Reading the Object: Freud's Dreams

by Sara van den Berg

August 18, 1997


When the dreams Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams are read as a sequence, images of language and books emerge as important materials that Freud left unanalyzed. A close examination of these materials suggests that these dreams link the writing of the book to a quest for the lost maternal object. This reading of Freud's dreams supplements his oedipal emphasis with an interpretation based on object relations theory.


The Interpretation of Dreams includes fifty-one dreams from the intensive self-analysis Freud undertook in the 1890s (Gay 1988, p. 96-100). Freud presents these dreams as discrete events to illustrate specific theoretical ideas. He does not ascribe any meaning to the number of his dreams or to the order of their presentation, nor does he discuss their original chronology. The latter has been reconstructed through the careful work of Didier Anzieu (1975), who follows Freud in linking Freud's self-analysis and his book to the oedipal crisis that followed his father's death. Freud regards his theory of dreams as complementary to his theory of oedipal conflict, and repeatedly notes the oedipal implications of his dreams and his argument. Alexander Grinstein (1980), whose detailed explication of nineteen of Freud's dreams is indispensable to any reader of The Interpretation of Dreams, follows other commentators in stressing the oedipal focus of Freud's self-analysis (e.g., Schur 1972; Grigg 1973; Schorske 1974; McGrath 1974). Yet the oedipal interpretation of The Interpretation of Dreams and of Freud's dreams is incomplete. He himself often acknowledges a reticence to record, or even attempt, a full interpretation of his dreams. He does, however, include materials that permit a reader to supplement the oedipal reading he provides. When his dreams are read as a sequence, motifs emerge that Freud chose to marginalize or ignore, and that other readers have disregarded or interpreted solely in oedipal terms. Prominent among these motifs are references to his mother, to language, and to books. These materials, which Freud for the most part left uninterpreted, can enrich our understanding of the multiple function and overdetermination of the dreams he describes. By focusing on these references, broad dynamic themes and unconscious fantasies of separation and identity emerge as important components of Freud's dreams.

Every oedipal text originates in a preoedipal narrative it seeks to displace, mask, and transform. Freud's dreams, his book, and his identity are in part defined and motivated by the preoedipal experience of love and loss. Contemporary object relations theory, with its focus on the preoedipal, can clarify the relationship between dream and interpretation in Freud's book and contribute to our understanding of his courageous self-analysis and its inevitable shortcomings. Reconstruction of the pre-oedipal narrative inherent in Freud's presentation of his dreams reveals his anxieties about his mother's death and about his own as well. Freud's fears about his death were linked to his relationship with his mother. The references to his mother in his dreams can be extended to include his unconscious fantasies about the dream as a maternal object -- not only the oedipal mother to be penetrated by interpretation (Willbern, 1979), but also the pre-oedipal mother who models interpretation as nurturing care and merging. This unconscious fantasy reaches its extreme in Freud's meditations on telepathic dreams, in a chapter that was designed to conclude The Interpretation of Dreams but was published separately in 1925 (SE 19: 125-38).

The fantasy of the pre-oedipal mother is not entirely positive: she devours as well as nurtures, kills as well as cares, takes as well as gives (Klein 1975). Her rage is suggested by the Virgilian epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams, "Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo" [If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will persuade the lower regions]. These words of Juno in the Aeneid expressing her wrath against the Trojans summarize Freud's intention to plumb the regions of the unconscious, to prevail against the censorious rule of reason, to triumph over the law of the oedipal father. In this project he allies himself with the mother figure whose words he quotes. She speaks defiant wrath and disruption; he allies himself with her in rebellion disguised as persuasion. Freud's epigraph is an act of projective identification, which enables him to bring to consciousness his own wishes and goals (Smith 1973). The pre-oedipal mother shapes his theory of dreams, his dream book, and his self-analysis.

