25 October 2011


          In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud tells us that dreams are not stories.  Their apparent narrative structure is delusory: it is an artefact of consciousness, which glosses over gaps in what we perceive in order to preserve a feeling of reasonable continuity (that is, continuity which supports reasoning about the world perceived).  Dreams acquire their form from the peculiar action of what Freud called the "primary process:" the thinking we're born into, which existed before spoken language, persists in the Unconscious, and invests the immortal vestiges of unmet wishes from childhood.  The primary process knows only one tense, the eternal present.  That, Freud says, is why dreams always feel like immediate present experience rather than like thought or memory.  Dreams begin as rational but non-conscious thoughts (ideas gone awry, worries, suppressed desires), which become conflated during sleep with those repressed primordial wishes.  Driven by the motive force of unfulfilled desire, these configurations of thought and prehistoric yearning are subjected to the primary process and therefore translated into the pre-verbal language of images.  This passage is from the beginning of Chapter VI of The Interpretation of Dreams (in James Strachey's translation):

          "The dream-content... is expressed in a pictographic script, the characters of which have to be transposed individually into the language of the dream-thoughts.  If we attempted to read these characters according to their pictorial value... we should clearly be led into error.  Suppose I have a picture-puzzle, a rebus... [which] depicts a house with a boat on its roof, a single letter of the alphabet, the figure of a running man whose head has been conjured away, and so on.  Now I might be misled into... declaring that the picture as a whole and its component parts are nonsensical.  A boat has no business to be on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run... [If the whole picture] is intended to represent a landscape, letters of the alphabet are out of place in it... We can only form a proper judgment of the rebus... [if] we try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way... The words which are put together in this way... may form a poetical phrase of the greatest beauty and significance... A dream is a... rebus."

         Upon reading this, I decided to construct a rebus out of the poetical phrase A dream is a rebus.  Ultimately I constructed three (for no particular reason I knew of):

    ad           +      tree            (   -T   )      +        mizzen           (    - Zen  )

                                                +         A           +            rib               +          us



      adder              +           E            +            Ms.
                                                 +         airy                +             bus                                        

     Audrey                 (            -  U           )          +          [Les] Mis          +       [Mt.] Erebus

           Having done this, I recognized that Freud's formulation is only true in a limited way, because a rebus is really a very simple construction, a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and pictures.  In dreams, however, the pictorial and figural elements into which the dream-thoughts have been translated are subjected to a kind of psychic Waring blender or mash-up.  They are dismembered and recombined, and their points of emphasis are broken up and spread around, so that a given aspect of the dream-thoughts may be represented in several different places in the dream, and a particular image in the constructed dream may derive from several different elements in the dream-thoughts.  In constructing these rebuses, I had already used one of Freud's laws of dream-formation, "considerations of representability."  I realized that for them to resemble a dream more fully, they had to be subjected to the other processes he described, namely "condensation" and "displacement."  Finally they had to undergo the 'narrativizing' action of what Freud called "secondary revision," at the behest of the [at least overtly] rational "secondary process."  

          Condensation, comparable to poetic metaphor ("My love is like a red, red rose"), is the combining of different pieces of the dream-thoughts to produce composite images or situations.  If my love appeared in a dream with a special bloom in her cheeks or wearing 'spiky' jewelry, depending on what aspect of her rosiness I was exercised by, or if she had some feature of another woman I find attractive, condensation would have been deployed.

          Displacement is comparable to the poetic device of metonymy, the substitution of something by a part of itself or by something associated with it.  For example, "The White House [replacing 'the President'] announced today that it would take a firm stand in opposing the radical Right" (now, there's a dream worth having).  Elements of the dream-thoughts are replaced with other things associated with them in the process of dream-construction. If my love were replaced in the dream by a rose or a thorn, or by another woman I find attractive, displacement would be in play.

          I tried to construct a story out of this gallimaufrey of pictorial and figural elements:

          We're on a bus.  You might be dreaming, and I'm looking at a magazine called "Ms. Geographic" or something like that.  There might be more than one bus in the dream.  I can see an ad for Tiffany's on the side of the bus--maybe it's for a cigarette holder--against a red, white, and blue background, sort of like the French flag.  Then I notice we're moving, because a cold breeze keeps ruffling the curtains.
          We're driving on a winding road through a dark forest, and then up a bare snowy mountain.  It seems to be a volcano.  We can see the road kind of snaking up the volcano, and lots of people are standing all along it, all wearing robes which cover their heads, so their faces are indistinct.  We can hear some of them moaning, "+A+E+A+E."
          There's a man in robes on the bus too, with a laurel wreath on his head, and somehow I know he's a Buddhist monk.  He seems miserable and tries to ask me something in French but I can't understand him.  Then he gets angry and hits me with his staff, calling me "tu" (and I seem to see the letters TU before me, as if printed in heavy type).  Realizing that he's no Zen master, I hold out my hand and slap him (and weirdly, there's no sound).  Then I knock him off the bus with my staff.
          We come over a slope, and there's a tree in front of us.  I'm struck by how straight and tall it is.  Near the top of the tree there's a red, white, and blue triangle, a flag, or maybe it's a sail.  Suddenly I realize that the triangle is actually the head of an enormous snake which is coiled up the tree.  There's also a beautiful naked woman next to the snake, who looks a bit like Katharine Hepburn.  She opens her mouth and starts shrieking like a maenad, "+A+E+A+E!"  All of a sudden, she's on the bus with us.

