Catherine Liu, The Dreams of Interpretation

Review by L. Michael Sacasas
University of Central Florida

Catherine Liu, John Mowitt, Thomas Pepper, and Jakki Spicer, editors., The Dreams of Interpretation: A Century down the Royal Road. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 379 pp. $25.00 (978-0816648009)

[1] From the ancient tale we now know as The Epic of Gilgamesh to the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster Inception, dreams have captivated the human imagination. Manuals of dream interpretation are among the oldest extant texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the monarch's troubling dream and its interpretation was a set piece in ancient literature. Since then, however, dream interpretation has been democratized. Nestled among the tabloids, one can always find pocket size guides to dreams and their meanings for sale at the supermarket check-out aisle. Of course, among the professionals, it is now the psychoanalyst, not the court sage, who is occupied with dream interpretation, and Sigmund Freud remains the person most closely associated with the practice, even for those who have never read a word of The Interpretation of Dreams. So deeply has his work on dreams permeated the popular imagination, that a popularized Freudianism underlies the approach to dreams taken by many who have never heard the name of Freud.

[2] Freud completed The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, but he postdated the book to 1900 so that it may be the first book of the new century. So profoundly did Freud shape the thought of Western culture over the course of the ensuing 100 years, that it may justly be called the first book in the older Latin sense of prima, not merely first in a sequence, but also in primacy of significance. At the start of a new century, in the year 2000, a group of scholars and practitioners of psychoanalysis gathered at the University of Minnesota to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Freud's Dream Book. It was at this conference, "The Dreams of Interpretation/The Interpretation of Dreams," that most of the papers comprising The Dreams of Interpretation: A Century down the Royal Road were first presented.

[3] The conference began, and the book appropriately concludes, with a paper by Mary Lydon who was to pass away seven short months later. In her presentation, Lydon remarked,

The topic of this conference, "The Dreams of Interpretation/The Interpretation of Dreams," is enough to set one dreaming – about dreams, one's own and others, about Freud's theory of dreams and the dream of psychoanalytic theory, what Shoshana Felman calls "the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding," about the dream of the conference, about what I dream of doing in this introductory talk .... For no less than dream interpretation, dreaming and especially telling one's dreams have consequences .... (359)

As the editors note in their introduction, however, it was not long after the halcyon days of the conference that dreams gave way to nightmares and "cries of Terror!" With a knowing, world-weary tone the editors castigate "the religions of Abraham" for their descent into "apparently unsoundable atavistic depths," and, perhaps stretching credulity a bit thin, link the assertions of terror with assertions of the death of psychoanalysis in the popular media (xiv). [1] Both assertions, they claim, "are of the same piece" and betray a "structural regression, and an angry one at that." Moreover, "the hallucinations of terror, and of a terror characterized by the unwelcome realization of other monotheisms, of other claims to worship another one-and-only god, are rooted in fantasies in which the need to believe in the All Good Father, and to have him at one's side" lead necessarily to the rejection of any other monotheistic claims [editors' emphasis] (xv). This rather tortured prose borders on tautology, monotheists reject competing monotheisms, but less obviously, these fantasies, according to the editors, also lead to the rejection of

any claim to a critical practice that ... might work toward authentic liberations, ones leading to declarations of independence imposed neither by occupying forces, nor by violent and coercive conversions. Such emancipatory critique could be made on the grounds of having alternative mechanisms with which to deal with such violent, paranoid, aggressive projections by means other than religious, but rather mundane. (xv)

The practice and means which are invested with such secularized eschatological hopes "are called by the name of Psychoanalysis" (xv). Rather than the name of the Father, we are given the name Psychoanalysis, a name complete with its own narrative of marginalization and martyrdom. [2] In the place of warring monotheisms, we are given a monopraxis which promises to cause the lions to lie down with the lambs. Freud is the new prophet with "a bold, new conception of love": transference (xvi). We are assured that in the place of the Pascalian/Kierkegaardian injunction to "Believe!" we have only to cultivate a wholly immanent practice, a practice which promises (gnostic) salvation conditioned on "knowledge of one's desires" (xvi). A practice which the editors aspire to establish as a luminous right for humanity: "A new, and fitting, human right: a fitting light for this night" [editors' emphasis] (xvi).

