Fig. 1, Salvador Dali, ‘The Accommodations of Desire’, 1926
Dali-Foundation Gala-Salvador Dali/Design and Artists Copyright
The Shark Behind
The Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreams
In a sense, psychoanalysis began with dreams.
The Interpretation of Dreams was first published in 1900, followed quickly by two books, on jokes and on the psychopathology of everyday life, in which Freud demonstrated how his new theory of the processes of the unconscious mind could be used to explain a great deal of everyone’s everyday behaviour.
stress throughout was on the normality and ubiquity of activities
like dreaming, forgetting things, making mistakes, telling jokes,
and so on, which are rooted in the unconscious mind. We’ve all
got one, and the way it makes us think and behave unites us with
those outsiders, those others, young children, primitive peoples
and the mentally ill, from whom we spend much of our lives trying
to distance ourselves. I often think that much of the hostility
to psychoanalysis expressed by academics and public figures stems
from its anarchic, banana-skin effect on our wish to be seen as
properly grown up, balanced, judicious, full of gravitas; our
dreams especially can be wonderfully debunking productions. A
patient comes in and tells us that they dreamt that we invited
them to tea and then we hadn’t got any to offer so they kindly
cooked us a hamburger, or that they arrived in a consulting-room
which was full of our badly-behaved children and turned into a
We can enjoy these subversive images together, and also notice the
relief that both analyst and patient feel in being liberated
momentarily from our customary roles in the consulting-room.
is strange, given the high value that Freud placed upon dreams —
‘the royal highway to knowledge of the unconscious aspect of the
mind’, he called them — that a century later many
psychoanalysts take no special interest in dreams, and do not
think that they offer us any special access to the inner world or
demand any particular interpretative technique. This change is not
particularly new — Freud himself was noticing and regretting it
by the 1920s.
Hamilton’s recent study of how a group of English and American
analysts of different theoretical persuasions actually put
psychoanalytic theory into practice found that analysts differ
widely in their attitudes to dreams.
Some find them not particularly interesting, and hard to work
with. Others find them enjoyable and fascinating. (Unsurprisingly,
the second sort of analyst is told far more dreams.) But few
contemporary psychoanalysts think that dreams are a uniquely
valuable source of information about the patient’s psyche. This
is because of the overwhelming contemporary emphasis on the
central role of the transference interpretation. Hamilton thinks
that this is part of the contemporary restriction of
psychoanalysis to a focus on the patient’s present
relationships, particularly that with the analyst, at the expense
of the earlier aim to recreate the patient’s psychic history,
laid down in sedimentary layers which the dream, like a geological
bore, brings up in condensed and scrambled images the forgotten
and concealed psychic past.
focus on the here-and-now transference interpretation has changed
analysts’ use of dream material. When dreams are interpreted as
manifestations of disguised thoughts and feelings about the
present transference relationship, dreams are understood along a
horizontal as opposed to a vertical dimension. Relational,
present-time interpretations flatten and extend laterally the
condensed and dispersed associations to dream content. The dream,
like the mind, loses depth both historically and as an imaginative
elaboration of everyday experience. And with this loss, the
fragility, specificity, and complexity of dreams disperse into
more simple affective and relational transactions.... If analysts
are no longer concerned with the detailed histories of their
patients, the idiosyncratic imagery of dreams has less to reveal
about the mind of one of the two participants in the analytic
relationship. And perhaps that means that imagination is, after
all, less central to the analyst’s creativity than is his
for empathic or projective identification. 
regrets this change, as I do. How has this situation come about?
Let us begin at the beginning.
Interpretation of Dreams is a stiff read. When teaching
psychotherapy students, I try to console them with the thought
that it’s not only about
dreams, it also contains Freud’s theory of how the mind works,
but they still find it tough going. Unlike Jung, Freud did not
consider that dreams were in themselves sources of any unique
wisdom or insight inaccessible by other means. He thought that
dreams allow us to sleep by discharging in veiled form primitive
impulses stirred up by the previous day; his attitude to dreams
was more like that of Scrooge, telling Marley’s ghost that he
was really caused by a speck of indigestible mustard. But what
Freud was fascinated by was the process of symbolic transformation
by which an unconscious wish is translated into a conscious
thought. The contents of the unconscious, being derived from
infantile wishes and bodily drives, he did not think particularly
remarkable. He saw the dreaming mind as continuous with and
working in a very similar way to the waking mind. Most of our
perceptions and mental activity are not accessible to
consciousness whether we are asleep or awake. Dreams for the
psychoanalyst are akin to daydreams, hallucinations, visions and
speaking, Freud’s views on dreams were based on the
topographical model, and never clearly modified to fit in with the
later structural model. His account of the formation of a dream
was that of a lengthy system of transformations and translations
undertaken by the dreaming mind to smuggle forbidden ideas past
the censor. The forbidden wish can appear in consciousness or in
the dream because it is heavily disguised. So the classical
technique of dream interpretation involves putting the process of
forming a dream into reverse.
