A century ago, Freud included psychoanalysis as one of what he described as the three ‘narcissistic illnesses’. First, Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth moves around the Sun, thereby depriving humans of their central place in the universe. Then Darwin demonstrated that we are the product of evolution, thereby depriving us of our privileged place among living beings. Finally, by making clear the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes, Freud showed that the ego is not master even in its own house. Today, scientific breakthroughs seem to bring further humiliation: the mind is merely a machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy merely a ‘user’s illusion’. In comparison, the conclusions of psychoanalysis seem rather conservative.
Is psychoanalysis outdated? It certainly appears to be. It is outdated scientifically, in that the cognitivist-neurobiologist model of the human mind has superseded the Freudian model; it is outdated in the psychiatric clinic, where psychoanalytic treatment is losing ground to drug treatment and behavioural therapy; and it is outdated in society more broadly, where the notion of social norms which repress the individual’s sexual drives doesn’t hold up in the face of today’s hedonism. But we should not be too hasty. Perhaps we should instead insist that the time of psychoanalysis has only just arrived.
One of the consistent themes of today’s conservative cultural critique is that, in our permissive era, children lack firm limits and prohibitions. This frustrates them, driving them from one excess to another. Only a firm boundary set up by some symbolic authority can guarantee stability and satisfaction – the satisfaction that comes of violating the prohibition. In order to make clear the way negation functions in the unconscious, Freud cited the comment one of his patients made after recounting a dream about an unknown woman: ‘Whoever this woman in my dream is, I know she is not my mother.’ A clear proof, for Freud, that the woman was his mother. What better way to characterise the typical patient of today than to imagine his reaction to the same dream: ‘Whoever this woman in my dream is, I’m sure she has something to do with my mother!’
Traditionally, psychoanalysis has been expected to enable the patient to overcome the obstacles preventing his or her access to normal sexual satisfaction: if you are not able to get it, visit an analyst and he will help you to lose your inhibitions. Now that we are bombarded from all sides by the injunction to ‘Enjoy!’, psychoanalysis should perhaps be regarded differently, as the only discourse in which you are allowed not to enjoy: not ‘not allowed to enjoy’, but relieved of the pressure to enjoy.
Nowhere is this paradoxical change in the role of psychoanalytic interpretation clearer than in the case of dreams. The conventional understanding of Freud’s theory of dreams is that a dream is the phantasmic realisation of some censored unconscious desire, which is as a rule of a sexual nature. At the beginning of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud provides a detailed interpretation of his own dream about ‘Irma’s injection’. The interpretation is surprisingly reminiscent of an old Soviet joke: ‘Did Rabinovitch win a new car on the state lottery?’ ‘In principle, yes, he did. Only it was not a car but a bicycle, it was not new but old, and he did not win it, it was stolen from him!’ Is a dream the manifestation of the dreamer’s unconscious sexual desire? In principle, yes. Yet in the dream Freud chose to demonstrate his theory of dreams, his desire is neither sexual nor unconscious, and, moreover, it’s not his own.
The dream begins with a conversation between Freud and his patient Irma about the failure of her treatment because of an infection caused by an injection. In the course of the conversation, Freud approaches her and looks deep into her mouth. He is confronted with the unpleasant sight of scabs and curly structures like nasal bones. At this point, the horror suddenly changes to comedy. Three doctors, friends of Freud, among them one called Otto, appear and begin to enumerate, in ridiculous pseudo-professional jargon, possible (and mutually exclusive) causes of Irma’s infection. If anyone had been to blame, it transpires in the dream, it is Otto, because he gave Irma the injection: ‘Injections ought not to be made so thoughtlessly,’ the doctors conclude, ‘and probably the syringe had not been clean.’ So, the ‘latent thought’ articulated in the dream is neither sexual nor unconscious, but Freud’s fully conscious wish to absolve himself of responsibility for the failure of Irma’s treatment. How does this fit with the thesis that dreams manifest unconscious sexual desires?
A crucial refinement is necessary here. The unconscious desire which animates the dream is not merely the dream’s latent thought, which is translated into its explicit content, but another unconscious wish, which inscribes itself in the dream through the Traumarbeit (‘dream-work’), the process whereby the latent thought is distorted into the dream’s explicit form. Here lies the paradox of the dream-work: we want to get rid of a pressing, disturbing thought of which we are fully conscious, so we distort it, translating it into the hieroglyph of the dream. However, it is through this distortion that another, much more fundamental desire encodes itself in the dream, and this desire is unconscious and sexual.
