The Interpretation of Dreams
Not many people realize that Freud was a relatively slow-starter.Although the top of his class for most of his school life, he spent eight years studying medicine and other subjects at university before graduating. He slowly entered the field of neurology, writing scientific papers on speech disorders, the effects of cocaine as an anesthetic, and child cerebral paralyses, before shifting his interests to psychopathology. But his ambition to be a renowned medical researcher came up against his desire to marry his fiancee Martha Bernays, and to provide for a home he had to actually get work practicing medicine.
The result was that the work which made his name, The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung in German) was not published until he was in his mid-40s, and even then it took over a decade for the book to become famous. Only 600 copies were printed of the first edition of one of the most influential books in history, and these took eight years to sell. Reviews, and there were not many, were mostly unfavorable, and the first English translation, by AA Brill, was not released until 1913.
The book provides a semi-autobiographical look into the bourgeois world of late 19th century Vienna, taking us behind the 'great man' myth to reveal a Freud enjoying his children, taking holidays in the Alps, dealing with his friends and colleagues and seeking professional success. It reads like a first book, with the author eager to get everything he knows on paper. Its main enjoyment is the description and analysis of the dreams themselves, which can easily run to a dozen pages each and draw upon the Freud's considerable learning in mythology, art and literature.
As a consequence of the book's personal style, it is fashionable to say that The Interpretation of Dreams is really a work of literature, with Freud's rich imagination and sex-obsession making for an intriguing and sometimes shocking read. Yet Freud should never have been punished for writing a readable book with some personal references (he apologizes for including analyses of his own dreams). The fact is, he brought a medical and scientific approach to a subject which had always defied real analysis, and in doing so created a science of the unconscious mind.
After finishing The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote, "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime". It had taken him forty years to fulfill his early promise, yet it was really just the beginning of his career.
The causes of dreams
It is surprising how much had been written about dreams before Freud. He begins his book with a lengthy survey of the literature, going as far back as Aristotle and giving due credit to more contemporary figures such as Maury, Burdach, Delage and Strumpell. Summing up his reading, he notes, "In spite of being concerned with the subject over many thousands of years, scientific understanding of the dream has not got very far."
From a conception of dreams as 'an inspiration from the divine', man had arrived at a scientific view that they were simply the result of 'sensory excitation'. While sleeping, for instance, you hear a noise outside, and that noise becomes woven into the dream in order to make sense of it. Freud notes experiments in which parts of the body were touched with a feather or colored light falls onto the eyes, and the narrative of the dream took a different course accordingly. Maury dreamed of a maid carrying a huge pile of dishes, which finally fell onto the floor. The 'clattering' of the dishes was in fact his alarm clock going off. According to this explanation, common dreams such as finding yourself naked are the result of your bedclothes falling off, flying dreams are caused by the rising and falling of the lungs, and so on.
But Freud felt that sensory stimuli did not explain all dreams. After all, why did dreams not simply recount the events of the day in a straightforward manner? Physical stimuli while we were asleep could certainly shape what we dreamed about, but they could equally be ignored and not incorporated into our dreams. There was also the ethical or moral dimension to many dreams which did not suggest merely physical causes.
Freud's interest in dreams originally came via his work with people with psychoses. He realized that the content of patients' dreams were a good indicator of their state of mental health, and that dreams were like other symptoms in being capable of interpretation. By the time he came to write The Interpretation, Freud had clinically interpreted over a thousand dreams.
Among his conclusions were:
While some writers believed that the memory of daily events was the prime cause of dreams, Freud came to the view that both physical sensations while asleep and memories of what happened during the day were "like a cheap material always available and put to use whenever needed". They were, in short, not the cause of dreams but simply elements used by the psyche in its creation of meaning.
The disguised message
Having concluded that dreams were the arena in which the unconscious mind could express itself, and that they are primarily concocted to represent the fulfillment of a wish, Freud wondered, why is the wish so poorly articulated, so wrapped up in strange symbols and images? Why should it need to avoid the obvious?
The answer could be found in the fact that many of our wishes are repressed, and may only have a chance of reaching our consciousness if they are somewhat disguised. A dream could seem like the opposite of what we wished for, because many of our wishes we may be defensive about or wish to cover up, so the only way a dream can make an issue known is by raising it in its opposite sense. Freud explains this phenomenon of 'dream distortion' by analogy: a political writer may criticize a ruler, but in doing so may endanger himself. The writer therefore has to fear the ruler's censorship, and in doing so "moderates and distorts the expression of his opinion." With dreams, if our psyche wants to give us a message, it may only be able to get it across by censoring it to make it more palatable, or by dressing it up as something else. The reason why we so easily forget dreams is that the conscious self wants to reduce the impact of the unconscious upon its domain - waking life. It is no surprise that as the day proceeds we are more and more likely to forget what we dreamt.
One of Freud's key points is that dreams are always self-centered. "The wishes fulfilled in them", he writes, "are invariably this self's wishes". When other people appear in a dream, often they are merely symbols of ourselves or symbolized what another person means to us. Freud believed that whenever a strange figure entered his dreamscape, the personage undoubtedly represented some aspect of himself that could not be expressed in waking consciousness. He wondered about all the stories in history of someone being told to do something in a dream, perhaps given a wise urging that proves to be correct. Freud admires the respect that ancient peoples paid to this sort of dream, because at a scientific level it makes sense. Dreams can forcefully express to a person an empowering message that they are wont to suppress during waking consciousness - and that message is always about themselves - not family or society or any other social influence.
All about sex
Freud's analysis of patients led him to the belief that neuroses evolved from repressed sexual desires, and that dreams were also expressions of these repressed feelings, usually going back to distant childhood. It was in The Interpretation of Dreams that Freud first discussed Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex to support his idea of a universal tendency of a child to be sexually attracted to one parent, and to to want to vanquish the other - what was later termed the 'Oedipus complex'.