the analyst works back from the manifest dream, or more
accurately, the dream as it is remembered and reported in a
session, by gathering the patient’s associations to each element
of the dream, putting them together with the events of the
previous day and his or her knowledge of the patient’s life, and
decoding from its symbolic language the dream thoughts, the latent
dream, which lead back to the particular infantile wish, generally
sexual and often on one level about the relation with the analyst,
which threatened to disturb sleep and so produced the dream in the
first place. The metaphor that Freud used is that of the
archaeologist deciphering hieroglyphics which refer to events long
ago, buried in the mists of time. He saw the unconscious as
striving to speak in a kind of visual language, full of puns and
realized that people have generally been interested in dreams
because they wonder if they are significant; in particular, if
they predict the future. He only made one reference to this. The
preconscious mind, he thought, recognizes things that the
conscious mind denies. So if we dream that a friend is dead, and
shortly afterwards discover that he is indeed fatally ill, this is
because the preconscious knows more than we wish to know. We have
pushed away from consciousness all the clues which tell us that
there is something wrong. Since Freud, Jung certainly, and many
other analysts implicitly, have seen the manifest as well as the
latent content of the dream as informing us about the patient. The
early analysts spent a good deal of
on dreams: the impression one gains from some accounts of sessions
dreams provided the most important sort of material.
surrealist artists and poets who enthusiastically adopted
psychoanalytic ideas in the 1920s and 30s saw the dream as a means
of access to the irrational layers of the mind. They tried to
represent dreams by means of automatic writing and pictorially.
They followed Freud in seeing the dream as reflecting a crazy,
unpredictable world, in which reality is discontinuous. But unlike
him, they thought this world a valuable counterweight to rational
thought. Dali explicitly used Freudian dream symbols in pictures
in which he tried to explore his mental difficulties, and in the
recent exhibition of Dali’s work at the Tate in Liverpool, his
homage to Freud was represented at the beginning of the exhibition
by Freud’s analytic couch.
‘The Accommodations of Desire’ of 1926 (Fig. 1), the thoughts
appearing repeatedly on each of the discrete pebbles remind us of
Freud’s principle of over-determination in dreams — the
same thought appears over and over again. Notice the flat,
pale-brown background which many surrealists use to suggest
dreams and which I will return to later. The picture is concerned
with the horror of a woman’s genital, which is either swarming
with ants, or a lion’s mouth. The lion is derived from Freud’s
view that wild beasts in dreams symbolize forbidden desires, and
it reappears several times in various forms, illustrating the
mechanisms of displacement and reversal, together with other
vaginal images — the
vase — and
as part of the protective father whom the painter is seeking.
Dali’s paintings of this period often contain a protective male
figure who is both his father and Sigmund Freud. In 1938, Dali had
visited Freud, who wrote afterwards,
now, I have been inclined to regard the surrealists, who have
apparently adopted me as their patron saint, as complete fools
(let us say 95%,
as with alcohol). That young Spaniard, with his candid,
fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery has changed my
estimate. It would indeed be interesting to investigate
analytically how he came to create that picture" ..
although in the popular mind, psychoanalysts interpret dreams as
one can the painting by playing a game of spot the symbol, in fact
very few analysts now work in this classical way: it’s rather
stultifying, it tends to bracket off the dream from the rest of
the analysis, and we often feel it’s not the most important
thing to focus on in a session.
is this? Why have we changed? Partly it is the impact of modern
dream research, which has confirmed many of Freud’s views, but
not others; we now think the dream is not always based on a
forbidden wish. Dreams stand on the frontier of the mind and the
brain; they have both somatic and ideational roots. This has been
known for a long time; Lucretius commented in De
Rerum Naturae that children who wet their beds often dream of
pissing into chamberpots; the dream protects our sleep from the
need to get up and go and find one. The research undertaken in sleep laboratories on the relationship between dreams and various kinds of sleep shows the
complexity, and the importance, of the dream in our psychic life.
