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Dream Life

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"Dreams are my landscape", said Meltzer. In this book he re-establishes psychoanalysis as the art of reading dreams, and dream-life as the core of mental processes. Dreams are not just puzzles to be decoded, the effluence of past trauma or future wish-fulfilment; they are the psyche's attempt - with a varying level of aesthetic achievement - to symbolise its present emotional conflicts in order to re-orient itself toward "the real world - meaning external and internal reality".

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14 Chapters

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1. Freud's View of the Dream as the Guardian of Sleep

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Unless it commences on a firm ground of Freud's pioneer work, no undertaking to examine dreams and dream-life from the psychoanalytical point of view can go any considerable distance into the problem without creating more confusion than clarity. But a truly critical, rather than merely appreciative, view of his accomplishment runs almost immediately into the problem, writ large in the early days of his psychological career, of a baffling division between his tendency to form and prove rigid theories, and his extraordinary capacity for observation and imaginative speculation.

Before we can proceed with an examination of the rich and fascinating array of observations and conjectures, it is necessary to state and examine the less interesting theory, mainly in order to set it aside in our future exposition. The brevity may seem dismissive, but this would be unjust. There cannot be the slightest doubt of the historical importance of the theory and the groundwork it laid for the evolution of clinical practice. And much can be salvaged that is enduringly interesting, such as the concepts of censorship and dream-work. But the basis of the theory is so deeply rooted in a neurophysiological model of the mind, with its mind–brain equation, that it will not bear the weight of investigations into the meaning of the meaning of dreams.

 

2. The Epistemological Problem in the Theory of Dreams

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While the psychoanalytical literature has almost without exception followed Freud's lead in the general theory of dreams both as regards their function in the mind as well as the mode of their genesis, the literature of philosophy has been occupied, in so far as it has taken note of the phenomenon of dreams at all, with the epistemological aspect. This seems to take the form of two different sorts of questions: can we know that we are dreaming? and do dreams, as our prime evidence of a world of intuitive mental activity, generate knowledge?

In general the interest in linguistics among the philosophers has centred on defining the limits of language on the assumption that language is both man's unique differentiating capacity that separates human from animal mentality, and the parallel dicta that anything that can be thought can be said, and anything that can be said can be said clearly (Wittgenstein of the Tractatus). This attitude separated the world of rational thought about observable facts from the world of emotion and intuitive understanding by arrogating meaning exclusively to the former realm. This was not meant to imply that the latter realm was of no importance in human relations but that it did not deal with knowledge and therefore was meaningless in the epistemological sense. It rightly, in a sense, relegated dreams to the vicinity of myths, religions, art as the realm of the ineffable – where this term, meaning inexpressible in words, equated this deficiency of language with the borderline between real and mystical experience. But it wrongly mistook the solipsistic position that one cannot have knowledge of other minds with the parallel assumption that a mind cannot have direct knowledge of itself.

 

3. The Klein-Bion Expansion of Freud's Metapsychology

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Sigmund Freud's genius was a child of its time and he was naturally preoccupied with the current scientific developments and psychotherapeutic methods. He wanted to create an explanatory science which could prove things. He naturally looked upon the mind and brain as phenomenologically identical and was preoccupied with a neurophysiological model, with ‘hydrostatics’, with the Darwinian framework of evolution applied to the mind. This model drew on comparative anatomy, embryology and, unfortunately, archaeology, backed by the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, to frame a metaphor which was mistaken for a theory. While these gave him tremendously useful tools they also imposed their limitations when treated as theoretical hypotheses requiring experimental proof.

This model of the mind, which is made explicit (as preconceptions) in the ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’, did indeed stay with him all his life. It was a model that was bound, by its own structure, to impose on him a view of mental life in which he could not possibly have believed but that he nonetheless used as a basis for scientific work. It viewed the life of the mind as bound to the body and its needs, and thus engaged upon finding means to gratify these needs without running into an absolute confrontation with the environment, human and non-human. Freud eventually also came upon evidence of another agency that the personality has to satisfy, that is the agency of the conscience, of the superego. His picture of the personality was a slightly sad one as spelt out in The Ego and the Id. He pictured the ego as serving three masters – the id (the instincts), the outside world, and the superego. Using all the tricks and devices of its intelligence to outwit these three masters, the ego sought to find some kind of balance, a peaceful co-existence. When Freud later came to formulate the theory of the life and death instincts, it appeared that the very purpose of life was to die peacefully. It does not matter that he could not possibly have believed this, but as a scientist he worked at his assumptions and hypotheses, pursued them relentlessly, and produced an imposing and substantial foundation for the science.

