Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Die Traumdeutung (still further updated)

Träume sind Schäume.
-- old folk-saying

I am currently combing slowly through Freud’s groundbreaking work of 1899, Die Traumdeutung -- “La clef des songes” --  “The Interpretation of Dreams”.  Meanwhile, this page can serve as a scratch-space for matters oneiric.
Don’t worry -- I won’t be pinning your ears back with my own dreams, which are mostly boring or annoying or both.

[Pronunciation of Die Traumdeutung:  dee  TROWM-doy-toong.  Traum is cognate with English dreamdeutung has no cognate in modern English, but is prehistorically related to the German word for 'German', deutsch.]

~ (I) ~

In our essay on Eliminative Materialism, we made fun of Edward Wilson’s celebration of the neuroscientists’ would-be physicalist-reductionist supersession of Freudian semantic-based oneirology.   It was not much beyond the level of “The red chemical makes you dream of flying, the blue chemical makes you dream of penguins” -- or rather, it did not even rise to the level of such an actual correlation, but basically said simply, “Since we know in advance that everything reduces to chemicals, dreams do too” -- an exercise precisely as enlightening as droning on about the chemistry of paper and ink, in an attempt to explain Paradise Lost;  or to announce, after painstaking statistical analysis, that that work turns out to be exhaustively composed of just twenty-six  --> Basic Building Blocks (shades of the nucleotide code!), in what scientists are calling an “alphabet”.

The most you could say about their efforts is that they at least are opening a door to possible physiochemical groundings of oneiric events (without explaining the latter in detail -- indeed, without getting anywhere near the pyschosemantics of the thing), in a way unanticipated by Freud, benighted as he was  back in the bad old days of metaphysical speculation.  Only, it turns out he was perfectly aware of such maneuvers, which had already fashionably flourished in his day (with vacuous results) -- indeed, he went so far as to speculate (perhaps humorously) that someday, someday, such blandly-blankly chemical underpinnings might explain everything (compare his remarks quoted here) -- yet remained, after an extensive review of that and kindred literatures (dutiful reviewal of which takes up the painful first one hundred pages of his tome), unimpressed.

Let him tell it:

Vorläufig  wollen wir uns über die Überschätzung der nicht aus dem Seelenleben stammenden Reize  zur Traumbildung  nicht verwundern.  Nicht nur  daß diese  allein leicht aufzufinden  und selbst durchs Experiment zu bestätigen sind;  es entspricht auch die somatische Auffassung der Traumentstehung durchwegs  der  heute in der Psychiatrie herrschenden Denkrichtung.
-- Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung (1899)

Nor was this an amateur’s or outsider’s assessment:  Freud had been trained as a physician, not as a philosopher, so he knew whereof he spoke.  And it is to his moral credit that, so far from lording it over non-doctors in physiological matters (as doctors  even today  are wont to do), he not only upheld the independent integrity of psychical productions as such (as does anyone with any sense, when it comes to literature or mathematics), but laid aside his own training-advantage in the debate as to how the newly-developing field of psychoanalysis should go forth, staunchly upholding, in the face of oppostion, the validity of “lay analysis”.

He goes on:

Die Herrschaft des Gehirns  über den Organismus  wird zwar nachdrücklich betont,  aber alles, was eine Unabhängigkeit des Seelenlebens  von nachweisbaren organischen Veränderungen  oder eine Spontaneität in dessen Äußerungen erweisen könnte, schreckt den Psychiater heute so, als ob dessen Anerkennung die Zeiten der Naturphilosophie  und des metaphysischen Seelen Seelenwesens wiederbringen müßte.

You needn’t change a word of that, to apply it to the intellectual ambience in the laboratories of today.   -- He ends with an epigram:  “Das Mißtrauen des Psychiaters  hat die Psyche gleichsam unter Kuratel gesetzt.”

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The Positivist conception of dreams, whether that of the 19th or the 21st century, is basically “it was just something you ate” (chemicals!).   Freud’s take was initially seen as demeaning, depicting us in the grip of the (scarcely salonfähig) Unconscious.  (It sounds even scarier in German, if you pronounce it Uunbewuussten.)  But that theory at least is semantic all the way down, in keeping with our humanity.  Compare the humanity of his classic essay “Mourning and Melancholy”, treating of the manic-depressive, vs. the pop-a-pill present age, treating (while not treating of) the lately-rechristened “bipolar”.

For our own remarkable experiments in the dream-laboratory, click here:

 ~ (II) ~

I happened upon a file of my recorded dreams from 1982, bracketing the time when our first child was born.    I shall not bore you (nor bore myself) with telling any one of them;  but certain generalizations might be worth noting.

(1)  As I read them now, three decades later, very few of them ring any sort of memory-bell, or even hold an particular interest:  it was not like biting down on the madeleine.   But the culprit is not simply the passage of so many years:  many of my diary entries from that time (and even earlier) elicit an appreciative chuckle, or a pang.

(2)  These dreams, as recorded in writing, now offer a blind alley to interpretation, evoking no associations or insights.  Yet the accounts are each accompanied with a commentary written the morning after the dream, and these are  in some cases  quite fact-packed, surprising, and insightful.  But they are heavily dependent on the day-remnants, memory of which (these being in themselves mostly trivial) has long since evaporated.

