“When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfulment of a wish” (Interpretation of Dreams, 145).
This simple thesis lies in waiting for the reader on page 145 of our edition, long after Freud has trotted out many pages of discussion on the scientific literature on dreams and then performed a specimen analysis. Why indeed is so simple an idea so hard to get at?
This book is a perfect example of simultaneous simplicity and complexity. On the one hand, the dynamic of wish fulfillment is not hard to grasp in the slightest: people want things, many of which they cannot have, at least at the moment they want them. That dreams should be a kind of compensation for the frustration we feel in life is a downright cliché, as when you think of your dream job (the one you’ll never get) or your dream house (maybe if you win the lottery). The complexity enters in when you begin to really account for a) our inner dishonesty, which means we are not really aware of what we want, and b) the inner recesses of our psyches, which for Freud contain vast realms beyond what we are conscious of and claim for ourselves. It turns out this book delivers something other than this simple thesis; namely, a response to the first obvious objection to the idea that dreams are wish-fulfillments: then why are there anxiety dreams, nightmares, and dreams where we have no idea what is going on? Why would we wish that?
The complexity comes in, then, to account for dream distortion, the “dream work” that he details in chapter VI and discusses in chapter IV. Along with an agency expressing a wish, there is a counter-agency censoring the expression of that wish, and the dream is a compromise: a product brought about by the haphazard combination of self-expression and self-censorship. The mistake is to take the dream at face value. Hence Freud’s fundamental distinction between the manifest content of the dream and its latent dream thoughts.
This first week, we will try to understand the basic argument of the book. Scan the table of contents to get a feel for its overall organization, and then read the prefaces to get a sense for its evolution: at first, it presents itself as a foray into dreaming by a lonely specialist in neuropathology (hysteria), but then subsequently it is being revised with the help of colleagues like Wilhelm Stekel and Otto Rank (third and fourth editions), part of a growing movement of collaborators who are picking up Freud’s method. By the sixth edition in 1921, we see Freud sounding a bit embattled, claiming the book now serves to deal with “the obstinate misunderstandings” that psychoanalysis is confronting (xxx). By 1929, he treats is “essentially as an historic document,” and has dropped the chapters by Rank, a clear indication of the defections from the psychoanalytic movement that annoy Freud. By the 1931 preface to the revised English edition, he wistfully describes it as “the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make” (xxxii). This edition (part of the Standard Edition of Freud’s works), then, has embedded in it the story of psychoanalysis’ whole development from a lonely clinical improvisation to an international movement.
We’ll want to pay the most attention to the specimen dream analysis (II), and then the chapters on wish fulfillment and distortion (III and IV). If you can get a handle on that this week, you’ll be ready for next week’s dive into chapter V, where his famous reading of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet enter into the story.