This was a much more interesting book than I thought it might be. The nature of dreams is something that is hard not to find fascinating. The thing is that we spend quite a bit of time dreaming – not the third of our lives we spend sleeping, but enough time to make us wonder why we dream at all. It seems incomprehensible that our dreams would be completely meaningless. But then, they can be so bizarre it is hard to know just what they might mean.
Freud starts with a quick run through how dreams have been interpreted in the past – from Aristotle on. Aristotle is a good place to start, as he says we dream about things that have been left unresolved from the day – and this is a core idea that Freud also includes in his theory of dreams.
Essentially, Freud sees dreams as playing a key role in helping us to process stuff that happened during the day. But dreams are a truth that likes to hide. Their meaning covers itself in remarkable allusions and images that are often amusingly apt, but sometimes it is as if we are determined to hide the true meaning of our dreams even from ourselves.
Freud makes it clear that this will not be a book of off-the-shelf interpretations – ‘oh, you dreamt of a lion last night, that means you should have been born Leo and spent time chasing gazelle’. To Freud it is impossible to understand and interpret dreams from a list of standard symbols. This doesn’t mean that if you are going to interpret dreams you don’t have to know a lot about symbols and their common meanings – but this knowledge is never enough. Symbols develop their own meanings within the text that is the dream. Just as in Blake’s The Sick Rose the rose can be read to mean anything from nature, to the Christian Church, to female genitalia, so in dreams the interpretation is meaningful within the context of the dream and to the life of the dreamer. And the dream is relevant to the immediate life of the dreamer. It is generally a response to what happened that day – even if the imagery used may well refer back to the childhood of the dreamer so that the deeper significance is a life's work.
The other remarkable conclusion Freud draws is that dreams are wish fulfilments. Now, this seems anything but obvious. Sure, when we have dreams we are having sex with super-models it is pretty obvious that Freud is onto something. But these aren’t the only dreams he sees as being wish fulfilments. Even dreams where loved ones die are seen by Freud as being fundamentally the realisations of wishes – but again, the dream isn’t always as easy to interpret as it might initially seem and the wish may not be as easy to understand as might be immediately apparent from what happens in the dream. The fact we wake screaming and shaking from a dream may not mean there is no wish involved in the thing that terrifies us – although, I would have to say I don’t think he dealt with nightmares nearly as well as he ought to have.
It is here that Freud discusses the Oedipal Complex – how our first sexual attraction is toward the parent of the opposite sex to ourselves and therefore we desire to remove one parent from the scene so as to take their place. While we are children the full implications of this desire are obscure to us – but as we grow older the taboo associated with this desire helps suppress our recognition of these desires, or repress them, rather – but only from the conscious mind. The subconscious mind still remembers what we might prefer to forget and so uses these images, as the first images of our awakening desires, as potent images in our dreams. The meaning of the image may not be anything like that we want to kill our father and have sex with our mother – it might actually refer to an awakening of sexual interest in someone else we have only recently meet – but the dream uses this ‘primal’ image as something to help it make sense of our current world and desires, even if the image then goes on to confuse the hell out of us.
Time for a story. I once worked with a woman called Frances Nolan. She was really lovely, one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, but I didn’t really fancy her. I mean, she was pretty and incredibly nice, but she was quite a bit younger than me and I just wasn’t really all that interested in her in that way. But every morning I would be walking to the train station and when I got to a certain part of Church Street she would suddenly jump into my head as large as life. I was starting to think that I must have been starting to fall for her – it was the strangest feeling, and quite confusing. Until one day I realised that there is a shoe shop in Church Street that is called Frances Nolan Shoes – and the sign is huge and I would walk under it every day. I really struggle to believe I didn’t consciously notice this sign in all the time I had walked up that street and imagined I was falling for poor Frances.
This book is interesting as I had assumed it would be a much harder read than it turned out to be – I also thought it would be a much sillier book than it turned out too. It is extremely well written. I don’t think I agree entirely with Freud, but he makes a very strong case. My main problems with his theory have to do with Sherlock Holmes. Because that’s what a lot of this sounded like to me. Someone has a dream and Freud does the whole ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ thing. It even gets to the stage where he says that sometimes things mean the opposite of what they seem to mean in the dream. When that is the case then any interpretation is basically about imposing ones preconceptions on the meaning of the symbols in the dream.
I tend to think that dreams probably don’t mean nearly as much as we like to think they do – but what they do do is throw up lots of random images, images which we try to make sense of and it is that ‘making of sense’ that says interesting things about us. And whether it is dream images or tarot cards or ink dots on paper – our making sense of random images says interesting things about us. But we should go gently into this stuff. We should go on tip-toes. Because stories have lives of their own and we are weaker than a good story and always will be.
I once read a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I think in that book she says that lines have a momentum that is very hard to control – but controlling the momentum of lines is a large part of what drawing is about. Stories also have a momentum that is very hard to control. The narratives we tell about ourselves are one thing – the narrative we tell about our dreams are quite another.
Personally, I think I prefer Freudian readings of novels to Freudian readings of people – but I can certainly see why this book made such an impact. If the problem with the book is Freud playing Holmes, it is only a problem because he is so damn clever he gets away with it. I’m surprised I’m going to do this – I would never have thought I would have when I started reading - but I think I would recommend this book. It is a fascinating read, even if it has left me somewhat less than convinced.