“Sigmund Freud’s Dream Book” – Harold BLOOM

It could be argued that The Interpretation of Dreams, published late in 1899, has been the most influential single intellectual work of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Freud’s great book is marred by its scientism, or making a fetish out of science, yet even this flaw has not prevented its lasting triumph as an interpretive model, and as a kind of spiritual autobiography, a confessional masterpiece. Finished initially when Freud was forty-four, the book underwent nearly forty more years of revision, and defies even the most detailed and responsible of com- mentaries. I particularly recommend Freud’s Wishful Dream Book by Alexander Welsh (1994), a recent study that is a wonder of clarity and balance. Welsh emphasizes that the positive achievement, despite Freud’s period-piece mere scientism, and a tendency for psychoanalytic ideology to prevail over truthfulness, remains indisputable in two areas: the notion that each of us is bound by the contingencies of personal history, and a very persuasive method of analyzing personal narrative. Neither of these contributions is what Freud most strongly asserted he was offering, which was a universal theory of dreams.

A dream, despite Freud, is by no means always the disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish, and Freud’s obsessive insistence on this formulation was rightly judged by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to be only a rather muddled speculation. Even the clearest speculation would have more in common with myth than with science, and psychoanalysis cer- tainly was precisely what Wittgenstein called it: “a powerful mythology.” Still, every theory of dreams has proved to be a mythology, and Freud’s at least is the most powerful of all. Freud’s ambition was prophetic; though intensely secular, he longed to be the prophet of a new revelation, possibly even of a new Jewishness, though hardly of a new Judaism. In a mar- velous irony, he intended to establish his status as a prophet by denying to dreams any prophetic function whatsoever. This oldest of human associations with the dream died hard even in Freud, since in the broad sense he owed everything to the Jew- ish passion for interpretation, which found a necessary paradigm for prophetic dream interpretation in the prophetic aspects of scriptural interpretation.

I have indicated previously the oddity of Freud’s ambivalent stance towards telepathy, since he opposes it on empirical grounds but secretly was captivated by its possibilities. Ernest Jones, Freud’s hagiographer, devotes an entire chapter to his master’s “occultism.” Jung of course firmly believed in the occult, and so did Freud’s disciple, the great Sandor Ferenczi. Since Jones was very hardheaded indeed, his chapter on Freud and such matters as telepathy and clairvoyance is a most un- comfortable performance, culminating however in a just assessment:

The wish to believe fought hard with the warning to disbe- lieve. They represented two fundamental features in his personality, both indispensable to his achievements. But here he was truly wracked; little wonder he bewailed that the topic “perplexed him to distraction.”

I suggest that Freud’s perplexity sprang from the same conflict in him that always prevented his composition of a much-promised essay on the counter-transference. Telepathy in Freud’s circle was a phenomenon that generally took place be- tween male analyst and female patient, the domain of the pseudo-erotic or false connection of the analytic transference. Freudian praxis supposed that the patient was to experience an illusory falling-in-love with her doctor, who then was to exploit this eros for therapeutic purposes only. Counter-transference, or the analyst’s emotive relation to the patient, is the land mine of psychoanalysis, though in Freud himself its truly fearful form is best exposed in Totem and Taboo, where the totem-father, having appropriated all the women of the tribe, is at last slain and devoured by his jealous, rival sons. Unlike Ferenczi and so many others among the disciples, Freud was not particularly susceptible to being seduced by his female patients, but he had a dread, perhaps only partly conscious, that endless Jungs and Adlers would rise up against him in the primal horde he had fathered. Telepathy and clairvoyance, particularly in foretelling dreams, thus took on both their menace and their allure from the superheated context of transference and counter-transference.

In a lecture entitled “Dreams and the Occult,” Freud asked his auditors “to notice that it was not dreams that seemed to teach us something about telepathy, but the interpretation of the dreams, the psychoanalytic treatment of them.” This is perhaps only another expression of Freud’s lack of respect or affection for dreams, as opposed to his passion for his own interpretations. Dreams, dark and irrational, even magical to so many of us, were to Freud quite clear in their thought, even though that clarity had suffered repression. Richard Wollheim, Freud’s most lucid exegete, remarks that the element of wish in dreams is not expressed by dreams (according to Freud) so that the dis- guise, or dream-work, results from the wish’s repression well before it slips into the dream. This allows Freud to insist more persuasively that the hidden dream-thought is identical with the severe rationalizations of his incessant interpretations. Yet the dream narratives that constitute Freud’s evidence are either his own, or they emerge from the erotic pressure-cooker of his patients’ transferences to him. A grand charismatic, with extraor- dinary, well-nigh hypnotic powers of suggestion, Freud must have recognized, sometimes “unconsciously,” that he had a marked telepathic or clairvoyant effect upon his patients. Their dreams, poor things, may have been their own, but the telling of their dreams was already Freudian, even before interpretation began. Freud’s free associations became his patients’ compelled associations, and an authentic occult relation governed the analytic session.

