Week 13: Surrealism and the Dream in Cinema


This week the reading is chapters 3-6 in Fiona Bradley’s Surrealism, which will bring us to a fuller discussion of Surrealism.  On Tuesday I would like to finish our discussion of Surrealist painting, since there is still a lot to think about. But then we will transition to think about film, a medium that Surrealism deployed with great élan.  We will spend a little time thinking about film’s affinity with the dream, and how Surrealists like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí tried to make use of the new medium to effect a very different kind of experience through the moving image. We’ll watch the short classic Un Chien Andalou (an Andalusian dog), which was based on dreams by Buñuel and Dalí, and finished in 1929.  For such a short work, it remains a classic in cinema and in the history of Surrealism. Buñuel would have a long and illustrious film career, but you can find his Surrealist sense of humor at work well into the 1970s in films like the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty.

The possibility of using film as a medium to recreate the dream experience has long attracted film makers of various kinds. Some, like Alfred Hitchcock, found it useful as a variant in their story telling, as in the case of Spellbound (1945), where the dream sequence appears in the context of film noir (and was supervised by Dalí).  Others, like Federico Fellini, could create a whole filmic aesthetic out of an oneiric realism that effectively reinvents an existing genre, specifically the sword-and-sandal flick in Fellini’s case, which he completely deconstructs in Fellini SatyriconSome of the most memorable dream sequences more recently occurred in the HBO series The Sopranos, where we get in the head of a post-modern mafia don who is much troubled by problems in “the family.”

This week will be about viewing some things together and discussing them, and light on reading as you all have those research projects to complete!  The end is near!

Week 12: Enter Surrealism…

The Surrealist movement embraced Sigmund Freud as a kind of “patron saint,” as Freud once said with misgivings.  How is it that the Surrealists were aware of his work? It took quite a while for Freud’s psychoanalytic project to enter into mainstream culture, but there is a very clear connection through André Breton, who became aware of Freud’s work while studying medicine and working in the medical field before and during World War I.  For more on Breton’s medical studies, you can read this article online.

Surrealism represents an explosion of creativity that involves many people over many years. While it has roots that extend to the immediate post-WW1 years, it finds its voice in the manifestos, publications, films, and artworks of the 1920s, has a golden age in the 1930s, and extends across a broad expanse of works on various continents into the 1980s (consider one of its prolific proponents, Salvador Dalí, died in 1989). As a movement revolting against instrumental and political rationality and control, and celebrating creative freedom and the unconscious, we might even say that Surrealism never entirely went away, but is just a feature of postmodernity we take for granted.

For this week, let’s start with the notorious manifestos of Surrealism, especially the 1924 First Manifesto (pp. 3-47 in Manifestoes of Surrealism), a highly self-conscious declaration of artistic principles. We’ll talk about automatism and the surrealist understanding of the unconscious.  For Thursday you can read pp. 6-32 in Fiona Bradley’s Surrealism, to talk more about the visual artists and the movement.  And remember: if you’re not having fun while studying Surrealism, then something is definitely wrong.

Week 11: Jung on Dreams

This week we will look at two essays by a former collaborator of Freud’s, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), who went on to develop his own form of analytic psychology (vs. “psychoanalysis”). For six years, Jung and the older Freud had an intense intellectual relationship, which led Freud to see Jung as a future leader of the psychoanalytic field, in part because Jung was a Christian, and many in Freud’s circle were Jewish, which cast a shadow on their work in those anti-semitic times. By 1912, their relationship became strained as Jung’s differences became apparent, and by 1913 the break was complete, one of various dissensions in Freud’s “psychoanalytic movement” that led to new directions.

Jung is a complex, creative, and prolific figure, so one week is hardly enough time to do him justice. But the two essays I have assigned will outline some major differences with Freud in a manner that is detailed and not gratuitous. The first is a fairly long essay from the period when he was still strongly influenced by Freud, “General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” and you will see how he outlines his differences with some care. The second, “On the Nature of Dreams,” is a later piece that shows his more developed thinking, particularly with regard to the collective unconscious (especially beginning on page 77).

You may want to skim some of the latter parts of the first essay, but keep in mind the following questions.

