Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)

Despite the widely-recognized failure of Freudian psychotherapy to heal disturbed people effectively and the rejection of many of his major theories Freud remains one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Freud’s basic insight that our minds preserve memories and emotions which are not always consciously available to us has transformed the way humanity views itself ever since. Freud said that there had been three great humiliations in human history: Galileo’s discovery that we were not the center of the universe, Darwin’s discovery that we were not the crown of creation, and his own discovery that we are not in control of our own minds. The tendency of modern people to trace their problems to childhood traumas or other repressed emotions begins with Freud. One of Freud’s more important discoveries is that emotions buried in the unconscious surface in disguised form during dreaming, and that the remembered fragments of dreams can help uncover the buried feelings. Whether the mechanism is exactly as Freud describes it, many people have derived insights into themselves from studying their dreams, and most modern people consider dreams emotionally significant, unlike our ancestors who often saw them either as divine portents or as the bizarre side-effects of indigestion. Freud argues that dreams are wish-fulfillments, and will ultimately argue that those wishes are the result of repressed or frustrated sexual desires. The anxiety surrounding these desires turns some dreams into nightmares.

Dreams are not comparable to the spontaneous sounds made by a musical instrument struck rather by some external force than by the hand of a performer; they are not meaningless, not absurd, they do not imply that one portion of our stockpile of ideas sleeps while another begins to awaken. They are a completely valid psychological phenomenon, specifically the fulfillment of wishes; they can be classified in the continuity of comprehensible waking mental states; they are constructed through highly complicated intellectual activity.

But as soon as we delight in this discovery, a flood of questions assails us. If, according to dream analysis, the dream represents a fulfilled wish, what creates the astonishing and strange form in which this wish-fullfillment is expressed? What transformation have the dream thoughts undergone to shape the manifest dream which we remember when awake? Through what means has this transformation taken place? What is the source of the material which has been reworked into the dream? Where do the many peculiarities which we notice in dream thoughts come from, for instance that they may be mutually contradictory? Can a dream tell us so mething new about our inner psychological processes? Can its content correct the opinions that we have held during our waking hours?

I suggest that we set these questions aside for the moment and follow one particular path further. We have learned that a dream represents a fulfilled wish. Our next concern will be to discover whether this is a universal characteristic of dreams. . . We must leave open the possibility that the meaning may not be the same in every dream. Our first dream was a wish fulfillment; but perhaps another will prove to be a fulfilled fear; a third might contain a reflex; a fourth may simply reproduce a memory. Are there other wish-dreams? Or perhaps nothing but wish-dreams exist.

It is easy to demonstrate that dreams often have the character of blatant wish-fullfillments; so much so that one wonders why the language of dreams was not understood long ago. For instance, there is a dream that I can experience at will, experimentally, as it were. When I eat sardines, olives, or other strongly salted foods in the evening, I am awakened in the night by thirst. But the awaking is always preceded by a dream with the same content: I gulp the water down; and it tastes delicious to me as only a cool drink can when one is dying of thirst; and then I wake up and really have to drink. The cause of this simple dream is the thirst which I feel when I awaken. This feeling causes the desire to drink, and the dream shows me this desire fulfilled. It thereby serves a function which I can easily guess. I am a good sleeper, unaccustomed to being awakened by any need. If I can slake my thirst by dreaming that I am drinking, I don’t need to wake up in order to be satisfied. Thus this is a convenience dream. The dream is substituted for action, as so often in life.

Recently this same dream occurred in a somewhat modified form. I had become thirsty even before sleeping and drained the glass of water which was standing on the nightstand next to my bed. A few hours later during the night I had a new attack of thirst which was more inconvenient. In order to get some water I would have had to get up and take the glass standing on my wife’s nightstand. I dreamed therefore that my wife gave me a drink out of a vessel. This vessel was an Etruscan funerary urn which I had brought back from a trip to Italy and had since given away. However, the water in it tasted so salty (plainly because of the ashes) that I had to wake up. It is easy to see how neatly this dream arranged matters; since it its only aim was wish-fulfillment, it could be completely egotistical. A love of convenience is not really compatible with consideration for others. The introduction of the funerary urn is probably another wish-fulfillment; I was sorry that I didn’t own the vessel any more–just as the water glass beside my wife was inaccessible. The urn also fit the growing salty taste which I knew would force me to wake up.

