Sex and the Dream of Interpretation

John Haber
in New York City

   As Aeschylus puts it
in Frag. 351: Let us say what comes to our lips,
      whatever it
may be; or perhaps, let us say what's on
   The tip of our tongue.
   As Achilles put it to Apollo,
      You have made a fool of me.

       — David Shapiro

Freud, Feminism, and Dora

To be free—free love . . . free markets . . . free association. . . . All dreams of pure freedom.

To surrender to one's innermost thoughts—without hesitation, without self-censorship, and without question—is to acknowledge the shock and power of desire. It is to give in to one's most dreaded hopes. Yet, by the very act of surrender, it is to eliminate obsession or delusion. It is to rediscover autonomy and self-control in a fully conscious existence. Or is it? The place of dreams? (Freud Museum, London)

The paradox is the secret of psychoanalysis, both its dream interpretation and its cure. It is the enigma of each meaningful connection, in dreams as in a language. It is also the mystery of falling in love.

Putting Freud on the couch: a dream

Freud's own accounts of dream interpretation have a heavy autobiographical element—his own associations, his own dreams. I want to discuss what just one, from On Dreams, might tell of his own investment in mastering the dream work. I shall find Freud reasserting old desires, traditional gender roles, and long-tolerated excuses, and I shall trace them all to economic and professional motives.

Freud's book is a valuable summary of his ideas. This brief popularization centers on a dream of his own, of just the previous night:

Company at table or table d'hôte . . . spinach was being eaten . . . Frau E. L. was sitting beside me; she was turning her whole attention to me and laid her hand on my knee in an intimate manner. I removed her hand unresponsively. She then said: "But you've always had such beautiful eyes." . . . I then had an indistinct picture of two eyes, as though it were a drawing or like the outline of a pair of spectacles. . . .

To protect his privacy, Freud himself breaks off a remarkable dream analysis before he can complete it, as if lifting the plastic sheet on the Mystic Writing Pad: "Considerations of a personal and not of a scientific motive prevent my doing so in public." Note already the trickiness of contrasting the "personal" to the "scientific" amid the supposedly scientific study of desire. It tempts one strongly to speculate on the dream's conclusion and on what he wished to protect.

I am going to risk the arrogance of analyzing Freud. I shall be forced to ask about hidden attitudes toward women in his then-new psychology. First, however, let me mention some none-too-easy questions about gender and psychoanalysis.

Images, words, and meanings: Freud's technique

Free associations are always powerfully constrained, always on the way to be caught fast, displaced, condensed, transformed—and snagged once again. Freud called this drama of a perpetual turning aside the dream work. As he wrote in On Dreams, "the threads of association do not simply converge from the dream thoughts to the dream content; they cross and interweave with each other many times over the course of their journey."

The necessity of linkage and constraints lies behind one particularly puzzling feature of Freud's method. His dreams are intensely visual and auditory, with images and dialogue as clearly perceived as in a movie. As early critics of Freud quickly noted, this visual clarity does not hold for all dreams. Conversely, and more strikingly, his exploration turns on verbal recounting of those images, including puns and other associations with a verbal record. As he himself comments, "it may seem strange that the dream work should make such free use of verbal ambiguity." Let me take a moment to observe just how strange.

In analysis, associations must be seen with attention but not restrained. A finished interpretation can then pull the multiple links together into a single node of meaning. His interpretations therefore rely on pun-like associations unique to a written or spoken language, as if the dream work added images to a screenplay. Conversely, the interpreter is like an art or film critic, teasing words into life under cover of images. Small wonder the visual arts have had such an ambivalent relationship to childhood games and especially to words, as with René Magritte. They always offer more to verbal attention, always reward that attention, and always seem to be just a little justifiably insulted by the insistent work of the reviewer.

Is Freud right, and the mind is tailor-made for language? So claims Jacques Lacan, who gave Freud to structuralism. Or is he wrong, and imposing a theorist's view of the world? Like many an artist placed in the public eye, patients do feel insulted sometimes. Or is he right in using daytime associations to plumb the depth of the patient, but foolish to consider that the origin of the dream?