  • What does Jung mean by the “finality” of dreams, vs. their “causality” (p. 27)? Why is that an important question?
  • How does the above question lead to the idea that dreams function as “compensation absolutely necessary for balanced action” (p. 31)?
  • What do you make of the strong assertion on p. 34 that “Just as the body bears the traces of its phylogenetic development, so also does the human mind. Hence there is nothing surprising about the possibility that the figurative language of dreams is a survival from an archaic mode of thought”?

Week 10: Enter Oedipus

Last week we got into Freud’s short introduction to the nature of “dream work,” particularly with reference to condensation and displacement.  We also touched upon the symbolism of dreams, and most importantly, the role of repression in causing dream distortion. The dream, it turns out, is a compromise between a wish that must somehow express itself and a repressing agency that must keep us from consciously acknowledging that wish.  Needless to say, Freud’s view of the mind is one of a constant dynamic tension between aspects of ourselves. Ambivalence is really at the heart of Freud’s psychology. 

Ambivalence is also the essence of family relationships, which are the most consequential, formative, and potentially damaging of all relationships in our early lives. This brings us to a rather famous part of Freudian psychology, the Oedipus complex, or what he originally called the Oedipus situation. We will combine some Freud readings with a reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (also known as Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex) in Frederick Ahl’s translation, which was on the required booklist for the course. Freud’s reading of this play is a major influence in the twentieth century, but how well do we understand it? Why did he come up with this, and what does it have to do with dreams? 


To answer this, first read the letter of October 15, 1897, which Freud wrote to his friend and confidant of the time, Wilhelm Fliess. Note how Freud discusses his own self-analysis before coming to the topic of the play. Note also how his reading of Oedipus Tyrannus occurs simultaneously with a reading of Hamlet. How does he link the two plays?  Does he treat the plays in the same way? This letter is the first evidence for Freud’s interest in Oedipus from a psychological point of view, but we find a similar argument made in The Interpretation of Dreams three years later with regard to common dream types. How does his discussion there insert his reading of the play into the dream theory? Read both texts carefully. 

Lastly, when we look at the play by itself, how well does it hold up to this interpretation? In order to answer that question, you must look at the play as if it too were a kind of dream, with a “manifest” and a “latent” content. Freud was much given to thinking that myths are analogous to dreams, only they are the age old dreams of humanity, not the individual. How is that characterization workable at all? 

Week 9: Enter Freud

When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish” (Interpretation of Dreams).

This simple thesis lies in wait for the reader well over one hundred pages into The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), long after Freud has trotted out many discussions of the scientific literature on dreams and then performed a specimen analysis. Why indeed is so simple an idea so hard to get at? Once upon a time, this course performed a long reading of The Interpretation of Dreams, but I have since moved on to accommodate more non-Freudian material. So instead, we will read the short monograph On Dreams, which Freud wrote a year after he published The Interpretation of Dreams, providing a much less detailed outline of his dream theory. But if your interest lies in Freud and psychoanalysis, the Interpretation of Dreams is a founding document, one that went through many editions even in his lifetime.

Freud’s dream theory 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. image006That 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.  Fundamental to Freud’s dream theory is the distinction between the manifest content of the dream (or the dream experience as we seem to live it) and the latent content that lies behind it, or what the dream may really be about. To get from the manifest back to the latent content requires us to understand the mechanisms of dream distortion, or the kind of self-censorship going on in the mind that keeps us from truly expressing this wish.

If that sounds unnecessarily complicated, you should know that two other key concepts underwrite this theory of dream distortion: repression, a fundamental force in our lives as civilized adults in Freud’s view, and the unconscious, a realm of the self to which things get banished through repression, but never go away. At night, the force of repression weakens, and things leak out of the unconscious into the dream space. Hence Freud’s famous dictum that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  Which is to say, effectively, you cannot truly know yourself until you interpret your dreams.

The little book is only 76 pages in the Norton edition, so we will use it for the basis of our discussion this week. Next week, we’ll get into the myth of Oedipus and how it relates to Freud and his dream theory, which will show how dream interpretation also lends itself to literary interpretation.

Week 8: The Anthropology of Dreaming

Up until now, we have necessary been concerned with forms of writing, from ancient epic to the medical literature and dream books of the ancient and medieval worlds. Obviously we have been engaged in cross-cultural comparison, but now we approach this with a very big difference: the comparison of living cultures, what cultural anthropologists do. This week we will take a look at two main examples of dream cultures from the anthropological perspective: the Aborigines of Australia and the Tzotzil Maya of Mexico.