Partly, psychoanalysts have changed their attitude to dreams for the same reasons which have changed our technique in other areas. Patients
and dreams seem to have changed; we focus now much more on the interaction
between patient and analyst, and the dream, for bad or good, is the patient’s possession. Many of us now see the manifest content of the dream as
significant in its own right, and not just a clue to hidden wishes. I shall discuss these changes in turn, but it is worth noting first that many of the changes which we have made in our ways of seeing and using dreams Freud had made as well. As so often, it is his early work which is taken as definitive, but he was to go on writing about dreams and changing his mind for another forty years.
Patients and Dreams
It has often been said that psychoanalysts don’t see so many of the ‘good
neurotic’ patients as Freud did — or do we analyze them differently? Certainly hysterics, of whom Freud saw so many in his early years, are on the
whole good and vivid dreamers, and we now see more character disorders and schizoid personalities. Modern patients don’t often produce the kinds of dreams that Freud had.
Modern dreams mostly seem to be shorter and more fragmentary, and this is because the dream is undoubtedly a cultural as well as a neuro-biological product. It isn’t just a kind of mental garbage. Dreams are very specific to each individual but they are also products of the social order; the visions of schizophrenic patients as recorded by asylum keepers had a predominantly religious quality until the mid eighteenth century, when they began to be replaced by images of sexuality and of machines. But the modern world is both short of time, and pays no official attention to dreams; patients in treatment tend to find their dreams changing and becoming richer as someone else takes an interest in them. (It is comforting that Ella Sharpe (Dream Analysis, 1937) thought that the shortest, fragmentary dreams are often those which repay
Dreams vary in the extent of their cunning disguise. Sandor Ferenczi was the first to remark on how the forbidden wish is often extraordinarily
transparent in the dreams of the unsuspecting person who insists, on meeting us at a dinner-party or other social occasion, that we tell them what their recent dream
means. Freud thought that if an analysis is going well, patients can be increasingly left to interpret their own dreams. I remember a young woman, going through a negative patch in analysis, who dreamt of sitting in the casualty department of the Royal Free Hospital, and remembered hearing the previous day of a boy who had shot himself in the eye with an air-rifle. She
Then burst out, ‘If I shot myself in the tongue, I wouldn’t have to talk to you’, and this account of her unconscious wish was entirely convincing to us both.
took the ability to dream for granted. We now think that to be
able to have a dream, tell it and think together with someone else
about what it shows, is a considerable mental achievement. The
most important thing that we have to be able to do to enable us to
dream successfully is to know the difference between a dream and
reality. This is similar to being able to be in and use an
analytic session by keeping a frame round it. Some authorities
believe that deeply psychotic patients do not dream, because their
waking life is full of hallucinations and dream-like confusion.
Young children confuse the contents of their minds with physical
reality; they wake, and ask indignantly where the sweets are that
you had put on the shelf, or think that the gorilla really is
lurking behind the curtains. The mental world is not yet out
there, or representational; the inner reality of dreams is also
part of the external world. In the same way, very disturbed
patients struggle to separate dreams from reality, and may feel
that hallucinations and dreams are real, and they must act them
out. If the analyst appears as hostile or friendly in the dream,
they will find it difficult in the session not to react as if the
analyst really were like that. Their dreams often seem to reflect
their anxieties directly, without the elaborate symbolic disguise
of the dreams of the more normal person.
first challenge to Freud’s theory that we dream to enable us to
go on sleeping concerned the nightmare or anxiety-dream; the dream
that wakes us so violently that we find it hard to sleep.
