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A Lacanian Approach to Dream Interpretation

Filip Kovacevic
University of Montenegro, Podgorica, Montenegro
In the century-old history of psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan was one of its
most controversial practitioners. Though found opaque and convoluted by
many, Lacans ideas have transcended the connes of psychoanalytic practice
and have since the 1960s been applied to the study of cultural, social, and
political processes and phenomena. In this article, the author presents the
main aspects of a Lacanian approach to the interpretation of dreams. He
examines Lacans reinterpretation of a crucial dream from Freuds classic
work Interpretation of Dreams: Freuds own dream of Irmas injection. He
shows the importance of Lacans conceptualization of the psyche as the
structure containing the registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real
for the interpretation of this dream. Furthermore, he demonstrates the
applicability of a Lacanian approach by interpreting several other dreams:
Descartes 3 dreams, which have determined the development of modern
science, and his own dream. The article is intended for all audiences and its
aim is to expand the number of theoretical approaches available in the eld
of dream interpretation.
Keywords: dreams, desire, death, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan
Many historians and scholars of psychoanalysis consider Jacques Lacan
(19011981) to have been one of the most talented, though controversial, psycho-
analysts, the so-called French Freud. Lacan himself thought that he was the most
faithful interpreter of Freuds ideas to such an extent that, in the 1950s, he
presented his year-long seminars to the French intellectual elite at the Paris
psychiatric hospital St. Anne under the title of a return to Freud.
Among many of Freuds ideas that Lacan discussed and commented upon in
these seminars, the key place was taken by the reexamination of Freuds rst
ground-breaking book Interpretation of Dreams (Traumdeutung) and certain dream
interpretations Freud presented there. In this article, I will offer a close reading of
Lacans analysis of Freuds dream interpretations to extract what can properly be
called a Lacanian approach to dream interpretations. Later, I will use this approach
to interpret certain dreams important for the history of philosophy, such as
Descartes three dreams.
Appropriately enough, Lacan mentioned Freuds book in the very rst public
seminar he gave, the seminar on Freuds technique in the academic 19531954.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Filip Kovacevic, Associate
Professor of Political Psychology and Psychoanalytic Theory, University of Montenegro, 81000
Podgorica, Montenegro. E-mail: lip@ac.me
78
Dreaming 2013 American Psychological Association
2013, Vol. 23, No. 1, 7889 1053-0797/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0032206
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Here he compared Freuds work on dreams with Maimonides Guide to the
Perplexed. Namely, the idea common to both Freud and Maimonides is that
discourse (be it a dream discourse or a public discourse under strict censorship)
reveals by its organization and style what cannot, or must not, be said openly.
1
This
is why Freud compared every dream to a rebus and posited the mechanisms of
condensation and displacement as keys to the interpretation of its meaning.
2
The
day-residues (Tagesresten), which, according to Freud, make up most of the dream
content acquire, within the dream structure, a meaning different from the one they
had during the day. The structure of the dream, brought into being by an
unconscious desire, which we only ever see silhouetted at back, assigns them a
role to play according to the utility they have for the desires covert manifestation.
3
This desire, according to Freudand Lacan put an added stress on this claimis
always addressed to an other, a person with whom the dreamer is in an intimate
emotional (transferential) relationship. For those undergoing an analysis, this
person is the analyst.
To provide an example of how exactly this works in practice, Lacan mentioned
the dream of a Freuds patient, of which the patient could recall just a single
wordthe word channel.
4
After a session of free-associating with Freud, the
patient recalled that the impetus for the dream was the French witticism ostensibly
commenting on the FrenchBritish relations, but which, in the actual dream, was
put into the service of expressing the patients unconscious attitude toward
psychoanalytic procedures. The untranslatable witticism goes, De sublime au
ridicule, il ny a quun pas. Oui, le Pas-de-Calais [that is, the English Channel].
5
Hence the key importance of the word channel.
