Dreaming on Film

This week we’ll have a visit from the Director of the Sleep and Anxiety  Center of Houston on our own UH Campus, Candice Alfano, Ph. D.  She’ll be with us on Wednesday to discuss the science of sleep behavior and what clinicians do with dreams and sleep science in a therapeutic and research context. Because of her visit, we’ll change the agenda for the week and talk on Monday about the use of dream imagery and “oneiric realism” in film, with particular reference to Federico Fellini. I’ll bring in his notorious dream journal to show you what has only fairly recently come to light: his amazingly detailed accounts of his dreams, and how they relate to his creative output.

You are now in the throes of completing your projects, so I’ll not burden you with any reading. However, I must stress the importance of attendance this week, partly as a courtesy to our guest speaker, and partly because we’ll be viewing things and discussing them together as we did with Un chien andalou last week.

If you have any questions about your project, make sure to talk to me this week!  We need to bring all this home.


Surrealism: From the Verbal to the Visual

We have read how much the Surrealist theorists relied on notions of automatic writing, stressing the importance of circumventing the censorship inherent in conscious reason. We have even produced our own exquisite corpse poem and some stories by this means, which, as you have seen, can create hilarious and horrific images. And we have also discussed how much Breton stressed the overpowering nature of the image and its primacy in creativity.

But how do you get from the fun experimental parlor tricks of exquisite corpse creation and automatic writing to the laborious art of painting? Or what about the complex staging and direction usually required in film? By the late 1920s, the original Surrealists were joined by true painterly geniuses, like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, whose work now comes to mind immediately whenever we think of Surrealism. Dalí collaborated with another Spaniard, Luis Buñuel, on a short film now become classic, Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) in 1929. They tried hard to eliminate every kind of logical relationship between the scenes and images, hoping to keep only what was striking and marvelous—and even offensive. To Buñuel’s shock, people loved the film, which was supposed to upset and confuse them.

Every cultural movement tends to live its contradictions, and for Surrealism, the main contradiction lies in making the dreamlike, the irrational, and the unconscious an ideal—that is, a conscious, deliberate and even political choice as well as technique. Another of its contradictions lies in Breton’s rather authoritarian nature—which seems to contradict this movement’s profession of absolute freedom. Lastly, the movement had a great number of talented female adherents, yet in its origins was far more interested in woman as a motif or a prop than in women generally. Notice, for example, the common motif of the headless and armless female figure, as in Magritte’s Delusions of Grandeur. 

Magritte: Delusions of Grandeur 

The fragmented female body certainly draws attention to itself as an art object, a piece of form; but it never seems to address us all that often as a person in the work of male painters.

Contrast that tendency to some of the mysterious and intriguing figures in the paintings of Remedios Varo, and you’ll suddenly realize how few actual female persons (as opposed to bits of female parts) appear in the male Surrealists paintings (though there are exceptions). Varo created a great many enigmatic images with female figures that seem to invite the reader into a very different world of enchantment. This leads us of course into some interesting questions about gender differences and points of view, particularly with regard to dreamscapes and the unconscious. It really pays to look over the work of the lesser known surrealist women painters to see how this plays out. We’ll take especial notice of Varo and Leonora Carrington for this reason.

Remedios Varo: Encuentro

For Wednesday: read Fiona Bradley’s Surrealism, chapters 3, 4 and 6.

Also: watch Un chien andalou in case we can’t get it to work in class! See here.

Dreaming Creativity: Surrealism

There is a book in Freud’s library signed by the authors: Copy for Sigmund Freud, our veritable father. It’s a copy of The Immaculate Conception, sent to him by André Breton and Paul Éluard, the co-founders of Surrealism as a tribute of their esteem.  The pages are not even cut, so it’s clear Freud didn’t read it.

Freud can be called the Moses of Modernism in a very accurate sense. While many artists and writers of the 20th century were inspired by his work and ideas (in sometimes eclectic or even inaccurate ways), Freud’s tastes never quite evolved in step with Modernism. He was in many ways a 19th century intellectual, with a decided preference for historical fiction and the great authors of tradition—Sophocles, Goethe, Shakespeare. He led many younger people into a promised land of vibrant creativity; but like Moses, he never quite got there himself. Very fittingly, his last book was in fact on Moses.

For the generation that came of age in the 1920s and 30s, the experience of World War I had pushed them to more radical positions and more probing interrogations about society, pleasure, duty, and art. A convergence of forces and personalities created an artistic movement that stressed the powerful significance of dream experience, and the need to forge a creativity unhampered by reason and censoring forces. To these men and women we now turn to look at the cultural consequences of Freud’s work. Not everything in Surrealism is strictly Freudian, but they found so much inspiration in his work that their methods and ideas should now sound quite familiar, part of a post-Freudian cultural landscape.