2, ‘The Nightmare’ by Fuseli, painted around 1782
Nightmare’ by Fuseli, painted around 1782 (Fig. 2), was one of
the early icons of the romantic movement. It is said that Freud
had an engraving hanging in his waiting-room. It depicts the
ancient view that the choking anxiety of a nightmare is caused by
a demon sitting on the chest, which will sexually invade the body
of the dreamer and try to take over her mind. Ernest Jones thought
that these sorts of dreams were caused by a specific kind of
homosexual anxiety which was commoner in the sixteenth and
here we seem to be looking at a physiological universal.
we look at images of nightmares from other cultures —
3, a stoneprint of a nightmare made by an Inuit in 1965
of Signum Press, Montreal)
we can see the same themes appearing; the pressure on the chest,
the sense of there being other beings inside one’s head, the
animals who invade us. Presumably the similarity of these images
across time and space stems from the universal human experiences
of inhabiting the same bodies, having the same sorts of
experiences in early childhood, experiencing fear in the same
physiological way, and so on. Even in cultures where dreams are
believed to predict the future rather than revive the past,
patients vividly dream of past traumas as they do in the West.
Such dreams are doubly frightening for them, since they fear that
the trauma is not only past but will come again in the future. The
dreams of borderline patients commonly depict the body or the
inner self being invaded by a parasitic being, just as many horror
films do. But to dream even this is an accomplishment; the worst
nightmares are those with imageless sensations of terror; in them,
we experience a horror without being able to symbolize it.
There was plenty of evidence for this among the shell-shock patients of the Great War, whose treatment gave such an impetus to psychoanalysis. Night after night, soldiers would experience again the horrifying events which had led to their breakdown. Modern research into traumatic dreams shows that as people begin to recover from horrifying experiences, images of the terror begin to appear in their dreams, and finally they begin to dream that they can master the horror - escape from the burning building, flee from the assailant - and then they can use the process of symbolization to begin to sleep. In Hanna Segal's terms, they are moving from a symbolic equation to a true
In the same way, the drawings of sexually-abused children will at first show broken fragments, or tearing and scratching of paper, and then begin to show in symbolic form and increasingly directly what the bodily invasion felt like. Ferenczi, who worked with some very damaged patients, tells of a woman who every night would experience imageless sensations related to her early traumas, wake, and then have a dream in which the sensations were represented in images, which would allow her a refreshing
Indeed, many of us have the sense that a good night's sleep involves satisfactory dreams, even if we do not particularly remember
them. We could say that the dream does indeed represent a wish; but it is a wish to dream, to represent our psychic life in image or narrative.
evidence from dream research is equivocal about the merits of
post-traumatic dreams as a method of mourning and coming to terms
with the past. Some studies show that the best way of surviving
horrifying experiences is to repress them so deeply that we never
even dream of them. Others suggest that for the mildly depressed,
dreaming is indeed a way of coming to terms with distressing
events, and their dreams during a single night show progressively
more pleasant themes, and a lighter mood on waking.
was Jung who pointed out that dreams can be analyzed in series; he
believed that they show the unconscious mind returning over and
over again to a central dilemma or theme in the life of the
dreamer, and some dreams certainly are of this type. I shall
return to this again when I talk about symbolism in dreams. Ronald
Fairbairn, who produced a revised metapsychology for
psychoanalysis in a series of papers in the 1940s and 50s, saw
dreams as being like cinema-shorts; they represent in condensed
form our self-narrative. His analogy is interesting; the cinema
has drawn extensively on the psychoanalytic view of dreams, and
perhaps is the medium most capable of representing the dreaming
experience to us.
always implicitly assumed that there is a distinction between
reality-based thinking, located in the ego, and psychotic
thinking, such as dreaming, which is dominated by unconscious
processes. Melanie Klein was less interested in dreams as such
because for her, all thinking was more permeated by unconscious
elements. She thought that we cope with unacceptable ideas less by
repression than by splitting the ego, and in our dreams, our
divided minds often appear, represented by different levels, or
different rooms in a house.
we seek the distinction in paintings, we can find the distinction
between the interest in dreams of the classical period, where they
are messages, true or false, from the gods, or the underworld, and
in those of the romantic movement, for example Goya’s familiar
engraving of ‘The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth
the dreamer, slumped forward in sleep, is separate from the
monsters which appear in the background, even though the advance
made by the romantic movement was to intermittently realize that
the monsters come from another part of oneself. But the dreamer
will awake, and they will disappear into the underworld. Melanie
Klein was working in a more modern idiom, in which there is no
such reassuring division between the sane, waking world and the
world of dreams; dream images are part of the divided inner self.
