Die Traumdeutung

I’ve been reading Freud all week.  The Interpretation of Dreams.  Occasionally, by way of antidote, I pause and read a few pages of James Thurber’s Let Your Mind Alone!  Then I return to the Herr Doktor Professor with renewed scepticism and say in a Columbus Ohio drawl, “Well, I’m not so sure about that!”

Freud’s thesis is that all dreams are meaningful.  He opposed the view that dreams are the mind’s way of sifting memories and discarding rubbish much as you would put waste paper through a shredder.  The discarded memories are all incoherent and disjointed like ticker tape.  But he went much further.  He said that all dreams without exception are wish fulfilments.

I can see why this idea met a lot of resistance.  I only have to look at my own dreams.  I have three recurring dreams.  (Freud called such dreams “perennial” and said he didn’t experience them.)  I will describe them in reverse chronological order.

After I stopped practising medicine I dreamt about medicine every night, without fail, night after night, for months.  For a long time I was on permanent night shift, with no nights off.  In my dream I am working in a hospital emergency department, at night.  I am trying to deal with some ghastly complicated clinical problem, I’m not making headway, and meanwhile the patient backlog is piling up.  And the dream seems to go on all night.  When I finally wake, there is a tremendous sense of relief that I no longer have to grapple with the complicated problem.  But there’s also a nagging sense that I am walking out on my colleagues at the end of my shift, leaving them to sort out all my unfinished business.

My second recurring dream relates to music.  Just before I went to Medical School I was playing viola in a number of ensembles.  My teacher was the principal viola of the Scottish National Orchestra (SNO, now RSNO), and occasionally he would smuggle me into the SNO and I would rehearse with them throughout the week and then play concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Now from time to time I still dream I am playing in the SNO – but in the present and with lapsed facility.  I’m sitting in the orchestra waiting to be identified as the person making the dreadful noise.  The conductor will dismiss me.  It will be a very public humiliation.  This dream even spills over into my waking life.  I recently ran into a retired RSNO member who invited me to play some chamber music.  I felt an intense sense of unease and, in explaining why I really wasn’t up to it, I said, “You’ve got to remember that when I played viola professionally it was so long ago that viola jokes hadn’t even been invented.”   He laughed and said, “That in itself is a viola joke.”  I did recently play in an amateur gig with an RSNO viola player and I told her of my dream.  She said she wasn’t in the least surprised.  She had a recurring dream in which she mistakes the orchestra dress code and turns up for a concert in the wrong attire.

But my third and oldest recurring dream has become the most bizarre and surreal.  In this dream I am a pupil back at school.  I started having this dream not long after I left, when I was 17, so at first my dream was not anomalous.  I remember a couple of guys who were 19 before they left.  One had had a protracted illness and the other a background of exotic foreign travel.

The school itself, in Glasgow’s west end, is accurately represented in the dream, (it looks like an open plan penitentiary) and I usually find myself in the first floor corridor of the north wing, just west of Room 11, where I studied mathematics for five years.  I have lost my class.  I am struggling with my timetable, trying to interpret where I ought to be.  I am dreading entering the classroom because, as with the SNO dream, I am dreaming this in real time and I know the idea of a middle-aged man still at school, and in school uniform, is utterly ridiculous.

If these dreams are wish fulfilments then the wishes are surely deeply concealed.  When Freud’s patients pointed out to him that many of their dreams were unpleasant, he explained that the wish-fulfilling aspect of the dream had merely been distorted and the distortion could often be explained in terms of events in the patient’s waking life, often on the day before the dream.  If Freud could not interpret the dream, he even had a fall-back position that seems to me a kind of reductio ad absurdum:  the patient had dreamed the dream to have the satisfaction of proving Freud wrong.

It is clear that my three recurring dreams are all anxiety dreams.  Further, they concern the relationship of an individual (me), to a large society or organisation.  They have the Kafkaesque quality of a vulnerable individual up against an impersonal and inimical authority.  And there is the dread of the vulnerable individual being exposed as an impostor.  I relate most of this to my school life.

When I was about thirteen, I and my class mates were given, as a home reader, The History of Henry Esmond by Thackeray.  The assignment was quite simply to read Henry Esmond with a view to answering a question on it in an examination.  No help was offered.  You may say that quarter was neither asked nor given.

There was never any possibility that I would read Henry Esmond.  I can’t remember how I got round that, but I do remember doing rather well with a character sketch of Mr Micawber, not having read David Copperfield.  I think I stole it out of a crib.  School taught me how to cheat.  I came away under the impression that the way to get on in life was to fake it.

Not that our teachers were unkind.  I think many of them felt as incarcerated as we did.  I remember towards the end of my final year, I wandered into the school one morning at quarter to ten, smack into the headmaster at the front gate.  He gave me a look of pained indulgence and wished me good morning.  We both knew the game was up.  I’d overstayed my welcome.  Time to move on.  At the end, after the prize-giving and all that, Miss Watson (principal maths) offered me a cigarette.  Maybe that has a Freudian interpretation.  But shouldn’t I have been offering the cigarette to Miss Watson?  Perhaps not.  As Freud himself said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I’m not sure if I’m fulfilling a wish in returning to school.  But I have a notion why I sometimes go and walk around its shadowy and insubstantial domain.  (Or is it I who am the ghost?)  I’ve got some piece of unfinished business there, and I can’t for the life of me think what it is.  There’s something I didn’t do, which I ought to have done, while I was there.  So I go back, from time to time, and wander the corridors, and struggle with my timetable, and think, what is it that I should have done, while I was here, that I failed to do?  What did I omit?  What have I forgotten?  What is that one thing that I failed to do?

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