          No trace of a dream or a rebus in this salmagundi!  It was the act of taking such a dream and tracing the trains of thought associated with its elements back to [some of] the suppressed ideas that gave birth to it which inaugurated the Freudian revolution.  One of the aspects of this game which I found most interesting is that without any conscious intention on my part, the writing of this pseudo-narrative seemed to entrain unexpected coincidences and connecting links.  Thus, the fact that Erebus is a region of Hades as well as a volcano in Antarctica seemed to introduce Dante and the Inferno, and therefore Virgil with his laurel wreath; coincidentally that same Virgil from whose Aeneid Freud got the epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo ("If I cannot move the powers above, I'll stir up Hell").  That Erebus is also the name of the pre-Classical Greek god of darkness seemed unwittingly to lead into Dante's "dark wood where the straight road was lost."  Gustave Doré's engravings for the Inferno, with its images of the damned and of Virgil in their robes, converged with the necessity to represent "Zen."
           The iconic logo of Cosette with her French flag made the combination of the two discarded letters to spell the French "tu" seem inevitable.  The implication in calling someone "tu"--that the speaker thinks of himself as addressing an inferior--led inevitably to an "Oedipal" conflict, which the imaginary dreamer naturally won, since the Zen monk with his "tu" had to be expelled from the dream-text.  Similarly, the condensation of a triangular mizzen sail (on a mizzenmast) with a triangular pennon, and its assimilation to the triangular head of an adder seemed almost a matter of course.  It will be obvious that the resemblance between these three triangular objects is linguistic rather than visual. Although this fact serves to demonstrate that the 'translational modes' used to replace thoughts with images in dreams regularly make use of linguistic devices like puns and bad jokes, I did not consciously mean to show that.  I was conscious only that flags like Cosette's can be triangular too, and the rest followed.  Of course, the focus on triangles (and my original [unconscious] decision to devise three versions of the rebus) seems quite ordinary in retrospect, given the connection to Freud and to the Oedipus Complex.

          Eve and the Serpent showed up quite unexpectedly, simply because of the juxtaposition of 'rib' and 'adder.'  I will admit that the identification of Eve as a maenad was purposeful, since I was thinking about manifestations of the primary process (I'll also confess to inserting "the no-sound of one hand slapping" consciously).  However, of the three possible "phallic symbols"-- staff, tree, and snake-- none was added wantonly.  And the recognition that a different Hepburn--Katharine--starred in "Adam's Rib" was entirely serendipitous.  Or was it?  Is it possible to think of a complex set of ideas without--by the very nature of our associative thinking--bringing in a much broader field of linked ideas?  Isn't that essentially what Freud told us, that nothing in our thoughts (that "mycelial" network) can be truly random?

          Of course a real dream is far more comprehensively "over-determined" than this pastiche, since its content is not only more complex but also forbidden, and therefore in greater need of camouflage.  Elsewhere in his dream-book, Freud compared dreams to fireworks, which take a long time to prepare, and produce their effect in an instant.  In a different state of mind I might have included Dante's Lucifer, frozen in his sea of ice, or had the bus pulled by Amundsen's sled dogs.  Someone with more Milton in his head might have assimilated Lucifer's fall to that of Eve and Adam, from the poetic present of the primary process into the time-bound languages of reason.  Vulcanology, the works of the Irish writer AE, Spencer Tracy, prelapsarian theology, the nautical know-how of Patrick O'Brien, D. T. Suzuki, all might have been shoehorned in by a different "dreamer" or by me on a different day.  Indeed, this kind of elaboration and associative over-egging could probably go on forever, since it lacks the pressure of lust to prompt it into expression as a dream... I suppose this is how Joyce got started on that other great 20th-Century dream-book, Finnegans Wake.