Critics have long recognized the presence of Freud's mother in his dreams and in the imagery of his book, but have customarily interpreted her as an oedipal object of the son's desire (Shengold 1966; Hyman 1974; Willbern, 1979; Homans, 1989). A close reading of Freud's dreams reveals the presence of the pre-oedipal "spectral mother" who is so desired and so suppressed (Sprengnether 1990). His candor in discussing the presence of the oedipal mother in his dreams masks an apparent unwillingness or inability to recognize the pre-oedipal mother in his dreams. The only two critics to mention the pre-oedipal dimension of The Interpretation of Dreams are Patrick Mahony (1987) and Harold P. Blum, who identifies pre-oedipal reconstructions in several of Freud's dreams and in his correspondence with Fliess (1979). However, Freud's presentation of his dreams as a document of pre- oedipal desire and fear has not to my knowledge been fully discussed. One way to begin this discussion is to focus on the metaphors of reading and writing which are closely linked to the maternal object in all of Freud's work (van den Berg 1987). These metaphors provide Freud with a way to explore relations within the psyche, and also between the psyche and the world, and between past and present. The philosophical dimensions of this metaphor in Freud's work have been explored by Jacques Derrida in "Freud and the Scene of Writing" (1978), an essay which centers on the problematic nature of writing and speech as gain and loss, as trace and erasure, as expression and repression. Derrida, however, emphasizes the oedipal dimension of language: the struggle of language occurs in the symbolic realm of the father's law, at once the inky dust of scrolls and sweet honey on the tongue (Derrida 1978, p. 231).

References to books are prominent both in Freud's conceptual argument and in his dreams. The process of The Interpretation of Dreams consists of setting the personal experience of the dreamer together with, and against, social experience. In Freud's argument, his references to books are not metaphorical but document the intellectual tradition in which he worked. Knowledge is power, and other men's books exist to be mastered, refuted, or pillaged. As Riccardo Steiner remarks, Freud "cuts and shuffles observations from the most heterogeneous texts as they serve his need of the moment" (Steiner 1988, p. 437). In dreams, on the other hand, books function as metaphors and images, touchstones of fantasy. They merge with and amplify his personal experience, functioning in the mode of the pre-oedipal mother.

The acquisition of language, along with memory, symbolic play, and identity, precedes and enables oedipal self-assertion. The shift from pre-oedipal to oedipal is marked by the introduction of the symbol into psychic life. The symbolic mode relies on substitutions for a lost object, and points toward the unnamable loss of the subject. As a kind of language, the dream's grammar of condensation, displacement, and reversal is the means whereby the oedipal self controls and transcends, yet preserves and indulges pre-oedipal desire. Freud's dreams are saturated with references to language, and his theory of dreams is in part a theory of language. The dream, he argues, takes language apart, reducing it to visual images; that is, dreams undo oedipal language and restore the pre-oedipal, pre-symbolic mode of the image. Freud describes the dream as a process of regression, in which "the structure of the dream-thoughts breaks up into its raw material" (493). Several of the dreams in Freud's books hinge on a single word or phrase: trimethylamin, pelagie, non vixit, afflavit et dissipati sunt. One dream consists entirely of a single word, autodidasker, a nonsensical neologism that Freud decodes as a meaningful combination of "autodidact" and "Lasker." Another dream debates whether the English would say a book is "by" or "from" Schiller, and yet another distills an act of literary criticism: "It's written in a positively norekdahl style" (referring to two of Ibsen's plays). Other dreams refer to literary works by (among others) Shakespeare, Rabelais, Swift, Zola, Schiller, Goethe, Tennyson, and Rider Haggard.

The symbolic artifacts in Freud's dreams -- a word, a quotation, or a book -- initially mystify the interpreter. The word in a dream, for example, is usually a malapropism or a neologism. The verbal symbol, an object in a dream that epitomizes the dream, serves as a boundary-marker, linking "the forbidden and the impossible": oedipal desire for what can never be and preoedipal desire for what can never be again (McDougall 1990, p. 17). For Freud, writing the dream is a transition to consciousness of what has already been written in the unconscious. What is forbidden and impossible is the maternal body, figured in Freud's dreams, or in his associations, as a book. The dreams of the Botanical Monograph, Hollthurn, his own dissection, and his mother and the bird-beaked figures increasingly clarify the role of Freud's pre-oedipal desires as the foundation of his subsequent oedipal desire.

