Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Interpretation of Dreams 6



Chapter 2: The Method of Interpreting Dreams

I have outlined already Freud's comprehensive survey of existing and contemporary literature on the subject of dreams and dreaming.  While Freud did gracefully acknowledge that these works had contributed some little to the scientific understanding of dreams, they certainly did not explore the subject in a necessarily thoroughly objective and scientific way.  Therefore, it was necessary for some scholar to begin again to found a science of dreams as it were.  Hence we have Freud's second chapter called once again quite infallibly by the definite article as "The Method of interpreting Dreams."  Here, Freud launches out into the deep as it were on a description of his method of interpreting dreams.  He now offers a complete analysis of a model dream - that is, the dream of Irma's injection.

Freud begins by alluding to the widespread belief that dreams are interpretable.  Freud lets us know that while he accepts some of the contentions made by contemporary science of physiology that their then current "scientific theories of the dream have no room for the problem of dream-interpretation, for to them the dream is not a psychical act at all but a somatic process which makes its occurrence known by indications in the psychical apparatus."  (Op.cit., 78)  However, Freud unusually sides with popular or even folkloric opinion - that while dreams may be on the one hand somewhat incomprehensible and absurd, on the other they do admit of some significance.  In his own words, we read:

A dim presentiment seems to lead it [popular opinion] to assume that the dream does possess a meaning, though a hidden one, that it stands as a substitute for another mode of thinking, and that it is only a matter of finding the right way to reveal this substitute for the hidden significance of the dream to be disclosed.  (ibid., 78)

He dismisses both the symbolic and decoding methods of interpreting dreams as being limited in application (the symbolic method) and that the "key" to the dream-book may be very unreliable indeed (decoding method). (80) He goes on to advance his own theory on a more scientific basis:

But I have come to learn better.  I have had to realise that here is another of those not infrequent cases where an ancient, stubbornly held popular belief seems to have come closer to the truth of things than the judgement of contemporary science.  I have to maintain that dreams really do possess a meaning, and that a scientific method of dream-interpretation is possible.  I came to my knowledge of this method in the following way.  (ibid., 80)

It is here, I find that Freud becomes very interesting indeed, and it is easy to see the pattern of his developing thought on dreams.  I have already alluded in a previous post to his close professional involvement with Dr Breuer.  See this link Breuer.  From Breuer he had learned all about the cathartic method (for which see here) for dealing with patients suffering from hysteria. Gradually, working together virtually as collaborators, doctor and patient (Breuer and Pappenheim) devised a cathartic method that removed her symptoms. In this treatment, Breuer hypnotized Pappenheim and then asked her to try to recall the first time she had experienced a physical sensation like one of her symptoms. Upon remembering such an incident, she would give vent to its previously suppressed emotion.  Following this emotional "catharsis" the symptoms would disappear.  Here is Freud himself describing how his science of dreams is based in his experience of clinical practice:

For many years I have been occupied with unravelling certain psychopathological structures, hysterical phobias, obsessional ideas, and the like, for therapeutic purposes - in fact ever since I learned from an important contribution by Josef Breuer that for these formations, experienced as symptoms of illness, the unravelling and the cure, solution, and resolution, amount to the same thing...In the course of these psychoanalytical studies I came up with the interpretation of dreams.  Patients who had undertaken to inform me of all of the thoughts and ideas that beset them on a certain subject told me their dreams, and in this way taught me that a dream can be interpolated into the psychical chain which, starting from a pathological idea, can be traced backwards in the memory.  This suggested that the dream itself might be treated as a symptom, and that the method of interpretation developed from symptoms might be applied to dreams.  (Ibid., 80-81)

Once the dream is regarded as a symptom, bearing in mind Breuer's cathartic method, the dreamer or analysand, working with the analyst will take each element of the dream separately, and using each element as a starting point for free association, they will together unravel the meaning of the dream. Sigmund Freud claimed to have interpreted more than a thousand dreams of his own and of his patients using his new technique.  I will return to Irma's dream in the next post.

Above I have posted an image from the wall of St Peter's Basilica, Rome, taken early May 2008

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