  1. Thank you for the summary of Freud.
    Lately I have had a dream or that was clearly a rebus. I dreamt of a tragic tie (in a competition) with the singer Bob Dylan. I am pretty sure that this "tragic draw with Bob", dream was about my draw (in a chest of draws) that contains money ("bob" in cockney slang), and probably also a pun on the Japanese "draw-bob" or "Doro-bo(bu)" meaning thief. I have taken the hint and moved my money to a safer hiding place to avert, I hope, a tragedy.
    But why the rebuses? *Why didn't I just see my money being burgled with tragic consequence*?
    Perhaps you, and Freud, already explain everything? The primary processes, being more primary, unconscious, and primitive are unable to say the straightforward story? Or perhaps there is something taboo in my story that requires that I use a euphemistic mode of explanation?
    It seems to me that both these "primitive" and "taboo" explanations do not quite work for me. Does Freud, or you, have another explanation that I have missed for the way in which dreams are rebus-like rather than more direct (a dreamer doing rebus puzzles)? Why indeed is there "No trace of a dream or a rebus in this salmagundi!"?
    Dreams are complex and "condensed" in a clever and economical way that does not seem "primitive." Perhaps I am as yet unaware of the tabooed part of my dream, but it says quite a lot of interest even without any further taboo-ed content.
    What seems to me be happening is that the dream is desperately trying to speak in words while not being able to use words, with nothing primitive other than this non-linguistic-ness.
    The dream is as clever, sophisticated, advanced as the me that is writing here, but the dream is forced to use a rebus because it wants to speak in words even though it can not use them.
    If I had been shown the draw being burgled it would have straightforward, said the meaning of the dream (I think!), but it would have not said that meaning in words. The words would not have peeled off the images. It would have meant everything, but said nothing. So faced with the primitive limitation of my linguistic mind (the ability only to think in words) my dreaming mind seems to have jumped through hoops *to peel off some words* through no fault of its primitiveness nor of a taboo, but due to the challenged, limited, "primitive" nature of its linguistic audience. It seems to me that the vertical hierarchy of "primary process" and "secondary process," or taboo and hidden, this one two, before and after, is itself hiding a more symmetrical relationship, and it is precisely the symmetry of the relationship, not any hierarchy, that creates the peculiar mode of expression: the need for images, somethings-wordless, to speak, i.e. in words.
    When people have their corpus callosum cut they cease to dream, and their corpus callosum is horizontal.
    But then again, perhaps I am missing a level of meaning to my dream. I am not sure why the "tragedy" in my dream, was in fact, *a woman dying* after tying with Bob Dylan. Is this a 'transexual bondage with a Dylando', i.e. repressed/taboo homosexual urges? Or being emasculating tied to a bobbed-Dylan, i.e. some sort of castration complex? Yes! Very possibly these things too.
    But even assuming so, I think that a dual mode (pictorial vs linguistic) and symmetrical understanding of the nature of the dream communication does more to explain its rebus-like-ness, than any primary/secondary hierarchy.
    Even if my dream is about dildoes, castration, masochism, bondage yada yada, I could dream straightforward dreams about these things too. But even if that is the content my dreams want to convey, it would not help to portray them directly if the crux of the dream is in the need to *speak in words with pictures*.
    It seems to me that this symmetry implies a duality -- that I am two -- which is even more horrifying than the most x-rated dream.

    1. Dear Tim, Thanks for your comment, which ended up in a spam folder without my ever having seen it , no doubt because the simplemindedness of the software reacted to the word "x-rated." Unlike you, or any of us, it could only imagine one function for that word to fulfill. Perhaps that can serve as introduction to this discussion, since it is precisely the ambiguity of words which allows dreams to be made. I think part of the point is that what's taboo is really taboo, and that even non-taboo thoughts become "taboo" because they require the energy of taboo thoughts to generate a dream. That a dream is a rebus is certainly a function of trying to speak in pictures, but as you say, the dream is not a straightforward representation of the simple thought which seems to have prompted it. As Freud describe the hypothetical apparatus, the preconscious mind, which is potentially conscious, goes on thinking in sleep, but can't be registered. The unconscious mind, containing what you've called 'taboo,' is always trying to make itself known, but is constantly opposed by a 'censorship,' both in sleep and while awake. However, the censorship is weaker during sleep. The preconscious thought, not quite 'dealt with' during the day, hooks on to an unconscious thought or thoughts, which are eager to express themselves in spite of the censorship. That is why dreams aren't simply reminiscences of daytime events but include a multiplicity of meanings. Freud apparently thought the 'pictorialization' took place after the original mishmosh of preconscious and unconscious thoughts had been mashed up by the primary process, although I'm not sure either that he thought so or that it makes sense to see it that way. At any rate, the associations to the different pieces of your dream might shed light on the deeper or more covert meanings in it... rebus Phoebus, as it were. Sorry! And welcome. Himal