In a recent blog for the New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish’s Policemen’s Union and lover of fantasy and comics, expressed his outrage at dreams—“the Sea Monkeys of consciousness” and “their endlessly broken promise to amount to something.” It is a hilarious piece, worth reading, just like his review, a month later, of the most incomprehensible of all novels, namely James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which is about a man dreaming.
Call me a masochist, but after reading Chabon’s blog I decided now was the time to tackle Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a classic in psychology literature, but one of those that had evaded me at various times ever since I was a student. No surprise. At least half of the book is inundated with Freud’s own dreams and those of his patients, and that makes for boring reading, especially in the absence of full information as to the life circumstances of the dreamer(s).
Otherwise, however, The Interpretation of Dreams is a masterpiece of systematic observation and careful analytical work, and encapsulates psychoanalytic theory and practice, which is probably also why Freud considered it one of his most important works. Its core message, namely that all dreams, like neurotic symptoms, are representations of mental conflicts, therefore, also of wish fulfillments, and that the means for releasing tension is by paying attention to affects, is but one of the many insights Freud gave us regarding the unconscious.
The compact and twisted character of dreams, the over-determination of specific symbols, the use of synchronicity to illustrate logical interconnections, as well as the reliance on conversion, displacement and identification to reveal commonalities behind seemingly unrelated elements are all means (or tricks) used by our unconscious for communicating—upon the face of resistances imposed by our wakeful mind.
This can make for bad fiction and art, as Chabon points out—the result mainly of the laconic nature of dreams and the almost complete absence of a plot (other than in the absurd fashion). Thus while dreaming is compressing in nature, fiction is expansive. And yet, the mechanisms employed by the unconscious in its drive to fulfill the dreamer’s wishes are often similar to those employed in literature for establishing the boundaries between reality and fiction.
In other words, the link between fiction and the real is similar to that between the unconscious and consciousness or between the states of dreaming and being awake.