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Psychoanalysis 101: The Interpretation of Dreams


This psychoanalysis course is based on the main object of study of the theory, the unconscious, and its multiple stipulations. It is a theoretical series that aims to explore the complexity of psychoanalysis not only from a clinical view, but a social one as well. It will discuss the science behind psychoanalysis, a debate this school of thought has had since the beginnings of Freud. A century ago, neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a theory from a medical and scientific perspective, yet found himself dealing with the impossibility of positioning psychoanalysis in such disciplines. This generated a century-long discussion where the value of psychoanalysis has been constantly questioned. However, its clinical and philosophical value remains intact nowadays. There is not one exclusive way of studying psychoanalysis, to think of this theory as a general worldview science is to disregard the vision this theory has: singularity. To study the unconscious is to study that which is singular, that which is unknown. The aim is to create a paved road of the psychoanalysis theory where the reader can walk through it with a considerate timeline on one hand while grasping the fundamental concept of the unconscious and its diverse applications when studying the human mind.

Psychoanalysis Theory 101 will be divided into the following sections:

  1. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Epistemology of Psychoanalysis

  2. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Interpretation of Dreams

  3. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Language of the Unconscious

  4. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Literature of the Unconscious

  5. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

  6. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Art

  7. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Discontents

Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Interpretation of Dreams

Austrian neurologist and founder of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), is considered one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century. His vision and inexhaustible studies left a powerful legacy from which further scholars and philosophers have founded their ideas. Born in a Jewish family in the midst of cultural and political uprisings, Freud gave light to a series of discoveries that revolutionized human thought. Psychoanalysis significantly reflects the context from which it emerged, leaving an intellectual trail for the groundworks of psychology and other fields of study.

Structuralism is known as a progressive movement of the social sciences originating in the early 20th century in the attempts to study human culture within a systematic and rigorous method. It was born primarily from the findings of linguistic theorist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who studied language phenomena and its elements in relation to broader systems. Before Saussure, linguistics was understood as a totality, independent from the distinctive logic between language and speech. The difference between signifier, signified, and chose (thing) was not yet perceived. Structuralism was derived as a new analytical approach towards humanities, giving structure and formal criteria to objects of study related to such disciplines. Many theorists, such as sociologist Emile Durkheim, linguist Roman Jakobson, and anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, gave rise to this movement influencing post-existentialist philosophies. Psychoanalysis was no exception to this methodology. Along with Saussure, Freud gave form to his theory within a structural basis. Not only were his philosophical and scientific studies fundamental for psychoanalysis, but his family roots and cultural context played a significant role in his mindset. Jewish traditions are built on a multiplicity of structures, not only physical but conceptual as well. Their prayer services, for example, consist of various liturgical elements which branch out from different centuries. (Broekman, 2012)

Figure 1: Martha, Hella, Anna and Edward Bernays, Caecill [Mausi], Rosa, Hermann and Heinrich Graf, Ditha and Lucy Bernays, and Sigmund Freud, 1900

In the last decade of the 19th century, Freud had a glimpse of the importance of language in psychoanalysis theory, foreshadowing what would become fundamental in psychoanalytic practice as well. For the psychoanalyst, a word is the basic unit in the function of language and comes as a complex representation composed of a binding process between acoustic, visual, and kinesthetic elements. A word takes on meaning through the relationship with the object representation. He calls this relationship between the object representation and the word representation a symbolic relationship. Freud unveils the associative mechanism with which the unconscious works and describes it as linguistic uses (Domínguez, 1990).

The Interpretation of Dreams

One of the fundamental theories that Freud formulates to describe such unconscious processes is the oneiric elaboration (dreams) and its method of analysis. He states that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. In his writing, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), he provides us with a method to approach the avatars of the unconscious in which we delve into the concepts of displacement, condensation, the manifest, and the latent. In a combination between evidence from his own dreams and those of his clinical practice, Freud gives us a literary masterpiece of the foundations of dreamwork and its role in the economy of psychic life (one of Freud's three meta-psychological hypotheses of the unconscious). (Birken, 1999)

