Hide and Seek

Understanding self-deception, self-sabotage, and more

Dream and Symbol Interpretation

A look at the ego defence or process of symbolization.

Often, uncomfortable feelings can be transformed, or crystallized, into a person or object that then acts as a symbol for the uncomfortable feelings. Symbols appear especially in dreams, but can also appear in daydreams or fantasies; in neurotic phenomena such as arachnophobia (fear or spiders), gephydrophobia (fear of crossing bridges), and other phobias; in religious beliefs and practices; in myths and folklore; and in psychotic experiences. Freud himself offers an interpretation of the symbolism of the bridge in his New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis,

The other symbol I want to talk to you about is that of the bridge, which has been explained by Ferenczi (1921 and 1922). First it means the male organ, which unites the two parents in sexual intercourse; but afterwards it develops further meanings which are derived from this first one. In so far as it is thanks to the male organ that we are able to come into the world at all, out of the amniotic fluid, a bridge becomes the crossing from the other world (the unborn state, the womb) to their world (life); and, since men also picture death as a return to the womb (to the water), a bridge also acquires the meaning of something that leads to death, and finally, at a further remove from its original sense, it stands for transitions or changes in condition generally...

Several repressed thoughts and feelings can be amalgamated or condensed into a single symbol, such that many of the products of symbolization are in fact, so to speak, composite symbols. This enables dreams to be more compact and coherent than the repressed thoughts that they in part represent.

Parapraxes or Freudian slips provide some insight into this process of condensation. Parapraxes are basically ‘faulty actions’ that occur when unconscious thoughts and desires suddenly parallel and then override conscious thoughts and intentions, for instance, calling a partner by the name of an ex-partner, substituting one word for another that rhymes or sounds similar (‘I would like to thank/spank you’, ‘You are a vast repository/suppository of information’), or combining two words into a single word (‘Let us withdraw to the dining room for supfer (supper/suffer)’, ‘He is a very lustrous man (illustrious/lustful)’). Parapraxes often manifest in speech, but might also manifest in writing, physical actions, and memories, and even in mishearings, misreadings, and the mislaying of objects. Freud held that parapraxes are one of only four direct routes into the unconscious, the other three being jokes, free association, and dreams, which he famously called ‘the royal road to the unconsious’. To shed some more light on the processes of symbolization and condensation, I shall first relate and then interpret one of my most recent dreams.

I slept in late last Wednesday and awoke naturally from a rather interesting dream, which I quickly jotted down into my notebook. A great problem of modern living is the waking up to an alarm clock, which interrupts sleep before dreams can be completed. This denies the opportunity to test and explore thoughts and feelings, and so to attain the sort of insight and understanding that might put an end to waking up to an alarm clock. This is just one of the many meanings of ‘being trapped by the 9 to 5’. Moving on to my dream, I was about 17 years old, and not much different from my current, adult self. I was perhaps in my final year at secondary school, in the rural hills overlooking Lake Geneva. On a clear day, it might have been possible to make out the snow-capped Alps beyond the lake, but on that late morning the sky was clouded over. It must also have been early spring, since the seed that had been sown into the bare but loamy fields had only just begun to sprout. I felt harried and out of control, assailed by timetables, assignments, deadlines, social pressures, and thoughts about my future, and so I made an appointment with the school counsellor. I sat on a chair in her room, which was in an old farmhouse on the school grounds, and began telling her about my predicament. She, however, was not interested. She was lying on a couch covered by a blanket, and every so often would lift the blanket to reveal her bare breasts. After some time, a friend or colleague of hers arrived; she stepped out to greet him and through the window I could see them chatting away. I felt quite angry with the counsellor and, to pass the time, I began to explore her room and in particular her bookcase. Therein I picked up a dusty leather-bound volume, The World as Will, by Arthur Schopenhauer. Holding the book in my hands, I was struck with such wonder and amazement that I began to weep. Without waiting for the counsellor to return, I stepped out of the room and onto High Holborn, London, at which point I awoke. (Note: The school counselor is not based on any real person, and is entirely a product of my symbolization and condensation.)