Whenever Freud raises the possibility that a dream refers to his mother, he suggests that the object in his dream is the oedipal mother of his family romance. Standing behind that figure of the seductive oedipal mother is the pre-oedipal mother, nurturing or devouring, killing or being killed, split into good and bad. His relationship to this archaic object is constituted by his double desire to merge with her and to separate from her. Freud's anxiety about his father's death, which the oedipal son wished for and dreaded, occasions a more primitive anxiety about his mother's inevitable death (which would not occur until 1930) and his responsibility for her fate. Peter Gay has argued that Freud recognized the importance of the mother's role in a child's development, but that he never explored his own relationship with his mother. Despite Freud's famous comment that the mother-son relationship, because it is "founded on narcissism, is undisturbed by later rivalry," and despite his mother's residence in his household for many years, his failure to attend her funeral suggests an unresolved complexity in his relationship with her. Peter Gay quotes a letter Freud had written the year before, in which he mused that "the loss of a mother must be something quite remarkable, not to be compared with anything else, and awaken excitations that are hard to grasp" (Gay 1988, p. 573). Writing about his mother's death, Freud confessed to Ernest Jones that he could not probe its deepest meaning: "Certainly there is no saying what such an experience may do in deeper layers, but superficially I feel only two things: the growth in personal freedom I have acquired, since it was always an abhorrent thought that she would learn of my death, and secondly the satisfaction that she has at last the deliverance to which she had acquired the right in so long a life" (Gay 1988, p. 573). Her death sets free both mother and son, defining a separation apparently never attained while she was alive. The consolation he takes, while apparently focusing on her, barely conceals his own sense of freedom and deliverance--and the ambivalence they occasion.

Freud's account of his dream of Irma's injection makes no mention of his mother. This, the first major dream in his book, is presented as the foundational dream of his self-analysis and of his psychoanalytic theory. He refers to this dream nineteen times later in The Interpretation of Dreams, and in other writings as well. Freud's extensive account of this dream reveals his wishful oedipal ambitions, but is also remarkable for his overt refusal to offer a complete interpretation. In a footnote to the introduction of his narrative, he declares that "in scarcely any instance have I brought forward the complete interpretation of one of my own dreams, as it is known to me" (105n). At the end of his interpretation, he reiterates the claim that he could have said more:

I will not pretend that I have completely uncovered the meaning of this dream . . . . I myself know the points from which further trains of thought could be followed. But considerations which arise in the case of every dream of my own restrain me from pursuing my interpretive work" (120-21).

Midway through his interpretation of the Irma dream, he links several of the women in it--Irma, her friend, his wife--and suggests that one can be substituted for the other in order to clarify the meaning of the dream. At this point he once again adds a footnote about the limits of his interpretation:

I had a feeling that the interpretation of this part of the dream was not carried far enough to make it possible to follow the whole of its concealed meaning. If had pursued my comparison between the three women, it would have taken me far afield. -- There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is is unplumbable -- the navel [Nabel], as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown (111).

Although this remark is usually read as a reticence to make explicit his oedipal desire for the maternal body (Willbern 1979, Felman 1985, Levine 1994), the reference to the navel may indicate that Freud's unconscious fantasy concerns the lost pre-oedipal maternal body. A primary way the son can imagine oedipal union with that body is the memory of pre-oedipal union. Freud may be regarding the dream itself as a maternal object (Erikson, 1954; Pontalis, 1975), or he may regard it as a child. In using the image of the navel to link the dream with the unknown, Freud hints at the original physical bond between the pre-oedipal child and its mother, a bond severed at birth. The lost mother is forever "the unknown," yet Freud's phrasing suggests the fantasy of reunion: the navel marks the "point of contact with the unknown." Patrick Mahony, noting that Freud twice refers to the navel of the dream (cf. SE 5.525), concludes that The Interpretation of Dreams as a whole "constitutes a maternal return" (Mahony 1987, p. 110).