A FREUDS DREAM
Although in Seminar I Lacan does offer several perceptive insights on Freuds
dream theory, he does not go into the extensive analysis of a single dream until the
second part of Seminar II, held the following year.
6
The dream in question is
Freuds own dream, which in the psychoanalytic literature came to be known as the
dream of Irmas injection. Heres the text of the entire dream:
A large hallmany guests, whom we receive. Among them Irma, whom I immediately take
aside, as if to answer her letter, and to reproach her that she doesnt accept the solution
yet. I say to her: If you still have pains, it is really only your fault She answers: If you knew
what pains I have now in my throat, stomach and abdomen, its tightening me up. I am
1
Lacan, Seminar I, p. 245.
2
Lacan, Seminar I, p. 266.
3
Lacan, Seminar I, p. 155.
4
Lacan, Seminar I, pp. 4546.
5
Literally, From the sublime to the ridiculous, there is but a step. Yes, the Step-of-Calais
[which is how the French call the English Channel].
6
In his seminars, Lacan very rarely mentioned Karl Jung, another great interpreter of dreams. But
there is a reference to him in the Seminar I, when Lacan, in passing, made a critique of Jungs theory
of the archetypes, rhetorically asking how are they truer than what is allegedly at the surface? Is what
is in the cellar always truer than what is in the attic? See Seminar I, p. 267. This critique has to do with
Lacans claim that truth is what is said in speech that is, what is on the surface, even if it is (very likely)
not heard.
Lacanian Approach to Dreams 79
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startled and look at her. She looks pallid and puffy; I think, after all I overlooking something
organic. I take her to the window and look into her throat. With that she shows some
resistance, like women who wear a denture. I think to myself, she doesnt need to do that.
Her mouth then opens properly, and I nd on the right a large white spot, and elsewhere I
see some remarkable curled structures which evidently are patterned on the nasal turbinal
bones, extensive white-gray scabs. I quickly call Dr. M., who repeats and conrms the
examination . . . Dr M. look entirely different from usual: he is very pallid, limps, is beardless
on the chin . . . My friend Otto now also stands next to her, and my friend Leopold percusses
her over the bodice and says: She has dullness below on the left, points also to an
inltrated portion of the skin on the left shoulder (which, I, in spite of the dress, just as he,
feel) . . . M. says: Without a doubt, its an infection, but it doesnt matter; dysentery will
follow and the poison will be eliminated . . . We also directly know where the infection
comes from. Recently my friend Otto, when she was not feeling well, gave her an injection
of a preparation of propyl, propylene . . . proprionic acid . . . trimethylamine (whose formula
I see in heavy type before me) . . . one doesnt give such injections lightly . . . Probably, the
syringe wasnt clean.
7
Lacans approach to interpreting this dream consists of interpreting it together
with Freuds own interpretation of it. For Lacan, both the dream and its
interpretation form a whole, which, if properly analyzed, could offer a signicant
insight not only into Freuds unconscious, but also into the structure of the
unconscious in general.
8
In other words, his framework includes two aspects. First, what Lacan called
imagining the symbol, that is, analyzing the transformation of the symbolic idea
into the image, which is the work of actual dreaming with the dream as the nal
product. And, second, symbolizing the image, transforming the given image into
the symbol, which is the work of actual dream interpretation. Here Lacan
introduced one of the ideas that marked his entire psychoanalytic opus, which is
that the unconscious is structured like a language.
9
This means that what is done
in dream interpretation is actually the kind of translation of the material which was
already translated once before. And, as in every other translation, certain shades of
meaning (sense) will inevitably be lost. This is why Lacan emphasized Freuds
correctness in claiming that no dream could be completely analyzedthere is
always something that cannot be recalled on awakening. In this particular
case, as Lacan pointed out, Freud consciously decided not to pursue certain
associations and so the full meaning of his dream will forever remain unknown.