For example, Figure 4, ‘cerebral palsy’, was produced in 1906
by Louis Umgelter, a mental patient suffering from alcoholism and
dementia praecox. (It forms part of the Prinzhorn collection
from Heidelberg University, of art produced in mental asylums
between the turn of the century and the 1920s, which was on show
at the Hayward Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition of
‘Art and Psychosis’ December 1996—February 1997.) Like many
of the other drawings in the exhibition, it showed the space
inside the head as fragmented, muddled,
Louis Umgelter: ‘Cerebral Palsy’, 1906
of Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University and Hayward
It is not an unsophisticated production; it reflects the medical diagrams that the patient must have seen of the inside of the head. It is rather reminiscent of the 'X-Ray' images of Australian aboriginal art, produced by a culture in which all reality starts in dreams; we are literally dreamed into existence. These artists must be aware that kangaroos and men don't really look like this inside; these are pictures of psychic space.
Many modernist artists and thinkers in this century have been excited by the direct access which some mental patients and primitive peoples apparently have to the unconscious. The Nazis took the opposite point of view. They condemned modern art precisely because it resembled either primitive art or that of the insane. They exhibited some of the Prinzhorn paintings together with modern art as examples of the degenerate, primitive, and savage in painting that they were trying to stamp out. Indeed, some of those Heidelberg artists/patients were to die in the camps.
and the Transference
The second major shift in British psychoanalytic thinking which has affected our attitude to dreams has been the increasing focus from the 1950s onward on transference-countertransference issues. In its extreme form, the analyst focuses on the events of the session as it proceeds, scanning the material for the projections and introjections that both block and express the interaction between analyst and patient. Here, the dream is less important for its content than for its place in the session. Is it seen as a gift? Is it an escape? Is it a part of the self being evacuated? Is it a repository for things which can't be talked about otherwise? Why is it being told at this moment, and in this way? Is the dream the patient's secret possession to which he or she alone has the key, or does the patient hand it over passively as something whose meaning belongs to the analyst? How does the relation between analyst and patient find reflection in the dream?
At the same time as this change was occurring, because of the influence of Melanie Klein there was also an increasing focus in British psychoanalysis on the death instinct and on experience in very early childhood. This meant that the unconscious content of dreams came to be seen as very traumatic and overwhelming to the ego. The early unconscious fantasies which were uncovered were of being attacked by a cruel and archaic superego, which makes us feel terribly ashamed of memories of childhood experiences - wetting the bed, for instance. I think that this situation is well-represented in medieval paintings of hell - the doom paintings found in so many churches remind us of the archaic fantasies that Melanie Klein found to haunt young children. God is the superego dividing us into the good, who can't do anything except stand around looking relieved, and the bad, who are punished by cruel demons, a fusion of the superego and the id. The demons in Bosch Hieronymus are the images of nightmares; their vividness derives from the energies of the id. The blessed, cut off from that
'seething cauldron of impulses', seem lifeless and monotonous by comparison.
Figure 5, for example, is a picture of Lucifer from a fresco in Collegiata San Gimignano in northern Italy, painted by Taddeodi Bartolo in about 1396.
Detail of Lucifer from fresco in by Taddeodi Bartolo, c1396
This nightmarish figure, part man and part animal, seems to be devouring and shitting out figures through every orifice. The mouth and the anus are equated, as in the child's earliest oral fantasies about birth. The internal angry feelings have been externalized into a multitude of angry persecutors.
Many analysts came to believe that these unconscious phantasies are ubiquitous; they underlie all thought and feeling, and therefore dreams are a less important and special means of communicating them. Also, if the analysis of the transference is seen as the most important thing, dreams, which take place outside the session, are less interesting in themselves than in the way they are used in the session. Vicky Hamilton, in the passage I cited earlier, thinks that in this way we flatten the dream out, and lose its capacity to surprise us, make us see things anew.
Freud emphasized all his life that we don't really know what a dream means, any more than we can ever know the unconscious mind. The dream, he said, has a navel which joins it to the underworld; the most important part of the dream will always be too deep for us to capture it, because we can never know the unconscious. But if we focus on the transferential aspect of the dream, we tend to interpret from a position of the person who knows, rather than being able to hear about the dream from its author and be surprised by it. The modern tendency is to focus on the telling of the dream as part of the relationship between analyst and patient, and not to systematically ask for associations to the dream. This increases the likelihood that the analyst will be felt to know about the patient's mind through empathy rather than through listening to associations, which remind us that the connections the patient makes to the images in their dreams are to some extent unique to themselves.