Although Freud never mentions his mother in his discussion of the Irma dream, he does refer to several other women, including women patients, his daughter Sophie, and his boyhood governess, suggesting that the replacement of one woman by another is a kind of "retribution" for his failures: "It seemed as if I had been collecting all the occasions which I could bring up against myself" (112). However, his dream ultimately seems to voice not his guilt but his many wishes for revenge -- not only against the men who dismiss or neglect him, but also against the women who needed his care: Irma, the dead Sophie, and his wife, who suffered from thrombosis during one of her pregnancies, and at another time complained of abdominal pain. Other than Emma Eckstein, whose veiled presence in this dream is now widely acknowledged, the most significant woman excluded from Freud's narrative is his newly- widowed mother. Freud does comment at length on Irma's widowhood, and notes that the patient who replaced her in his dream was also a widow (116-17). "Irma's pains," he declares, "could be satisfactorily explained by her widowhood (cf. the trimethylamin) which I had no means of altering" (119). The double nature of the mother as oedipal and pre-oedipal object torments the child. He identifies his own pain with hers. His only way to comprehend what he wants as an oedipal child is his sense of what he once had, if only in fantasy, as a pre-oedipal child. The isolation of the mourning mother cannot be altered by the child, who must endure his own mournful loss.

The associations to the oedipal mother, implicit in Freud's discussion of the word "trimethylamin" and sexuality, do not preclude associations to the pre-oedipal mother, implicit in Freud's discussion of the nature of the dream and in his longing for its "unknown" meaning. It might be noted here that the Irma dream is not the first of Freud's dreams to be mentioned in the early editions of his book. He first mentions his dream of a one- eyed doctor, and he cites his mother as the source of the information he needed in order to understand the dream (17). His mother first enters his book, therefore, in a nurturing role, answering to her son's need for information about his past.

The association of the pre-oedipal mother and the metaphor of the book first comes to prominence in the dream of the Botanical Monograph, the second major dream in Freud's self-analysis. Eight other dreams are clustered around it, designed to illustrate the role of "day residues" in dreams. Ronald Thomas argues that Freud's account of the Botanical Monograph dream reveals his desire to be at once the author and the topic of his own book. Other references to books in this dream clarify the nature of the dream as fulfilling Freud's wish to write a book that would surpass the books written by other men; the dream therefore can be read in oedipal terms as an instance of Freud's ambition. A pre-oedipal interpretation of this dream would emphasize not the ambition of the dreamer but his desire to be contained in his book, that is to say, in the maternal body, even as the specimen flower is contained between the pages of the botanical monograph.

Freud emphasizes the importance of flowers in his dream, declaring that the word "botanical" was a "nodal point" in the dream (283). The bringing of flowers is an association that links Freud, his book, and his mother. Freud describes negative feelings he had toward his wife at the time of this dream: he rarely brought her flowers any more, although she often bought him artichokes, which he jokingly terms his "favorite flowers" (172). According to Alexander Grinstein, the dream manifests Freud's negative feelings toward his wife: "These feelings may have been in part for his rarely remembering to bring her the flowers that she liked. This is especially interesting since he regularly remembered to do so for his mother" (Grinstein 1980, p. 49). In summarizing this dream, Freud again shies away from revealing its meaning: "I can assure my readers that the ultimate meaning of the dream, which I have not disclosed, is intimately related to the subject of the childhood scene." Once again, Freud is willing to imply an oedipal meaning of his dream, but seems to claim that decorum (the law of the father) silences any declaration of oedipal desires.

However, behind those oedipal desires stand pre-oedipal desires as well: not only to lie in the book, but also to destroy it, as Freud indicates by his memory of a childhood incident: "It had once amused my father to hand over a book with coloured plates . . . for me and my eldest sister to destroy . . . the picture of the two of us blissfully pulling the book to pieces (leaf by leaf, like an artichoke, I found myself saying) was almost the only plastic memory that I retained from that period of my life" (172). The desire to be contained by the maternal body coexists with the desire to destroy or master that body, pulling it to pieces.

Dreams that suggest a wish for a death, indirectly the death of his mother, are anticipated by Freud's dream of "an Etruscan cinerary urn which I had brought back from a journey to Italy and had since given away." Freud drinks from the vase, but the water is too salty: not because of any mourner's tears but "evidently because of the ashes in the urn" (124). Freud does not comment on the archaic ashes, but only on his own thirst. Later he has a dream derived from his encounter with two men in a railway compartment. He had spoken with one of them about an impecunious, talented young physician; with the other, about the health of "the mother of one of my patients" (179). In the dream, the young physician delivered a funeral oration for the old woman, with whom Freud notes he "had not been on good terms" (179). It is not difficult to imagine substituting Freud for the young physician, and the dead woman for his mother.

