Dream Theology: To boldly go where no Freudian has gone before

Due to my mad schedule of late with too many meetings, writing deadlines and seemingly endless crises to deal with, I haven’t been able to sleep well and finding myself needing to get up and work.  As such, I am reliving the days of having an infant in the house where waking up every hour leaves you in a state where lack of sleep renders the line between dream, nightmare and waking pretty dang blurry.  This is the space of liminality – a place between places as the conscious and unconscious crash together like waves in a storm without a shoreline to settle the feud. One of the great thinkers – if not THE greatest thinker – on the topic of this liminality of conscious and unconscious is Sigmund Freud.

In a letter dated September 21, 1897, we have one of the most famous letters of Sigmund Freud written to his friend Fliess.  Here we read an example of Freud’s notion of a dreamscape in this account:

I received a communication from the town council of my birthplace concerning the fees due for someone’s maintenance in the hospital in the year 1851, which had been necessitated by an attack he had had in my house. I was amused by this since, in the first place, I was not yet alive in 1851 and, in the second place, my father, to whom it might have related, was already dead. I went to him in the next room, where he was lying in his bed, and told him about it. To my surprise, he recollected that in 1851 he had once got drunk and had had to be locked up or detained. It was at a time at which he had been working for the firm of T____.’ So you used to drink as well?’ I asked; ‘did you get married soon after that?’ I calculated that, of course, I was born in1856, which seemed to be the year which immediately followed the year in question. (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, 1900: 436).

Now this dream appears in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams; where it is a part of a collection of dreams that Freud labels “absurd” dreams – dreams that negate fact – in this case the possibility of carrying on a conversation with one’s deceased male parent. A set of dreams that, as are often true of the sets of dreams that Freud presents in The Interpretation of Dreams, need to be read as a whole. They all concern fathers and the issue of a father’s death, and there’s at least a strong possibility that one of the other dreams which is not presented as a dream Freud’s own, may in fact be so.

Freud offers here a dream in which a ghost speaks, a type of dream he cites repeatedly. These dreams – all concerned with murderous sibling rivalry and/or the father’s downfall – share unconscious contents making their interpretations mutually relevant. Curiously enough, given this rich body of content and its reference to fathers and so on, the place at which Freud decides to take up the meaning of this dream is the number “five.” The exciting cause of the dream, Freud said – the “day-residue,” in his jargon – was his reaction to having heard the night before he had the dream that “a senior colleague of mine whose judgment was regarded as beyond criticism had given voice to disapproval and surprise that the fact that the psychoanalytic treatment of one of my patients had already entered its fifth year.”

At this point Freud begins to welcome the seemingly random and often bizarre as building blocks of our conscious life – fiction and imagination are welcomed players as much (at times even more so) than systematic facts. In short, Freud is welcoming the consult of Oedipus and Hamlet and the interpretation of art and literature into the supposed pure scientific realm. He is now less caught up in narrow, crass desires like solving the patient’s problems in a systematic manner, and instead he opens up the exploration of a new kind of relationship.

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams could be argued, as some have done, as being the first modern autobiography.  But an autobiography that is willing to blur the lines of fact and fiction – for maybe we need *both* in order to make any sense of life in the end.

When you read through The Interpretation of Dreams, you do not encounter a systematic and orthodox psychoanalytic text nor can you argue that the work represents a scientific document. The title itself is misleading in that throughout the entire work there is not a single fully interpreted dream. In a similar fashion to watching television where people surf in and out of programming when the action just gets going, all the interesting interpretations break off when they’re starting to get good, only to emerge a hundred pages later to be cross-referenced with another dream. This is certainly not a systematic treatise in any way.   Rather The Interpretation of Dreams is the recounting of the process by which Freud achieves his uniqueness as Freud, the creation of a persona and the creation of a process of writing life at its unconscious and conscious levels at once.  This process is ultimately a process that has something to do with Freud’s own neurosis after the death of his father. Furthermore, the dream work allows him to recapture powerful memories of his own past and to do something with them that, aside from rendering them less troubling, makes literature of them, allows him to speak in a powerful way of the things that really concern him: family romance, mythic history, fantasy.

There is always the question even after a century of reading and re-reading The Interpretation of Dreams whether the products of Freud’s mature genius belong with Science or with Art, with fact or with fiction but the subtle reading of psychodynamics which begins with The Interpretation of Dreams continues to provide the hermeneutic or interpretive ground for much of modern thought. The implications of his changed thinking about traumatic etiology point toward a recurrent issue in the dream book – personality structure is not so much discovered as created by analysis and the prototypical analysis is of the self as something known as much by construction as deconstruction. Looking back at his own history, while Freud had several models to display his views on the true nature of the human subject, it is in the form of the dream that Freud finds the paradigmatic vehicle for interpretation, as each image leads to others, stratified by epochal moments of emotional growth.

Is this not something to take on board as we consider how theology is construed in relation to how people live their fractured and seemingly disconnected lives?  When a life is put under systematic rigidity and asked to conform, we rarely (if ever) can succeed with any integrity.  However, the mash-up of selfhood that Freud offers: life as the stuff dreams are made of, blending and swirling in and out of consciousness and build upon fantasy, fiction, imagination and wonder as much as certainty, linear progression and will power.  Perhaps it is no accident that the Bible calls us back to dream time and time again – whether Joesph is interpreting dreams for the salvation of his people or whether the mark of the Church in Acts 2 is a place where, akin to the prophet Joel, dreams will be in tandem with visions for a new life and people.  Perhaps we are in an age seeking a ‘dream theology’ after all… a rendering of God and the implications of the Divine framed not by conscious reason but by the not-quite-waking wonder of dreams within dreams that grow and deepen beyond the limits of our wakeful reason.  To dream anew, to bear dreams of the future and live them into today… this is the task at hand.

Perhaps we do need to read Freud with our Barth… and our Margaret Wise Brown…

Goodnight nobody… goodnight mush… goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”…

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