I think that dreams, even fragments of dreams, are valuable in analysis precisely because they are produced outside the session. Not only can we notice how the analysis is progressing through changes in dreams, but also things come to light in dreams which have been unconsciously censored in the session. This can happen in surprising ways;
I remember a patient who had been in analysis with me for some years, who had recently rather unsuccessfully sold a valuable family heirloom. His dream was apparently a simple wish-fulfilment; he dreamt that the sale had been successful instead. But in recounting it, he was struck by the light in the dream, which reminded him of the light, soft but brilliant, of the winters in Teheran when he was a child. As he went on reminiscing, most unexpectedly a girl appeared with whom he used to play in an overgrown apricot orchard, and enjoy exploring both sexual and aggressive feelings in a way that he had until that moment completely forgotten. And this led to recognition of another aspect
of his transference to me. Would we ever have reached this material other
than via a dream?
For normal and neurotic people, the dream has an imaginative, 'as if' sort of quality. By means of it, they can explore areas of themselves, or feelings about the analyst, which feel hard to acknowledge. 'It was only a dream', they say, just as people say 'it was just a joke'. I find myself reminding them that it was they, after all, who dreamt it, but the untraumatic dream seems a gentle and convincing way of showing them some of the unconscious aspects of their minds. Lewin wrote an influential paper in 1946 in which he compared the
dream to the projection of an image on a neutral surface, a screen like a cinema screen, which was originally the mother's
body. I think that the flat, pale-brown surface found in many surrealist paintings is alluding to this. If we can view the dream as something outside ourselves, as if it were happening on a screen we were watching, we do not feel our egos are disrupted and invaded by it. It is when the image seems to fragment, or crumple, or become uncannily still, or when people dream of falling forever, or disintegrating, liquefying and pouring out of their skin, that the containment function of the analyst and the maternal presence seems to fail and the screen, or the skin-ego we imagine round ourselves, is pierced. Then the dream seems to be less separate from us, and becomes more frightening.
I have often been struck by the importance of the spatial dimension in
the dream and in the unconscious. Patients seem strongly subliminally
aware of the shape of the analyst's consulting-room and its relation to other
spaces, and in their dreams, they seem very conscious of the analyst being
behind them. Rear-view mirrors in dreams are one way of showing how they wish to check up on us; and seating arrangements in dreams often show the associations created by the unusual situation in which one person lies down and looks at a blank wall, while the other sits out of sight and sees only the top of their head. One patient came in with a dream in which I appeared as the shark behind the sofa.
The final section of my account of how our views on dreams have
changed is the interpretation of symbolism in dreams.
Symbolism in Dreams
Freud sometimes interpreted as if there were a universal symbolism, and sometimes not. He starts our The Interpretation of Dreams by saying that he is not thinking in the eastern-european tradition of the Dream Book, that is, the assumption that you can look up in a book what a particular dream means because there is a fixed and universal symbolic language. But in his interpretations of dreams, he sometimes asserts that a given image has a fixed meaning; boxes and hollow closed spaces standing for the vagina, and so on. Jung thought that there was a universal language of mankind revealed in myths, visions and dreams because dreams were messages, not only from the self, but also from the collective unconscious. Freud, who was always anxious after his rift with Jung to dissociate himself from him, can be seen in the case-history of the Wolf Man veering back and forth as to whether there was indeed a phylogenetic inheritance of unconscious fantasy, or whether our dreams refer back to our specific histories.
In an influential paper, Ernest Jones argued that the situations which are symbolized in dreams are quite limited; they refer to the universal human experiences of living in our bodies, birth, death and procreation, and our earliest family
relationships. Energy flows from these ideas via the channel of symbolism to all other ideas. But symbolic systems themselves shift and
change, moving in and out of consciousness.
Figure 6 is 'The Daydream', a beautiful watercolour of William Morris' wife Janey, painted in 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, by that stage using laudanum and much obsessed by her.
Gabriel Rosetti, 'The Daydream', 1888
Victoria and Albert Museum, Picture Library)
The painting contains at least two symbolic orders, the first of which would be more apparent to the Victorians, the second to us. The first is the language of flowers, or perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite view of the medieval world, of why it is that the woman is holding honeysuckle, and what the meaning of the bush is which surrounds her. This would have been in the conscious mind of the painter and his contemporaries, but these symbollisms are largely forgotten. I can only speculate about why he chose these plants. We know that Rossetti dreamt all his life of a dark-haired beauty in whom he could bury himself: whose daydream is this? Our post-Freudian eyes register the sensuous dreaminess in the face - Victorian genre painters had an extraordinary capacity to render human expression - and notice the phallic quality of the stick she is caressing.
