The genius of the dream

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  • THE G E N I U S OF THE D R E A M

    Stanley R. Palombo

    At the climax of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Demetrius is released from his transferential infatuation with Hermia. This happens when he awakens from a dream that has successfully matched his current feelings for Hermia with a repressed libidinal fantasy of childhood. This example illustrates how condensation in dreams functions adaptively in matching a new expe- rience with previously stored representations of related events in the past. It also illustrates the ability of the matching process to go beyond the nar- row logical categories of waking thought to reach deeper levels of experi- ence otherwise inaccessible to the dreamer. This ability accounts for the important role played by dreaming in the creative process generalKy and in the day-to-day working-through process of psychoanalytic therapy.

    Freud's idea that dreams are an inner dramatization of the dreamer's unfulfilled wishes is, of course, much older than Freud. We find it in the work of the Greek tragedians (1) and in Shakespeare's plays. Near the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream (2), for example, Theseus offers what we recognize as the Freudian viewpoint on the tales told by the young lovers about their adventures of the previous night in the woods outside Athens:

    Such tricks hath strong imagination, That if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends some bringer of that joy. Or, in the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (V,1, 18-22)

    In our post-Freudian language, the tales are fantasies of wish fulfillment, psychodynamically indistinguishable from dreams. Like dreams, they reflect the drive states of the dreamers, rather than the actual events they have experienced. But Theseus's new bride, Hippolyta, feels that this inter- pretation does not do justice to the lovers' tales. She says:

    Stanley R. Palombo, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, George Washington University.

    The American Journal of Psychoanalysis Vo]. 43, No. 4, 1983 1983 Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis

    301

  • 302 PALOMBO

    But all the story of the night told over, And all their minds transfigured so together, More witnesseth than fancy's images, And grows to something of great constancy; But howsoever, strange and admirable. (V,1, 23-27)

    There are many indications that Shakespeare shares Hippolyta's position in this controversy. Most importantly, her view follows naturally from the psychological movement of the play, which turns on the resolution of Demetrius's neurotic transference to Hermia through the therapeutic effect of a dream experience. The emotional climax of the play occurs when Demetrius becomes fully conscious of this change. The realization comes to him as he replies to Theseus's questioning, just after awakening from the night of enchantment:

    I wot not by what power- But by some power it is-my love to Hermia, Melted as the snow, seems to me now As the remembrance of an idle gaud Which in my childhood I did dote upon; And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, The object and the pleasure of mine eye, Is only Helena. To her, my lord, Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia; But like a sickness did I loathe this food: But as in health, come to my natural taste, Now I do wish it, love it, long for it, And will for evermore be true to it. (IV, l, 163-175)

    Shakespeare only hints at the nature of the power that cured Demetrius. But he seems to be suggesting that, in order to understand it in depth, his readers would need a dream theory more resonant with Hippolyta's intui- tion than with Theseus's traditionally Freudian view.

    For those of Shakespeare's readers who have grown up in the Freudian era, this may seem a bit puzzling. But an examination of Freud's basic assumptions will help us understand why his theory of dream construction may not be adequate to meet Hippolyta's poetic challenge. Some of these assumptions have been cast into doubt by the laboratory research con- ducted in recent years on sleep and dreaming. Others have led to inconsis- tencies internal to the theory itself.

    Freud believed that a dream occurs when a repressed impulse succeeds in forcing itself through the repression barrier that bounds the Uncon- scious. This idea is very difficult to reconcile with the finding that dreaming

  • THE GENIUS OF THE DREAM 303

    occurs all night long in a repetitive pattern of 90-minute cycles. Whatever the drive state of the dreamer, his or her dreaming will occupy a period of about 20 minutes at the end of each one of these cycles. The pattern of our dreaming does, in fact, "grow to something of great constancy."

    The findings of the sleep laboratory are supported by the evidence pro- vided in Freud's analysis of his own dreams. When we examine the dreams and Freud's interpretations of them, we find that the meaning of each dream derives less from a single identifiable repressed impulse than from the network of associations in which it becomes embedded during the interpretive process. The larger this network becomes, for any given dream, the less plausible is Freud's hypothesis that the dream represents the fantasied fulfillment of an individual wish.

    In the body of Freud's dreams taken together (3), we find that the asso- ciative networks belonging to individual dreams ramify indefinitely as further associations emerge during his self-analysis, until ultimately they intersect to form a single extended network. It is difficult to imagine how portions of this seemingly endless web could be cleanly detached from it to form what Freud called the "latent contents" of individual dreams.

    More importantly, the existence of this extended associative network cannot easily be accounted for by Freud's theory of dream construction. According to that theory, isolated clumps of imagery are sought out by packets of repressed libidinal energy to be used as "vehicles" for their emergence into consciousness. The relationships among these complexes of imagery would have to be created de novo while the dream is taking place, as the repressed impulse is deflected by the censorship mechanism from one unacceptable complex to another.

    The problem here is that at each deflection the repressed impulse is called upon to make a series of totally implausible evaluations and decisions. It must search through some vast array of possible alternatives to the rejected complex and then select a substitute that qualifies as a suitable vehicle for the expression of the wish it embodies. At the same time, the substitute must differ sufficiently from the original wish to escape the scrutiny of the censor.

    But the "impulse" in question is by definition blind and primitive, intent only on finding a channel for the discharge of its quantum of energy. We are told that it is oblivious to the variety of obstacles to its fulfillment pre- sented by the external world. How then could it deal with the subtleties involved in selecting the proper disguise to fool the dream censor?

    The multiple connections linking together so many of Freud's dreams indicate that the associative network must exist prior to the construction of any individual dream; that the associative network must be, in fact, the structure of memory itself. It is a structure ordinarily inaccessiblle to our

  • 304 PAI.OMBO

    waking consciousness. But dreaming makes it partially accessible, and the individual dream contains the tracing of an exploration through a connected portion of it.

    Freud's theory could be modified to allow the deflected impulse to find its substitute imagery by following these preexisting pathways through the associative network. This modification would provide a reasonable picture of the mechanism of displacement as he described it. But it would not do as well with the more interesting process Freud called condensation.

    According to Freud, condensation occurs when two or more repressed impulses, each lacking a sufficient charge of energy for an assault on the repression barrier, succeed in combining their forces. This happens if their associated image complexes can be superimposed in such a way that similar nonthreatening elements of the imagery reinforce each other, while dis- similar threatening elements conflict and are canceled out. The net effect of such a combination would be that the energy quanta of the impulses are added together while their condensed imagery is rendered less threatening to the censorship mechanisms.

    Freud's theory would predict that the image complexes brought together in a condensation are selected through a series of more or less random colli- sions. What we actually see is that a condensation selectively superimposes newly recorded representations of current experience onto previously stored representations of experience from the often remote past (4).

    Representations of current experience are what Freud called "day resi- dues." He thought that every dream must contain such a residue, an "innocu- ous" fragment of daytime experience required somehow to convey the repressed impulse into consciousness. The supposed innocuousness of the day residue is not apparent in his own analyzed dreams, however. Over and over again, Freud himself shows that the day residue is associated with a significant and emotionally charged event of the previous day or recent days. In each case, the apparently innocuous residue appears to be substituted for the more significant experience during the process of dream construction because the significant experience is unacceptable to the dream censor.

    But what is the significance for the dream of the significant experience? Freud shows us how the dream censor acts to prevent unacceptable impulses from getting out of the Unconscious and into t