim for the pre-linguistic infant, and is the subject of a great deal of philosophical and psychoanalytic agonizing.

Among modern philosophers, Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations (1953), as in his other writings, tries to get at the matter by considering what 'intelligent' animals are and are not capable of. By way of simplified example, it might not seem implausible to look at a dog scratching at the door, wagging its tail, and whimpering and to say of the dog, 'He's expecting his master to return.' But things would be quite different if someone tried to say, 'He's expecting his master to return on Wednesday.' For dogs do not have the concept of a week, or days of the week. What is reasonably attributable to the pre-linguistic infant by way of propositionally expressible belief has likewise to be considered and judged quite carefully.

However, one radical solution to difficulties in this domain is to argue that the (Freudian) unconscious does not come into being before the infant's acquisition of (or entry into) language, or more generally, the world of symbols, of which language is part.

On this view, repression operates on wishes and feelings which are already capable of having a propositionally expressible structure. Insofar as dream-thoughts come from that which is unconscious - the product of repression - then they will be propositional because the contents of the unconscious are propositional or propositionally expressible. The contents of the unconscious are linguistically structured or structurable without loss of meaning.

Such a position is a common enough post-Freudian one. `The unconscious is structured like a language', is Jacques Lacan's persistent motif, and the theoretical positions of Melanie Klein (as opposed to Anna Freud) probably commit her to something like this view too. Such a view does, indeed, make sense of psychoanalysis as a 'talking cure' in which the analysand is being encouraged to avow or acknowledge linguistically expressible propositional truths. To such truths huge emotional colouring (affect) may attach, but the propositions are non-identical with their emotional charge. There is not just rage, but rage about something; not just anxiety, but anxiety about something. Affect and proposition can become detached from each other. In most psychoneuroses (and notably in the hysterias and in obsessional neurosis) the root pathological problem is the detachment of affect, of feeling, from the thoughts to which it originally and properly belonged, followed either by its complete repression or its displacement on to inappropriate thoughts (as in phobias). A psychoneurotic may be able to discourse cheerfully enough about his or her unresolved Oedipal problems, and be terrified of spiders or flying. The psychoneurotic is unable to resolve his or her Oedipal problems in part at least because the appropriate affect does not attach to the thoughts being formulated, but has been displaced elsewhere.

One goal of dream-interpretation is to locate the objects to which denied or displaced affect is originally attached. 'Objects' here - following the line of Kleinian object-relations theory - may include people, parts of people (the breast, for example) and fantasies of people. However, in the content of the manifest dream, those objects may be just as much obscured as in waking life - but not always or even generally - and this is why Freud calls dreams our 'royal road to the unconscious'.

A woman has an anxiety dream in which she is separated from her loved ones by a gorilla. A gorilla? Eventually she makes a connection. Gorillas are her mother's favourite animal.

The example serves to re-emphasise a persistent theme of this chapter. For the association between a gorilla and a mother is not a semantic one: there is no possible dream dictionary in which gorillas will be listed as a synonym or metaphor for a mother. The association is idiosyncratic, such that if on a given occasion of dreaming, an image of a gorilla stands for the dreamer's mother, it does not do so in virtue of some code or language establishing an equivalence. Yet what the dream-work is able to do is to find a way of expressing dream-thoughts in images apt for an occasion. Free association from these images may in favourable circumstances allow us to recover the underlying dream-thoughts.

One unresolved question is why waking free association is not blocked by anxiety. After all, if someone dreams of a gorilla rather than of their mother, because dream-censorship makes it impossible to dream openly of the mother, how is it possible for the connection to be made in waking analysis? A short answer is to say that 'free' association is not always easily and freely accomplished, and may only be possible if the desire to be well is strong enough. A further answer is to say that association of ideas in the 'cool' context of waking analysis is paired with avoidance of ideas in the emotionally charged world of the dream. The job of the analyst is to weave together idea and feeling, thought and affect, which repression has put asunder.


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Revised 2003 from the chapter of the same title appearing in Laura Marcus, editor, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. New Interdisciplinary Essays. Manchester University Press 1999, pages 66-82. The publisher's permission to reproduce my copyright material is hereby acknowledged.