I very commonly had such dreams of convenience in my youth. Always used to working deep into the night, it was always difficult for me to wake up early. I used to dream then that I was out of bed and standing in front of the washstand. Eventually I had to recognize that I was not up, but meanwhile I had slept some more. The same lazy dream in a particularly witty form was told to me by one of my colleagues who evidently shared my sleepyheadedness. The landlady he rented rooms near the hospitals from had strong instructions to wake him up at the right time every morning; but she had a difficult time carrying out these orders. One morning he was sleeping especially sweetly. The woman called into the room, “Mr. Pepi, get up. You have to go to the hospital. ” At that point the sleeper dreamed that he was lying in a bed in a room in the hospital, on which was a placard which read “Pepi H., medical student, age 22.” Dreaming, he said to himself, “Since I am already in the hospital, I don’t have to go there,” so he turned over and slept on. Thus he openly confessed the cause of his dream.

It is just as easy to discover wish-fulfillment in some other dreams that I have collected from normal people. A friend who knows my dream theory and had shared it with his wife said to me one day, “I must tell you that my wife dreamed yesterday that she had her period. You know what that means.” Certainly I knew; since the young woman had dreamed that she had her period, it meant that her period had not come. I could well believe that she would liked to have enjoyed her freedom a little longer before beginning the burdens of motherhood. It was a clever way of announcing the onset of her pregnancy. Another friend writes me that his wife recently dreamed that she noticed drops of milk on her blouse front. This is always a sign of pregnancy, but not a first pregnancy; the young mother wanted to have more milk for the second child than she had had for the first. . . .

These examples will perhaps be enough to show that dreams which can only be understood as wish-fullfillments, and which clearly reveal their content, occur often and under manifold circumstances. These mostly short and simple dreams stand out pleasantly in contrast with the confused and overly complex dream compositions which have mostly absorbed the attention of writers. . . .

We recognize that we might have gotten at the understanding of the concealed meaning of dreams by the shortest path if we had simply followed common ways of speaking. Proverbs indeed sometimes speak dismissively of dreams; people think they are being properly scientific when they say, “Dreams are froth.” But in common usage dreams are predominantly the fulfillers of dreams. We cry out, delighted, “I would never have imagined such a thing even in my wildest dreams” when we find that reality has surpassed our expectations. . . .

There still remain anxiety dreams (1) as a special subdivision of dreams with a painful content whose interpretation as wish-fulfillment dreams will be most unwillingly accepted by the unenlightened. However, I can deal briefly with anxiety dreams here; they do not represent another aspect of the problems posed by dreams; rather it is a matter of understanding above all neurotic anxiety. The anxiety that we feel in dreams is only apparently explained by the dream’s content. When we try to discover the meaning of a dream’s content, we note that the anxiety felt in a dream is no better explained by its content than the anxiety felt in a phobia (2) is explained by the mental image which induces the phobia. For instance, is it quite true that one may fall out of a window, and therefore one may reasonably exert a certain amount of caution around a window; but this does not explain why in its phobic form the fear is so powerful and the sufferer pursued by the fear far beyond its cause. The same explanation is valid for phobias as for anxiety dreams. The anxiety is in both cases only loose ly linked to the association, and actually derives from another source.

Since dream anxiety is intimately related to neurotic anxiety is must explain the first by reference to the second. In a short publication on anxiety neurosis . . . I argued that neurotic anxiety derives from sexual life, and is the expression of unsatisfied desire which has been diverted from its goal. This formula has since then been proven valid. It enables us now to say that the sexual content of anxiety dreams is the result of transformation of sexual desire.

(1) Nightmares

(2) Irrational fear.

Translated by Paul Brians

This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books. 


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