The Browser Review Daily Letter 156

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Professor Freud’s Recklessness


From The New Statesman,  26th July 1913

Book Review: The Interpretation Of Dreams by Prof Dr Sigmund Freud LLD. Translated by A.A. Brill, Ph.B. Allen. 15s net

LONDON — This work on a most fascinating subject comes to English readers with a sufficiently weighty introduction. “The most original, the most daring, the most challenging of recent books on dreams”, was Mr Havelock Ellis’s description of the treatise in his own original and challenging volume, The World Of Dreams. Professor Freud’s book certainly deserves all three adjectives. Not only has he invented an entirely new theory of dream, but he uses it with fanatic’s splendid recklessness as a master-key to unlock the secrets of dreams and literature.

His theory is, as students of the subject know, that every dream is the fulfilment of wish. “The pig dreams of acorns, the goose of maize”, says the Hungarian proverb, and Professor Freud has been sufficiently original to translate the wisdom of the countryside into the language of science. On the other hand, he sees clearly enough that the human pig and the human lose do not put their ambitions so frankly into dreams. If they did, there would be no such thing as dreams of horror.

Two American ladies, however, Miss Sarah Weed and Miss Florence Hallam, have, as a result of the observation, been able to show that with some people at least the majority of dreams are of the unhappy sort. “They designate 58 per cent of [their] dreams as disagreeable and only 28.6 per cent as positively pleasant”. How, then, are we to square this with Professor Freud’s theory that every dream represents the fulfilment of a wish?

It is easier than you might think. Man, it seems has to do his dreaming, as in so many countries he has to do his political propaganda, under a suspicious censorship. He dare not express his dream-wishes openly. His wish is often accompanied in his own nature by an equally strong repulsion to the wish. It is in the struggle with this repulsion, we are told, that the dream-wish gets disfigured and distorted into so many strange shapes. Hence our dreams are as often as not fantastic hypocrites and liars.

This, one would think, ought to make the world of the interpretation of dreams well-night impossible. But while Professor Freud would make no claim to be able to see through all hypocrites and liars in the waking state, he seems strangely ready to give us the correct solution of every trickster of a dream.

Take, for instance, the very innocent looking case of a the young doctor, who, after handing in an honest declaration of income to the authorities, dreamed that his declaration had aroused suspicion and that he was going to be punished with a heavy fine. Such a dream would seem to most of us merely to be the expression of too much smoking after filling in one’s declaration form. According to the Freud interpretation, however, it is “a poorly concealed fulfilment of the wish to be known as a physician with a large income”.

That is an example of the doctrinaire arrogance of the author’s method. He always has his answers as pat as a clairvoyant. Occasionally, however, he is almost as convincing as he is ingenious in his translation of dreams into terms of wishes.

He tells us, for instance, how on one occasion a lady-patient of his dreamed she was travelling with her mother-in-law to a summer-resort, though in her waking state she had fought hard against spending the summer with her mother-in-law. Here to all intents and purposes is a dream which, instead of fulfilling a wish, did exactly the opposite. But that is only a superficial interpretation. Professor Freud, who knew what a tease the lady was, and remembered that on the previous day he had told her his theory of the dream as a wish-fulfilment, penetrated far below the surface. He saw that the dream had little to do with the lady’s wish to avoid her mother-in-law. It was really the fulfilment of another wish of hers to prove his pet theory wrong. And in this way, as we have seen, she proved I’m right. Assuredly, one would have to rise very early in the morning to get the better of Professor Freud.

Is he not compromising the value of his theory, however, when, in the section devoted to typical dreams, he admits that the wish fulfilled in the dream may not be a present wish but a well-remembered one from long ago in one’s childhood? Let this be admitted, and dreams may become hardly more than kaleidoscopic memories.

The author widens the function of the dream in this way in speaking of dreams in which the death of some relative is imagined and mourned over. Dreams of the death of relatives where there are no tears do not, we are told, necessarily mean anything evil. Dreams of the death of relatives accompanied by weeping, however, do actually meant that the dreamer desires or once desired the death of his father or mother or sister or brother, as the case may be.

