Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Language and Communication

By Sigmund Freud

Language and Communication

Chapter 2

The first of these procedures considers the extent of the dream as a whole and seeks to replace it by another content which is intelligible and in certain respects analogous to the original one. This is "symbolic" dream-interpreting; and it inevitably breaks down when faced by dreams which are not merely unintelligible but also confused. (2.1.3)

As Freud begins to reveal his unique theory of dream-interpretation, he challenges the two predominant methods that had previously been used to interpret dreams. As an example of symbolic dream-interpreting, he points to the story of the Pharaoh's dream of the seven fat and seven lean cows in the Book of Genesis. The story's hero, Joseph, tells the Pharaoh that the dream is a prophecy: the Pharaoh is being warned that seven years of plenty in Egypt will be followed by seven years of famine.

The second of the two popular methods of interpreting dreams is far from making any such claims. It might be described as the 'decoding' method, since it treats dreams as a kind of cryptography in which each sign can be translated into another sign having a known meaning, in accordance with a fixed key. (2.1.4)

If you've ever consulted a "guide" to dreams, you'll know exactly what Freud is getting at here. The decoding method might tell you that if you dream about getting an email, that means that a change is on the horizon. Or, to take one of Freud's examples, if you dream about a funeral, that means that someone (maybe you!) is about to get engaged (2.1.4).

Chapter 3

It will be seen that we might have arrived at our theory of the hidden meaning of dreams most rapidly merely by following linguistic usage. It is true that common language sometimes speaks of dreams with contempt. (The phrase "Träume sind Schäume [Dreams are froth]" seems intended to support the scientific estimate of dreams.) But, on the whole, ordinary usage treats dreams above all as the blessed fulfillers of wishes. If ever we find our expectation surpassed by the event, we exclaim in our delight: "I should never have imagined such a thing even in my wildest dreams." (3.1.19)

Freud kept his ears open to the linguistic idioms and colloquial turns of phrase that he heard people using every day because he believed that ordinary speech revealed a lot about deeply held—and even unconscious—cultural beliefs.

Chapter 5, Section B

Dreams frequently seem to have more than one meaning. Not only, as our examples have shown, may they include several wish-fulfilments one alongside the other; but a succession of meanings or wish fulfilments may be superimposed on one another, the bottom one being the fulfilment of a wish dating from earliest childhood. (5.3.49)

For Freud, dreams speak a language of their own, and it's the job of the psychoanalyst to interpret that language. With this in mind, he insists that it's crucial to remember that the true meaning of a dream is rarely on the surface. Instead, the dream's deeper meaning must be sought under layers of other—more obvious—ideas and associations.

Chapter 6

The dream-thoughts and the dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages. Or, more properly, the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation. (6.1.2)

When Freud speaks of "dream-thoughts," he means the "latent" content of dreams—that is, the meaning that lies below the surface. When he speaks of "dream-content," he means the "manifest" content of dreams—that is, the images and events that appear to us on the surface.

Chapter 6, Section A

The work of condensation in dreams is seen at its clearest when it handles words and names. It is true in general that words are frequently treated in dreams as though they were things, and for that reason they are apt to be combined in just the same way as are presentations of things. Dreams of this sort offer the most amusing and curious neologisms. (6.2.47)

As one example of the way that dreams treat words as things, Freud recounts a dream in which he used the neologism (made-up word) "norekdal" to criticize a colleague's writing style. As he interpreted the dream, he realized that this word was made up of the names "Nora" and "Ekdal"—"characters in two well-known plays by Ibsen" (6.2.48). As Freud explains: "Some time before, I had read a newspaper article on Ibsen by the same author whose latest work I was criticizing in the dream" (6.2.48).

Where spoken sentence occur in dreams and are expressly distinguished as such from thoughts, it is an invariable rule that the words spoken in the dream are derived from spoken words remembered in the dream-material. […] A speech in a dream is often put together from various recollected speeches, the text remaining the same but being given, if possible several meanings, or one different from the original one. A spoken remark in a dream is not infrequently no more than an allusion to an occasion on which the remark in question was made. (6.2.62)

Throughout The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud demonstrates that our dreams represent language and linguistic communication to us in many different ways. Sometimes words, like images, can be "puzzles" in which multiple elements have been "condensed." At other times, phrases and remarks from our waking lives can be re-contextualized and given new meaning. Ultimately, in Freud's view, our dreams are free to shape their materials in any way they choose.

Chapter 6, Section C

What representation do dreams provide for "if," "because," "just as," "although," "either—or," and all other conjunctions without which we cannot understand sentences or speeches?" (6.4.5)

One of Freud's intriguing suggestions about the "language" of dreams is that dreams can't represent the logical relationships that are signified by words like "if," "because," and "either/or." With this in mind, Freud compares dreams to paintings and sculptures, which are similarly incapable of representing these concepts (without the use of speech bubbles, that is). In his view, only our conscious analyses can restore these "logical relations" to the interpretation of dreams.

The dream-thoughts are immediately comprehensible, as soon as we have learnt them. The dream-content, on the other hand, is expressed as it were in a pictographic script, the characters of which have to be transposed individually into the language of the dream-thoughts. If we attempted to read these characters according to their pictorial value instead of according to their symbolic relation, we should clearly be led into error. (6.1.2)

By using pictographic script (think of ancient hieroglyphs) as an analogy for the "language" of dream content, Freud suggests that the various pieces of our dreams can't be interpreted individually. Instead, meaning comes from the relations that all of the pieces share with one another. The meaning of each is determined in relation to the whole, just as words take on specific meaning in the context of the sentences in which they appear.

Suppose I have a picture-puzzle, a rebus, in front of me. It depicts the house with a boat on its roof, a single letter of the alphabet, the figure of a running man whose head has been conjured away, and so on. Now I might be misled into raising objections and declaring that the picture as a whole and its component parts are nonsensical. […] But obviously we can only form a proper judgment of the rebus if we put aside criticisms such as these of the whole composition and its parts and if, instead, we try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way or other. (6.1.2)

One of Freud's most stunning and influential insights into dreams is that their "manifest" contents work like rebuses. If the word "rebus" is new to you, don't sweat it: we're willing to bet that you've encountered picture-puzzles like these before.

Here's an example. Picture an image of a vintage alarm clock beside an image of a big stack of bank notes. What could it possibly mean? If you follow Freud's instructions and think of syllables or words that could be represented by each of those images, you'll soon discover that this picture-puzzle represents an phrase that comes to us from none other than Ben Franklin: "Time is money." Easy peasy, right?

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