Freud's conflicting fantasies about his mother may underlie the puzzling series of dreams he had about his journey to Rome. Alexander Grinstein regards Rome as the image of "some infantile incestuous object -- his mother or the Catholic nurse. . . [Freud's] inability to 'conquer' Rome, a forbidden city, was probably based on his feeling that it involved vanquishing his father and possessing his mother" (Grinstein 1980, p. 91; Grigg 1973). In a letter to Fliess, Freud offered a more complex reading of Rome: "While I contemplated ancient Rome undisturbed (I could have worshipped the humble and mutilated remnant of the Temple of Minerva near the forum of Nerva), I found I could not freely enjoy the second Rome; I was disturbed by its meaning, and . . . found almost intolerable the lie of the salvation of mankind which rears its head so proudly to heaven." Classical Rome is set against Catholic Rome. Both are contrasted to "Italian" secular Rome, which he found "hopeful and likeable" (September 19, 1901, Origins, pp. 235-6). The landscape of Rome is also divided: "There was a narrow stream of dark water; on one side of it were black cliffs and on the other meadows with big white flowers" (194). Moreover, the image of language in the Roman dreams (Roman street signs are written in German) and in his associations (to a story of a Jew in Paris who could not speak French, to his desire not to speak German in Prague, and to his childhood knowledge of Czech) suggests a split not only between German and Italian, or French and Yiddish, or German and Czech, but also within Freud himself: between death and life, between past and present.

If the mother is figured only indirectly in the Roman dreams, she is present for the first time in the dream of the Three Fates, in which Freud sees three women standing in a kitchen, one of them making Knodel [dumplings]. This woman, the hostess of the inn, figures the pre-oedipal mother, and in this instance Freud himself makes that interpretation: "I knew that one of the three women -- the inn-hostess in the dream -- was the mother who gives life, and furthermore (as in my own case) gives the living creature its first nourishment. Love and hunger, I reflected, meet at a woman's breast" (204). Freud goes on to mention a childhood incident when he protested against the belief "that we were all made of earth and must therefore return to it":

My mother thereupon rubbed the palms of her hands together -- just as she did in making dumplings, except that there was no dough between them -- and showed me the blackish scales of epidermis produced by the friction as a proof that we were made of earth. (205)

This passage provides a rather shocking image of the pre-oedipal mother, whose hands both nurture life and document death (even portending her own decay).

The emphasis on maternal gift-giving (of food, education, and spirituality) in the dream of the Three Fates shifts to the demands of the child in the dream of Count Thun, the so-called "Revolutionary Dream." Freud alludes to Gargantua, the Rabelaisian character who most thoroughly figures the pre-oedipal all-desiring child. Gargantua, a character of gigantic appetite and impulse, could serve as the literary archetype of what Freud once termed "His Majesty the Baby" (SE 14:91). Gargantua recurs in Freud's dream of the Open-Air Closet, or outhouse, which, Freud declares, "will fill every reader with disgust." Excrement encrusts the seat he must use, but his urine washes it clean. Interpreting the dream, Freud remembers the episode when Gargantua, sitting astride Notre Dame, urinates on Paris. The usual reading of this dream holds that the son has an infantile oedipal desire for his mother (Willbern 1979). A pre-oedipal reading of this dream would emphasize feces, which Freud often interpreted as an infant's gift to its mother.

In the dream of his own dissection, Freud had associated excrement and his own published writings. Indeed, this dream is at once a meditation on his book and on his pre-oedipal mother. The dream traces a journey through a building, commencing from the place where "perambulators" were kept. The building, therefore, is inhabited by mothers -- and indeed, it is a figure of the maternal body. His own imagination is such a body: his ideas travel through it to be born. Freud's discussion of this dream also contains references to She, a novel by Rider Haggard, which features a trip into 'the womb of the earth' and a seductive, devouring woman who must kill or be killed. It is a struggle for Freud to interpret this dream, and his interpretation is presented in three separate places (pp. 413; 452-55; 477-78). He recognizes that the task of self-dissection is the task of self-analysis he is undertaking in his book. He also contemplates his own mortality, and remembers a trip he had taken to an Etruscan gravesite near Orvieto.