On Tuesday, we will engage with the very broad and challenging concept of the Dreamtime or the Dreaming in Australia, a contested concept that unifies much of Aboriginal culture in a unique complex of ideas that include creation myth, ritual, music, dance, and the heart of tribal identity. For a brief explanation meant for Aboriginal children, see this short video presentation, which includes a short explanation followed by a song performance. Next, the chapter from Lynne Hume’s book, Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness, and Aboriginal Australians, will go into greater depth on the complexity of what the Dreaming entails. This will form the basis of our discussion. But if you are curious about Aboriginal culture, you might watch the documentary, The Men of the Fifth World. The question worth addressing is how such an integrative worldview challenges Western notions of temporality, consciousness, and experience. For more on that, you might also read Sylvie Poirier’s A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams, and Events in the Australian Western Desert (U Toronto P, 2005).

On Thursday, we’ll skip to another continent to look at a people much studied by anthropologists, the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. We begin by reading the introduction by Robert Laughlin to Mayan Tales from Zinacantán: Dreams and Stories from the People of the Bat. Laughlin spent a lot of time interviewing members of this community, and was an anthropological linguist whose work on the Tzotzil language has been very important. His collections of dreams and stories make very interesting reading, but it is important to put them in context. After you have read the introduction, read the stories and dreams of Xun Min (pp. 73-87). Next, the essay by Kevin Groark, Taking Dreams Seriously: An ontological-phenomenological approach to Tzotzil Maya dream culture, will go into a lot more depth analyzing the worldview of the Mayan dreamers. If you understand Spanish, you might enjoy watching this documentary film (2008), which highlights many aspects of life in Zinacantán. 

While we don’t have time enough to go into it, I also recommend an old classic that bridges the gap between anthropology and psychoanalysis, George Devereux’s Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (1951), a detailed account of Devereux’s treatment of a Native American who suffered serious neurological symptoms following an accident that fractured his skull. The book includes lengthy discussions between the two men that deal with dreams and the cultural differences between Plains Indians and the Whites running the country, and was originally well received as an attempt at psychoethnography. The detailed nature of this account lent itself well to a screen writer’s ambition to tell the story, and in 2013 the director Arnaud Desplechin released Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, with the part of the patient played remarkably by Benicio del Toro.

A good general guide to current thinking on the anthropology of dreaming can be found in the collection New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming, edited by Jeannette Mageo and Robin E. Sheriff (Routledge, 2021).

Week 7: More on Dream Books

In preparation for your first attempt at dream analysis, we will spend a bit more time with these intriguing dream books this week before you go off on spring break. I am attempting to lighten the load a bit for you! So let’s continue our discussion of Artemidorus on Tuesday, as his is a work of great influence in the long history of dream books and shows a rich engagement with material in both written form and in marketplace practice. Let’s look at his typology of dreams as well as how he casts the dreamer into the equation of how a dream should be interpreted.

Next, we will look at a later dream book, the Oneirocriticon of Achmet (written sometime between 813-1075 CE), supposedly the dream-interpreter of the caliph of Babylon, but actually a Greek Orthodox Christian who poses as an Arab to obtain more cachet for his work. Here again, the text fascinates for its wide survey of dream book material coming from a variety of traditions, even as it subordinates all this to a Christian worldview. This text gives us a view of an increasingly multicultural dream literature, even if its Christian values are thoroughly inscribed in it. We’ll start discussion of this on Tuesday and then finish up on Thursday.

Lastly and also on Thursday (and for the first time in the course!) we will consider something I recently came across that will draw this notion of the dream book across the ocean and into our own history. This is a book published in Boston, purportedly by an African-American woman who had been born in Africa, enslaved, and freed in the course of her life. She had a purported gift for dream interpretation as well as other forms of divination, and managed to publish some materials geared in particular for those in search of a spouse. The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book by Chloe Russell will then show us something of the long record of such texts, some of which participate in a connected literary tradition (like Artemidorus and Achmet), others of which reflect pervasive folkloric practices. Read the dream key on pp. 276-281, but don’t miss the author’s story of her life or the other aspects of divination that are included in this article.

For a whole lecture on this text, see this lecture on YouTube. Also of interest in relation to African-American dream culture is Anthony Shafton’s Dream Singers: The African American Way with Dreams (Wiley, 2002).

