Week 13: Surrealism and the Dream in Cinema

This week the reading is a lot lighter!  Just chapter 6 in Fiona Bradley’s Surrealism, which discusses theater and film. 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. UnchienandalouposterWe’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.

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 Satyricon. Some of the most memorable dream sequences 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: Surrealism: The Visual Culture

This week we look beyond the manifestos and verbal experiments to the rich visual culture of Surrealism, which may well be its most lasting contribution. The paintings of Dalí, Magritte, Miró, and Tanguy are iconic to Surrealism, and there are many other artists of lesser fame and equal interest, such as Victor BraunerRemedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. We can only scratch the surface here, but we are fortunate to have the great resources at the Menil Collection to explore.  We’ll spend time there on Thursday and take in real works, not reproductions. It really does make a difference to see the forms, colors, and textures of artworks up close and personal.

So for Tuesday, read chapters 2-4 in Fiona Bradley’s book Surrealism, and we’ll discuss some common features in this vast, creative ocean of artwork. It’s important to remember that many of these artists had long careers that play out along unique trajectories, so it’s appropriate to follow each artist in their own terms. But there are general features we can use to begin the exploration. We might ask why the visual culture of Surrealism has such staying power, while the poetry and prose works seem particular to their moment.

On Thursday, we’ll hold class at the usual time in the library at the Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross Street (77006), near the intersection of Alabama and Mandell. There is parking off Alabama in a specified lot there, and admission is ALWAYS FREE!  We’ll meet with Menil Collection librarian Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, who will talk about the collection and the treasures of its library. Then we’ll let you loose in the Surrealist part of the collection to commune with the works. The assignment for the day is really just to find one work that speaks to you, and to write a one-page reaction paper outlining how you see its integration of the dreamworld and the unconscious into a work of art.  Just commit to something and run with it. But give yourself time to absorb it first, and try to learn something about the artist as you venture into the work.

And remember this is fun!

Week 11: Enter Surrealism…

As we have already discussed, the Surrealist movement embraced Sigmund Freud as a kind of “patron saint,” as Freud once said with misgivings.  How is it that they 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.

We will explore it in this course by reading, looking, and doing.  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, and, just for fun, do our own Exquisite Corpse exercise on Thursday.  Remember: if you’re not having fun while studying Surrealism, then something is definitely wrong.


Week 10: A Theory of Mind

The last thing to consider in Freud’s massive Interpretation of Dreams is its final chapter, which unveils what is at stake in his overall project of dream interpretation. “We can say this of dreams,” he writes, “they have proved that what is suppressed continues to exist in normal people as well as abnormal, and remains capable of psychical functioning” (p. 603, original italics). This is to say, dreams are a universal instance of the return of the repressed, and as such are an easy way for all people to gain access to their own internal, unconscious processes. In the 1909 edition of the work, he added this programmatic statement: “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (p. 604, original italics). Thus we see how this book helped him to shift from clinical work on neurotic patients (whose unconscious processes led to the production of neurotic symptoms in their diseased state) to a universal theory of mind where the tension between the conscious and the unconscious is a constant, and not simply in pathological cases. The neurotic, in other words, is different from us in degree but not in kind when it comes to repression and its ill effects.

So as a final envoi to Freud, let’s read the last chapter (VII) of the work, to see in fuller, discursive form the main tenets of his theory of mind in relation to dreaming. Some of it is now problematic in relation to current brain science, and belies a certain oversimplification of mental processes to buttress his main interest in “endopsychic censorship” or repression. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging assertions are found in the sections on regression and wish-fulfillment, where the resurgence of our “infantile” or childhood experience is made into a constant feature of dreaming. What are the consequences of such thinking, particularly in terms of our experience of ourselves?

From hereon, we’ll be dealing with culture in a post-Freudian world, where ideas of his are making headway in the creative arts, particularly of the Surrealists. It is important to understand some of the key principles of Freud’s theory of mind to see just why various people reading this book (or at least attempting to), would find it liberating, even revolutionary.  The Interpretation of Dreams can be a tough read, but it is a book with real consequences for twentieth century culture, and pivotal moment in dreaming’s relationship with culture.


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.