[4] One is tempted to reach for their Nietzschean hammer to sound out these sentiments, but setting aside the pretensions of the Introduction we may note several stimulating contributions in the pages that follow. The essays are divided into seven chapters (perhaps in homage to the Dream Book) covering ethics, relationships, other desires, apparatus, intensity, the interpretative arts, and a final section titled "Thoughtful Articulations." Among the essays grouped under the theme of Ethics are two complimentary papers by psychoanalyst Gérard Pommier and Jean-Michael Rabaté of the University of Pennsylvania who both seek to ground ethics in dreams. For Pommier, dreams reveal the source of "right" and "evil" which stem from Oedipal guilt and consequent repressions. More importantly, however, dreams make ethics possible by demonstrating the "overdetermined nature of causality" thus guaranteeing the individual's freedom and contributing to "the ability to recognize the other as distinct from oneself" (5-6). Rabaté is sympathetic to Pommier's project, but he believes that we must go further if we are to properly situate ethics in Freud, as in Nietzsche, "beyond good and evil." More specifically, the ethical function of dreams lies in the "the metaphoric process of their formation – that is, fundamentally, in their production of images 'beyond good and evil'" (15). It is, therefore, in the navel of the dream that we are confronted with the realization that, in Freud's words, "the original helplessness of human beings is thus the primal source of all moral motives" (17).

[5] If Pommier and Rabaté stage a collegial and productive exchange over the ethical implications of dreams, we are reminded in subsequent essays that other, less friendly conflicts have marked the practice of psychoanalysis from within and without. In "A Knock Made for the Eye," Yün Peng attempts to bridge the perceived distance between Deleuze and Freud by drawing together Deleuze's concept of "philosophy as theater," the scene of thought, and the primal scene. In "Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of," Mary Lydon gently encourages a rehabilitation of the interests and pursuits which, in her estimation, were childishly dismissed as "French Freud." French Freud naturally evokes the name of Jacques Lacan, and indeed his presence is diffused throughout the collection and concentrated in Judith Feher-Gurewich's "Is Lacan Borderline?" Like Peng and Lydon, Feher-Gurewich seeks a rapprochement, in her case between American and Lacanian psychoanalysis, by recounting a clinical experience in light of Lacan's feminine jouissance and the femme fatale.

[6] Among the most stimulating contributions is A. Kiarina Kordela's "Marx, Condensed and Displaced." Kordela argues for a "structural homology between economic exchange and semantic systems of exchange" that encompasses the fields of capital, sign, and subject. None of these three fields should be understood as the cause or effect of any other; instead all three, in Kordela's view, "are caused and determined by a function of different ontological and epistemological status: surplus" (303). Surplus, which is associated with the Lacanian Real, generates exchange- and use-value, metaphor and metonymy, condensation and displacement, and jouis-sens and jouissance respectively in the fields of economics, the signifier, the Freudian subject, and the Lacanian subject. Kordela hopes to ground cultural studies epistemologically by the introduction of the Lacanian plus-de-jour (surplus enjoyment) as a properly Marxist ternary corrective to the binary formulas of Freud and Jakobson. She intends, with Lacan, to intervene "both within and against postmodernism, to perform a restitution of absolute truth or certainty, affect, and use-value (in one word, the real) in their (its) proper field: the field of the subject as subject of the signifier, hence of capital" (313).

[7] On the 100th anniversary of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the editors of The Dreams of Interpretation worried that the death of Freud was being asserted prematurely. The essays they collected, however, demonstrate that Freud remains a source for creative and ambitious interventions into a wide array of disciplines and discourses. Regrettably, much of this work is cast in prose that at times seems intentionally obfuscating and unnecessarily arcane; consequently it will likely remain inaccessible to scholars not already deeply initiated into psychoanalytic discourse(s). Perhaps the best way to preserve the legacy of Freud over the next hundred years will be to recover the master's clarity and verve.


[1] The first and second endnotes to the Introduction are almost certainly inverted. The endnote which does address this point cites an unreferenced "millennial issue of Newsweek" which presumably pronounced the "death" of psychoanalysis. The editors appear not to have noticed that many stories in the popular media around the same time were touting recent brain studies that lent support to the Freudian view of dreams. See, for example, "What Dreams Are Made Of" in the November 9, 1999 issue of Newsweek.

[2] The editors note that in the unreferenced Newsweek article "Freud was actually killed twice" (xxv). Not unlike Time, which resurrected God after famously proclaiming his death on their cover in 1966, Newsweek resurrected Freud with their March 27, 2006 cover story, "Freud is Not Dead."