The mind has an energy, which Freud names as libido (concerned with the sexual drive). This energy, capable of disturbing power for the subject, needs to find discharging pathways to ensure pleasure and avoid pain. When libidinal energy is denied its satisfaction through motility or action, it seeks its release through mental outlets. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that a subject's wish can be partially satisfied through imaginary forms of fulfillment. Therefore, all dreams are, in some way, the fulfillment of a subject's wish. However, these wish gratifications are expressed in disguise. Dreams, as one of the several manifestations of the unconscious, are the effects of a compromise the psychic life achieves between desire and prohibitions. In order to preserve itself, the mind unconsciously censors forbidden desires which can become unbearable to the conscious mind. This means that many of our desires and wishes are repressed and unknown to us. In our sleep, this defense mechanism of repression is somewhat lifted and allows unconscious activity to come forward. However, this censorship persists in part during our nocturnal activity. This is why dreams are usually incomprehensible and fall under surrealistic characteristics. The unconscious has no sense of negation: to affirm or negate the content of thoughts is the task of judgment, which comes only from consciousness. On the other hand, the unconscious has no sense of time. Hence, dreams can be constituted of paradoxical images which involve the past, the present, or the future. However, as we awaken, dreams are translated in our conscious mind into a decoded narrative that gives a sense of direction and meaning. (Jones, 1910)

Figure 2: Le sommeil (Sleep) by Salvador Dalí, 1937

The Interpretation of Dreams gives us a hermeneutic instrument to approach the unconscious work. The manifest content of the dream, that which is remembered, veils a latent meaning. The analyst's task is to unveil what is latent. How does a dream work, defying all sense of logic and narrative coherence? Freud proposes the concepts of condensation and displacement as the two main mechanisms the unconscious uses to elaborate its representations. Condensation operates by combining several different elements into one, while displacement by works substituting one signifier in the dream for another. For example, in broad terms, a form of condensation is the same face represented in both a mother and a sister or daughter. A form of displacement, on the other hand, is the king as one's father, associated through the meaning of authority. Dreams create representations in the form of images or "hallucinations", we can undoubtedly recognize how the pathways of drive (or libido) relate to the pathways of semantics. (Freud, 1899)

Psychoanalysis and Linguistics

To read The Interpretation of Dreams is to perceive how Freud writes his theory in accordance with the laws of structure which Saussure later exercised. We can understand the dream as a symbolic story, a structured text of signs and images. "Open the book on dreams, which came first, at any page and you will see that it talks about nothing but things to do with words." (p. 27) says Jacques Lacan in his text My Teachings (2008). He links the oneiric process to an associative network of verbal forms where one could interpret that the language of dreams is a manifestation of unconscious activity. If the dream work of Freudian theory takes a rhetorical stance for its analysis, Jacques Lacan, based on his contributions on metaphor and metonymy, previously addressed by Roman Jakobson, proposes that the unconscious can only be confronted in poetic terms. (Calderon, 2017) In his book Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970), French philosopher Paul Ricoeur says:

"The term Deutung does not mean science in a general way; it means interpretation in a precise way. The word is chosen by design, and its juxtaposition with the theme of dreams is itself quite meaningful. If dreams designate — pars pro toto — the entire region of double-meaning expressions, the problem of interpretation in turn designates all understanding specifically concerned with the meaning of equivocal expressions. To interpret is to understand a double meaning." (p.8)

A dream can only be expressed in narrative terms. Our unconscious has been formed through stories and, in turn, is a producer of them. There is only one access psychoanalysts have to a patient’s dream: the patient’s tale of the dream. Hence, a dream is considered a text and its interpretative methodology can only be approached as a textual analysis. However, Freud points out that his method consists in attributing to the representations of the dream narrative new values to what others would consider insignificant. For the theorist, what is essential in an analysis of the dream is represented by means of what comes as “accessory”. A dream elaboration consists of the process of condensation and/or displacement ––metaphor and metonymy–– of representations governed by laws of contiguity, similarity, and/or contrast. These processes of condensation and displacement show us that the unconscious has its own language and its rhetoric is proper to a linguistic theory. In short, we are talking about interpreting words and their articulations. Psychoanalysis gives importance to the word itself and its use. Freud (1899), in The Interpretation of Dreams, says the following:

"In some cases change of expression serves the purposes of dream condensation more directly, in making possible the invention of a verbal construction which is ambiguous and therefore suited to the expression of more than one dream-thought. The whole range of word-play is thus put at the service of the dream activity. The part played by words in the formation of dreams ought not to surprise us. A word being a point of junction for a number of conceptions, it possesses, so to speak, a predestined ambiguity, and neuroses (obsessions, phobias) take advantage of the conveniences which words offer for the purposes of condensation and disguise quite as readily as the dream. That dream conception also profits by this displacement of expression is easily demonstrated." (p. 316)

Figure 3: La Clef des songes (The Interpretation of Dreams) by René Magritte, 1935