(3)  In no instance do they carry any evident Jungian numinosity -- no portents of the future (which they have had thirty full years to let come to fruition)  -- no useable ideas.  So maybe I’m just a shallow guy;  yet I don’t think so:  the depth goes into my poems and books;  the dreams are orphans.

~ (III) ~

Though movies sometimes try to blur the distinction with their soft-focus “dream sequences”,  real dreams are quite different from fiction, and even from fantasy.  To take a typical example at random (reported by Jonathan Towers, and reprinted in Io, vol. viii, 1971):

I had a nightmare last night, I woke up hysterically crying … It was that Aunt Et had a new husband who was sort of in between a kid and a man, and using the man part, his role as husband, to put me down.  … The dream was all about animals, this chicken that had to be born itself to have chicks, had to create a white round very cellulose shell around itself, but then to be born, she also had to go through the Smelly Cat’s body and be ejected out the anus, which was a process I really empathized with … watching the bulge in the cat’s stomache and then moaning with pain and then relief at the ejection of the chicken …

The OTT latter part could in principle be depicted (its look, though not its meaning) in the wacky-surreal style of early cartooning (“Minnie the Moocher”, “Betty Boop”), in which the lines between rational creature  and beast  and inanimate (in those cartoons, nothing is inanimate) are repeatedly and gleefully transgressed.   Or, you might hallucinate the thing (I once had something very like the extravagant early animations, after several days in the hospital lying on an ice-blanket with a raging fever).   But the first statement, so po-facedly retailed, “in between a kid and a man, and using the man part”, is visually undepictable.
(It actually suggests the sort of oscillation that occurs in quantum-mechanics:   now it’s an electron, now it’s a muon …  Quantum mechanics is as weird as dreams.)

~ (IV) ~

Nun dämmert mir aber  ein neuer Sachverhalt.  Die Zärtlichkeit des Traumes  gehört nicht zum latenten Inhalt, zun den Gedanken hinter dem Traume;  sie steht im Gegensatz zu diesem Inhalt …
-- S. Freud, Die Traumdeutung, IV.

Dream-interpretation, like literary criticism (or intelligence analysis), has its inevitable part of subjectivity;  yet here, we feel dismay.   If, a given dream feature  failing to prove analytically fruitful, we may equally replace it with its opposite,  then truly, there are no rules.
This recalls the 18th-century quip against the then-unscientific pastime of etymology, as being one “in which consonants matter little, and vowels  not at all.”    The poster-boy for such woolly lack of methodology is
lucus a non lucendo

lit. ‘It is called a grove because it doesn’t shine’ (or, freely: ‘… because it doesn’t grieve’)  which actually was itself a satire, not a genuinely proposed etymology.

Freud’s gambit was abetted by his reliance upon then-fashionable erroneous theories of primitive language, according to which there was once no negative particle, and a word might mean equally a given thing  and its opposite  --  he had read Abel’s Der Gegensinn der Urworte (1884) ).  The latter thesis has been maintained (sometimes in earnest, sometimes in jest) with respect to early Arabic, summarized in the chestnut:  “In Arabic, any given word can mean: (1) a given thing; (2) the opposite of that; (3) something obscene; and (4) something about a camel.”  I have addressed (and refuted) that assertion, in the chapter “Enantiosemantics” in The Semantics of Form in Arabic.

And yet and yet … That connection of lucus with lucere [the latter from lux ‘light’) is not nearly as absurd as generally made out:  in fact, the suggestion of such a connection is correct.
To point the apparent absurdity, the Latin word lucus in that phrase  is often translated ‘dark grove’ (that is what you’ll find online).  But it doesn’t mean ‘dark grove’:  it denotes ‘a clearing (in the woods)’.  And here the present of lux  is plain.  Indeed, it becomes explicit in the German word Lichtung ‘clearing’, compare Licht (light).
And thus, perhaps there is more wisdom in Freud's gambit than is apparent.

~ (V) ~

Freud offers several dreams  which, on the surface, are irksome, but which (so he argues) are  at a deeper level,  wish-fulfillments -- the core characteristic of dreams, in his system.

 I once dreamt (many decades ago) that, just by thinking, I could make objects move. -- I awoke in terror.

That is a dream which , on the surface, might seem a wish-fulfillment -- that of omnipotence:  Yet it is a nightmare.  It illustrates the horror of “the Omnipotence of Wishes”.

This telekinesis dream is  the flip side (seemingly opposite, but from the same record -- cf. duality) of the brain-in-a-vat scenario.  In the one, you can do everything; in the other, you can do nothing:  but none of it has meaning, and it comes to the same thing.


Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!

~ (VI) ~

The eminent British sexologist (and period eccentric) Havelock Ellis  worked contemporaneously with Freud, and plowed many of the same fields.  Their relations were cordial, but intellectually superficial:  neither seems deeply to have influenced the thought of the other.

In part two of volume three of his immense undertaking, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Ellis offers a chapter “The Synthesis of Dreams:  A study of a series of one hundred dreams”.  He opens with a nod to Die Traumdeutung (which “marks an epoch”), then proceeds to an extended exercise which fundamentally borrows nothing from the Freudian program and contributes nothing to it.  Ellis’ approach he calls dream-synthesis, as against Freud’s dream-analysis;  and comments that the relation of the former to the latter is like that of geography to geology.   To that, a Freudian would probably assent, merely noting that, of the latter two, only Geology belongs to the natural sciences.


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