For Monday: (We’ll still talk a bit about Hobson’s paper, “REM Sleep and Dreaming, a Theory of Proto-Consciousness). Manifestoes of Surrealism, pp. 3-47.

For Wednesday: Manifestoes of Surrealism, pp. 113-194.

FRIDAY: Extra visit to the Menil Museum. Details to follow!

Dreamwork: Reading Chapter VI

This week, we enter into the essential details of how dreams are crafted out of the materials and wishes that instigate them. This is somewhat technical, but it is crucial to the completion of your own dream analysis that you understand the concepts and the processes they describe.

We’ll focus especially on condensation, displacement, symbolism and secondary revision. With condensation, we’re dealing with the way in which dreams create unstable and composite figures, places, even phrases. See particularly his description of the composite figures behind Irma in his specimen dream and his reference to Galton’s composite photography (pp. 310-311).  Since so many elements of a dream might well be composites, the associative method of dividing up the elements becomes quite central to effective analysis, in Freud’s view. And condensation points toward another key Freudian idea: overdetermination, or the idea that there can be multiple causes behind a single effect. We do not have to choose just one explanation for a particular dream image, or identify a dream figure as just one person. Things in a dream are intensely hyperlinked to myriad other things.

With displacement, on the other hand, we are often dealing with structured absences and disconnections, not hyperlinks. What is not appearing as evident in the dream, yet might still be behind it? This concept speaks to the arbitrary misalignment between the latent and manifest, in Freud’s view. In a dream, we often find something emotionally intense that is hard to account for. In fact, you should immediately seize on such things, Freud thinks, because any mismatch between feeling and content is proof that something has been purposefully skewed. Disconnection and unlinking are ways the mind defends itself from powerful, repressed thoughts in the dreamwork process.

Just as condensation provides for the complex, overly rich content, displacement increases the sense of mystery, arbitrariness, uncanniness. “Dream displacement and dream-condensation are the two governing factors to whose activity we may in essence ascribe the form assumed by dreams,” he says (324). We therefore have to get a good sense of how these ideas work.

Symbolism, of course, is something Freud is notorious for—but if you read pp. 364-373, you will see he is very wary of a simplistic importation of dream symbols as the “key” to understanding dreams. In a way, the idea of the symbolic inheres in the idea of condensation: something symbolizes something else, or many things at once. But note Freud’s warning about overestimating the importance of dream symbols at the expense of the dreamer’s associations (372). Freud wants to keep dream analysis on a very personal, subjective level. Much as we might find exciting the prospect that our dream content is “universal” in some sense, this has little value for Freud, once divorced from the individual desires and needs of the dreamer.

Lastly, with secondary revision, Freud invites back in the censoring agency to act more creatively this time by reordering and tidying up the mess caused by condensation, displacement and the recourse to symbolism. In that it puts the already transformed elements into some shape, it is seen as a secondary kind of dreamwork, one subsequent to the major shifts caused by the more invasive techniques of dreamwork. It’s a bit like polishing the surface of the manifest, once all the latent elements have been tucked underneath the façade.

So the task before you now is: can you make use of these concepts to arrive at some new understanding of the content of your dreams?

Reading: Chapter VI, Interpretation of Dreams, especially pp. 295-326, 363-392, 493-511.

Oedipal Textuality

Freud’s reading of Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King presents a moment when the Interpretation of Dreams gives way to a broader theory of culture. While it emerges from a discussion of typical dreams—particularly those about the death of a loved one or parent—the significance of Freud’s interpretation far outruns that context.  First of all, it is a pattern of literary interpretation that would prove to be of great significance for later psychoanalytic criticism. The same tension between manifest and latent content that we find in the dream obtains in the case of literary texts as well. And Freud extends his reading across two texts: Oedipus the King and Hamlet. In fact, it really pays to see this interpretation as interdependent on both texts simultaneously.  The Greek text provides the mythic paradigm of patricide and incest, focused on an intrepid self-discoverer who will stop at nothing to get the truth.  The Shakespeare text provides something different but equally important: a character incapacitated by “neurotic inhibition”—an inability to act, Freud says, on account of an unconscious identification.

But the other way Freud’s interpretation outruns the context of dreams is that this psychological conflict will become the “nuclear complex” of the neuroses: the Oedipus Complex (not so named in the original edition).  The conflict he discusses, in other words, moves from being a possible conflict and instigator of dreams to a central developmental event in the lives of all people, an essentially tragic conflict between individual pleasure and social responsibility that unfolds within the heart of the family. As a childhood event, we all must navigate through it, Freud says. But in the unconscious, we’re never really over it—hence the tension that becomes the fossil fuel for some of our most intense conflicts and pleasures as adults.

