There are many compelling reasons for beginning an essay on dream interpretation with a discussion of Sigmund Freud. He started the whole thing, after all—or at least he convinced the European public that it was important. He was more systematic, precise, and comprehensive in his treatment of dreams than any other theorist, which makes it tempting to begin with him even when it’s only to depart from him later on. There are specialized topics, such as language and numbers in dreams, which have received very little attention in the hundred years since The Interpretation of Dreams was published.
But in the case of this essay, none of these qualifications apply. All of the important literature on dreaming from the top down is either more recent than Freud, or far older, or extraordinarily difficult to find. Bringing Freud to the table mostly serves to show how much havoc the concept plays with our traditional understandings of dreams—but that could have easily been done another way. In the end, I go to Freud because I like him, despite disagreeing with him on most points, despite suspecting that I would have found him irritating as a personal acquaintance, despite the fact that he is responsible for founding a contemporary school of thought for which a dream is nothing but a series of cleverly-disguised vaginas.
Anyway. Psychoanalytic theory is a remarkably elaborate system. The parts of it dealing with dreams are inseparable from the parts dealing with psychopathology, which Freud conceived of as a disorder of a person as a whole as well as the culture in which they find themselves, rather than a mere medical issue. To simplify is to misrepresent, but that’s what I’m going to have to do. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to read The Interpretation of Dreams themselves: it is a book that stands head and shoulders over its commentaries.
According to psychoanalytic theory, every dream is the fulfillment of a wish—often a wish that we consider so awful that we do not want to admit to ourselves that we entertain it. During our waking hours we repress it—that is to say, we hide it from ourselves—and even as we satisfy it in our dreams, it is disguised and rapidly forgotten upon waking.
If we do manage to remember anything, what we remember is the dream’s façade—the images, words, and plots that most of us refer to as our dreams. The real, undistorted dream consists of one or more wishes and a number of closely-linked thoughts, which may be unearthed through the process of free association.
The four processes that turn the dream-thoughts into the manifest dream are called the dream-work. These are: condensation, the process of combining multiple thoughts into a single dream; displacement, which shifts the dream’s emphasis to thoughts the dreamer considers innocuous; regard for representability, which transforms abstract thoughts into images, and in the process shifts the emphasis towards thoughts that can be represented visually; and secondary elaboration, which attempts to reassemble the distorted dream into something coherent.
There is a good deal here worth commenting on. For instance, that four processes is rather a lot, when you start thinking about it. Most allegorical methods of dream-interpretation—and this includes almost every widely-used method today— make do with regard for representability alone. A part of me thinks that the judicious application of Occam’s Razor would do wonders here— but human life is not known for its philosophic elegance. Looking at us, it’s more plausible that we should have a clunky, inefficient defense mechanism than one did its job flawlessly. It would explain so much.
Of the four processes, it is the last one that has received the least attention from subsequent theorists—probably because Freud identified it with the censor, and the censor has usually been considered one of his least tenable ideas. If a dream is expressive rather than repressive, there is no need for censorship; if condensation and displacement do not take place, then there are no fragments for the secondary elaboration to knit together.
Perhaps this is why nobody has yet called Freud out on a questionable assumption: that a psychic process could be responsible for reshaping dreams without the way it reshapes them being significant in its own right. If we are responsible for what we hide from ourselves, we are also responsible for the forms our self-deception takes, and if one of them offers us the possibility of self-knowledge, the other must, too.
This line of thought is also relevant to the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis, which posits that dreams are the brain’s attempt to interpret random signals from the forebrain during sleep. Even if this were the case, it wouldn’t imply that dreams were meaningless, since meaning from the top down would still be a valid possibility.
For me, that possibility is a certainty. The only questions are how deep we cast our nets and what is to be found there—and those can be very personal questions.
Like most of the theorists who came after Freud, I do not think that dreams are deceptive in nature. But in many dreams I do get the impression that my own thoughts have a distinct character from the dream in which I find myself, which is consistent with Freud’s characterization of secondary elaboration— the only top-down process of the four.
As an example: a few weeks ago, I had a dream where I was staying in a large house with a group of people I had recently met. It was winter, and although the time and place were not made explicit, it had a feeling like early 20th century Austria.
The others had gone out; a while later, I followed. They were out on a frozen lake, some skating, and one group on a kind of sled drawn by horses. I ran to catch up with them, but on the ice I couldn’t go very fast, and soon slipped and fell. But they stopped for me, and the man who was driving—he was dressed like a Roman emperor—invited me on. He asked what my name was. I knew that he wasn’t asking for my real name: it was a part of the game we were playing. My first thought was to choose something classically-themed, since that was what they were dressed for, but another idea occurred to me. “Dulcinea,” I said.
The name that I gave him is the most interesting part of the dream for me: in it, there seems to be a tongue-in-cheek recognition that my surroundings and I are unreal. Although I haven’t made an extensive analysis of this dream, and I don’t normally make a practice of psychoanalytic interpretation, the answer I gave might be considered the secondary elaboration at work. My thought-process in the dream was comparable to waking thought: there was real deliberation taking place, rather than the kind of thought that bears the same relationship with waking thought as sleepwalking does with deliberate travel. Instead of following along with the scenario the dream presents, which would suggest that my response arose from the same origin as the rest of the dream, I seem to have deliberately gone against the script.
There is even something a little subversive in it, as if I’m poking fun at the man for going around pretending he’s in an older, romanticized time, à la Don Quixote—and perhaps poking fun at myself for dreaming of the more recent but still romanticized time the dream seems to be set in. Since this is not an unpleasant dream or nightmare, I have no incentive in recognizing my dream’s illusory nature—according to Freud, the only reason for the secondary elaboration to criticize a dream. If there is a censor at work here, it is one with a sense of humor.
In another dream from a couple years ago, I dreamed that I was in an unfamiliar house, writing something. There was a garden in the back that was half-burnt, and the other half was flooded, although it didn’t seem to be doing the plants much harm. The plants were large, green root vegetables, perhaps fennel. I made a note about the garden, including a sarcastic comment: “Nice balance”.
Upon waking, it wasn’t difficult to draw a connection between the garden and my waking life. The previous day, as I had been talking with a friend, I had mentioned that I was trying to take a more balanced approach in a certain area of my life. By itself, the garden probably wouldn’t have been difficult to interpret, but the in-dream commentary left no room for doubt: it was itself an interpretation.
Again, this does not look like a wish-fulfillment. I’m sure it would be possible to formulate a wish based on its associations: when you look closely, the difference between wishes and other thoughts is only a matter of perspective. Reinterpreting a neutral thought as a wish or a fear is as easy as moving numbers around in a mathematical equation, which is why Freud’s ingenious way of interpreting his patients’ dreams in support his theory isn’t as impressive as it looks.
Other dreams of mine have been even more explicit in including the beginnings of their own interpretations. After I had had a few dreams with my family’s cat Nike in them, I figured out that she was being used as a concrete representation of victory—the literal meaning of her name in Greek. There are a couple dreams in my journal where I make a mental note of what she is representing while the dream is taking place.
Could my dream-self be distorting or censoring content in these cases? It has always been my impression that I was doing the opposite: I was giving the whole game away. So far I have found no evidence of an inner censor, but considerable evidence for an inner critic—a much more welcome companion in the art of dreaming.