Such stuff as dreams are made of

Such stuff as dreams are made of

Empire of the Mind

Gurucharan Gollerkeri the former civil servant enjoys traversing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers, and books

Sigmund Freud set out, in his own words, “to understand some of the mysteries of this world”, and much of what he discovered emerged from his striving to understand himself. His often controversial ideas went on to influence every aspect of social relations, contemporary culture and literary theory; and in more ways than one, psychology as a discipline, even today, lives in his shadow. In contextualising his theory of psychoanalysis and its relevance to modern thinking, readers of all levels will find him fascinating and at once challenging. Freud’s true impact is on how we think, and how we think about how we think.

Born in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud studied medicine at the University of Vienna, receiving his medical degree in 1881. For much of his life, Freud lived and worked in Vienna, till in 1938, to escape persecution by the Nazis, he went to the United Kingdom, where he died an exile in 1939.

The 20th century qualifies as the Freudian century, comparable in its impact only with Darwin and Marx. Whatever we, in this century, choose to believe about the workings of the human mind, we will remain indebted to Freud; a debt that involves either critiquing or subscribing to his foundational ideas.

Freud’s theory, psychoanalysis, pioneered new ways of understanding the conflicting emotions that make up our daily lives -- love, hate, childhood, sexuality, and fantasy. In its scope and transformative power, Freud’s work represents a core of ideas that the poet WH Auden best described ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’, when he wrote: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd/to us he is no more a person now/but a whole climate of opinion/under which we conduct our different lives.

First published in 1899, Freud’s ground-breaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams, explores why we dream and why dreams matter in our psychological lives. Delving into case histories and real-dream experiences, Freud brilliantly analyses the contents -- manifest and latent – of dreams and presents the special language of dreams, dreams as wish fulfilment, and the significance of childhood experiences. Freud dives deep into fascinating case studies, providing an incisive and enduring examination of dream psychology. His case histories are some of the most fascinating facets of reading Freud -- each unfolding as a puzzle; the patient’s history and Freud’s story of the analysis combining to provide insights on content and narrative and how they might relate to manifestations of neuroses in the present times.

Freud was a master detective of the “hidden recesses of the mind”, observing daily occurrences such as slips of the tongue, seemingly silly mistakes, forgetting names, recurring dreams; to interpret through psychoanalysis our unfulfilled desires in everyday life, even when we try to hide them. His psychoanalysis method provided an empirical framework to interpret the deceptive manifestation of consciousness to uncover the subconscious mind lurking underneath; and how dreaming is a way of fulfilling these desires through the unconscious imagination. Conflict between two opposing forces or antagonistic emotions is at the heart of Freud’s framework on psychoanalytic thinking -- the struggle between conflicting conscious and unconscious desires resulting in repression, leading to neurosis.

To understand his relevance to our own times, one must read Freud beyond the realm of individual psychology. Just as he used his analyses of neuroses to formulate a universal theory of sexual and mental development, so he expanded the application of his ideas, such as the Oedipus complex and repression, to society at large. In this sense, Freud’s psychoanalysis colonised other areas of study, including social relations, although with modest success.

His writings on war and group psychology pose intriguing questions about the herd instinct in human beings, the origins of organised violence, and the distinctive and growing phenomenon of the human ability to identify enough with a non-material idea such as a faith, a nation, or a cause, to will oneself to fight and die for it. How else might you understand suicide bombers? In this respect, his Thoughts for the Time on War and Death, provides invaluable insights that help understand better the problems of human social organisation, the rise of religious militancy, and the violence that pervades and brutalises all of society today.

Why must we read Freud? “Get it out, produce it, and make something of it -- outside you that is; give it an existence independent of you”. Such was Freud’s advice to Joan Riviere, one of his English translators, referring to his own approach to thinking. The highest measure of his meaning rises from the echoes of his voice: urging the integrity of thought, word, and deed -- of greater relevance today than ever before. As Freud said, “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise”.

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