…my opponents are scarcely likely to have had in mind the interesting problem of whether all dreams are created by ‘libidinal’ instinctual forces as contrasted with ‘destructive’ ones (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, added as footnote 1925, SE IV, p. 161).
With his seminal early text, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud articulated a thoroughly considered metapsychological model to explain the phenomenon of dreaming. Although he continued to revise and pepper this work with new footnotes in subsequent editions, Freud resisted a structural overhaul of the basic mechanism of how dreams are constructed. We can summarize his thesis by the following: Dreams are deeply-rooted unconscious wishes realized in the preconscious present. In this process, dreams transform the impulses of these wishes through the dream work into representations somewhat accessible to our normal waking perceptive conscious states. The infantile nature of these unconscious wishes is often unacceptable to the ego and its function of adapting its psychic reality to the external world. Thus Freud posits what he labels as the dream work, through a censoring process, distorts the latent content of these wish fulfillments into the manifest content which is, consequently a compromise. But if dreams are simply representations of unconscious wishes, why are they so frequently laden with anxiety? How can these infantile wishes so often manifest themselves in terrifying nightmares that not only compromise wish fulfillments, but seem antithetical to them?
In the paper, I will examine Freud’s explanation of anxiety dreams articulated in The Interpretation of Dreams while integrating his insights from the later dual-drive theory to explore this question: If Freud would have revised his explanation of anxiety dreams by taking into account the death instinct, would he conclude that anxiety in dreams can originate from the unconscious destructive forces rather than exclusively through the tensions involved in the censorship of the dream work?
Freud seemed to understand that this discrepancy between wish fulfillment and nightmarish preconscious anxiety was problematic. In The Interpretation of Dreams he defended his position with two basic explanations:
1) Anxiety is produced in the process of distortion that occurs when an unacceptable wish of an erotic nature is incompletely censored through the dream work. The conflict between the energetic release of the sexual unconscious impulse and the wish’s unacceptability to the preconscious ego manifests itself in anxiety. Disturbing imagery results as an unsettling ambivalent compromise. This process is parallel to the formation of anxiety in neurosis in which a repressed erotic impulse seeks discharge and creates a symptom or compromise formation which forces its expression through the ego and its function of adapting to the external world (1900, p. 161-2).
2) Anxiety in dreams is a consequence of a troubling unconscious affect finding a means of representation by attaching itself to residual memory content similar in quality. The uncomfortable unconscious affect finds a means of representation by binding its cathectic energy to freshly perceived and remembered events:
An unconscious and repressed wish, whose fulfillment the dreamer’s ego could not fail to experience as something distressing, has seized the opportunity offered to it by the preexisting cathexis of the distressing residues of the previous day; it has lent them its support and by that means rendered them capable of entering a dream (1900, p. 556-7).
In this process, unconscious affect binds to recent memories. Seeking discharge, the unconscious impulse transfers its anxious affect to the day’s residue by reactivating the memories of an unsettling situation and weaving its imagery and narrative scenarios into the dream work.
Thus Freud maintained that the source of the latent content of anxiety dreams was unconscious libidinal wish fulfillment. Nightmares and dreams characterized by troubling anxiety were either the result of a conflict between unconscious wishes and censoring adaptive function of the ego, or an exorcism of troubling unconscious wishful impulses by their transference of affect to related yet less distressing affective residual memories.
With Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud introduced his theory of the death instinct which consequently resulted in a major change in the fundamentals of his drive theory. No longer were the unconscious impulses of the id solely induced by the libidinal forces seeking pleasure and immediate gratification. The id’s erotic lust for life was countered by the instinct to seek an ultimate release of tension through death. Through continuously observing unconscious impulses of patients to repeat painful experiences as well as observing the recurring traumatic states of shell-shocked veterans from World War I, Freud speculated that there must be an unconscious force undermining the dominance of the pleasure principle. This instinctual force achieved drive satisfaction through repetition and ultimately compelled all living things to restore themselves to their nature of existence before life by dying and returning to an ‘inorganic’ state. Thus, “The aim of all life is death” (1920, p. 38).
In a brilliant passage in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud revisits his examination of anxiety dreams as wish fulfillments. He concludes that there is no contradiction with this function of dreams; an archaic force of a deeper nature is apparent:
We may assume, rather, that dreams are here helping to carry out another task, which must be accomplished before the dominance of the pleasure principle can even begin… (Anxiety dreams) arise, rather, in obedience to the compulsion to repeat, though it is true that in analysis that compulsion is supported by the wish (which is encouraged by ‘suggestion’) to conjure up what has been forgotten and repressed. Thus it would seem that the function of dreams, which consists in setting aside any motives that might interrupt sleep, by fulfilling the wishes of the disturbing impulses, is not their original function. It would not be possible for them to perform that function until the whole of mental life had accepted the dominance of the pleasure principle. If there is a ‘beyond the pleasure principle’, it is only consistent to grant that there was also a time before the purpose of dreams was the fulfillment of wishes (1920, p.32-33).
