Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Interpretation of Dreams


    The wery hunter sleping in his bedde
    To woode againe his mind goeth anoon
    The judge dremeth how his plees ben spedde
    The cartere dremeth how his cartes goon
    The ryche of golde the knyghte fightes with his foon
    The sicke mette he drynketh of the tonne
    The lovere mette he hath hys ladye wonne

The wonderful train of thought that is embodied in The Interpretation of Dreams begins from understanding that previous and popular theories of dreams lack an explanatory dimension. Dreams, Freud thought, must be functional and must have a motive. Hence the conception (which required rather special definition) that a dream fulfils a wish.

On the other hand Chaucer's observation was undeniable. The contents of a person's dreams, a lot of the contents anyway, were readily recognizable components of the dreamer's everyday life. Freud intuited that the dream-maker seized on these materials not because they were important but because they were readily available. (If you work on the tills, you don't, in other words, have a motive for dreaming about till-work, but you dream about it anyway.) Thus, they were part of the "dream-work" but they were specifically NOT part of the wish. Freud developed this into a principle: the readily available materials were in fact virtually always taken not from some vast trawl over the whole breadth of the dreamer's mind but simply from what lay uppermost, which was - almost invariably - the memories of the past day. If the dream contained someone you hadn't thought about "for years", a little inspection nearly always revealed that you had, in fact, been reminded of them by some petty episode of the day before. That this is always at first denied and always as openly admitted once it's seen, is itself impressive testimony to the incessant activities of our internal censor. What we assert as true is in fact subject to a level of internal air-brushing, insufficient to cause us serious disability in the struggle for existence (knowing what's true is, after all, important), but sufficient to improve our general sense of well-being and complacency. Which is exactly what Darwin would predict: the mind is subject to evolutionary optimization just as much as the rest of our body.

The first element in interpreting your own dreams Freudianly is, therefore, to identify the aspects of the dream that arise from some occasion of the day before - something that happened or something you were thinking about - and lay them on one side. In the rest of the dream lies the wish. The wish being commonly a desire that is so pressing precisely because the dreamer is too ashamed to admit it, the dream hides it from the dreamer, for example by changing the characters. My experience is that once you have thoroughly grasped the mechanisms by which a dream comes into existence it's remarkably easy to discover by self-inspection what your own dreams are really about.

If someone tells you "you were in my dream last night", then it's a safe bet that, whoever else that dream was about, it was definitely not about you. And if you think about the tone in which these words are habitually said, this makes sense - the dreamer is light, gallant, unworried, relaxed, and as pleasantly surprised as yourself that he should have paid you the compliment of dreaming about you. No-one ever dreams about you when their mind is really set on you; then, their turmoiled dreams are all about other things altogether. Or rather, they seem to be.

Anyhow, that's my tribute to Freud for his 150th. The Interpretation of Dreams is the discovery of an entirely new mode of thinking.

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