Assignment for Monday and Wednesday: Read Oedipus the King and make sure you understand the link between Oedipus and Hamlet from The Interpretation of Dreams. 


Every Dream a Wish? The plot thickens…

In chapters II and III of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud makes a bold assertion: every dream is the fulfillment a wish (see p. 143).  In one sense, this is obvious when we think of common parlance.  “I have a dream” often means, “I have a specific deep wish to bring about something.”   And yet everyone has puzzling or upsetting dreams where the content cannot be readily recognized as anything like a wish—often, quite the opposite. So how can this simple thesis possibly stand up to any serious scrutiny?

Freud’s answer lies first in tracking not the surface quality of dreams, but their deeper dynamics; namely, he is really going to tackle the complex question of dream distortion. In order to get at the weird and uncanny quality of dreams, we need to see them as the outcome of a process of censorship and compromise. Because our deepest wishes are all too often things we won’t allow ourselves to think. Now a theory of dreaming and wishing is becoming a robust theory of the unconscious and mental censorship. The fuller (and more accurate) statement of his thesis is: a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish (p. 183). This gets us as far as chapter IV.

The new thesis leads to an investigation, then, of the unthinkable wishes we don’t often confront at their face value. In chapter V, as we consider the material and sources of dreams, we come upon such things as infantile wishes (which we imagine to be gone by now) and—a real worst case scenario—”dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond” (266).  How are we to imagine such dreams are wishes? It’s here that, really for the first time, Freud offers his nascent theory of the Oedipus complex, in the form of an extended reading of Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King. So this week we’ll tackle the larger question of how that fits into a theory of dreams, and what the later trajectory of this theory—which hardens into a “shibboleth” of orthodox psychoanalysis—will become.

For Monday: read chapter IV, and we’ll review chapters II and III, which we missed on Wednesday because of the course cancellation.

For Wednesday: read chapter V (skimming some parts of it), but especially read pp. 225-240 and 260-284.


Enter Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams

In 1900 (actually it was ready at the end of 1899), a new book appeared with the curious title: Die Traumdeutung (Dream-Interpretation). It was a work written by a maverick nerve specialist, who had gradually drifted from the established circles of medicine in his native Vienna into a world of new emerging therapies for nervous diseases. Among these was the notorious scourge then known as hysteria, to which he devoted especial attention. In the 1880s, Freud had moved from an early career in physiological research towards a clinical practice, motivated in part by the reality of his need to make a living if he ever wanted to have a family (which he certainly achieved—by the time this book came out, he had six children with his wife Martha).  Yet his desire to make dramatic contributions to science never stopped.

The Interpreation of Dreams suffimage006ers from certain features of its gestation. It was written in relative isolation by someone who knew that mainstream medical science didn’t entirely take him seriously. It was written in a way as an appeal to the reading public to hear a theory that was controversial, one that would most likely not get a fair hearing at medical schools and universities. So there is a lot of special pleading in it, and a fair amount of tendentious reasoning. These are the problems in the first edition. But subsequent editions continued to add more and more to this book, which began to read like the unofficial constitution of the Psychoanalytic Movement. While it was slow to sell initially, in the long run it was to be one of the most important publications in Freud’s large oeuvre, read by people in many walks of life.

The Interpretation of Dreams most obviously is setting out a theory of how dreams are meaningful, something it acknowledges many societies have believed in some way for millennia. But its premise is that we are now on the cusp of a scientific revolution that will get us real, scientific answers as to how dreams are meaningful. And this is connected to something far larger than dream research: to a whole new science of subjectivity and a theory of consciousness—or rather, a theory that explains how consciousness is only a small part of human subjectivity.

Most intriguingly, Freud faced the real problem of what dreams to use as specimens or illustrations of his theory.  Clinical material was largely off-limits, since he had an ethical obligation not to divulge his patients’ identity in too much detail—and as some of them were among the wealthiest people in Vienna, he had to be discreet to keep his practice. So he used his own dreams throughout the book, making this one of the most personal works of psychology ever written. In it, you will read about the ambitions, joys and frustrations of a secular Jewish medical man living in the fin-de-siècle world of Vienna.

As you’ve already seen in Hobson’s book, most dream theorists have to contend with Freud in some measure as they unpack their own theories. Given the centrality of this text to 20th century culture—well beyond the science of dreams—we will read it in some detail, referencing things along the way that are important to grasping its overall ambitions.

For Monday 2/29: Read the prefaces, pp. xxiii-xxxii to see if you understand what the publication history of this book is and why that’s important to know about.  Using the outline of chapter one from the table of contents (pp. v-vi), skim chapter 1 to see how Freud situates the problem of dreaming and the previous positions on it. What ancient authors does he refer to? What modern ideas does he trace? How clearly is his own thesis woven into his review of the literature?

For Wednesday 3/2: Read chapters 2 and 3