It is certainly true that many dreams seem to contain ideas of the human body. A patient troubled about his potency dreamt of driving through a dark threatening underground passage to a safe car-park. Another told her Kleinian analyst of a dream of marching soldiers; they were marching, she said, 'eight-a-breast'. An analyst tells of his patient's dream of a multitude of red and soldiers fighting; quite astonishing because the next day, the patient was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia. Patients certainly seem to recover in analysis images of birth, and the sea does often seem to stand for the mother in whose amniotic fluid we all swim. These ideas of the body are subject to different kinds of symbolic disguise, showing and denying at the same time.
There is a famous painting by René
Magritte, which exists in various versions, called 'The Treachery of Images'. On a flat, pale-brown dream-screen floats an image of a pipe, painted in the hyper-reality of an advertisement, or an illustration in a childrens' book. Underneath is written, 'This is not a pipe'. Magritte wanted to use his painting to challenge everyday notions of the solidity and familiarity of reality. He uses his skill, and every pictorial device, to make us believe that this is a pipe. But he writes underneath that it is not a pipe. And of course it isn't, but if it isn't, what is it? It illustrates Freud's idea of negation - the thing which is denied is the thing that is. And yet it is not. It reminds us of the oddity of dream images. Somebody comes in and says, 'last night I dreamt of a woman who looked like my mother, but it wasn't her - she was in this room, but it was also the garden shed at home', and we know what they mean.
Like other analysts, I have been struck by the importance of the animals who appear in dreams. People who dream of small smashed fragments of animals, multitudes of insects, invertebrates who have a hard shell and a soft inside like snails, seem to be telling us about their sense of a fragmented self, or one with a tough armour to protect its lack of internal structure. Wholer patients seem more likely to dream of vertebrates. I remember a most
important, crucial dream of a patient who dreamt he was inside a
gorilla-suit in which he could act in a freer, more spontaneous
way, and this dream was a turning-point in his ability to come to
terms with his animal nature.
Hanna Segal tells a story of a psychiatrist interviewing a mental patient who was a violinist, and asking him why he never played the violin any more. He replied that he didn't want to masturbate in public; that is, the analogy between a woman's body and a violin had become too concrete; he couldn't liberate himself from it. If we can't know a symbol is not what is symbolized, we can't think.
Figures 7 and 8 are two levels of symbolism around the same idea. Figure 7 is a photograph by Man Ray from 1924 called 'Le Violon d'Ingres'.
Ray, 'Le Violon d'Ingres', 1924
Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 1999)
It alludes to the wonderful Ingres painting 'La Baigneuse', which beautifully conjures up a woman's passive flesh, and to the similarity between the shape of her back and of the violin, both of which can be brought to life by the fingers. The second image is another Magritte, 'Le Viol', painted in 1934.
Magritte, 'Le Viol', 1934
Paris and DACS, London, 1999)
It's an image he drew many times slightly differently, and which other artists have used as well, It's a much more disturbing picture; we expect to see a face and see something different. It is even more perturbing to babies, whom we now know to be pre-wired, so to speak, to notice and read the human face. Like the picture of Lucifer earlier, this painting equates bodily orifices with each other. In this particular version though not in others, the woman's head and neck also resemble a penis. Magritte maintained he named his pictures at random, but 'Le Viol' not only sounds like Violin again, as if that association was in his mind, but it also means The Rape. It puts the spectator in the position of the rapist, who obliterates the woman's face beneath his perception of her body, and may also confuse her body with a penis. It also alludes to the deep unconscious where the sexes and bodily parts get muddled up, where women's bodies contain penises anyway.
In Ella Sharp's book on dreams, based on lectures given to students at the British Society in the 1930s, she points out that the mechanisms of transformation of dreams, which are related to the mechanisms of defence, are akin to literary ideas. Dreams exhibit synonyms and similes, they pun, they take the part for the whole, and so on. Charles Rycroft and other authors in the Independent psychoanalytic tradition such as Marion Milner, valued the dream for its creativity, its capacity to turn thoughts into narrative and images. They equated the dream far more to creative play than to a disguised wish; and indeed Freud, in his paper on the creative writer and daydreams, speculated that the reason we are so fascinated by and envious of artists and writers is because they seem to us to play all day.