This passage can be linked with the dream early in Freud's self-analysis, in which he would not drink from an Etruscan urn made "salty" by funerary ashes (124). While Freud recognizes that his dream is a meditation on his book, he does not explicitly interpret it as a meditation on the mother. He comes close, though, when he describes Louise N. In the dream she works with him in the dissecting-room. In his associations, she had borrowed the novel She from Freud, who explained that it was "full of hidden meanings . . . the eternal feminine, the immortality of our emotions" (453). She then prodded him, as his mother might have: "Have you nothing of your own?" As Freud puts it, "I saw that someone else was admonishing me through her mouth and I was silent" (453).

The motifs of death and the mother come together in the dream of Frau Doni and her children. It is a dream about death, although Freud interprets it as a dream about life. The death, moreover, is that of his mother. In this dream, Freud is in a garden district, and goes to a restaurant where Frau Doni lives with her three children in a small room: "I went towards it, but before I got there met an indistinct figure with my two little girls" (447). Freud immediately associates this dream with a notice he had read in the newspaper announcing "the death of Frau Dona A---y (which I turned into 'Doni' in the dream), who had died in childbirth" (447). Alexander Grinstein has identified this woman as Regina Albahary, who did not in fact die in childbirth (she was 55). Freud's error invites us to consider her as a figure of the pre-oedipal mother, who, at least in fantasy, can always be said to 'die in childbirth' insofar as the child is forever separated from her, no matter how loving a presence she affords. Freud does not use this dream to speculate about the connection between this primal fear and the inevitable death of his mother, but uses it to work through some of his feelings about his father's death, linking this dream to one in which he actually dreamed of his father on his deathbed "looking like Garibaldi." In that dream, Freud sees a woodcut of Maria Theresa, most probably a familiar pose of the Empress holding an infant. In analyzing this dream Freud comes to terms with his father's death. However, his failure to analyze the importance of the woodcut in the dream may suggest that he had not yet come to terms with his mother's power or his anxiety that she would some day die.

The dream of his father is followed by the dream of Frau Doni, which elicits ideas of a mother's death. That in turn is followed by the Hollthurn dream, the last of the many railway dreams in Freud's narrative. This dream also returns to the motif of books. In this dream, Freud shares a train compartment with a man, a woman, and a row of books: "There were several people, including an English brother and sister; a row of books were distinctly visible on a shelf on the wall. I saw 'The Wealth of Nations' and 'Matter and Motion' (by Clerk-Maxwell), a thick volume and bound in brown cloth. The man asked his sister about a book by Schiller, whether she had forgotten it. It seemed as though the books were sometimes mine and sometimes theirs" (456). As several commentators have noted, this dream suggests that Freud was ambitious to write a book worthy to stand with the works of Adam Smith and Clerk-Maxwell. The uncertainty about who owns the books models the issue of the boundary between self and other that language tries to negotiate: sometimes meaning belongs to self, sometimes to the other. One's work originates in the work of other people, as one's individual identity originates in relationship with the (m)other.

Later aspects of the dream concern the woman's unwillingness to give Freud much room; the man sits "motionless" beside her. Although Freud associates "matter and motion" to a passage from Molière, we might suspect a pun on "Mater" and link motion to motionlessness -- as the Wolf Man does in his crucial dream. The simultaneity of motion and motionlessness is especially vivid in the situation of riding a train. Later Freud raises the issue of sexuality and gender in this dream, remembering an occasion when he referred to a starfish as "he" rather than "it." He jokes that he was "bringing in sex . . . where it did not belong," and then suggests that "This, incidentally, was one of the keys to the solution of the dream" -- a key he never explains. Instead he offers a contorted linkage between Matter and Motion and Molière, insisting that no one "will have any difficulty in filling in the gaps" -- chasms, really -- between "Molière" and "Le Malade Imaginaire" and two phrases, one in French, the other in English, that refer to excretion: "La matière est-elle laudable?" -- A motion of the bowels" (520). As Freud recoils from oedipal sexuality, he reverts to pre-oedipal aggression.

