Freud, Bakhin, and the Human Dream

The following represents a one-page tutorial I prepared for the graduate-level section of my Contemporary Literary Theory Course. I have reproduced it here as means of keeping the blog in continued conversation with itself. The issues addressed represent continuations of previous discussions, and also suggest topics which may find future voice in the blog.

The Structuralist theory of Frye and Levi-Strauss suggests that novelistic form is a cultural displacement of mythic forms which modernity compels us to censor and repress (98-99, 126). However, as McKeon proposes, the novel might also be fruitfully seen, through the lens of Freud’s dream-work schema, not as the displaced object itself (that found in the dream-content), but as a type of long-form dream interpretation. To look at the novel in this way suggests that whatever displacement has happened (either for Freud’s individual dreamer or for the society as a whole) has done so before maturity (i.e., modernity, adulthood) arrives on the scene. We might take myth to represent a sort of dream-stage of humanity, in which the individual elements of our collective human dream-wish have been condensed and displaced–and significantly overdetermined–in the archetypes of the myth-mind. Modernity, then, can be conceived as mankind’s collective awakening and subsequent (ongoing) attempt at a “talking cure”: the various artistic and social forms (including the novel) represent our various attempts at a macro-level dream interpretation.

For the child Freud describes in “Family Romances,” fantasies allow the appropriate and necessary “freeing of [the] individual” which must occur as he grows up (156). These fantasies take some seemingly distorted forms, but Freud points to the fact that they “still preserve, under a slight disguise, the child’s original affection for his parents” (158). By conceiving of himself as a changeling, the actual son of an Emperor and Empress, for example, the child projects into fantasy the ideal qualities he once placed within the parents themselves, but which have since become disillusioned in the child’s more mature and intelligent critique of his parents. A child who emerges successfully (into ‘normality’ as Freud conceives it) is one who can eventually reposition himself as an individual in relationship to the individuals represented by his parents (cf. Hegel).

So also, as Bakhtin points out, does the novel represent a human tendency to dislodge tradition, to “destroy this boundary” between the “valorized” (328) temporal space of myth and the “openendedness” of “still-evolving contemporary reality” (323). For his conviction that “[t]he epic past…lacks any relativity, that is, any gradual, purely temporal progressions that might connect it with the present,” we might find an analogy both in the mindset of Freud’s child as well as in the content of the dream as received by the dreamer upon waking (323).

The parents of the small child in Freud’s “Family Romance” represent “the only authority and the source of all belief,” and are thus initially valorized and idealized in his mind. It is by a process of relativization – one that, similar to the relativizing force presented by Bakhtin, occurs through a process of increased intelligence and external comparison – that the child comes to be disillusioned of the valorized parents and thereby achieves his individuality.

Freud’s dream-content likewise lacks temporal continuity. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explores the difficulty presented by attempts to narrate dream-content as a series of causes and effects, of beginnings and endings – in short, in terms of the same logical relationships modernity associates with ‘development’ – concluding that “dreams have no means at their disposal for representing these logical relations,” but rather “reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time” (NATC, 2nd Edition, p. 821-22). That Freud leaves the task of (re)establishing these connections to the “interpretive process” is significant to Bakhtin’s understanding of “novelization,” which concerns itself directly with abolishing the “distance” associated with an atemporal worldview in the interest of understanding “contemporary reality” (328).

Further Questions:

  1. How does the destruction of distance explored by Bakhtin in the first section of our reading (“Epic and Novel…”) inform or play-out in his discussion of Novelistic Discourse?
  2. Bakhtin gives us a model of the novel “on the border between the completed, dominant literary language and the extraliterary languages that know heteroglossia” (337). How might this model inform our reading of James and Jamesian style?

About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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