 

4. Dreams as Unconscious Thinking

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In framing a theory of dreams that rests firmly on Freud's clinical use of dreams in psychoanalysis but which grows organically out of the structural-phenomenological rather than topographical-neurophysiological model of the mind, it is necessary to establish our vocabulary for describing dreams. This vocabulary must be truly metapsychological (in its extended sense, including the geographical dimension of Klein and the epistemological dimension of Bion, in addition to Freud's original four-part definition). The most lucid sequence would seem to require the definition of the dream-process as one of thinking about emotional experiences, after which the way would be clear to examine what Freud calls the ‘considerations of representability’ (by which we will mean symbol formation and the interplay of visual and linguistic symbolic forms) and the ‘dream work’ (by which we will mean the phantasy operations and the thought processes by which the emotional conflicts and problems seek resolution).

 

5. Symbols, Signs, Epitome, Quintessence

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The models of the mind with which analysts work in their consulting rooms may be as various as the individuals who practise this method, but surely the great division is defined by the basic stuff with which they imagine themselves to deal, whether it is psychic energy or meaning. This cleavage naturally leads practitioners either towards the natural sciences for their metaphors, or towards theology and philosophy as embodied in myth and literature. Freud can clearly be seen to have been divided in his approach, using one for his theories and another for the description of clinical phenomena. In a certain sense the same could be said of the usage of Bion, where one type of metaphor is derived from mathematics and chemistry, and another set taken from mythology. But in Bion's case there is no cleavage in the underlying model of the mind, only in the form of exposition. What he has borrowed from mathematics or chemistry are modes of thought for dealing with the model of the mind that he constructed over a period of twenty years, a model dedicated to bringing within the purview of the psychoanalytical method those disturbances of thought which bulk so large in schizophrenia, but which now, with the help of his schema, can be detected in lesser forms in less disturbed patients, including of course ourselves in the consulting room.

 

6. Dream-Life: The Generative Theatre of Meaning

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We have come some distance in these preliminary chapters, having examined the historical basis for a new theory of dreams, the epistemological problem concerning the evidence of dream-life, the grounds for considering dreaming as a form of unconscious thinking equivalent to the actions and play of babies and small children, a theory of symbolism which places it at the core of the process for thinking about the meaning of our emotional experiences, and finally an outline of the theory of extended metapsychology upon whose foundation we wish to construct our theory of dreams. It is necessary now to outline the theory itself so that we may examine its various components in some greater detail.

Let us start with some dream material to which we may refer back as we go along. You will recall the four ‘crucifixion’ dreams: the cleared bridle-way, but for the hazel saplings; the young couple worshipping their tomato plant; the inhibited necrophilia; and the paralysis by Mr Parker 51. Let us add to that series another duet of dreams from a young man who returned to analysis after a weekend reporting that he had a new girlfriend who seemed very interested in him, had gone back to his flat with him but had probably been disappointed that he had made no sexual advance to her. The trouble had been that he had not yet written the lecture which he had to deliver the morning of the session to his senior colleagues, although he had known of it for over a month. Not only had he disappointed the girl but he had had to cancel a lecture to his students as well. Two little dream images were vivid in his mind from the brief nap he had had in his office after writing until five in the morning: (i) Richard Nixon, although not yet elected President, seemed to have been given full use of the White House and its facilities, which he proceeded to abuse to set up his gang; (ii) Mr Callaghan, who was visiting Washington on a state visit with his family, had not even had a car put at his disposal, but all were being squeezed into a taxi.

 

7. The Interaction of Visual and Verbal Language in Dreams

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It is difficult, in a book of this sort, to make headway with the problems to which we must now address ourselves, without attempting far more than we can hope to accomplish. We have already hurled ourselves at the mysterious problem of symbol formation in the visual area with, I think, some yield. We must now do the same in the verbal area. This takes us immediately into a confrontation with modern linguistics, semantics and psycholinguistics, for it is necessary once again, as in the chapter on mutism in Explorations in Autism, to dissociate psychoanalytic thought about language from two main currents. The first of these is the current which allies itself to information theory and engineering, decoding and mathematics. The other is a more anthropological, mystical one concerned with ethical problems surrounding man's view of his own prehistory.

It may seem unnecessary to enter into this debate, but it may eventually appear that the specific dissociation from them also highlights the problem of identification in language and the deeply emotional roots of grammar. In the chapter on mutism I suggested a two-tiered structure of language, one operating from the depths of the unconscious for the purpose of transmitting states of mind through the operation of projective identification, while the other, more conscious, superimposes words upon this deep music for the purpose of communicating information about the outside world. Ecological studies suggest that both of these operate in animals, mainly the former in mammals and the latter in insects. Man has fused the two and even, in his religious history, attempted to find words for states of mind. This theological prelude to literature may have blossomed but it is clear that only a very few gifted individuals have ever mastered its subtle techniques.