If the Hollthurn dream links books and the mother, the final dream in Freud's self-analysis links the mother to the one sacred book, the Bible. In this dream, Freud saw "my beloved mother, with a peculiarly peaceful, sleeping expression on her features, being carried into the room by two (or three) people with birds' beaks and laid upon the bed" (583). For the first time, Freud's mother is a major character in his dreams -- lying on her deathbed. Freud, aged 8, "awoke in tears and screaming," and grew calm only when he saw his mother's face, "as though I needed to be reassured that she was not dead" (584). Interpreting the dream "some thirty years later," he identifies the bird-beaked people as gods from "an ancient Egyptian funerary relief" illustrated in Philippson's Bible. His mother's facial expression in the dream, moreover, is that of his grandfather "a few days before his death as he lay snoring in a coma." Freud rightly declares that he was not anxious because he dreamed of his mother's death; rather, he had the dream because he was anxious that she would die.

At the end of his self-analysis, having come to terms with his father's death, Freud once again confronts the fear that his mother, too, will die. He tries to limit this fear to the oedipal situation: "The anxiety can be traced back, when repression is taken into account, to an obscure and evidently sexual craving that had found appropriate expression in the visual content of the dream" (584). At this point in his career, Freud identified his self-analysis and his book with the "Holy Writ" of the Law (514). Yet a pre-oedipal narrative precedes that Law. As dreamer, and as writer, Freud puts this dream at the end of his book, turning Biblical illustrations, rather than language, to his own unconscious purpose. He does so, perhaps, because this final dream is really the first -- even as Freud told his readers that the last thing a dreamer says is the most important. This "anxiety dream" about his mother derives from a fear not only that she would die, but that he wanted her to die, or, to pull back from that brink, that he wanted to control whether she lived or died. The trauma of his father's death occasioned fears of another trauma, his mother's death, which he mastered through his dreams (de Monchaux).

The pre-oedipal conflicts that are suggested by this reading of Freud's self-analysis are not directly evident in Freud's comments about his mother. Yet even in his idealizing comments, there is some indication of conflict. Interpreting a dream in which his friend was portrayed as his uncle, Freud recalls "an anecdote I had often heard repeated in my childhood. At the time of my birth an old peasant-woman had prophesied to my proud mother that with her first-born child she had brought a great man into the world" (192). When Freud asks if "this" could have been "the source of my thirst for grandeur," one wonders if "this" refers to the old woman's prophecy or to his mother's pride. In 1911, he had added this footnote to The Interpretation of Dreams: "I have found that people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mother give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self- reliance and an unshakable optimism which often seem like heroic attributes and bring actual success to their possessors" (398n). Freud was certainly favored by his mother, who always referred to him even in adulthood as "my golden Sigi." Yet she could be a tyrant and a "tornado," cold-hearted, impatient, indomitable, vain, strong-willed and stoic, according to two of her grandchildren, Judith Bernays Heller and Martin Freud (Krüll, 115- 19).

Three years after his mother's death, Freud would write that "A mother is only brought unlimited satisfaction by her relation to a son; this is altogether the most perfect, the most free from ambivalence of all human relationships. A mother can transfer to her son the ambition which she had been obliged to suppress in herself" (1933a, p. 133). The wording of this statement implies that the son may not be as "free from ambivalence" as the mother. Freud's statement seems to reflect his experience of a mother at once devoted and demanding. Whatever her character, Freud's mother could not have escaped her son's pre-oedipal fantasizing. Just as he theorized that the oedipal phase of childhood was common to all, so subsequent psychoanalytic theorists contend that pre-oedipal desires and conflicts are the stuff of all our dreams.

