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Sigmund Freud


SYMPTOMS, DREAMS AND SLIPS OF THE TONGUE: STUDIES ON HYSTERIA (1895), THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS (1900) AND THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY LIFE (1901) In Freud’s and Breuer’s fascinating collection of case histories Studies on Hysteria this detectivelike search for a motive for an illness comes to the forefront. As you will recall, nineteenthcentury hysterical patients often displayed severe bodily symptoms – convulsions, paralysis, loss of speech, etc. SYMPTOM Freud found that the hysterical symptom was a strange but meaningful reaction of the body to an unbearable mental situation. A good example of the formation of symptoms can be found in Breuer’s case of Anna O. from the Studies. While Breuer was treating Anna O. she developed a mysterious abhorrence of water. She found herself unable to drink a drop, although it was the middle of the summer and she was terribly thirsty. Eventually, under hypnosis, she revealed to her doctor and to herself the initial cause of this symptom. She had once gone into the room of her English lady companion and, much to her disgust, found the woman’s dog drinking out of a drinking glass. Once Anna had uncovered the source of this symptom, and expressed her horror at the scene (which she had not expressed when it first happened) she was cured of her hydrophobia; she asked Breuer for some water and drank it easily. As we can see from Anna O.’s experience, the doctor helps the patient uncover the original motive for the illness by stirring up the memories of the patient and getting her to narrate the original event. Eventually a connection is made between the past event and the bodily symptom: a story is constructed that makes sense of the patient’s previously incomprehensible reactions. Consciously understanding a symptom can make it disappear. The symptom in psychoanalysis arises through repression (see p. 21). Symptoms emerge when strong emotional reactions are repressed from the conscious mind into the unconscious. They simultaneously become displaced on to the body. Displacement is also central to Freud’s theory of symptoms and dreams. Displacement involves the shifting of an emotional reaction from one part of one’s life, or one area of the body, to another. The formation of the hysterical symptom consists of a shift in register from the mind to the body; what the mind cannot accept the body acts out without comprehending it. As discussed above, Freud and Breuer discovered that helping a patient to remember and relive the painful experiences that created the symptom could make the symptom disappear. The doctor and patient worked together to rid the patient of her traumatic memories. TRAUMA The Greek word for ‘wound’. An event in a person’s life which is intense and unable

to be assimilated. It creates a psychic upheaval and long-lasting effects. When the mind refuses to consciously recognise a traumatic event, the unconscious represses it. The traumatic memory remains, unworked-through in the unconscious, and the affect, or emotional energy surrounding the event, is dammed up. The traumatic event also creates a strange time structure which Freud refers to as Nachträglichkeit (usually translated as ‘deferred action’). Nachträglichkeit describes a situation that Freud frequently encounters in his case studies in which the determining event of a neurosis can be understood only long after it has happened. For instance, a child experiences a sexual assault before he or she really understands sexuality. Years later another event occurs, not necessarily shocking or sexual, that triggers an understanding of, or flashback to, the first event. There is then the realisation that something traumatic happened. The assumption of Studies on Hysteria is that uncovering a reason behind an illness will instigate a cure. Psychoanalytic theory, in this sense, puts a great deal of weight on the act of interpreting and understanding a symptom, as well as on recalling the first time the symptom appeared and what provoked it. Once a problem is consciously understood, rather than unconsciously acted out, the movement towards getting rid of it can begin. The free associations (see definition on p. 24) of patients gave Freud the material on which he based his interpretations. One topic that sometimes came up in patients’ free associations were their dreams. Naturally enough, dreams from the previous night often cling to people’s memories in their daily life. Like neurotic symptoms, Freud found that dreams too could be read. He used the same techniques that he had developed for symptoms to do so. By emphasising their significance, Freud saw himself as returning to a pre-modern perspective on dreams. In the ancient world, dreams were seen as having a meaning; their meanings, however, were viewed as prophetic, predicting future events. By the end of the nineteenth century popular opinion looked upon a predictive aspect to dreams as superstition. Many scientists saw dreams as meaningless – a physiological product of what we ate the day before or how soundly we slept. However, in Freud’s opinion the modern world, by presuming that dreams reflected nothing but indigestion or some other purely physical explanation, was too quick to dismiss the important idea that they did indeed contain meanings, even if those meanings referred to a person’s past rather than predicting his or her future. Freud considered The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) his most important work, immodestly claiming of it that ‘Insight such as this falls to one’s lot but once in a lifetime’ (Freud 1900:56). It is no coincidence that ‘interpretation’ is a key word in the title of this fundamental text of psychoanalysis. The Interpretation of Dreams is a difficult book to categorise. It seems to combine several genres of writing – part history of dream interpretation, part catalogue of dreams (dreamt by Freud and others), part instruction book for his new psychoanalytic method of reading, even part autobiography. The index of dreams at the back of the book indicates the spectrum of concerns of this compelling volume. To take simply a few of the topics of Freud’s own dreams, one could read about his dreams on ‘One-eyed doctor and schoolmaster’, ‘Uncle with yellow beard’ and ‘Dissecting my own pelvis’. The nature of dreams, as Freud portrays them, is that they are unruly and uncontainable by the bounds of conscious will or common sense. Freud’s own book on dreams, at times, seems to mirror this unruliness. Uncovering the desires of the night is a messy business requiring a flexible imagination. There are few among us who haven’t occasionally had an unusual dream. But how does Freud

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