He tells of a significant event from his childhood. Before going to bed one night he broke one of his parents cardinal rules and wet himself in their bedroom. As part of a general rebuke of the young Freud, his father muttered 'Nothing will come of the boy'. This remark must have hit him hard, Freud admits, as references to the scene had been a recurring motif in his dreams into adulthood, usually in connection with his achievements. In one of these dreams, for instance, it was now Freud's father who urinated in front of him. It was as if, Freud says, he wanted to tell his father, 'You see, something did become of me'. This competitor for his mother's affections had now been put in his place, complete with the shameful image of illegal urination.
In Freud's cosmology, civilization barely kept a lid on our instincts, and sex was the most powerful of these. Dreams were therefore much more than idle nighttime entertainments - in revealing our unconscious motivations they were a key to understanding human nature.
Freud famously wrote there had been three great 'humiliations' in human history: Galileo discovering that the earth was not the center of the universe; Darwin discovering that man was not the center of creation; and Freud's own discovery that we were not as in charge of our own minds as we believed.
This attack on the idea of human free will inevitably brought damnation, particularly in America, and as a result the whole of psychoanalysis was painted as unscientific. Though Freud was an atheist, it was pointed out that psychoanalysis had taken on the aura of a religion, creating a whole 'culture of the couch' that Woody Allen so well satirized. Not only did Freudian therapy have too great a dependence on the psychoanalyst, there was a lack of standard procedures and verifiable outcomes, and little evidence of effectiveness in healing people. Neurology even discounted the idea that dreams could be linked to desire or motivation. In this climate, Freud was quietly bypassed on the reading lists of university psychology classes, and the number of professional psychoanalysts dwindled. By the early 1990s, Time magazine felt it appropriate to ask on its cover: 'Is Freud dead?'
Today, if you visit a psychologist or psychiatrist, you may not be asked about your past or your dreams at all; these are irrelevant next to cognitive psychology's proven method of changing the emotional state by changing one's thoughts. Yet today's practitioners too easily forget their debt to Freud's original 'talking cure' of listening to and analyzing the content of a patient's mind, and his insight that a person can be easily sabotaged by the irrational within.
In addition, recent research at the Royal London School of Medicine has lent cautious support to Freud's ideas on dreams. Brain scan imaging shows that they are not simply the by-product of random neuron firings; in fact, the limbic and paralimbic areas of the brain, which control the emotions, desires and motivations, are very active during deep sleep. Dreams are therefore a higher mental function related to motivation, although the jury is out on whether this proves Freud's theory that they exist for 'wish fulfillment'.
For a hundred years commentators have been telling us why The Interpretation of Dreams is important, but Freud best summed up the work himself when he wrote that dreams are "the royal road to the unconscious". Although endlessly fascinating themselves, what we really want to know is what has generated them, and why. In opening the door to the unconscious Freud seemed to provide humankind with another dimension of itself, and in so doing changed the intellectual and imaginative landscape.
150 years since his birth, can we be sure of saying anything definite about Freud's legacy? Perhaps the Viennese doctor's greatest contribution was to make psychology fascinating to the general public. While his analysis of dreams gave us new insights into the mind generally, it was the possibility he gave us of seeing into our own minds that made his ideas so compelling.
"The dream never wastes its time on trifles; we do not allow a mere nothing to disturb our sleep. The apparently innocuous dreams turn out to be pretty bad when we take the trouble to interpret them: if I may be permitted the expression, the dream 'wasn't born yesterday'."
Born as Sigismund Freud in 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia (now known as Pribor, Czech Republic), Freud was the first of five children of parents Jacob and Amalia, who had come from Western Ukraine. Wool merchant Jacob, 41, was on his second marriage, with two sons, and Amalia only 21. The family moved to Leipzig in 1859 and then Vienna a year later.
Sigismund's parents recognized his intelligence from early on, giving him an education in the Latin and Greek classics and a separate room to study in. He was set to study law at the University of Vienna but changed his mind at the last minute and enrolled in 1873 as a medical student. After graduating in 1881 he became engaged to Martha Bernays and worked at the Vienna General Hospital, specializing in cerebral anatomy. Later he worked under JM Charcot at the Saltpetriere Hospital in Paris, and with Austrian psychologist Josef Breuer, with whom he wrote Studies in Hysteria (1895).
After the death of his father in 1896, Freud entered a period of deep reflection, study and self-analysis, and began work on The Interpretation of Dreams. It was published in November 1899 but had '1900' printed on the inside. The following year The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was published, which introduced the world to the idea of verbal mistakes ('Freudian slips') that reveal the unconscious mind. In 1902 the first meetings of the 'Wednesday group' of like-minded Jewish professional men were held, and Freud was made a professor of psychopathology at University of Vienna. In 1905 he published Three Essays on the History of Sexuality and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
Psychoanalysis grew into an international movement, with the first major meeting in 1908. The following year Freud and Jung delivered the Clark lectures in the United States, a country Freud was not fond of. In 1920, the Freuds' second daughter Sophie, pregnant with her third child, died in a flu epidemic. Writings from this decade include Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), an Autobiography (1925) and The Future of an Illusion (1927), which aimed to debunk religion. His long essay Civilization and its Discontents (1930), crystallized his ideas about human aggression and the 'death instinct'. With Albert Einstein he wrote Why War? (1933).
With the Nazi regime's annexation of Austria in 1938, and its banning of psychoanalysis, Freud and family relocated to London. A lifelong heavy smoker of cigars, he died of cancer in 1939.
Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on the mind, personality, and human nature by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)