10
Yet, there is still quite a lot to analyze.
THE EGO AND THE DESIRE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
For Lacan, the reason that this dream is important is that it can help him reveal
what he claimed is the true nature of the ego. In the early 1950s, this was the hot
7
Quoted in Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1988). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The
Ego in Freuds Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 19541955 (Sylvana Tomaselli, Trans).
New York, NY: Norton, 1988, pp. 148149.
8
Lacan, Seminar II, pp. 152, 163.
9
Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The four
fundamental principles of Psychoanalysis, 19641965 (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
pp. 149, 203.
10
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 152.
80 Kovacevic
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topic in the psychoanalytic circles.
11
The signicant number of very inuential
psychoanalysts, including Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, and Lacans own analyst
Rudolf Loewenstein, subscribed to the view that the key task of psychoanalysis was
to strengthen the ego. The strong ego was supposed to balance out the demands of
the superego on one hand and the id on the other and to enable the individual to
lead a psychologically fullling and stable existence. For instance, in an article that
Lacan cited in the Seminar II, Erik Erikson examined the dream of Irmas injection
and interpreted it as revealing the stages of Freuds ego development.
12
Lacan
strongly disputed this conclusion and rejects the idea that strengthening the ego
should have anything to do with the psychoanalytic cure. The individuals ego
cannot be the analysts ally because it is, according to Lacan, radically contingent
considering that it is made up of the subjects imaginary identications and
narcissistic fantasies. In Lacans picturesque analogy, the ego is like the superim-
position of various coats borrowed from . . . the bric-a-brac of its prop depart-
ment.
13
The ego is a mask whose function is to censor and repress the articulation
of unconscious desire. And, for Lacan, this is precisely what Freuds dream of
Irmas injection shows.
This is why Lacan voiced his suspicion of Freuds claim that this dream
provides for the fulllment of Freuds desire not to be held responsible for the
failure of Irmas treatment.
14
This is no doubt the preconscious (ego) desire, but
what about the unconscious desire, which, in Lacans view, reveals the subject truly
desires? How and where is this desire manifesting itself?
In attempting to uncover the unconscious desire of the dreamer, Lacans
methodology is straightforward and in line with his claim about the linguistic nature
of the unconscious. As pointed out, Lacan put an interpreting emphasis both on the
text of the dream and the text of Freuds interpretation, and not only on the claims
of the dreamer Freud.
15
What becomes apparent very quickly is the multiplicity (more precisely,
tripling) of dream gures. There appear to be three male and three female gures.
The three male gures (Dr. M, Otto, and Leopold)Lacan refers to them as the
trio of clownsare all there for a reason: all three have important functions in
the structure of Freuds psyche. In other words, according to Lacan, they are all
sites of identications which constituted Freuds ego.
16
Dr. M, for instance, stood
for Freuds imaginary father who, as Lacan reported, had the real-life equivalent in
Freuds half-brother Emmanuel, who was the same age as Freuds mother and was
the principal object of Freuds aggressive Oedipal tendencies. Otto and Leopold, on
the other hand, represented rival friend/enemy gures with which Freud alternately
identied. The presence of all three, according to Lacan, testies to Freuds being
in the midst of intense inner questioning and uncertainty regarding his work: Am
11
This perennial, one can even say the eternal, question is still not conclusively resolved.
12
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 148. Erikson, E. (1954). The dream specimen of psychoanalysis. Journal of
American Psychoanalytic Association, 2, 556.
13
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 155.
14
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 151.
15
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 153.
16
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 156.
Lacanian Approach to Dreams 81
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I right or wrong? Where is the truth? Where am I placed? What is the meaning of
neurosis and the psychoanalytic cure?
