Week 9: The Dream Work

In week 8 we looked at his chapter on the material and sources of dreams, which included his reading of Oedipus Tyrannus and Hamlet. We discussed the nature of ambivalence in our most intimate relationships, and how this creates a tension that understandably activates dream censorship in Freud’s view. Now we delve deeper into what the dream work consists of, and this is going to be essential for the claims to originality in his theory. Having made his major distinction between the manifest and the latent in dream content, he now must explain the process of translation (as he says on pages 295-296) that turns a latent dream thought into a manifest dream.

So the parts to read are all in chapter VI, sections a-e (pp. 295-392).  The first major things to grasp are condensation and displacement, which are key to the technique of distortion Freud sees as central to the process. But then he shifts to discussing the nature of dream representation, which leads to a discussion of dream symbolism. These parts will be helpful to have studied in particular as we shift to consider what the Surrealists make of this.  There are some basic principles to be grasped here, so try to hold on to the big ideas and feel free to skim through the examples. This chapter is far longer than it needed to be, in part because kept making additions to it over the years. But don’t let the size of it obscure your vision of what is going on here: this is the heart of his theory of the dream process.



Week 8: The Interpretation of Dreams: the Plot Thickens

So in the first week of our reading of Freud’s massive book, we have come to see there is a very simple thesis at the heart of it: a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. But human beings being what we are, this cannot be so simple. As you can see from chapter IV, the real thesis is: a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish (183), which is why the bulk of Freud’s book is really about dream distortion.  Interpretation in this instance means getting through the manifest content of the dream, or the dream is it presents itself, to the latent “dream thought(s)” that led to its creation.

Having thus created a vital distinction between the latent and the manifest in chapter IV, Freud now moves on in chapter V to survey “the material and sources of dreams,” which he can better address now in relation to his theory, since a lot of obvious objections can be cleared up right away. Take a look at sections a, b, and d of this chapter to see how he asserts 1) recent material tends to instigate a dream, 2) but the memories drawn into the dream can come from remarkably distant parts of one’s experience, such that by page 239, he suggests recent experiences are linked to the manifest content of the dream, while the latent content lies with more remote experiences. The part I’d most like you to focus on is in section D. Typical Dreams, with especial attention to “Dreams of the Death of Persons of Whom the Dreamer is Fond” (pp. 266-288), where he comes to give his famous reading of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet.  OedipusHere he provides two readings of very famous plays, which effectively is an extension of his psychoanalytic method to the analysis of literature. The same tension that he finds in the latent and the manifest content of dreams he will find as well in works of literature, which both illustrate and confirm his theory.

Because this is still one of the more intriguing aspects of Freud’s interpretive practice, we will spend a bit of time on it. Which is why the other assignment for the week will be to read Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in Frederick Ahl’s translation. That book also includes the play by Seneca on the same theme, but you don’t have to read that. Freud is reacting very much to Sophocles’ version of the story, so you can stick to that one.



Week 7: Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams

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. 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. 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.




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 next week 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

This week we’ll start by talking about that wonderful Tale of Two Brothers, maybe the most surreal ancient text you’ll ever find. This raises the question immediately: how are myths like the “age old dreams of humanity,” as Freud said. We’ll return to this question later when we read Oedipus the King, but this text—which shares certain motifs of the Joseph story—will get us started.

Next come a number of passages from ancient epic that may represent a particular kind of dream: the epiphany dream.  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.


Week 3: Joseph: The Urgency of Interpretation

With the story of Joseph, we now enter into the fuller cultural question of the space of dreaming. I’ve argued that even Hobson’s science of dreaming comes from a particular cultural space—Harvard Medical School, to be exact—that shapes its ambitions, the rules of its argument and evidence, and its narrative.  Hobson has friends, rivals and enemies that he identifies as he outlines his science of dreaming, and the book does more than simply sketch his theory. It argues for our unique place in history; we are just inches away from knowing the truth about the mind’s functioning and the origins of consciousness. As we will see when we get to Freud, Freud himself felt a similar breakthrough was just on the horizon. But we’ll get back to the science of dreaming later.

Hobson’s urgency to understand dreaming is obviously professional, not just a personal need to make sense of his own dream life. We now turn to a very famous story where dreams and their interpretation stand at the center of a man’s life—in fact, interpretation seems to be a life and death matter for Joseph. This is a famous story, but it’s important to read it carefully to see how the dreams that occur (always in pairs, you’ll note!) relate to the action of the story. Not only does the dream content come to bear on what later happens in the story, but also the ability to interpret—or not—affects the outcome of various twists in the narrative. These dreams are completely situated within a larger framework, in other words. Naturally one might dismiss these as literary creations—and I’m not claiming they are “real dreams” beyond the context of the story—but we should focus on what the main point of the Joseph story seems to be: the necessity of interpretation in human life. That’s a necessity that goes beyond mere dreams, as we will see.

On Thursday we’ll take look at this part of Genesis, first with a consideration of how the story’s location in the Bible helps to frame its significance. It is in many ways the most Egyptian story in the Hebrew Bible, and that has some implications for how we are to read it in relation to what comes before and after.  You should also take a look at how the same story is told in the context of the Qur’an (Surah 12 is linked below), to see if you can sense how its point shifts in the retelling.

Also this week, we will take a look at related Egyptian story, The Tale of Two Brothers. This is an extraordinary narrative—I’d even say surreal—that not only echoes themes of the Joseph story in certain ways, but also seems tailor made for the idea that myths are like dreams; “the age-old dreams of humanity,” as Freud once said.


Genesis 37-50 (NIV translation)

Qur’an, Surah 12 

The Tale of Two Brothers

You might be interested in two spin-offs of the Joseph story.

Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Zulaikha) have a complicated romantic history in later muslim tradition. Read this selection from a work by Jami, a poet of the late classical Persian era (1411-1492).

Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath posed problems in later Jewish and Christian tradition, which were “solved” in the story of Joseph and Asenath, which recounts her rejection of Egyptian idolatry and transformation to immortality through eating a mystical honeycomb. While this might well be originally a Jewish work written in Greek in the first century BCE, the extant versions in Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic and Latin are much later. This adds confusion as to whether this is a Jewish or a Christian text.