Freud’s Dreams

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781). Freud reportedly had a copy of it hanging in his apartment.

I am very incompletely dressed, and I go from a dwelling on the ground floor up a flight of stairs to an upper story. In doing this I jump over three steps at a time, and I am glad to find I can mount the steps so quickly. Suddenly I see that a servant girl is coming down the stairs, that is, towards me. I am ashamed and try to hurry away, and now there appears that sensation of being impeded; I am glued to the steps and cannot move from the spot.

Who among us hasn’t had that dismaying dream of being in a state of undress in front of others? Or of desperately wanting to get away but being frozen to the spot? Even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had this classic anxiety dream, as he recounts in Chapter V of his groundbreaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899. Thanks to Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg volunteers, you can read the 1914 fourth edition in German, Die Traumdeutung, or the 1913 English translation of the third edition by A.A. Brill, the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States.

Humans have been trying to make sense of their dreams for thousands of years. The ancient Sumerians treated them as prophecy. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE), one of the earliest surviving pieces of human literature, the hero dreams of a falling star; his mother interprets the dream to mean that he will soon have a new friend. Shortly thereafter, he meets Enkidu, his boon companion through many adventures, and both of them have significant dreams that are portents of things to come.

This view of dreaming as an aid to divination persisted for many centuries in many cultures. But, as Freud points out in Chapter I of The Interpretation of Dreams, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was probably the first to recognize a psychological component to dreams. Unlike his contemporaries, Aristotle did not believe that dreams were prophetic. Rather, he believed that they were sleep-altered forms of impressions the dreamer received during his waking life. And that’s exactly how Freud interpreted his staircase dream:

The situation of the dream is taken from everyday reality…. When I have finished my work downstairs late at night, I go up the steps into my bedroom. On the evening before the dream I had actually gone this short distance in a somewhat disorderly attire—that is to say, I had taken off my collar, cravat, and cuffs; but in the dream this has changed into a somewhat more advanced degree of undress, which as usual is indefinite. Jumping over the steps is my usual method of mounting stairs; moreover it is the fulfilment of a wish that has been recognised in the dream, for I have reassured myself about the condition of my heart action by the ease of this accomplishment.

The impetus for the dream arises from events in Freud’s daily life, consistent with Aristotle’s view. But Freud goes further. The meaning he assigns the dream is the cornerstone of his dream theory: wish fulfillment. The unconscious mind forms a wish; the wish is expressed in a dream, but in a disguised form due to an internal “censor” in one’s mind. Freud believed that the wish fulfillment in this particular dream revolved around his health – his concerns about his heart were assuaged by his being able to easily jump three steps at a time in the dream. As for the rest, he felt he “must postpone the further interpretation of this dream until I can give an account of the origin of the typical dream of incomplete dress.” Although his appearing before the servant partially dressed was “undoubtedly of a sexual character,” it puzzled him because the servant involved was an unattractive older woman.

Freud interprets several of his own dreams, as well as his patients’ dreams, along the same lines. In discussing some of them, he introduces his famous theory of the Oedipus complex – the unconscious wish to kill one parent and have sexual relations with the other. Freud argued that all children have such wishes to some extent, although most don’t have them in an intense form. He noted that “parents play a leading part in the infantile psychology of all later neurotics, and falling in love with one member of the parental couple and hatred of the other help to make up that fateful sum of material furnished by the psychic impulses, which has been formed during the infantile period, and which is of such great importance for the symptoms appearing in the later neurosis.” These “psychic impulses” are sometimes expressed in violent and/or erotic dreams about one’s parents. Indeed, Freud points out, such dreams are even referred to in Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, when Jocasta tells her husband Oedipus (who does not yet know that he has murdered his father and married his mother) that “it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles.” This “trifle,” however, inevitably leads to tragedy for Oedipus and Jocasta. In Freud’s view, it could lead to neurosis.

Freud acknowledges that the ancient belief in dreams as prophecy is “not entirely devoid of truth. By representing to us a wish as fulfilled the dream certainly leads us into the future; but this future, taken by the dreamer as present, has been formed into the likeness of that past by the indestructible wish.” And to Freud, this method of interpreting a patient’s dreams is a critical tool in psychoanalysis, as it is “the via regia to a knowledge of the unconscious in the psychic life.” He considered it so crucial that in 1901 he published an abridged version of The Interpretation of Dreams, entitled On Dreams, to make it more accessible to those interested in this new method of psychoanalysis. Another abridgement, Dream Psychology: Psycholanalysis for Beginners, was published in 1920 in an authorized English translation by British psychoanalyst M.D. Eder.

Freud later adjusted some of his theories, and later psychoanalysts have refined or taken issue with some of his interpretations, but The Interpretation of Dreams remains a seminal work in the development of psychoanalysis.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer. Hot off the Press wishes all its readers a happy and healthy New Year – and hopes those wishes are fulfilled.

3 Responses to Freud’s Dreams

  1. genknit says:

    One of my recurring dreams was that I showed up for a class (usually not one I was actually taking) and found out there was a major exam that day and I was unprepared. And there was the bear with tail lights that kept following me through the woods….

    • LCantoni says:

      I’m familiar with the recurring exam dream – in one intense one, I dreamed that the exam questions were written with jumbled-up letters – but a bear with tail lights is absolutely awesome! 😀

  2. genknit says:

    The bear dream may have been sparked by an episode of the Tv show “Lassie.” My husband and one of his friends had a similar recurring dream, but their bears did not have tail lights. They think there was an episode where Timmy got chased by a bear. We didn’t have a tv when we were kids, so if I saw the Lassie episode it must have been at one of our grandparents’ houses. My 7 siblings didn’t have this dream. I’m the middle kid, though, so Freud would probably say that explains a lot! LOL!

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