Freud's work is famously hard to test scientifically, and that may be inherent in the puzzle of desire or of language. Freud's talk of pulling threads of meaning together recalls another great metaphor. Wittgenstein compared linguistic expression to multiple strands tightly entwined in a rope. Perhaps Freud's mistake, if there is one, is inherent in the very dream of meaning.

The idea of freedom—whether in free association or, for that matter, a free-market economy—is itself a dream. Powerful desires, what conservative economists and Freudians alike term "economic transactions," are always lurking. Old bargains and inherited restraints are ready and able to reestablish their terrifying sway. To quote On Dreams again, "The essential determining condition of displacement is . . . something in the nature of a motive."

Tearing off the rope: Freud's women

Feminists and deconstructionists have justly been harsh on Freud for these paradoxes. He can be faulted for expecting a final mastery of the soul at his own hands, when his patients had a right to expect more. He can be denounced for letting the old games and old associations continue, when a woman has a right to cry out and break the chain. A sore point has been Freud's first important case history.

In an often-cited exchange about the girl Freud called Dora, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément debated whether Freud in the end acceded to a male game. Dora's father, Freud himself makes clear, wished to hand the girl over to another man. That way, he was free to pursue his own illicit affairs. Dora may be a patient suffering from hysteria, Cixous says, but she "is the name of a certain disturbing force that means that the little circus no longer runs."

In Cixous's version, the chain of free associations is under male control, and the liberating move is to break them. She may as well have taken her complaint about the chain's old linkages from Freud himself:

One day I discovered to my great astonishment that the view of dreams which came nearest to the truth was not the medical but the popular one, half-involved though it still was in superstition [my stress].

But the little circus always runs and is always about to be condensed, transformed, or disrupted. As the strands are torn off for examination, the rope acquires a firm and resistant meaning, and it becomes rigid and false. One begins with the hope of interpreting dreams with no strings attached, and one ends with old desires reasserting themselves. A disturbing force is by no means an innocent one.

Freud's inconsistent sexism may be just another disturbing force—a lingering distrust of liberated desires and meanings. At his best, he sees sexual desire as a kind of root of the mind, and yet he lets those desires be as perplexingly layered and fluid as an individual's associations. There are differences between men and women, he seems to say, but for goodness sake never just the clichés.

At other times, as in Dora's case, he could just be failing to hold to that insight. When I myself hear one of the clichés, I run or scream, but I act those clichés out every day—and badly at that. Perhaps, as the literary critic Harold Bloom might say, I am acting them out when I wrestle with Freud.

Freud's irritation at Victorian sexism is never in doubt, but the meaning of that irritation might be. For example, in his work sex never has the connotation of what one now calls gender. (The latter was then mostly just a term in grammar.) In the index of his most comprehensive early statement, The Interpretation of Dreams, references to sex lead only to sexuality or desire. Is Freud seeing the limits of everyday notions of gender? Or is he denying the obvious, under pressure to reduce everything to his own maleness?

Is it the master himself who sometimes lapses into distrust of psychoanalysis and breaks the chain? Or is he merely giving in to desires that old chains entail? It is difficult, even impossible, to decide just when amid the links of free associations an interpretation begins. I shall now try to find that place in Freud's own dream.

Love without a cost: Freud's dream

Freud interprets his dream as about a wish for love without a cost. He sees the wish for love in the hand of a woman, which reminds him of a gesture once made by his wife. He sees the fear of a cost in two places. First, the "other woman" calls to mind friends who had left him footing the bill on various occasions, a taxi ride in particular. Second, parents always exacted a price: he must eat his spinach.

He has still to tie these threads together. Only tying them up would explain just what love he wants and what cost he wishes to avoid. Now, dream interpretation, in Freud's particular insight, must be the work of the dreamer. I can only speculate; I may well be wrong. However, consider his own circumstances at the time.

He has brought forth a new psychology, and it is not getting him the respect he wants. His longer book on dream interpretation, still one of the key works of the century in any field, has sold barely four hundred copies. That is why he has to write On Dreams. In it, he says that every dream is triggered by some recent event, and in fact the dream at hand immediately precedes his setting out to write a popularization.

His need for respect meant more than a commitment to an intellectual challenge: it was a demand for love. Consider why, not many years earlier, he had moved to a more fashionable address, close to the city center.