Prophetic dreams haunted Freud, because for him the deepest wish fulfillment had to be his fully accomplished intellectual ambition. The Interpretation of Dreams finds it necessary to tell us that, when Freud was born, an aged peasant woman proclaimed that a great man had come into the world. Freud modestly observes that such prophecies are plentiful, but he does not deceive himself or us. Though the greatest of demystifiers, surpassing Nietzsche and Marx, Freud almost allows himself to hint that he is a secular messiah. His ultimate motive as a dream interpreter was to mask his own ambition, the mask being “science.” This obsessive scientism, which now mostly distresses us, was also a defense against anti-Semitism. Freud hoped to ward off accusations that his psychoanalysis was a purely Jewish mode of interpretation. Yet psychoanalysis was and is a shamanism; its affiliations with occultism or parapsychology are far more authentic than its supposed links to biology, as a discipline. Freud kept hoping that psychoanalysis would make a contribution to biology, but this was an absurd wish. Though it is an ideology that exalts fact, Freud’s creation is a mythology, reared upon the central myth of the drives of love and death. In the longest perspective its deepest affinities are with the pre- Socratic shaman Empedocles, whose vision of incessant strife emerges again in the Freudian tragic view of a civil war in the individual psyche. The darkest Freudian insight, mythological but wholly persuasive, is that each of us is her or his own worst enemy, an insight that I strongly suspect that Freud owed most strongly to the tragic protagonists of Shakespeare.

It seems initially odd, even to me, that a book about angels, the “near-death experience,” and the Millennium should have to deal with the rationalistic and rationalizing Sigmund Freud, but the dream is an inevitable context as analogue for the realms of angels, astral bodies, and messianic expectations. For me, and I think for most of us, Freud attempted a remarkably successful (though impermanent) usurpation of the dream world, particularly in the West. Ultimately, I prefer Valentinus the Gnostic, Ibn ’Arabi the Sufi, and Moses Cordovero the Kabbalist to Freud as an authority upon the interpretation of dreams, but I believe we must go through Freud in order to get back to what he so persuasively rejected, which in the first place was the authority or value of the dream in itself. In some respects, the dream constituted for Freud not so much what he called it, the royal road to the unconscious, but a royal road away from the unconscious, in the older, primal, indeed Gnostic sense of the original Abyss.

Against Freud’s dream book, nearly everything has been said by partisans of all persuasions. I think one can admit every objection, and still find the work a magnificence, provided that one dismisses, once and for all, the unhappy assertion that Freud was a scientist. As Francis Crick archly remarks, Freud was a physician with a remarkable literary style. So of course was the seventeenth-century Sir Thomas Browne, author of the Religio Medici, but Freud had more than style. He was a great writer, as much a novelist of the self as Saint Augustine and Dante, as much a major moral essayist as Montaigne and Emerson, and a considerable dramatist, though not quite in the range of Moliere and Ibsen, let alone of that mortal god, William Shakespeare. Freud’s true place is as the rival of the central writers of the twentieth century: Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Pirandello, and their handful or so of peers. Freud wished to be Darwin but, as Alexander Welsh shows, had more authentic affinities with Dickens.

I have made clear already that between the sages–Vedantic, Talmudic, Sufi, and others–on dreams, and Freud, I unhesitatingly have learned to follow the sages. And yet Freud’s is the largest, more-or-less rationalized theory of dream interpretation ever ventured. With the Millennium approaching, we are long out of the Age of Freud, but he is still the best, last representative of an empiricism open to imaginative speculation that we have, and his presence in this book is intended to be antithetical to the Gnosis, which, for me, best explains the persistence of the grand images of angels, dream prophecies, near-death astral-body appearances, and other omens of the Millennium. Freud is not what he said he was, or what we may have thought he was, but who else can we turn to as our Plato, our Montaigne, our Emerson?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, far more than Martin Heidegger the enlightened philosopher of our era, manifested what I would term an accurate ambivalence towards Freudian theory, which he regarded not even as theory but as speculation: “something prior even to the formation of an hypothesis.” Wisdom, which Wittgenstein found in Tolstoy, he could not locate in Freud, which I find surprising, since Freud vies with Proust as the wisdom writer of our search for lost time. Wittgenstein, an intensely spiritual consciousness, was looking for an older wisdom than Freud seemed to exemplify, perhaps a folk sagacity. Nevertheless, Freud troubled Wittgenstein, even as he troubled Franz Kafka and Gershom Scholem, both of whom overtly rejected him, and as he troubled Borges and Nabokov, both of whom were positively violent and uncivil concerning the founder of psychoanalysis. In a much quieter and more persuasive way, Wittgenstein’s skepticism was more interesting:

Freud’s theory of dreams. He wants to say that whatever happens in a dream will be found to be connected with some wish which analysis can bring to light. But this procedure of free association and so on is queer, because Freud never shows how we know where to stop–where is the right solution. Sometimes he says that the right solution, or the right analysis, is the one which satisfies the patient. Sometimes he says that the doctor knows what the right solution or analysis of the dream is whereas the patient doesn’t: the doctor can say that the patient is wrong.