Analysts do not now always look behind the manifest content of the dream for the hidden symbolism. We now think that the dreamer may be directly representing his current, adult dilemmas in life. Freud came round to this view in 1920, when he distinguished dreams from above from dreams from below, perhaps recalling the classical distinction between the dreams that come through the gates of ivory and of horn. Indeed, the manifest content of his own dreams as recorded in The Interpretation of Dreams are full of his adult dilemmas; his responsibilities as a doctor, his intellectual and political ambitions. This brings the psychoanalytic view of dreams nearer to
the romantic view that they are worthwhile in their own right as
part of our creative imagination, our capacity to reflect and
fictionalise. Many dreams seem semi-lucid, scarcely transformed by
the dream-work. Patients report that they edit them; say to
themselves in their sleep - 'It's only a dream, it should
end this way' - and dream again, and so on.
Recent dream research suggests that we should not abandon the idea
that dreams refer to past memories saturated with powerful
feeling. Dreams seem to appear for the first time in higher
mammals, together with a perceptual code and long-term memory: the
ability to store memories, retrieve them, and thus learn from
experience. Their evolutionary significance may
be as a pre-verbal method of recalling past difficulties to us as we mull over present dangers. As Freud thought, a dream image is apparently a layered one, consisting of a day-residue superimposed on a stored long-term memory, the links between them being made at a pre-verbal level by auditory, visual or emotional similarities or puns.
People have always know that there is something very important about dreams, and will doubtless go on wondering how to interpret them, inside psychoanalysis and out. There is something inexhaustible about them, just as Freud said; and doubtless as psychoanalytic theory and technique change, the way that we are told dreams, and the way that we interpret them, will change as well. It is comforting to reflect that dreams themselves are not quite so plastic. I end with a final reflection from Freud's 1923 remarks on dream-interpretation: 'I think that in general it is a good plan occasionally to bear in mind the fact that people were in the habit of dreaming before there was such a thing as
This paper is the revised version of a lecture given in an introductory lecture series held annually at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London and I am grateful to the convenor of the series, Antonio
Fazio, for giving me the opportunity and incentive to write it. I am also grateful to Philippa Lewis and Helen Scott Lidgett for having helped an amateur with the illustrations, and to the various copyright holders for permission to reproduce the images.
Victoria Hamilton, The Analyst's Preconscious, New York, 1996.
2 Hamilton, p. 283.
3 Ella Sharpe, Dream Analysis, London, 1937.
4 Dawn Ades, Dali, London, 1995, p. 82.
5 See, for example, the papers presented to the Ninth International
Psychoanalytic Conference on Psychoanalytic Research,
University College, London, March 1999.
6 Sandor Ferenczi, 'Dreams of the Unsuspecting', in Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, London, 1926. (First published 1916/17.)
7 Ernest Jones, On the Nightmare, London, 1931.
8 Hanna Segal, 'Notes on Symbol Formation', Delusion and Artistic
Creativity, London, 1986.
9 Sandor Ferenczi, 'On the Revision of The Interpretation of Dreams',
Part 3 of Notes and Fragments in Final Contributions to the Theory
and Technique of Psychoanalysis, London,
10 Michael Parsons, 'Do We Think Our Dreams? Do We Dream Our
Thinking?', 1997, unpublished public lecture.
11 Ronald Fairbairn, 'Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of
Object Relationships', International Journal of the Psychoanalytic
Association 25, 1944, reprinted in Psychoanalytic Studies of the
Personality, Tavistock, 1952.
12 Bertram Lewin, 'Sleep, the Mouth and the Dream Screen',
Psychoanalytic Quarterly 15, 1946.
13 Ernest Jones, 'The Theory of Symbolism', Papers on
Psychoanalysis, London, 1916.
14 Sigmund Freud, 'Remarks on the Theory and Practice of Dream
Interpretation', Standard Edition, vol. 19, London, 1961 (first
was published as part of a recent feature series
on dreams and history in History Workshop
Journal, Issue No:48 Autumn 1999.
allowing us to reproduce the paper we are indebted to the Oxford
University Press (OUP) and History Workshop Journal. Please note that
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