Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Ambition

By Sigmund Freud

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Chapter 2

But when I came to consider all of these, they could all be collected into a single group of ideas and labeled, as it were, "concern about my own and other people's health—professional conscientiousness." I called to mind the obscure disagreeable impression I had had when Otto brought me news of Irma's condition. […] It was as though he had said to me: "You don't take your medical duties seriously enough. You're not conscientious; you don't carry out what you've undertaken." (2.1.45)

After painstakingly interpreting his Dream of Irma's Injection, Freud concludes that a major motive of the dream was wish-fulfillment—specifically, the wish to be recognized as a skillful and caring doctor and not to be blamed for anyone's troubles or poor health. Because Freud's ideas and methods were so original, he feared that they might not be taken seriously. Going hand-in-hand with his ambition to be recognized as a great man was his desire to be recognized as a good doctor.

Chapter 5, Section B

I must therefore explain that the analysis of these three [last] episodes of the dream showed that they were impertinent boastings, the issue of an absurd megalomania which had long been suppressed in my waking life and a few of whose ramifications had even made their way into the dream's manifest content. (5.3.43)

During his detailed interpretation of the Dream of Count Thun, Freud discovers—and is embarrassed by—clear indications of ambitious, revolutionary feelings, and a high opinion of himself. By alternately mocking men with privilege and imagining that he himself might take their place, Freud reveals his deep desire to be recognized as a great man.

In the course of his reprimand, my father let fall the words: "The boy will come to nothing." This must have been a frightful blow to my ambition, for references to this scene are still constantly recurring in my dreams and are always linked with an enumeration of my achievements and successes, as though I wanted to say: "You see, I have come to something." (5.3.45)

In his Dream of Count Thun, Freud's dreaming mind not only says, "See, I have become something," but it also debases Freud's father in order to make Freud look good by comparison. By representing Freud's father as a blind old man who depends on his son's assistance, the dream helps Freud to get revenge for the earlier blow to his ambition.

Chapter 6, Section H

Since those days I have become an "analyst," and I now carry out analyses which are very highly spoken of, though it is true that they are "psycho-analyses." It was now clear to me: if I have grown proud of carrying out analyses of that kind in my daytime life and feel inclined to boast to myself of how successful I have become, my dreams remind me during the night of those other, unsuccessful analyses of which I have no reason to feel proud. (6.9.37)

As Freud begins to develop a theory of "punishment" dreams, he asks why it is that he frequently dreams of his time as a young doctor employed in a chemistry lab. Freud felt that he had never become "proficient" in chemistry, and he describes that time as a "barren and indeed humiliating episode in my apprenticeship" (6.9.37). Luckily for him, his ambition was satisfied in another way—through the success he achieved in his pioneering work as a psychoanalyst.

He began to flatter me: telling me how much he had learnt from me, how he looked at everything now with fresh eyes, how I had cleansed the Augean stables of errors and prejudices in my theory of the neuroses. He told me, in short, that I was a very great man. (6.9.23)

As Freud interprets a dream in which he washes away many "small heaps of faeces" with a powerful stream of urine, he recalls this conversation. In it, an audience member praised him after hearing him give a lecture. Freud's deep pleasure at being hailed as "a very great man" is represented in the dream through an association between himself and the legendary hero Hercules, who cleaned the Augean stables by rerouting a river through them.

Chapter 7, Section A

It must not be forgotten that in interpreting a dream we are opposed by the psychical forces which were responsible for its distortion. It is thus a question of relative strength whether our intellectual interest, our capacity for self-discipline, our psychological knowledge and our practice in interpreting dreams enable us to master our internal resistance. (7.2.22)

Freud makes these comments in a long passage that offers tips and tricks for dream-interpretation, and so it's easy to read them as a bit of not-so-subtle boasting about his own skill as an interpreter of dreams. Freud knew that it would be easy for readers to assume that if his methods didn't work for them, it would be because his theories were wrong. He anticipates that objection by insisting that self-discipline, knowledge, and mastery are key—and by claiming those qualities for himself while he's at it.

Chapter 7, Section B

Behind this childhood of the individual we are promised a picture of a phylogenetic childhood—a picture of the development of the human race, of which the individual's development is in fact an abbreviated recapitulation influenced by the chance circumstances of life. […] [T]he analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man's archaic heritage, of what is physically innate in him. (7.3.33)

Hold up there, Sigmund. First, you tell us we're going to learn how to understand and interpret our dreams, and now you're telling us that our dreams can unlock the secrets of humanity's "archaic heritage"? That's a pretty tall order for this theory you've developed. But hey, if you're not ambitious enough to figure out life, the universe, and everything else, what's the point? Right?

So far as I knew, I was not an ambitious man; I was following my profession with gratifying success even without the advantages afforded by a title. Moreover there was no question of my pronouncing the grapes sweet or sour: they hung far too high over my head. (4.1.7)

After Freud was nominated for a university professorship in the spring of 1897, he attempted to accept the fact that he wasn't likely to be offered the position. As he well knew, anti-Semitism was rife in Vienna, and he had seen a number of deserving Jewish men passed over for similar positions. Although he claims that he was not an ambitious man, his Dream of Uncle Josef makes it clear that this situation hurt him deeply.

The first reader and critic of this book—and his successors are likely to follow his example—protested that "the dreamer seems to be too ingenious and amusing." This is quite true so long as it refers only to the dreamer; it would only be an objection if it were to be extended to the dream-interpreter. In waking reality I have little claim to be regarded as a wit. If my dreams seem amusing, it is not on my account, but on account of the peculiar psychological conditions under which dreams are constructed […]. (6.2.51)

Freud's desire was to be taken seriously as an innovator of psychological treatment—and for The Interpretation of Dreams to be recognized as an important work of scientific literature. By kind of pretending to be humble here—that is, by insisting that the "wit" of his dreams doesn't come from his interpretations, but from the dreams themselves—Freud is insisting on the credibility and value of his methods.

The content of the dream had to find a form which would enable it to express both the delusions of inferiority and the megalomania in the same material. The compromise between them produced an ambiguous dream-content; but it also resulted in an indifferent feeling-tone owing to the mutual inhibition of these contrary impulses. (6.9.24)

These comments also apply to Freud's Dream of the "Augean Stables." Although the sight of so much number two in the dream didn't produce any feelings of disgust or revulsion, Freud interprets the objectively repulsive content of the dream as an expression of the self-loathing that he had been feeling earlier that day. As the dream demonstrates, Freud's deep ambition went hand-in-hand with his anxious concern that his methods would not be praised and valued—that, in fact, they might be seen as worthless.

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