The reason why he calls one sort of analysis the right one, does not seem to be a matter of evidence. Neither is the proposition that hallucinations, and so dreams, are wish ful- fillments. Suppose a starving man has an hallucination of food. Freud wants to say the hallucination of anything requires tremendous energy: it is not something that could normally happen, but the energy is provided in the exceptional circumstances where a man’s wish for food is overpowering. This is a speculation. It is the sort of explanation we are inclined to accept. It is not put forward as a result of detailed examination of varieties of hallucinations.

Wittgenstein is even more suggestive upon Freud’s Freier Einfall (“free association”):

What goes on in Freier Einfall is probably conditioned by a whole host of circumstances. There seems to be no reason for saying that it must be conditioned only by the sort of wish in which the analyst is interested and of which he has reason to say that it must have been playing a part. If you want to complete what seems to be a fragment of a picture, you might be advised to give up trying to think hard about what is the most likely way the picture went, and instead simply to stare at the picture and make whatever dash first comes into your mind, without thinking. This might in many cases be very fruitful advice to give. But it would be astonishing if it always produced the best results. What dashes you make, is likely to be conditioned by everything that is going on about you and within you. And if I knew one of the factors present, this could not tell me with certainty what dash you were going to make.

What Wittgenstein implies is that there are many varieties of free association, and so many kinds of dreams: there is no essence of dreaming. “A powerful mythology” was Wittgenstein’s final judgment upon all of Freud, including the Freudian interpretation of dreams. In justice to Freud I contrast Richard Wollheim to Wittgenstein, as Wollheim, himself a distinguished analytical philosopher, makes the best case for a Freud who is not primarily a speculator. Wollheim asks: what is the evidence for the Freudian theory of dreams, keeping the theory to its essence: that a dream is a disguised fulfillment of a suppressed or repressed wish, and that the element of disguise is explained by Freud’s central idea: “the dream-work.” A dream-report has a “manifest content” that we remember, but there is also a “la- tent content” or “dream-thoughts” which by “the dream-work” are made into the manifest content. “Dream-work,” certainly one of Freud’s most powerful myths or metaphors, goes on through four processes: condensation, displacement, representation, and secondary revision. Condensation is simply the shrinking of latent into manifest content. Displacement is substitution through association, so as to produce disguise. Representation is just the weaving of thoughts into images. But “secondary revision” is yet another strong (and rather dubious) Freudian myth, since it involves the mind’s effort to reshape the dream into “intelligibility” (in Freud’s own sense). Even Freud began to feel the overkill of this self-serving metaphor, and eventually he withdrew it from his account of the dream-work.

Freud’s defense of “the dream-work,” as Wollheim shows, depends completely upon another Freudian metaphor, “the censorship,” an agency in the mind later to be called the super-ego, and which compels dreams to disguise their real designs. Wollheim rightly sees that Freud tried to save his dream theory by equating dreams with neurotic symptoms, or at least seeing them as strong analogues. Before one is tempted to dismiss Freud for his arbitrariness here, it is best to turn to Philip Rieff, another classic expositor of Freud:

The inclusiveness of Freud’s idea of a symptom should be kept in mind: ultimately all action is symptomatic. There are “normal” symptoms, like the dream, as well as somatic symptoms like a facial tic or a paralyzed leg.

For Freud, all action is symptomatic, because everything has happened already; all action is in the past and there never can be anything utterly new. What happened to one as an infant utterly overdetermines the entire subsequent course of one ’s existence. That is a very dark view, difficult to accept, and hard to refute. There is for Freud no “white noise”; everything has a meaning, or at least once had a meaning. So overdetermined a view of human life has its tragic intensity and its dignity; it pos- sesses also considerable limitations. One sees why Freud chose the interpretation of dreams as his first great battlefield; whatever dreams were to be for him, they had to be insulated from the future, from the unexpected. Everything already was in the past; nothing new of consequence could come upon us. We never should forget that, for Freud, dream interpretation is valid only in the context of his own therapy. His therapy has failed, except insofar as it has rejoined the ancient, charismatic praxis of shamanism. By Freud’s own standards, then, his mythology of the dream-work is now only a period piece: brilliant, antiquated, speculative rather than scientific. I venture now that Freud’s lasting contribution as a dream interpreter is not thera- peutic or even narrative, but inheres only in the high quality of his theory’s resistance to the immemorial traditions of prophetic dream interpretation. Doubtless, angels are symptoms in the broadest Freudian sense, and what I seek to determine in this book is: symptomatic of what?


BLOOM, Harold, Omens of the Millenium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

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