A word does not have a singular univocal meaning, and therefore, it does not have only one interpretation. On the contrary, it promotes meaning and, in turn, meaninglessness. This is why the interpretation of a dream is not about the realm of the comprehensible, to understand would be to close an assumption. Instead, psychoanalysis seeks to open the dimension of meaning and its correlation. Freud himself, understanding the limits of language, recognizes that interpretation cannot reach the fullness of meaning. There must be a limit to the knowledge about the unconscious (Herrera, 2008). From Freud onwards, the unconscious is perceived as a chain of signifiers that, in another scenario, insists on the signifier to interfere or interrupt in an almost inapprehensible way as cuts in the discourse of the subject. There is no doubt that working with the unconscious is very close to the art of poetic artifice. About this, in his first Écrits, Lacan (2006) states the following:

"What is important is the version of the text, and that, Freud tells us, is given in the telling of the dream—that is, in its rhetoric. Ellipsis and pleonasm, hyperbaton or syllepsis, regression, repetition, apposition—these are the syntactical displacements; metaphor, catachresis, antonomasia, allegory, metonymy, and synecdoche—these are the semantic condensations; Freud teaches us to read in them the intentions—whether ostentatious or demonstrative, dissimulating or persuasive, retaliatory or seductive—with which the subject modulates his oneiric discourse." (p. 221)

For Lacan, the term signifier is understood from what Freud calls a sign of perception, which is understood as the "first writing" of perceptions in the psychic apparatus. This writing is ordered from relations of causality, condensation, and displacement that Freud calls a translation, a substratum, in which Lacan's signifier takes that place as the first ordering and referent of that set of signs, in other words, what we know as the unconscious. The signifier is the essence, the subiectum, an inception that is in a state of absence, secluded, and that allows something else to be susceptible of appearing. From this beginning, a meaning can be produced, since the status of the signifier is to be a trace for the linking of other signifiers. (Fasolino, 2019)

Figure 4: Sigmund Freud, 1938


The Interpretation of Dreams was first published in 1899, meaning it was one of Freud's first contributions to psychoanalysis. Furthermore, his investigations regarding the unconscious and its manifestations were numerous, with a tendency to review over and over again his past studies in a wishful pursuit to formulate a rigorous scientific theory. To do otherwise was impossible, before Freud there was no scientific or analytical contribution to the concept of an unconscious. His profound literature on the human mind helped shape future scientific and philosophical concepts developed during the 20th century and still serves as a foundation for the evolution of theories today.

Even though it was Jacques Lacan who positioned psychoanalysis theory in the realm of structuralism and proposed a linguistic approach to the unconscious, the first connection between these fields and the development of a structural perspective was from Freud half a century earlier. This is essentially the reason why Lacan considered himself a Freudian follower. The Interpretation of Dreams envisioned the powerful relationship between the laws that govern the unconscious and language. This is fundamental for Lacan when he thinks, for analytical purposes, of the subject's desire and its interpretation as well. He recognizes that studying language is the way to study the subject and that man is taken in language whether he wants it or not. A foreshadow of the first seminars in Lacanian theory which are underpinned by the concepts of metaphor and metonymy as a basis for understanding the symbolic structure of the subject.

Bibliographical References

Birken, L. (1999). Freud’s “Economic Hypothesis”: From Homo Oeconomicus to Homo Sexualis. American Imago, 56(4), 311–330.

Broekman, J. (2012). Structuralism: Moscow-Prague-Paris. Alemania: Springer Netherlands.

Dosse, F. (1997). History of Structuralism: The rising sign, 1945-1966. Reino Unido: University of Minnesota Press.

Fasolino, R.C. (2019) Aclaraciones hermenéuticas a la noción de «significante» en

Lacan en Logos. Anales del Seminario de Metafísica 52, 51-67.

Freud, S. (1900) Obras Completas: La interpretación de los sueños, Buenos Aires, Amorrortu editores, 1979.

Herrera, R. (2008) Poética del psicoanálisis / por Rosario Herrera Guido : prólogo Néestor A. Braunstein – Mexico

Jones, E. (1910). Freud’s Theory of Dreams. The American Journal of Psychology, 21(2), 283–308.

Lacan, J. (2006) Ecrits: the first complete edition in English / Jacques Lacan; translated by Bruce Fink in collaboration with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. New York

Lacan, J. (2008) My Teachings translation by David Macey ed. Verso. London, UK

Ricoeur, P. (1970) Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. (Translated by Denis Savage), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

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Gabriella Yanes

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