In 1909, Freud added a paragraph early in his book describing two of his recurrent dreams. These dreams replace the dream of the one-eyed doctor as the opening moments in his self-analysis. The two dreams -- of an Austrian church tower "of startlingly simple design," glimpsed from a train window, and of the Arena chapel in Padua -- epitomize the dichotomies that dominate his book: father and mother; oedipal and pre-oedipal. The first dream can be read as a reference to his father, the second to his mother. The first is very clear, the second obscure: "In a specific spatial relation to myself, on my left-hand side, I saw a dark space out of which there glimmered a number of grotesque sandstone figures" (15). Freud then goes on to record his disappointment on not being able to see "Giotto's frescoes in the Madonna dell'Arena" during his first visit to Padua in 1895. On his second attempt to visit the chapel, in 1907, he writes, "In the street leading to it, on my left-hand side as I walked along . . . I came upon the place I had seen so often in my dreams, with the sandstone figures that formed part of it. It was in fact the entrance to the garden of a restaurant" (15). Giotto's frescoes of the holy mother and child remain an absent image, what Freud had hoped to see. What he saw instead was an emblem of the pre- oedipal mother: grotesque and threatening, like the sandstone figures; lovely and nurturing, like the garden of a restaurant.

Freud's dreams of the lost maternal object, a figure of life and death, are the core of his book. To finish a book has traditionally been regarded as at once to give birth and to die. Thus, both book and mother may be said to figure the self. The book, like the mother, serves a mirroring role for Freud through their relationship of likeness and difference (Winnicott 1967, Ogden 1994). Book and dream are oedipal objects to be penetrated and possessed by the oedipal act of interpretation, but they are also preoedipal objects that occasion union through the interpreter's reciprocal act of care (Pontalis 1981, p. 26-45). The impossible task of recovering the lost preoedipal mother is achieved only in the substitutive satisfaction of discovering the self. Freud's completion of his book may have allayed his anxiety about the inevitable death of his mother, or may have marked a substitutive recovery of the lost maternal object, or may have had some unconscious link to his fear and desire for his own death. Fifty-one, the number of Freud's dreams, was a number he feared as the sum of the female (28) and male (23) Fleissian cycles (Schur 1972; Pontalis 1981, 186) and as the age when he would confront either a great crisis or his own death. The Interpretation of Dreams, because it enabled Freud to come to terms with both the oedipal narrative of his father's death and the preoedipal narrative of the double loss of his mother -- in his individuation and in her death -- contains at its core his conflict about his own being. He is able to move beyond the fear of somatic death that marks his correspondence with Fliess and can inhabit a new psychic space (Pontalis 1981, p. 187). Death is no longer an external threat but a wish, complex and overdetermined. That wish seems to be a desire for the death of the father, but, as Freud will later theorize in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, his most poignant meditation on the loss of the maternal object, the wish to live conceals a deeper wish to die, and in doing so, to recover the impossible condition of merging with the lost maternal object. Freud may not have been consciously aware that he included 51 of his dreams in his book, and he may not have designed the presentation of his dreams as a narrative, but writing often exceeds the writer's intentions, serving needs the writer may not know until they have been satisfied. This function, too, marks the book as a maternal object.

To read The Interpretation of Dreams in this way accords with the principle of psychoanalysis enunciated in Freud's seventh chapter: giving up the conscious control of ideas reveals the unconscious control of ideas. Freud was concerned to show how the dreamwork of displacement, condensation, and reversal brought forward aspects of memory, desire, and infantile sexuality that were censored in waking life. In his final chapter, he suggests that censorship works in dreams as well. Like the pre-oedipal mother, the dream both gives and takes away. The interpreter, modeling interpretation on the dream, conceals as well as reveals. Reading The Interpretation of Dreams as a dream, and focusing on the dreams it contains, enables us to see how that censorship operates in the guise of candor. In the final paragraph of his book, Freud reiterates that every dream has its origin in the past, and fulfills the wish that that past be somehow restored. When Freud merges his own dreams with his argument about dreams, he enacts metaphorically the merger of self and other, initially experienced as the merger of self and mother. Yet because that book is his own, his self-analysis and his book remain a single entity rather than the dyad he wished for. That dyad requires a second person, not the split self of subject and subject-as-object. The ineffable sadness of Freud's self-analysis results from the unsatisfied longing that no dream could fulfill.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Sara van den Berg "Reading the Object: Freud's Dreams". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 1, 1997, Published: August 18, 1997. Copyright © 1997 Sara van den Berg