Although still not quite in Vienna's "Ring," the new offices could attract paying customers. Freud was a struggling young man from a lower-middle-class household—that in a dense city where Jews, even secular Jews, were almost tolerated but still a very troubled minority. To move was to accept a higher rent, probably some debt, and a greater commitment to the paying patient over the development of pure scholarship. And his motive was his wishing to marry: he would need more income, and he wanted a better class of patients.

This background suggests one crossing point between cost and the love of his wife. It may suggest why his wife's gesture has been displaced to another: he wants something cheaper. Something should have allowed him the fame that he ought by now to have received, the appreciation that would have made writing this book unnecessary.

Freud also is made to think of his own parents' love. In light of psychoanalysis, it is hard to avoid the association with Oedipal struggles between father and son. As Henri F. Ellenberger has pointed out, Freud's own feelings, like his dreams, were crucial in leading to his theories. I imagine that struggle to intersect themes of love and cost in, at the very least, two key places. First, to gain the professional standing he desires is both to overcome his father, a merchant, and also to live up to his parent's demands. Second, in the Freudian system, the love that can never be without cost is desire for his mother.

Now, in his wish to be understood and accepted by the public, he has dropped the long discussion of infantile sexuality found in his longer book. The Oedipal theme has been displaced from the popular account entirely, and in his dream the infantile desire has been displaced, too—from the mother to the harmless other woman. The spinach, which he says he has come to love, could stand for any desire forbidden in childhood but now ready to unfold.

Freud, then, is saying that if only his wife did not weigh him down, he would be in control. In the mastery to be ensured by his new science, women are like Cixous's anonymous counters. Only their desires and actions are avoided in the dream: only their wishes are displaced. As the chain of associations comes to an abrupt end, their desires are fixed forever. They are for him.

Freedom, betrayal, and lies: Freud's silences

An insistent link of psychoanalysis to a school or discipline under his control runs throughout his career. It is reflected in the field's new jargon, introduced in this book; it is flaunted all the more in the book's interesting form of presentation. He writes an essay that must take weeks, but by literary convention, he can pretend that it is all a lecture delivered in just a day. The dream can then occur just a night before this fictitious event.

To let dreams to run free, uncensored, is to accept childhood desires and the layering of multiple times and selves. To put it all into one day is to reassert, suspiciously, a present. That interest in speech and presence may affect his preference for the pun over purely visual symbols. Indeed, few have had the mastery of language and culture shown in Freud's magnificent books.

To Freud, then, a new psychology opens up sexual desire. Its achievement frees men and women from a rigidly gendered sexuality. Yet Freud's own insecurity will never quite allow him to see the woman's own desire as a separate, willed thing. It is given its rigid gender: it is fixed on him.

That duality—of freedom and gender—is not Freud's special male prejudice. It is built into the controls and denials of control in free associations. Every escape from domination is only tentative. The pitfall and the paradox can never be avoided, even when Cixous or I want to scream. Listen to Freud again on his ominous silence:

In analyzing my specimen dream I was obliged to break off my report of the dream thoughts . . . because, as I confessed, there were some among them . . . which I could not communicate to other people without doing serious mischief in important directions. I added that nothing would be gained if I were to choose another dream. . . . I should eventually arrive at thoughts . . . not only alien but also disagreeable to me . . . [stress in the original].

The sincerity of the pain behind "disagreeable" coexists with the self-assertion of his "important directions." An honest meaning has a way of always being "alien," but it reasserts itself when the chain is broken and confession is denied.

There is no excuse for sexism or for any other form of dogmatism. One still has to distinguish, at least tentatively, between lies and self-betrayal. Yet the strange lesson of art, language, and dreams is that self-betrayal is inevitable, and it will one day become a lie.

Art recovers memories every day, but only by constructing them—with everything from oil paint to machine parts. Every feminism, like every interpretation and every use of language, must be continually renewed. Freud remains vital for feminism and feminist art without ever letting go of his fears. As analysis teaches, he could only come to peace with them so that, one day, others may too.

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I owe many details to Henri F. Ellenberger's superb account of the birth of psychoanalysis, The Discovery of the Unconscious, published in 1981 by Basic Books.


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