 

8. The Borderland between Dreams and Hallucinations

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By setting dreams at the germinal point of nascent thought, Bion has evolved a theory of thinking that implies a pattern of interaction of phenomena which clinical study should either succeed in discovering or, by failing to do so, can then declare the theory to be useless (correct or incorrect not being apposite terms in this field). The central implication of the theory of alpha-function and the Grid is, I would say, this: if an emotional experience is not worked upon by alpha-function so as to evolve alpha-elements (symbols?) which can be used for the formation of dream thoughts, and thus lend itself to digestion as nourishment for the growing mind, the emotional experience must undergo some other process in order to unburden the psychic apparatus of accretions of stimuli. Some of these processes are essentially evacuatory; some simulate digestion but evolve a system of lies which are the poison of the mind and inhibit its growth; others produce a kind of encystment or encapsulating containment and occupy areas of the mental apparatus which thereby becomes unavailable for integration in the growth process. This analogy with the metabolic processes is not employed by Bion as metaphor per se, but rather as a description of the workings of the mental apparatus which has evolved itself, he suggests, on the basis of analogy with the metabolic system.

 

9. The Borderland between Dreams and Actions

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If we are to be faithful to the model of the mind defined bv the extended metapsychology of Klein and Bion, we must assum that the dream process is the foundation not only of our view-of-the world, and therefore of mood, but also that every dream is an attempt to solve a conflict which, while primarily an internal world matter, has implications for behaviour in the outside world. It is clear that individuals differ widely in their capacity to utilise thought as a mediator between impulse and action; some indeed seem to overreach its utility and replace action by thought, so that impulse finds no expression in the outside world. From that point of view the aim of action to modify the external world so that it more aptly meets the individual's requirements, or at least his desires, is lost in internal world modification.

In understanding the place of dreams in our lives, or rather the relation between our dream life and our total life-process, we need to address ourselves to both aspects of this problem – denial of psychic reality with its reliance on experimental action, and retreat from external reality with its many forms of withdrawal. Some where in between the two ends of the spectrum of the mediation by thought between impulse and action, lies the realm of art—science where thought is content to act in the service of knowledge of the outside world without necessarily intending its modification. There is good reason to think that lovemaking in its most developed form belongs to this art—science area. I have chosen this middle ground between acting-out and withdrawal, between excessive and inadequate transformation of dream-life into action, as the most fruitful area for investigation of the problem. But what, in fact, is the problem?

 

10. Dream Exploration and Dream Analysis

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As a science, psychoanalysis is committed to the discovery of the truth about the events in our own minds and also the truth about our own actions. To make public either of these clearly requires the overcoming of an immense anxiety, both persecutory and depressive. What we reveal to the ‘group’ is probably the most terrifying; what hostage we give to our ‘enemies’ is the most intimidating; but what we reveal to our ‘siblings’ threatens to demonstrate the disparity of our internal objects and thus that we are ‘foster’ brothers and sisters at best. The loneliness consequent upon this realisation is surely one of the great deterrents to revelation to colleagues of our actual behaviour in our consulting rooms. But first of all it deters us from discovering what we in fact do, as against what we think we do, wish we did, feel we ought to do or aspire to do. What follows is an attempt to report the monitoring of my work with my patients’ dreams and cannot be taken as a recommended method for anyone else. Its crudeness as a statement when compared with the great intricacy of what actually happens will immediately be apparent, but it is the best I can do at the moment. It may help other analysts to monitor and discover what they in fact do; it is of no importance whether this turns out to be similar or different from what I am able to report.

 

11. Dream Narrative and Dream Continuity

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One of the most impressive evidences of the intrinsic continuity of the process of unconscious phantasy is to be found in the striking links between dreams of the same night or even of successive nights. Attention to this continuity plays a considerable role in the creative use of dream material in analytical work and opens many problems for research, not only in the field of psychoanalysis but in related fields such as linguistics, aesthetics and politics. In speaking of continuity I do not mean to refer to continuity of meaning, but rather continuity of form. Dreams often give an impression, when set out in sequence, of being like an artist's sketches made during the organisation of a major composition, or the drawings by children in analysis. It can be seen that a number of central formal structures are being drawn up into juxtapositions in order to create a space scintillating with potentiated meaning. Sometimes words and visual forms are seen to interact, as I will shortly demonstrate. At other times spaces are being created as containers of meaning. At other times the movements from one type of space to another, and the emotional difficulties of making such moves, are made apparent.