17
Moreover, the three female guresIrma as the central one, but also the much
less visible Freuds wife and another more attractive patient of a colleague (who
surfaced in Freuds own interpretation of the dream)stood for Freuds concern
with the sexual nature of unconscious desire. In fact, one of the two crucial
transformative moments of the dream occurs when Freud looked into Irmas
mouth. In Lacans words, everything blends in and becomes associated in this
image, from the mouth to the female sexual organ . . . [it is] the esh one never sees,
the foundation of things . . .
18
It is the sight carrying in its wake profound anxiety
and, as Freuds own interpretation shows, the image of death, which he
associated with the recent nearly fatal illness of his daughter Mathilde and the
actual death of the patient with the same name.
19
And so, the key question for
Lacan remains the following: confronted with the anxiety-provoking situation, why
does Freud not wake up?
In Lacans view, the explanation has to do with the strength of Freuds desire
to discover the secret of the dream life.
20
Freud was committed to persist even with
extreme anxiety all around. Still, the confrontation with the image of death does
have an impact on the dream. According to Lacan, Freuds ego dissolved into the
series of egos, the series consisting of Dr. M, Otto, and Leopold.
21
These various
ego-identications had a function of helping Freud come up with the answer to
his enigma about dreams. And, then, all of the sudden the answer popped up: Its
the formula for trimethylamine, which Freud saw in heavy type (in symbols)
before him. For Lacan, the sudden appearance of this formula is the second crucial
transformative moment of the dream. It reveals the predominance of the symbolic
function in the constitution of the stable identity out of the endless succession of
identications. In other words, prior to signication and speech, the subject is, in
Lacans terminology, in-mixed with things and objects and they exist only as his
or her ego-images. It is only with the emergence of the symbolic order (speech and
language)
22
that there appears the neutral ground for the resolution of all
imaginary rivalries and the foundation of (intersubjective) truth. Dreams could not
exist without language. In fact, they are an enigmatic language that one can
decipher if one takes the text of the dream literally.
As for Lacan, he used the dream of Irmas injection to score a point in his
broader argument on the linguistic nature of the unconscious. He took this dream
as the account of Freuds heroic confrontation with anxiety and death to wrest the
truth of dreams and, in the fashion of Prometheus, bring it to the people. And this
17
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 157.
18
Lacan, Seminar II, pp. 154155.
19
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 164.
20
In fact, Lacan says that the Irma dream is the dream of someone who is trying to nd out what
dreams are. Lacan, Seminar II, p. 137.
21
Lacan, Seminar II, pp. 164165.
22
Lacan also called this order the big other as it is always beyond the subject and his or her ego
identications. In this context, Freuds statement to his correspondent and friend W. Fliess becomes
understandabledreams are located in another psychic locality. Lacan, Seminar II, p. 131.
82 Kovacevic
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emerging truth has all the ingredients of Hegels cunning of reason, because the
irrational turns out to be rational after all: dreams speak.
23
The analysis of dreams therefore should be structurally similar to logical and
grammatical analysis. Here Lacan relied on the advances in modern linguistics,
especially the formulations regarding metaphor and metonymy. For Lacan, meta-
phor is structurally similar to condensation and metonymy to displacement.
Because the laws of dreaming are the laws of language,
24
Lacan rejected anything
that may appear as an intuitive approach to dream interpretation.
25
There is no
arbitrariness in dreams. The structure can be revealed if one follows the correct
methodology.
DREAM, DEATH, AND THE REAL
The claim that dreams may point to a structure, a register, or a reality more
fundamental for the subject than the ordinary, waking reality is substantiated by
Lacan in his discussion of two particularly distressing dreams conveyed to Freud by
his patients. The rst dream is from Freuds 1911 article Formulations Regarding
the Two Principles of Mental Functioning and is dreamed by Freuds patient who
had taken care of his father while the old man was sick and dying. The dream was
dreamed after the fathers death and went as follows (paraphrased by Lacan): His
father was alive once more and he was talking to him in his usual way. But he felt
it exceedingly painful that his father had really died, only without knowing it.