What do I make of this dream? In the dream, I was young and of an age to learn. The sky was clouded over, mirroring my then feelings. The seed in the rich, fertile earth had begun to sprout, auguring my own growth and rebirth. I sought help from the person best qualified to help me, but, like so many people, she turned out to be immature, self-motivated, and of no help at all. She was lying on the couch while I was sitting in a chair, perhaps indicating that she needed therapy more than I did, or that I understood or would come to understand more than she did. The book represented my salvation, which was not to come through the counsellor and by extension through school and society, but through the thoughts of the greatest minds and by extension through philosophy. The title of the book, The World as Will, was particularly significant because it connoted freedom of the will, which is the cure for helplessness and the particular gift of philosophy as broadly conceived. My weeping represented a cathartic (‘cleansing’) release brought about by sudden insight, which is an important goal of classical psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Upon stepping out of the room, I was no longer trapped on school premises but liberated into the wider world as symbolized by Holborn (‘whole-born’).

In his General Aspects of Dream Psychology, the pre-eminent psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung argues that dreams contribute to the self-regulation of the psyche by automatically bringing up everything that is repressed or neglected or unknown. However, he continues, their compensatory significance is often not immediately apparent because of our still very incomplete knowledge of the nature and the needs of the human psyche. Yet, some 2,000 years before the time of Jung and Freud, thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the 1st century Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria already held some fairly advanced notions in the still uncreated field of dream psychology. For instance, in the Politicus, Plato says that ‘every man seems to know all things in a dreamy sort of way, and then again to wake up and know nothing’. Aristotle wrote a book On Divination in Sleep, in which he argues that skilful dream interpretation calls upon the faculty of observing resemblances. He then compares dream presentations to the forms reflected in water: if the motion in the water is great, then the reflection bears little resemblance to its original, and particular skill is required on the part of the dream interpreter. In his treatise On Sleep, Philo of Alexandria offers four different interpretations for the ladder to heaven that appears in Jacob’s dream (Figure 6). This dream is retold in the Book of Genesis, which antedates Plato and Aristotle by several centuries.

And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.

I am not particularly keen on any of Philo’s four interpretations and much prefer the 4th century interpretation of St Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom, who thought of the ladder in terms of an ascetic path of virtue along which it is possible for man to ascend from earth to heaven, ‘not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners’. The notion of dream interpretation far antedates the birth of psychoanalysis, and probably served an important function in most, if not all, historical societies. In having lost this function, modern man has also lost the best part of his nature, which he obliviously passes on to the next generation of dreamers.

As I said, symbols appear not only in dreams, daydreams, and fantasies, but also in myths and folklore and in psychotic experiences, among others. For example, Carl Jung suggested that the hero’s slaying of the dragon is a projection of the struggle of the adolescent ego for deliverance from parental dominance. Jung himself experienced ‘a confrontation with the unconscious’, most likely a psychotic episode, in which, like the mythological hero, he travelled deep down into an abyssal underworld to confront and conquer his daemons. There he conversed with Salome, a beautiful woman whom he thought of as the archetype of the feminine, and Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher, the archetype of the wise old man. Far more than mere one-time apparitions, Salome and Philemon took on lives of their own and said things that Jung had not previously thought. In Philemon, Jung felt that he had at long last found the father figure that he had forever been searching for, and that both Freud and his own father, the pitiable pastor Paul Jung, had singularly failed to be. More than a father figure, Philemon was a guru, and the prefigurement of that which Jung himself was later to become: the ‘wise old man of Zürich’. After re-emerging into sanity at the end of the First World War, Jung considered that he had found in his madness ‘the prima materia for a lifetime’s work’.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books. Watch his latest TED Talk, In Praise of Idleness.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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