 

12. Resistance to Dream Analysis in Patient and Analyst

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Although the practice of psychoanalysis in Freud's hands more or less starts with dream analysis as the ‘highroad to the unconscious’, it has had a disappointing history as the decades have slipped past. The literature tells the story clearly, that the painstaking unravelling of dream material through tracing of associations in the manner of the Traumdeutung, gave way gradually to an impressionistic mention of them in passing, and finally almost consistent neglect as writers passed on from investigations of psychopathology to polemics on psychoanalytical theory. It has been said by more than one distinguished person that even the teaching of dream analysis is a matter of historical rather than technical interest.

The renewed interest in dreams which is so characteristic of the Kleinian literature stems clearly from the strong affinity between dream material and the playroom phenomena in work with children – their play, drawings, phantasies, direct transference manifestations. While some of the blame for this neglect can be laid at Freud's door for his more or less pre-psychoanalytic theory about dream mechanics and their trivial place in mental life, the main problem probably resides in the emotional experience of work with dreams. In the previous chapter I have tried to examine the nature of my own method and emotional experience with this aspect of the work, perhaps without fully acknowledging that it has come to play such a central role in my style because I find that it meets some facility, perhaps talent, in me. But while it must be true that patients vary in their talent for remembering dreams, for relating them vividly, perhaps for being able to remember them without progressive distortion, and while it must be similarly true that analysts vary in their talent for envisaging the patient's dream or a near facsimile, probably the more important factors are emotional on both sides – both for and against the full use of this particular tool of our trade.

 

13. The Relation of Dreaming to Learning from Experience in Patient and Analyst

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In analysis we usually study dreams to gain access to processes of thinking that concern the patient's emotional conflicts. But every once in a while, particularly with patients who are students of analysis or are professionally interested in the analytic method itself, a different sort of dream arises. These are dreams that seem to reflect the patient's thinking about how his mind works. They are what might be called ‘theoretical’ dreams; they are not about psychoanalysis proper but the patient's own theory about his experience of his mind's operation.

Throughout the history of psychoanalysis, the so-called ‘theories of the mind’ have been the changing models of the mental apparatus that analysts think they are using in listening to, observing, and trying to understand their patients and themselves. Freud's own models changed during the course of his work. The first model postulated by him resembled some kind of telephone exchange and this he elaborated, before he started on his psychoanalytic work, in what is known as the ‘Project for a scientific psychology’. This was a neurologist's model and was concerned with the apparatus that conducts messages in the brain; it had nothing to do with the meaning of the messages but only with the way in which the messages were distributed and conducted through the neural network. Once he embarked upon analytic work he elaborated a second theory which was, in a way, a supplement to the first, namely the libido theory. This was a theory about the distribution of ‘mental energy’ in which mental energy and sexual excitation were more or less equated with one another. But then, in the course of his work, he discovered that the central problem was conflict which had various configurations; conflict between what he called the ego and the outside world; conflict between the ego and the superego; and between the ego and the instincts. So he elaborated the structural theory (in the 1920s) in which he spoke of the ego asserving three masters. This envisaged the mind as an apparatus for conciliation whose central function was to reconcile the demands coming from these three directions – a negotiating instrument. It seemed natural, from the employment of that model, that this central part of the mind, the ego, should then be viewed as being mainly concerned with maintaining peace of mind (the Nirvana principle). None of the models he devised took any serious account of emotionality and its meaning – this was left for Melanie Klein to develop in her theory of the internal world. This was a great advance since it envisaged the mind as a kind of internal theatre with figures entering into emotional relationships and conflicts with one another, from which meaning was generated and deployed into the external world and external relationships. What the theory lacked was any interest in, or concern with, the thinking processes themselves; it seemed to take for granted that the mind was able to think, to perform thinking functions, as if that were not a problem for psychoanalytical investigation but could be left to the philosophers and academic psychologists.

 

14. Recovery from Analysis and the Self-Analytic Method

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The dictum that the patient's neurosis is converted into a transference neurosis of which the analysis endeavours to cure him, may be an oversimplification but it has more than a grain of truth in it. In so far as the analysis enables the patient to gather together into a single relationship the diverse threads of his infantile transference tendencies, it can be seen to make a concentration of infantile need, anxiety and affect which has every resemblance to an illness. Where this replaces processes of symptom formation that were hampering the patient's activities and relationships in the outside world, it may appear as a benefit to the disinterested observer. But where the emotional disorder in the personality has been bound in character or in patterns of relationship, the concentration and potentiation of the transference processes made possible by the psychoanalytical setting may show as an illness in a person previously considered well and well-adjusted by family and friends. This is perhaps most often seen in people who come to analysis not from motives of therapy, but for professional reasons of one sort or another.

 

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