My column at Bookslut this month has a slightly misleading title: I’m not really against dream interpretation in psychoanalysis, but I do think it is widely misunderstood. As far as I can tell, the point of interpreting dreams is not to deliver up a nugget of truth about the analysand, but rather to get them to pay attention.
That said, I do get to talk about one of my favorite pieces of Freudian kettle logic. (Kettle logic, according to Freud, goes like this: A neighbor asks you about a pot he lent to you, and you reply: “I never borrowed that pot, it was broken when you lent it to me, and, anyways, I’ve already returned it.”) Here’s how he discusses the role of symbols in dream interpretation:
Dreams make use of this symbolism for the disguised representation of their latent thoughts. Incidentally, many of the symbols are habitually or almost habitually employed to express the same thing. Nevertheless, the peculiar plasticity of the psychical material [in dreams] must never be forgotten. Often enough a symbol has to be interpreted in its proper meaning and not symbolically; while on other occasions a dreamer may derive from his private memories the power to employ as sexual symbols all kinds of things which are not ordinarily employed as such… This ambiguity of the symbols links up with the characteristic of dreams for admitting of “overinterpretation” — for representing in a single piece of content thoughts and wishes which are often widely divergent in their nature.
So, symbols disguise meaning, except when they all mean the same thing, or except when something that looks symbolic isn’t, or when something is a wholly personal symbol — plus, don’t forget, symbols, like dreams, themselves can be interpreted to an almost limitless extent.
As ever, read the whole thing! Coming months feature HBO’s new show In Treatment, and Jeff Warren’s book, Head Trip.
For new readers: The PsychoSlut columns are about Freud and contemporary culture. The conceit is that I’m re-reading the Standard Edition of Freud’s works, one volume per month. Here’s the series opener; when I did the first volume I also interviewed Mark Edmundson; and when I did volume 3, there was some bonus content from my interview the same month with Christopher Lane.