Dr Freud believes that the hostility of fathers and sons, of mothers and daughters, is much commoner than is usually supposed, and that “feelings of entity towards brothers and sisters must occur far more frequently during the age of childhood than is noted by the dull observations of adults”.

Everything of course, tends to be exaggerated in dreams, and hostilities may easily picture themselves as homicides. At the same time, one begins to distrust the author’s psychology when he contents that the Oedipus Rex owes its power over modern men to the fact that it is, as it were, the ideal dramatisation of the kind of dream we are discussing — the dream of the death of a near relation. Every boy, he seems to argue, is at one time his father’s jealous rival for his mother’s love. Hence the fate of Oedipus “moves us only for the reason that it might have been ours, for the Oracle has put the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him”.

Now, to be quite accurate, the Oracle has done nothing of the sort. It has no more put the curse of Oedipus upon us than the curse of Henry VIII or Tom Thumb or Newman Noggs. And even those who might hesitate before ridiculing the absurdity of Dr Freud’s theory of Oedipus will realise what a man of obsessions he is when they reach his equally preposterous theory of Hamlet.

Hamlet, it appears, may also be interpreted as a masterpiece of the literature of the death dream. At least, Hamlet’s vacillation may be interpreted as the vacillation of one who has dreamed the death dream. Hamlet, Dr Freud insists, as many other people have done, was not in the ordinary affairs of life incapable of action. Why, then, does he hesitate so insanely in the task of avenging his father?

“The explanation offers itself that it is the peculiar nature of this task. Hamlet can do everything but take vengeance upon the man who has put his father out of the way, and has taken his father’s place with his mother — upon the man who shows him the realisation of his repressed childhood’s wishes. The loathing which ought to drive him to revenge is thus replaced in him by self-reproaches, by conscientious scruples, which represent to him that he himself is no better than the murderer he is about to punish.”

Possibly, in the next edition of his work — Dr Brill’s translation from the third German edition — Professor Freud will go on to explains that the vogue of The Playboy of the Western World is due to the fact that it treats attractively the death-wish so many of us experience in our dreams. Irishmen attacked The Playboy at its first production on the ground that it made it appear that parricide was popular in Ireland. Professor Freud apparently believes that (in a quiet way) parricide is popular everywhere.

It would hardly be fair to say of him that he studies dreams as he studies diseases. He has mastered the literature of dreams, and he has analysed his own dreams as well as those of his patients. On the other hand, one feels that so much commerce with abnormal men and women has given a bias to his theorising. He is inclined to interpret that majority of dreams in terms of sexual wishes — one is inclined to think, at times, or sexual mania.

He will never admit that such an interpretation as that which he attempts to account for the common dream of flying as the objectivation of the expansion and contraction of the lungs in breathing. Such dreams have, in Freud’s opinion, mostly a sensual significance — at least, when dreamed by men.

His study of the symbolism of the dream, again, is marred by the fact that there is hardly an object upon the earth which he would find the slightest difficulty in converting into a sexual symbol. His book, however, is amazingly fertile in suggestion. His analysis of the material dreams is a piece of work of lasting value. Even the analyses of various complicated dreams of his own are wonderful examples of acute speculation and reasoning.

Some of his incidental theories, again, are very captivating, as when he argues that “the dream is the guardian of sleep, not the disturber of it”. As an example, he related how when on one occasion he suffered from pain that made it difficult for him to ride, he dreamed that he was riding without feeling any pain at all. He interprets this as meaning that the pain was trying to wake him from his sleep when the dream came along, like a Christian scientist, and said: “You have no pain. Sleep on.”

Professor Freud’s book is too technical, too scientific in method, to appeal much to the general reader. The publishers announce, in any case. the sale of the book is “limited to members of the medical, scholastic, legal and clerical professions”. Students of psychology and, not less students of medical aberration, will welcome the present translation as putting into their hands a remarkable collection of data, however rickety the theory built upon them may seem to be.

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