Notes from Session Two: DREAM
[Notes from Session One: CHANCE are here]
Can you tell if you are dreaming now? At first glance it seems obvious that you can. But when pressed, most people recognize that it is extremely difficult to eliminate all doubt about this (though you very probably are awake), partly because of the phenomenon of false awakenings - dreams in which you dream that you have woken up.
This was a question René Descartes posed himself in his first Meditation, and at that point in his argument came to the surprising conclusion that he couldn't be absolutely sure that he wasn't dreaming...This was part of the sceptical phase of his Meditations where he is pushing doubt to its limits: by the sixth Meditation he points to two features of dreams that allow us to distinguish them from reality: 1) Dreams don't usually connect up in the way that our waking experience does, and 2) Dream content often includes absurd actions that defy the laws of nature.
For an overview of Descartes' Meditations, listen here.
The point of this is in part that dreams are not necessarily always dreamlike. However when critics talk of the Surrealists use of dream imagery etc. what they usually mean is that Surrealist artists drew freely on the kinds of imagery that paradigm dreams include, and in particular on the unexpected juxtapositions that may occur in dreams but rarely do so in reality and the absurd things tha happen in dreams.
Freud on Dreams
'The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs.' (from The Interpretation of Dreams)
André Breton wrote of 'the omnipotence of the dream' for the Surrealists. There were different views about Surrealism's relation to dreams. Breton himself described a dream of finding a book with a gnome-like statue for a spine and black wollen pages...he thought of remaking the object seen in the dream 'I want to have a few articles of the same kind made, as their effect would be puzzling and disturbing'. In contrast, Max Ernst described the mission of Surrealism not to re-create dream objects or images (since that would be a kind of naive naturalism), but rather to 'move about in the borderland between the internal and external worlds'.
Much of the fuel for this elevation of dreams and dreamlike elements of reality came from the Surrealists' reading and sympathy for the works of Freud, several of which were translated into French for the first time in the 1920s. Most importantly The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was translated into French in 1926. This book, thought by many to be Freud's masterpiece, overturned the view that dreams were meaningless outpourings of images from the events of the day and a trawl of memory. For Freud every dream expressed an unconscious wish. But that wish was disguised by a kind of censor and only allowed to emerge in changed and cryptic form.
Freud made a distinction between the manifest content of a dream (what it seems to be about at the literal level: what happens) and its latent content. Manifest content is what the dream seems to be about (e.g. getting lost in a forest); latent content is the dream idea, the real motivating factor (e.g. wanting to have sex with your parent). For example, in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud describes a young agoraphobic woman's dream of a walk in the street wearing a straw hat: she feels that the officers she passes cannot harm her. This is the manifest content of the dream. Freud points to the latent content which is her fear of sexual temptation. The hat becomes a phallic symbol that somehow protects her. Freud tells her that 'if she had a husband with such splendid genitals she need fear nothing from the officers...'
For Freud, the latent content of the dream can never enter consciousness undisguised. The unconscious wish that drives the dream gets converted by a process of condensation, displacement and symbolisation [Recommended: for a more detailed discussion of these ideas see the summary on the Freud Museum website].
In this session we concentrated on symbolisation. For our purposes it didn't matter whether Freud was right about dreams or not - the point was his influence on early Surrealism. Freud emphasised that there are many recurrent images that have particular meanings in dreams while at the same time recognising that individuals have particular associations for particular people...Some frequently occuring dream symbols are
kings and queens = parents
prince or princess = the person having the dream
any longuitudinally extended object (sticks, tree trunks, umbrellas - because of the way they are put up - long sharp weapons, nail files etc). = male member
cans, boxes, caskets, cupboards and ovens, caves, ships and other containers - women's abdomens
rooms = women (doors, windows and other points of entrance and exit are particularly symbolic)
steps, ladders, stairs and climbing them = the sexual act
woman's hat or man's tie = male genitalia
fish, snakes, hand, foot = male genitalia
mouth, ear, eye = female genitalia
Read the relevant section of The Interpretation of Dreams here.
We looked at works in the Surreal Things exhibition by Salvador Dali (who described his paintings as 'hand painted dream photographs' and was heavily influenced by Freud's writing on dreams) and René Magritte (who denied that Freud was an influence)...the frequent inclusion of the classic Freudian dream symbols (whether or not by conscious design) is one factor that contributes to the dreamlike quality of many of these paintings.