26
Freuds interpretation sounds simple enough. The dreamer actually wished his
father to die because the father in his illness suffered so much and it was the fact
that the fathers suffering had not ended that made seeing him alive painful to the
dreamer. Freud believed that the key to the dream interpretation was the insertion
of the short phrase as the dreamer wished the father to die into the dream. The
original, infantile (Oedipal) wish was in this way disclosed and the dream turned
out to concern the very core of the dreamers identity. Lacan pointed out that this
dream is structured as a metaphor, because it revealed something new which has
a meaning . . . no doubt enigmatic . . . [but] one of the most essential forms of
human experience.
27
It provided additional evidence for Freuds basic claim about
the ambivalence of feeling toward the parents. In this dream, the father as the rival
was wished into disappearance, and yet the fathers death left the dreamer
defenseless against his own death.
28
This is so because, according to Lacan, the
father is a sort of shield . . . a substitution for the absolute master, death.
29
And
this is why he did not know refers as much to the dreamer as to the father who
is dead. The he did not know shows that the dreamer (and all human beings)
prefer ignorance to facing the hard fact of death, that all who are born must die.
23
Lacan, Seminar II, p. 168.
24
See Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1993). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The
Psychoses, 19551956 (Russell Grigg, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton; dreams speak the same way as
one speaks, p. 10.
25
Lacan, Seminar III, p. 239.
26
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of November 26, 1958.
27
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of November 26, 1958.
28
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of December 10, 1958 and the session of December 17, 1958.
29
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of January 7, 1958.
Lacanian Approach to Dreams 83
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In connection to this dream, Lacan also told of Trotskys dream of Lenin after
Lenins death. Namely, Trotsky dreamed of Lenin praising him on his health and
could not bring himself to tell Lenin that he had died, so he replied yes, but the
things are not as good as during the time before you were unwell. In other words,
according to Lacan, Trotsky wanted to face neither his own wishes for Lenin to die
nor the fact of his own imminent death. Just like Freuds patient, he at the same
time wanted to get rid of the father and keep being shielded by him.
30
In this and other seminars, Lacan referred to the realm of the absolute master,
the realm of death as the register of the Real. The Real is that reality or a register
beyond any articulation, of which nothing can be said, except that it exists. Certain
dreams, according to Lacan, bring the subject to the precipice of the Real and it is
precisely this that causes the awakening. The awakening is therefore a sort of
escape into the structured symbolic reality where the subject has his or her place
that is, identity xed and dened by the others.
An example of such a dream is the dream Freud described in the last chapter
of his Traumdeutung. It is a dream of a father who has gone to sleep in a room
adjacent to the room where his sons dead body is laid. The father is awakened by
his sons reproach Father, cant you see that I am burning? and rushes to the next
room just in time to witness that one of the candle-holders had been overturned and
that his sons body was indeed on re.
31
Lacan posed the key questions: What is the
meaning of this chilling coincidence? What kind of desire is satised? And,
nallythe question that in his analysis of dreams Lacan always found the most
interestingwhat wakes the dreamer?
32
According to Lacan, the image that awakes the dreamer is the one that brings
him or her the closest to the realm of the Real, to the dreamers disappearance as
the ego.
33
It is exactly the anxiety of this encounter, this trauma that precipitates the
escape into the waking life. In this particular dream, the anxiety must have involved
the relationship between the father and the son. Freud mentioned nothing about it,
but I think we are justied in speculating that this relationship had its share of
ambivalence on both sides. What wakes the father was coming face to face with the
sons direct complaint (which was likely never voiced during the sons lifetime) and
which led to the intensication of the fathers guilt. The dream can therefore be
seen as fullling the fathers desire to address the secret antipathies of his son
toward him. But the cruelty of death has eliminated forever the possibility of
reconciliation. This is why Lacan claims that this dream (as perhaps any dream that
brings us to the edge of the Real) is an act of homage to the missed realitythe
reality that can no longer produce itself except by repeating itself endlessly, in some
never attained awakening.
