“There is a secret tie or union among particular ideas, which causes the mind to conjoin them more frequently, and makes the one, upon its appearance, introduce the other.”
Nowadays, especially among literary folks, free association often seems to be treated as a sort of cognitive randomizer, a way to inject chaos into something that would otherwise be predictable. But this is a rather strange idea. In the psychotherapeutic context where it originated, free association is used because it isn’t random. That’s kind of the point. The confusion probably arises from the word ‘free,’ which is itself associated not only with the absence of restraints, but arbitrariness—or at least the license to be arbitrary, should you feel like it.
Free association is only supposed to be free in the first sense. For that matter, it’s an open question whether human beings actually can be free in the second—whether we are capable of truly random behavior. We all do things for reasons, after all. And when we call others irrational, it’s not because we think they have no reasons for what they do, but that the ones they have are wrong.
But perhaps that’s just the conscious mind, you might say; the unconscious mind is irrational, and that is, after all, where free association is supposed to lead you. If this is so, then the people worthy of being called arbitrary would be those who are being strong-armed by their unconscious. In this case, arbitrariness would be possible, but it would be about as far from freedom as you can get.
The driving assumption here is that the mind is by nature chaotic, and order must always be imposed on it, whether by ourselves or from without. A human being, if given complete freedom and unlimited power, would be completely unpredictable—whereas there are other schools of thought, including that of Sigmund Freud, which posit that a human being would become more predictable under those conditions. And since Freud was the one who developed free association, we ought to at least consider what he thought of it.
It was a truly revolutionary idea at the time, and we still haven’t quite caught up with it. Our passing thoughts—the most fleeting phenomenon of our mental life, continually arising and fading, seemingly without pattern or logic—can reveal to us the depths of our minds. Not only are they not random, Freud thought—they are determined. Even more: they are over-determined, through forces as exact in their operation as the physical forces that determine when an object falls or comes to rest.
What this means is that if we can set our tendency to hide things from ourselves to one side for a little while, the combined force of all our deepest concerns is free to produce the result—the only part of the process we are consciously aware of. Thus, those with a knowledge of how the psyche operates can deduce the original causes and gain an insight into the deeper workings of the mind—or so Freud claimed.
This is relevant to the present discussion because he also claimed that dreams—generally considered to be as insubstantial and arbitrary as our passing thoughts, if not more so—work on the same principle. That’s why free association is supposed to be a useful interpretive tool: it leads us back to the thoughts that resulted in us having the particular dream that we did. And for Freud, the origin of a dream was its interpretation.
Of course, what I did in Part 1 wasn’t free association as a psychoanalyst would practice it. If I were to give it a name, I’d call it convergent association. Free association involves considering one image and following the train of thought wherever it leads, no matter how trivial or taboo it might appear. The psychoanalyst listens and stops you if it sounds like something has been skipped, or requires additional elaboration, or seems a bit fishy.
You can’t actually practice free association properly when you’re working alone: if there’s no analyst keeping a watch on you, and you’re not supposed to be keeping a watch on yourself, then who will? You can write things down and analyze them later—or, I suppose, make a recording and then listen to it—but even then, you probably wouldn’t notice what a third party would. You can, however, try very hard to be honest with yourself and just associate to whatever draws your attention—or just experiment and try to find an approach that leaves less room for self-deception.
That’s actually what happened when I started exploring dream interpretation in earnest: I experimented. I applied the processes of analysis I found natural and saw if they turned up any interesting results.
Sometimes, as I considered a dream, it would occur to me that there was a common link between two images. I’d follow it back from there until I hit something interesting—or, if that didn’t work, follow them through other dreams that seemed to show the same concerns or imagery, and then try to find the common link again. I tried to find the unity behind the dream’s multiplicity, which is the opposite of what Freud would have done.
Freud thought one of the basic processes by which a dream is formed involves multiple thoughts being combined into one dream-image—condensation, he called it. Thus, when you’re moving in the opposite direction, from the dream-images to the thoughts behind the dream, you turn up a great deal of material for every image you start with.
What I did was much more Jungian in spirit, and not just in treating the dream as an internally coherent entity rather than a piecemeal disguise. The basic method—beginning with many things and finding the unity in them—is something one sees a lot in Jung’s work. What is an archetype, if not the inevitable destination of this kind of thinking?
But in either case, the question may be raised: does where you end up have more to do with the method you use than with the material you’re working with? Is it possible that both methods are valid? Even if they lead you to different places, do the results actually conflict? Freud certainly thought they did, but Jung seems to have considered them complimentary in some sense. Maybe an impartial investigation would back him up.
I don’t plan on taking up that challenge personally. I’ll stick to claims I can test myself—and that also means sticking to my own dreams.
The dreamer doesn’t have to work alone, but he does have to be a part of the interpretation process—something they both would have agreed on. Many of the connections you need to make sense of dreams are ones that only the dreamer can make. Many of the connections in the dreams that follow are ones that only I know to make. But I hope that, once revealed, they will be clear enough to clue others into what they need to look for when they try to understand their own dreams, no matter how they choose to do so.
I was attending a school… I met Saimi, who was there with some others. We were part of a group that was critical of the school.… A school official wanted us to pay for food we had eaten, which we’d been told was free. We had to pay six Euros each. Saimi handed him some coins, I got out my purse and handed him a five and a one-Euro coin. Also, something about an owl? (August, 2010)
There’s nothing really special about this dream, in form or content. At first glance, it seems to be expressing dissatisfaction with educational institutions—a common theme for me, as a glance around this blog will reveal. But then there’s the owl at the end. Where did that come from?
Actually, it was already there.
This is one reason why the dreamer is usually the best interpreter of their own dreams. Not only do they know their own concerns—which are likely to make their way into the dream in some form—but they also know all the little facts that allow us to make connections between the dream elements. They may be purely personal associations—such as Leibniz and muffins—or they may be grounded in cultural facts, as this one is, in which case they will be transparent to some people but obscure to others.
In August of 2010, when this dream took place, I was living in Greece, and so Euros with owls on them were a part of life. For that matter, owls were also part of life, since I was a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center specializing in birds. I hadn’t been a student for almost a year—despite what the dream might seem to suggest— and was not expecting to become one again anytime soon. But education was still a concern for me—in some ways, even more of a concern, since it was now completely in my own hands.
So the owl and the Euro are connected—the fact that the dream goes directly from one to the other isn’t actually all that strange. But actually, it’s just as natural to connect the owl to the earlier part of the dream. Why is it that there’s an owl is on the Greek Euro, anyway? Because the owl is associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. That certainly ought to have something to do with education. If not, you would have good grounds to be critical.
And at this point, you’re well on your way to an interpretation: maybe a free education isn’t so free after all? Maybe this was something that only became clear in retrospect. Or could it be that I should be thinking of a different kind of freedom? And come to think of it….
Once again, because what one person takes for granted may be an esoteric fact to another, these connections are likely to appear arbitrary to everyone but the dreamer—and even to the dreamer, if they aren’t sure what to look for.
Not so long ago, I wrote that the sudden transitions in dreams weren’t as arbitrary as they seemed, either because the transition is between elements that carry similar meanings or because the transition itself is meaningful. But I couldn’t say that that was always the case because this is also a possibility. You might call it mind-wandering, keeping in mind that the mind seldom wanders with no purpose. It’s trying to find its way to something— and by finding the hidden connections, you might just figure out what it is.
-To Be Continued-