Interpretation and recognition

Revisiting his dream of the botanical monograph in chapter 6, Freud reveals that behind his jocular association to his favorite flower, the artichoke, lies a further association, to Italy. It isn't hard to guess the link; fried artichokes were no doubt a specialty of Roman restaurants already in Freud's day. The pertinence of Italy to the dream's underlying wish isn't hard to guess, either, given all that Freud has said in relation to other dreams about Hannibal and Rome. Oddly, though, Freud doesn't seem aware that he hasn't yet demonstrated Italy's pertinence to this particular dream. As the fastidious and tactful translator, James Strachey, observes in a footnote, the mention of Italy "seems to be a reference to an element in the dream-thoughts not previously mentioned." Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that his friend Fliess was visiting Italy without him, as he reveals in his analysis of another dream of his? What if Fliess gets to Rome first? Generals have to worry about that sort of thing. In any case the lapse suggests that Italy was so fixed in Freud's mind that it was hard for him to keep track of whether he'd already mentioned it.

Meanwhile, there's an almost self-punitive tone to Freud's continuing revelations about his feelings for Fliess. He reports that after Fliess, "a man of importance," was attacked "by an unknown young writer" in print, Freud dreamed about the great German author Goethe attacking a young man, "Herr M." In Freud's dream, he misremembered the year of Goethe's death, substituting instead the year that one of his patients had been born, and he explains that dreams sometimes include such a deliberate reversal of facts in order to signal that the dream itself is to be reversed during interpretation—that the state of affairs in the dream is to be understood under the rubric "just the reverse." Fliess/Goethe didn't deserve to be attacked; the young critic should have been. The interpretation is plausible but not convincing, and at the conclusion of his example, Freud added in 1911 this comment: "It is remarkable to observe . . . how frequently reversal is employed precisely in dreams arising from repressed homosexual impulses." Suddenly Freud's interpretation seems even less convincing. A little later, he reports a dream whose chief characteristic was the sense Freud had at the time of its startling clarity: the dream was about presenting Fliess with "a difficult and long-sought theory of bisexuality"—a theory not itself included in Freud's dream, to his sorrow. Many, no doubt, are the men who have wished for a brilliant theory of bisexuality to explain troubling feelings to themselves. That Freud eventually came up with such a theory doesn't make this dream any less telling.

One doubts, too, Freud's interpretation of his dream of seeing a placard with the sentence "You are requested to close the eyes" or "You are requested to close an eye." Freud says that he dreamt it the night before his father's funeral, that the closing of two eyes referred to the funeral, and that the closing of one expressed his wish that his relatives would "wink" at the modesty of the service that Freud had organized, in accordance with what he felt were his father's wishes. But Strachey, ever the detective, notes that Freud wrote in a letter to Fliess at the time that he dreamt this dream the night after his father's funeral. A historian is obliged to prefer the contemporaneous testimony. Instead of looking ahead to the funeral with anxiety, the dream must have looked back to his father's death with remorse, and in that case, the one eye may have been the one that his father submitted to Freud's colleague for glaucoma surgery, and the two may have belonged to Oedipus—the psychological significance of whose story Freud had just set forth, for the first time in history, in chapter 5.

Of course I can't prove that the interpretations I'm sketching here are any more valid than those given by Freud himself. Decisive proof is hard to come by, in dreamland. If dreams may mean the reverse of what they seem to represent, if affectionate feelings in dreams may disguise hostile wishes, if logical and causal relationships are dissolved in dreams, and if a word in a dream may mean either itself or its opposite or simply refer to a context in which the dreamer recently heard it's used, then it's hard to see how one could decide between interpretations impartially. There are too many variables in the equation; there's freedom along too many axes. In practice, though, the freedom proves not to be too great, or at least one doesn't feel that it is, because one experiences an almost physical relief upon solving a dream. One recognizes the answer. All the pieces of the puzzle click into place.

I had a dream last night, for example, to some extent inspired by our Freud reading group, in which a young man with a cat-like moustache said, "It's sexy," and in the dream I said to myself, Oh, he meant to say 'sexual.' The reference might have been to the erotic frisson incidental to discussing psychology with friends—to the slippage between sexual and sexy. This morning's meeting, for instance, featured a digression about male versus female wet dreams. But Freud says unequivocally that spoken words in a dream always derive from spoken words in waking life, and I couldn't at first recall hearing anything like the words "It's sexy" in our reading group or anywhere else. The notion of a cat-like moustache seemed strange, because I didn't exactly know what it meant. Cats made me think of dogs, though, and suddenly I remembered.

A few days ago, walking our dog, I crossed paths with a young man with a pit bull. The young man was taciturn; the pit bull was straining at the end of his leash ambiguously. I asked, of the pit bull,
"Is he friendly?"

"It's sexy," the man answered.

I was baffled. "It's what?" I asked.

"Her name is Sexy," he said. He had misheard my question. Sexy was friendly, as it turned out, and the two dogs played nicely together—which must have been my wish for the reading group, too.

The feeling of recognition seems superior to everything Freud offers by way of method. But his theory of recognition, like that of bisexuality, seems to have been left out.