34
30
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of January 7, 1958.
31
Lacan, Seminar XI, pp. 34, 5556. There is evidence that the child in question was a son, though
Freud in retelling the dream used the term child, which does not specify gender.
32
Lacan, Seminar XI, p. 57. See also the earlier discussion of Freuds dream of the Irmas injection.
33
The Real is to be sought beyond the dreamin what the dream has enveloped, hidden from
us, behind the lack of representation. Lacan, Seminar XI, p. 60.
34
Lacan, Seminar XI, p. 58.
84 Kovacevic
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PRELIMINARY CONCLUSIONS
Based on the discussion above, I can now formulate several basic rules of the
Lacanian approach to dreaming which I will then apply in interpreting Descartes
three dreams as well as my own dream. It is clear right away that Lacan was heavily
dependent on Freuds formulations but has more explicitly stated certain things
that Freud left obscure. First, every dream is an address to an other, that is, to a
signicant other in ones life. In most cases, this other is a family member, a friend,
or, if the dreamer is in an analysis (as Freuds patients were of course), then the
other is the analyst. Second, the issue of the ego is crucial in dream interpretation
in the sense that all gures in the dream are the ego identications of the dreamer.
The key point of dream interpretation is to uncover these identications, recognize
them for what they are, and, in doing so, give expression to the unconscious desire
they are articulating. The articulation of the unconscious desire means bringing the
dreamer the knowledge of his or her personal another locality (the unconscious),
which, according to both Freud and Lacan, represents the true motivating source of
his or her actions. Third, as far as the method of the interpretation goes, one must
treat the text of the dream as a censored but sacred text, because, as Lacan put it,
what [the dream] articulates as not to be said is precisely what it has to say
35
Therefore, all that transpires in the dream is to be read as the combination of
metaphor and metonymy, trying to make sense of the fact of human mortality, the
fact of death. We awaken when we go as far as we can before the veil is rent, the
veil that hides the realm of the absolute master, the realm of the Real from which
we came and to which we will return.
APPLICATION 1: THE THREE DREAMS OF DESCARTES
There are hardly more important dreams in the history of philosophy than the
three dreams Descartes dreamed on the night of November 10, 1619 when he was
23 years old. These dreams, as we will see, are all related to the intense questioning
about the meaning of his life that preoccupied the young Descartes at the time.
After waking up, Descartes seems to have acquired the necessary determination to
seek a method that could lead him (as well as the others who followed the rules of
this method) to absolute certainty. The dreams were as follows:
36
Dream 1
A whirlwind revolves him violently upon his left heel. Later a strong wind forces him to bend
over to the left. He is terried by phantoms and experiences a constant feeling of falling. He
imagines he will be presented with a melon that comes from a far-off land. The wind abates
and he wakes up.
35
Lacan, Seminar VI, the session of December 10, 1958.
36
Retrieved from http://www.phantazm.net/omni/dreams_and_visions/descartes_3_visions.htm
Lacanian Approach to Dreams 85
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Dream 2
Claps of thunder wakes him. When he opens his eyes, the air seems lled with sparks ying
around his room.
Dream 3
All is quiet. Before him two books. A dictionary, which appeares sterile and dry, of little
interest. The other is a compendium of poetry entitled Corpus Poetarum in which appeares
a union of philosophy with wisdom. Descartes opens it at random and reads the verse of
Ausonius, Quod vitae sectabor iter (What path shall I take in life?). A stranger appeares
and quotes him the verse Est et non (Yes and no).Descartes wants to show him where in
the anthology it could be found, but the book disappeares and reappeares. He tells the man
he will show him a better verse beginning Quod vitae sectabor iter. At this point the man,
the book, and the whole dream dissolve.