Week 6: Ancient Dream Books

So far among the ancient texts we have read, we have seen various narrative approaches to and invocations of dreams, different medical uses of dreaming and dream interpretation, and two philosophical approaches to the explanation of dream experience.  This week we focus on the literature produced by a particular profession: the dream interpreters. This literature is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the systematic presentation of dream symbols and principles of interpretation.

To represent the long tradition of such works, we will read excerpts from 3 dream books separated widely in time.


See if you can glean the systematic principles of interpretation followed in these works, which are organized along the lines of key images or symbols appearing in the dream. See also if you can find the common thread concerning what people seem most eager to find out with reference to their futures: money, power, sex, death, fertility, etc.  Can you see distinct differences in either the interpretive strategies or the overriding anxieties and concerns for each author?

Keep these books in mind when we turn to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, a project both inspired and haunted by these kinds of systematic dream books.

Week 5: The Healing Dream: Incubation, Hippocratic Medicine, and Scepticism

In week 4 we talked about some major dream types in antiquity, the most distinctive perhaps being the “epiphany dream.” A subset of that type is the incubation dream, which is a practice linked to the special healing cult of Asclepius (though it appears in other religious contexts as well).  This is a process by which a person suffering from a certain malady would go to the temple of Asclepius (such as the one in Epidaurus, now a UNESCO World Heritage site), perform certain rituals, then spend the night awaiting direction from the god. This often took the form of the god’s appearance in a dream, in which he would instruct the person as to his or her illness. If a cure was granted, then the grateful patient would often pay for an inscription or gift to be made at the temple to repay the debt.


So the first set of texts are basically taken from such inscriptions. Read these for Tuesday.  In addition to the dream cures of Asclepius, however, it’s important to see that other types of medicine also made some reference to dreams.  The treatise on dreams from the Hippocratic corpus takes a rather different approach, enumerating ways in which a patient’s dreams have diagnostic value. See if you can get a sense for how different the two approaches are.

On Thursday, we’ll look at what a very influential philosopher had to say on the matter of dreams. Aristotle’s treatise on dreams reaches a conclusion that might seem rather prescient, particularly considering the other things we read from ancient medical writers: dreaming is simply the residue of sensation. This is an important voice that will remain authoritative long beyond antiquity, so the treatise, dull as it might seem, packs a powerful punch. Related to it are other short works on sleep and on prophesying in dreams, which repay some perusal (see the links below).

Like Aristotle, Epicurus saw dreaming as the after effects of sensation, but his theory of vision takes on a lot more than just that. In the extract from Lucretius, you’ll see how the discussion moves organically from sleeping to dreaming to nocturnal emissions and thence to a long discussion of sexuality.  Long before Freud, there were some serious theories about human sexuality that saw how it was implicated in the problem of obsessional imaging. Plus, Lucretius is pretty entertaining after the Aristotle…

Reading Assignments:


Week 4: Dreams and Myth: The Epiphany Dream

The dreams we saw in the story of Joseph are symbolic in nature, as we discussed. Whether they involve metonymy (e.g., a sheaf of wheat bowing down to represent how Joseph’s brothers will come to beg him for food) or metaphor (e.g., the sun, moon and stars representing the family), symbolic dreams remain enigmatic until they are decoded. But there is another common form of dream in antiquity, the epiphany dream, where a figure appears to give a more direct message to the dreamer. It is common in many ancient traditions for dreams of both types to appear in different contexts.

The readings for this week consist first of passages from ancient epic that represent the epiphany dream, although as you will see these have complications to the simple type.  The passages are: 1) from the Odyssey, Penelope’s dream which she relates to Odysseus; 2) Agamemnon’s dream from the Iliad—a very problematic false dream sent by Zeus on purpose to mess with him; 3) two dreams of the hero Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid, which show how the gods are looking out for him.  Also by way of contrast, I include a dream St. Augustine’s mother Monica had about him at a time when he seemed to be straying far from the fold, and another passage that describes the problem of lustful dreams for those who are trying to live with chastity.  These dreams are quite famous in antiquity, and will give us some ground to talk about further literary usages of dreams as well as the structure of the “epiphany dream” as it appears in ancient sources. Also for this week is a short chapter by the scholar E. R. Dodds that opens up the idea I’ve been discussing: the space of dreaming in culture, or the cultural pattern in dreams.