Say the name Sigmund Freud and the first thing that should come to mind is a patient lying on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud’s seminal works and theories are almost rarely used in the world of psychiatry today, as least not in any pure, undiluted sense. Freud’s theories remain at the forefront of the creative process, however. Music, painting, literature and especially films also contain codes and symbols
and critical engagement that can be traced back to Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. That book, The Interpretation of Dreams, began life as a kind of playbook for the psychiatrist to use in developing a plan for psychologically interpreting the dreams of his patient, with the analyst converting events in the story of the dream into symbols that could be decoded to unlock subconscious desires too painful for the patient to admit.
The way Freud interpreted it, the dream is a manifestation whereby the repressed desires attempt to rise into consciousness in the form of a decidedly avant-garde film peopled with characters, setting and plots all meant to disguise the dreamer’s secret, hidden wishes. While Freud’s standing in the field of psychology has ebbed and flowed over the years, The Interpretation of Dreams has ascended to the level of textbook—most often never acknowledged and often never even read—used by the practitioners of the creative arts. Nearly every piece of symbolism used in painting, writing and film since the book’s release can be directly traced back to The Interpretation of Dreams. Indeed, Freudian shorthand has become the preferred methodology for building on the subconscious of fictional characters.
The book itself tracks the evolution of dream interpretation throughout history, including the ancient concept of a dream as prophesy of future events. In other chapters, Freud considers some of the direct methods for how he originated his own theories of dream interpretation. He also considers some of the other prevalent
theories for interpreting dreams. Maybe the most fascinating part of the book—in a creepy voyeuristic sort of way—are the many examples of actual patient case studies that Freud then interprets using his own methodology.
Equally interesting and more than likely the most useful parts of the book are those that compare the dream process to the creative process. It is striking that Sigmund Freud appears to be championing the idea of the author of a work art as integral to its conception while at the same time suggesting that the author remains somewhat independent from the interpretation of the work. He achieves this through his suggestion that it is the poet’s mind that confronts the reader, but that poet himself is distanced from the creative process by working subconsciously. In other words, many times a writer may not be entirely cognizant of his true intention. Freud says of Hamlet the character that it is only Shakespeare’s mind at work in his dialogue. This expresses a point of view consistent with the generally held belief that the author is the only legitimate expression of any thoughts expressed in a piece of literature and in this way Freud is positioned in a way that is directly at odds to the late 20th century literary theory calling for the death of the author. Yet at the same time, Freud also seems to be looking forward to this movement in literary theory when he asserts that writing of a truly creative type is the product of more than one individual motive and more than one impulse in the writer’s mind.
The latter theory is far more consistent with the idea that it is the reader who interprets meaning rather the author in that it expresses the concept that though the author is the writer, he may not necessarily possess the ultimate knowledge about what he has written. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud compares creative writing to dreaming, going on to suggest that the writer may be in state of mind not entirely unlike what we mean when we say someone is possessed. The muse in this case, however, is not some Godlike being as put forth by the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, but rather the repressed, unconfronted fears and desires in the writer that are being expressed in such a way that even he is not aware. This conception of the writer being the source of everything in what he writes, but not the unquestioned arbiter of the content situates Freud rather satisfactorily as a compromise between the deification and the execution of the author.