The metaphor that characterizes the rst dream is the violent whirlwind. It is
expressive of Descartes search for different signiers to augment his identity,
which, at the time, is in ux. He is no longer able to walk down the habitual path.
The old ways of doing things cannot satisfy him anymore, they breed phantoms,
terrifying beings with unclear identity. A Lacanian approach would stress Des-
cartes desire for some kind of change, for new things in his life which, in the dream,
are represented by a melon from a far-off land. This melon, which in the early
17th century Germany must have been a rare and expensive gift, can be interpreted
as that special signier that Descartes was looking for to differentiate himself from
the rest (from his soldier acquaintances, for instance), especially since the melon in
November is way out of the season. It appears that Freud, when shown this dream,
found some sexual signicance in the appearance of the melon.
37
In any case, it is
clear that the melon is the object of desire, offering some kind of fulllment. This
is plausible because as soon as the thought of the melon takes hold, the wind (the
danger) is lessened and Descartes wakes up. There appear to be no clearly
discernible ego identications in this dream and perhaps this is why the entire
dream scene (before the thought-image of the melon) shows such an intense
agitation and anxiety.
Soon Descartes falls asleep again and has a very brief second dream. The
dream involves auditory sensations (the claps of thunder). One can interpret this
dream as an unsuccessful and therefore aborted unconscious grappling with the
issues of identity (ones vocation in life). Because Descartes awakens quickly, the
key issue remains unresolved and Descartes has to dream again.
The third dream is obviously the most signicant. Here at the very beginning
we have an image of two books. They are the signiers of learning and knowledge
and point to Descartes preoccupations at the time of the dream. There is the
dictionary, sterile and dry, not so interesting to him because it represents the old
knowledge, the knowledge that is already codied by somebody else, the knowl-
edge of the symbolic order into which he was born. On the other hand, what
Descartes is after is new knowledge and new ways of knowing. The second book
Corpus Poetarum is to him much more signicant, because poetry represents
37
Retrieved from http://marilynkaydennis.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/
86 Kovacevic
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creativity and originality (remember the melon from the rst dream). Instead of
the melon, in this dream we have the poetic body (the title of the book).
According to Lacans approach, the title is to be interpreted literally as meaning
that Descartes ego-identication is precisely the one with the poetic body which
would enable him to open up new and innovative paths to knowledge. After all, the
poets have historically been the trailblazers and the creators of new things and this
is why Descartes wants to identify with them. He then reads a verse of the poet
Ausonius: Quod vitae sectabor iter (What path shall I take in life?). It is a
fundamental question and a question always asked of the other. This question is
akin to the question made well-known by Lacan in his graph of desireChe vuoi?
What do you want of me?asks the subject of the other.
38
It is not surprising then
that the other immediately acquires an embodiment in Descartes dream. A
stranger appears and quotes him a verse Est et non (yes or no). This is a nonsense
answer to the postulated question, but it is the kind of answer that the other
typically gives, because the other does not know him/herself what he or she wants.
The fact that the question what do you want of me? gets the answer Yes or no
means that the being of the subject is in question: Descartes has to decide whether
he really exists or not. But, as the dream shows, the answer to the question of being
cannot be found in the anthology. The book disappears and reappears. It is the
question that comes very close to the edge of the Real, the question of human
mortality and death. The other (the stranger) leads Descartes away from the
plunge into anxiety (the return to the rst dream and the whirlwind) by his offer
to help Descartes nd the desired verse. However, this cannot be done as death is
inevitable for all. This is why at this point the man, the book, and the whole dream
dissolve. The encounter with the Real and the attendant anxiety initiated the
subjects escape into the waking reality.
The interpretation of these three dreams shows the usefulness of the Lacanian
approach as it stresses the key issues of the subjects identity formation and its
relation to the other and the symbolic order in which he or she is embedded. The
dreams give the sought-after direction in Descartes life and put him on the track
of the discovery of a method that promises to solve the mystery of being. As
Descartes later put it Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The derivation
of being from thinking is no doubt something one could have expected from a
person who in his dreams identied himself with poets.