What is the ultimate meaning of Freud’s dream? In his own analysis, Freud focuses on the dream-thought, on his ‘superficial’ wish to be blameless in his treatment of Irma. However, in the details of his interpretation there are hints of deeper motivations. The dream-encounter with Irma reminds Freud of several other women. The oral examination recalls another patient, a governess, who had appeared a ‘picture of youthful beauty’ until he looked into her mouth. Irma’s position by a window reminds him of a meeting with an ‘intimate woman friend’ of Irma’s of whom he ‘had a very high opinion’; thinking about her now, Freud has ‘every reason to suppose that this other lady, too, was a hysteric’. The scabs and nasal bones remind him of his own use of cocaine to reduce nasal swelling, and of a female patient who, following his example, had developed an ‘extensive necrosis of the nasal mucous membrane’. His consultation with one of the doctors brings to mind an occasion on which Freud’s treatment of a woman patient gave rise to a ‘severe toxic state’, to which she subsequently ‘succumbed’; the patient had the same name as his eldest daughter, Mathilde. The unconscious desire of the dream is Freud’s wish to be the ‘primordial father’ who possesses all the women Irma embodies in the dream.
However, the dream presents a further enigma: whose desire does it manifest? Recent commentaries clearly establish that the true motivation behind the dream was Freud’s desire to absolve Fliess, his close friend and collaborator, of responsibility and guilt. It was Fliess who botched Irma’s nose operation, and the dream’s desire is not to exculpate Freud himself, but his friend, who was, at this point, Freud’s ‘subject supposed to know’, the object of his transference. The dream dramatises his wish to show that Fliess wasn’t responsible for the medical failure, that he wasn’t lacking in knowledge. The dream does manifest Freud’s desire – but only insofar as his desire is already the Other’s (Fliess’s) desire.
Why do we dream? Freud’s answer is deceptively simple: the ultimate function of the dream is to enable the dreamer to stay asleep. This is usually interpreted as bearing on the kinds of dream we have when some external disturbance – noise, for example – threatens to wake us. In such a situation, the sleeper immediately begins to imagine a situation which incorporates this external stimulus and thereby is able to continue sleeping for a while longer; when the external stimulus becomes too strong, he finally wakes up. Are things really so straightforward? In another famous example from The Interpretation of Dreams, an exhausted father, whose young son has just died, falls asleep and dreams that the child is standing by his bed in flames, whispering the horrifying reproach: ‘Father, can’t you see I’m burning?’ Soon afterwards, the father wakes to discover that a fallen candle has set fire to his dead son’s shroud. He had smelled the smoke while asleep, and incorporated the image of his burning son into his dream to prolong his sleep. Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality.
In both dreams, there is a traumatic encounter (the sight of Irma’s throat, the vision of the burning son); but in the second dream, the dreamer wakes at this point, while in the first, the horror gives way to the arrival of the doctors. The parallel offers us the key to understanding Freud’s theory of dreams. Just as the father’s awakening from the second dream has the same function as the sudden change of tone in the first, so our ordinary reality enables us to evade an encounter with true trauma.
Adorno said that the Nazi motto ‘Deutschland, erwache!’ actually meant its opposite: if you responded to this call, you could continue to sleep and dream (i.e. to avoid engagement with the real of social antagonism). In the first stanza of Primo Levi’s poem ‘Reveille’ the concentration camp survivor recalls being in the camp, asleep, dreaming intense dreams about returning home, eating, telling his relatives his story, when, suddenly, he is woken up by the Polish kapo’s command ‘Wstawac!’ (‘Get up!’). In the second stanza, he is at home after the war, well fed, having told his story to his family, when, suddenly, he imagines hearing again the shout, ‘Wstawac!’ The reversal of the relationship between dream and reality from the first stanza to the second is crucial. Their content is formally the same – the pleasant domestic scene is interrupted by the injunction ‘Get up!’ – but in the first, the dream is cruelly interrupted by the wake-up call, while in the second, reality is interrupted by the imagined command. We might imagine the second example from The Interpretation of Dreams as belonging to the Holocaust survivor who, unable to save his son from the crematorium, is haunted afterwards by his reproach: ‘Vater, siehst du nicht dass ich verbrenne?’
In our ‘society of the spectacle’, in which what we experience as everyday reality more and more takes the form of the lie made real, Freud’s insights show their true value. Consider the interactive computer games some of us play compulsively, games which enable a neurotic weakling to adopt the screen persona of a macho aggressor, beating up other men and violently enjoying women. It’s all too easy to assume that this weakling takes refuge in cyberspace in order to escape from a dull, impotent reality. But perhaps the games are more telling than that. What if, in playing them, I articulate the perverse core of my personality which, because of ethico-social constraints, I am not able to act out in real life? Isn’t my virtual persona in a way ‘more real than reality’? Isn’t it precisely because I am aware that this is ‘just a game’ that in it I can do what I would never be able to in the real world? In this precise sense, as Lacan put it, the Truth has the structure of a fiction: what appears in the guise of dreaming, or even daydreaming, is sometimes the truth on whose repression social reality itself is founded. Therein resides the ultimate lesson of The Interpretation of Dreams: reality is for those who cannot sustain the dream.
― Slavoj Zizek, How To Read Lacan