Naive and sentimental dreaming

I’m re-reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams with some friends. Since I’m at a loss as to what to blog about any more, or why blogging should occur at all, perhaps I’ll blog about it. No promises.

Two forces meet the reader of the Interpretation: Freud’s authority and his charm. Are they monsters? Seducers? Has-beens? The authority interferes before the book is even picked up. One reads Freud because one has heard of him; at last one has decided to make up one’s own mind. One has heard that he’s been discredited, but one has also heard that the discreditors may be motivated by obscure grudges. There’s always someone around who knows a little about Freud’s biography or about the later development of his ideas, a person who can’t help but blurt out these revelations, which are in their way further obstacles to reading the book itself.

The authority is also manifest in Freud’s style—in his judiciously structured sentences and his broad range of cultural and scientific references. The first chapter contains a lengthy survey of everything that myth and science have had to say about dreams, each datum carefully described and ticketed and slipped into what one imagines to be a row of numbered cubby holes in Freud’s rolltop desk.

Except he didn’t have a rolltop desk, and one knows because one has seen it, in Vienna or London. And this is because of the second force, his charisma, whose pull one feels even before reaching the first chapter, in the very first of the eight prefaces, when he says, as ingenuously as Montaigne or Thoreau, that science has obliged him to describe his own dreams, and therefore “it inevitably followed that I should have to reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet.” Even without having read the book that follows—even without its instruction—the reader hears the secret message: I am more poet than scientist. Freud then asks the reader “to grant me the right of freedom of thought—in my dream-life, if nowhere else.” He’s a hero, but a hero who’s a little ironical about himself. How can such a man be resisted?

The charm, after this early twinkle, is more or less submerged for the next hundred pages, which are so methodical as to cause even a patient reader to wonder whether it’s really necessary to read this book—whether hearing about it might suffice. The uncanny thing about this literature survey—inextricable from its boringness—is that the commonsensical ideas described are more or less eternal. They still surface in newspapers and conversation all the time. One has heard them over and over without ever having felt that it was worth the trouble to challenge them. One will certainly hear them again, even after reading this book, and still let them pass. One will probably even recite a few of them oneself. Few are out-and-out wrong. It’s the notion that they are sufficient that Freud intends to puncture—the notion that there’s nothing else to dreams, nothing with a coherent meaning or of nontrivial importance.

Through this obscurity—Freud later described it as “the dark wood of the authorities (who cannot see the trees)”—the charm occasionally gleams, as in the intermperate moment when Freud rolls his eyes at medicine’s fondness for the Ebenezer Scroogian conception of dreams as mental nonsense generated by somatic disturbances, such as an indigestible dinner: “Anything that might indicate that mental life is in any way independent of demonstrable organic changes . . . alarms the modern psychiatrist. . . . But if at the moment we cannot see beyond the mental, that is no reason for denying its existence.” Unhand me, materialists! By the time we reach Freud’s description of a treatise by a mystic named Scherner, said to be “written in a turgid and high-flown style and . . . inspired by an almost intoxicated enthusiasm for his subject which is bound to repel anyone who cannot share in his fervous,” we feel that we know Freud well enough to say to ourselves that it’s just like thim to decide that the best book on dreams, other than his own, is an unreadable one.

In chapter two, Freud at last begins to set forth his own ideas, in the form of a method for understanding dreams: First, record everything in the dream, no matter how trivial, absurd, or embarrassing. Then, record every association that each fragment of the dream calls up in your mind, again refusing to judge the value or pertinence of the association. Adopt here, if possible, the grandeur of Schiller’s rebuke to all critics:

You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

Be silly like us.

Of course it isn’t safe to be silly in public—not on the internet, not even in the pages of a psychoanalytic treatise. It’s only safe in a setting designed to make it safe, where confidentiality is guaranteed, and one’s interlocutor has credibly promised neither to retaliate against any hostility that one may inadvertently express nor to take advantage of any desire. Yet Freud imprudently reveals his dream to us and its meanings: he admits that he wished for the persistent illness of a patient he calls Irma to be someone else’s fault—hers, perhaps, for remaining attached to her symptoms despite his unraveling for her of their meaning, or another doctor’s, for injecting her with a dirty syringe, or still another’s, for being ludicrously inobservant. Freud admits to being troubled by memories of patients who died while under treatment by him. He is remarkably candid but by his own admission not completely so: “If anyone should feel tempted to express a hasty condemnation of my reticence, I would advise him to make the experiment of being franker than I am.”

He shows that his dream revenges himself on colleagues whom he suspected of disapproving of his treatment of Irma, and his revelations are sufficient to demonstrate his hypothesis that “A dream is the fulfilment of a wish.” The particular wish, however, lay only in his dream’s upper strata, beneath which he declined to dig, observing in a footnote that although he knew there was more “there is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” Trust me on this, says the veteran explorer. But didn’t he just tell us to look where the critical faculties would dissuade us from looking? Haven’t we been told that the message Looking here is more trouble than it’s worth is a sign of buried treasure? A navel was once a point of contact with the mother. It is a place where contact with the mother was cut off. To whom else might Freud have been led if he had continued to follow the association that he interrupted by invoking the metaphor of the navel—an association that had so far brought him from Irma to a friend of Irma’s to Freud’s own wife—a series he characterized as women “who would also have been recalcitrant to treatment”?

More than a century after the publication of Freud’s dreambook, it is notorious that Freud left out of his account of the dream of Irma’s injection a traumatic incident that must have contributed to it. Freud’s friend and ally as he was constructing the discipline of psychoanalysis was an ear, nose, and throat specialist named Wilhelm Fliess, who developed peculiar ideas about the nose as a locus for sexual dysfunction. Freud let Fliess operate on his nose, and on the nose of at least one of his patients, a young widow who resembles the Irma of his dream. This patient, named Emma Eckstein, failed to improve after Fliess’s surgery. Like Irma, she was suspected by Freud of remaining too fond of her symptoms. But during a physical examination of her in Freud’s presence, another ear, nose, and throat specialist made a startling discovery: Fliess had left behind in Eckstein’s nasal cavities half a meter of gauze, which was rotting. As it was removed, Eckstein bled and briefly lost any pulse; Freud nearly fainted. “So this is the strong sex,” Eckstein teased Freud once he had recovered. (The details may be found on pp. 80-87 of Peter Gay’s biography, in a 2003 article by Madelon Sprengnether in American Imago, and in many other places.)

Freud’s omission could be read as a deception. In Freud’s telling, Fliess appears only as an association to the chemical trimethylamin, which appears in the dream as part of the injection given to Irma, which may have left her infected. “Trimethylamin,” Freud writes, “was an allusion not only to the immensely powerful factor of sexuality, but also to a person whose agreement I recalled with satisfaction whenever I felt isolated in my opinions.” But the partiality of Freud’s account might also be read as an invitation. Even a reader ignorant of Emma Eckstein’s story will sense the further sexual possibilities, unexplored by Freud, in such lines as Freud’s disavowal of any wish to know more about the reference in his dream to Irma’s clothedness: “Further than this I could not see. Frankly, I had no desire to penetrate more deeply at this point.” Freud shares with the dream-Irma a pain in the left shoulder. Perhaps he also shares with her a fear of being contaminated by Fliess’s sexual injection or of being harmed by Fliess’s surgery. Or a wish for that contamination or that harm. Such possibilities hardly impair Freud’s charm or even his authority. Shouldn’t a doctor be troubled nights by the question of whether he’s really helping his patients? Freud’s methods merely turn out to be more revealing than he knew; he is more the ironic hero than ever.