APPLICATION 2: THE AUTHORS DREAM
In lieu of the conclusion, I would like to offer a Lacanian interpretation of the
dream I had while I was putting the nishing touches on the article. It is a dream
I had on the morning of April 16, 2011. Though it does not refer to the article in any
noticeable way, it is one of the dreams that show the dreamer encountering the
edge of the Real and hence conrms the importance of Lacans insights on this
matter. The dream goes as follows:
38
See Lacan, J. The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian
Unconscious, Ecrits, 690. (2006) (B. Fink with H. Fink & R. Grigg, Trans.) New York, NY: Norton.
Lacanian Approach to Dreams 87
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I am on a tourist trip in some tropical country, which has similar churches like my native
Montenegro and neighboring Croatia. The town I am in is by the sea and has a big square
and the big statue of the Venetian lion on the top of the hill. While I am taking photos of the
square, there begins an armed attack of the rebels on the police forces. There is gunre,
bombs are thrown, and I am in the middle of it all. I seem not to be able to escape and the
soldiers [the police] surround me. When the soldiers surround me and I cannot escape, as
they think I am also a rebel, I wake up in fear. [While I am waking up, I have a thought that
I would have been out of the square by the time the attack began had I not returned to
photograph some enigmatic and beautiful buildings.]
Just like in the dreams previously discussed, here as well there is a discernible
dissatisfaction with the status quo on the part of the dreamer. It is important for the
dream interpretation for me to say that, as an independent intellectual, I am a
well-known public critic of the current government in Montenegro. The practices of
the government are far from democratic, and I have criticized these practices over
a long period of time both in my newspaper columns and in my statements to
various Montenegrin media. Also, it is important to note that the dream scenery
and architecture remind me of my hometown. Hence the entire dream setting is
appears to be a movie-like dramatization of my daily life.
However, the key issue from the Lacanian approach to dreams is the search for
the ego-identications in the dream and the way the tension between them (and the
resulting encounter with the Real) is resolved. This dream shows that there is plenty
of unresolved tension in my identity constitution. In other words, I still have not
integrated into my identity the signiers necessary to make me a decisive and
condent rebel. The dream shows this clearly: When the soldiers surround me,
thinking that I may be their enemy and I realize that I cannot escape, I wake up.
Finding myself in the dangerous situation, I escape into the waking reality, taking
the emotion experienced in the situation with me as well. I do not, for instance,
confront the soldiers and convincingly explain to them that they are mistaken. Or,
alternatively, I do not remain in the dream and ght them back. No, I run
awayand this shows that I still need to work on strengthening my (conscious)
rebel identity.
In the end, it is also curious to consider the thought I had while waking up. It
appears that I was willing to expose myself to danger in order to photograph some
enigmatic and beautiful buildings. It is here that I think that my motivating
(unconscious) desire is revealed. It appears that I am willing to take risks and be a
rebel for the sake of personal aesthetic and hence libidinal considerations. My
romantic disposition that (in the words of Dostoevsky) beauty will save the world
may therefore be the most revealing aspect of this dream, but (just as in The
Brothers Karamazov) there is a heavy price to pay to remain faithful to it.
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Freud, S. (2010). The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Denitive Text (J. Strachey, Trans.).
New York, NY: Basic Books.
Lacan, J. (2011). Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VI: Desire and Its Interpretation,
19581959 (C. Gallagher, Trans.), unpublished manuscript.
Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental
Principles of Psychoanalysis, 19641965 (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1988). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freuds Papers on
Technique, 19531954, p. 245 (J. Forrester, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
88 Kovacevic
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NY: Norton.
Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (Ed.) (1993). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses,
19551956 (Russell Grigg, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
Lacan, J. (2006). The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious,
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Lacanian Approach to Dreams 89
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u
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a
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.