Therefore, in dreams as well as in neurotic conditions, the compulsion to repeat is driven by a fundamental instinct that is beyond, or perhaps at work beneath the motivating force of pleasure principle, the death instinct.
In the Ego and the Id (1923) Freud explored how the forces of the death instinct manifest themselves in the ego, id and superego of his newly-conceived structural theory. The ego finds itself faced not only with the challenges of defending itself from external dangers, but it must also defend itself from the dangers within: the id’s unacceptable erotic and aggressive wishes, the death drive’s self-destructive impulses, and the superego’s authoritarian brutalities:
Helpless in both directions, the ego defends itself vainly, alike against the instigations of the murderous id and against the reproaches of the punishing conscience. It succeeds in holding in check at least the most brutal actions of both sides; the first outcome is interminable self-torment, and eventually there follows a systematic torturing of the object, in so far as it is within reach (1923, p. 55).
Pressured by these destructive forces, the ego finds itself in a precarious position. It can perhaps mitigate the wrath of these self-destructive impulses by turning their destructive energies toward external objects. But eventually one must face the consequences of these murderous actions. Alternately, the ego can spare other beings the external discharge of its destructive instincts by turning them on itself: “…the more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense becomes his ideal’s inclination to aggressiveness against his ego” (1923, p. 56). One instance in which this self-assault persists is in the case of melancholia in which the death instinct binds itself to the superego:
If we turn to melancholia first, we find that the excessively strong super-ego which has obtained a hold upon consciousness rages against the ego with merciless violence, as if it had taken possession of the whole of the sadism available in the person concerned. Following our view of sadism, we should say that the destructive component had entrenched itself in the super-ego and turned against the ego. What is now holding sway in the super-ego is, as it were, a pure culture of death instinct, and in fact it often enough succeeds in driving the ego into death, if the latter does not fend off its tyrant in time by the change round into mania. (1923, p. 55)
Thus the unconscious superego becomes the agent of death drive’s assault on the ego.
This fundamental change in Freud’s theory of the instinctual drives necessitated a revision of his theory of anxiety which was originally formulated shortly before The Interpretation of Dreams. Developed through his early work with hysterical patients, Freud’s original notion was that anxiety was created by the repression of an unconscious wish of an erotic nature and then converted into physical symptoms. Analogous to his dream theory, anxiety arose as a compromise between the id’s essential need to discharge erotic impulses and the ego’s function of negotiating these impulses with the external world (1895, p.1-311).
As Freud integrated the death drive into his theories of neurosis he arrived at a new formula for the origin of anxiety. “It was anxiety which produced repression and not, as I formerly believed, repression which produced anxiety.” (1926, p. 108-9). Anxiety could no longer be accounted for simply by the conflict involved in the repression of erotic impulses. Anxiety was a deeper unconscious state, always present to some degree, which could also be caused by signals of danger, the threat of castration, an object loss or perhaps distressing internal impulses. “‘Anxiety’ describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one” (1920, p. 12). This state of anxiety could perhaps be driven by the dangerous compulsions of the death drive from within. In this anxious state, the ego, seeking to master these dangerous instincts, is forced to either act on these destructive impulses, repress the awareness of these internal dangers, or negotiate with the anxious affect through compulsive repetition.
How might this revised explanation of anxiety have influenced Freud’s explanation of anxiety in dreams? Let me pose some theoretical questions: If anxiety can also be attributed to these fundamental internal forces rather than the process of repression, would he have speculated that anxiety in dreams can originate from a deeply unconscious instinctual source rather than through the tension arising from the analogous process of the censorship of an erotic wish? Could the latent content of dreams spring not exclusively from erotic wishes, but from death wishes as well? Could the troubling affects seeking representation arise not just in the disturbing tension involved in censoring unacceptable erotic wishes, but also from the dark depths of the thanatonic ocean? Finally, can we ask, if dreams are unconscious fantasies realized through the dream work, can they sometimes arise from the impulses of the death instinct? Let us imagine that Freud had revised his model to approach anxiety dreams and nightmares incorporating his dual drive theory.
Anxious affects in dreams must arise from instinctual impulses that are either of an erotic or destructive nature, or a conflicted matrix involving both. If the nature of drive discharge is dual, the range of unconscious affect would seem to stretch between these two poles, from the erotic to the thanatonic. Anxiety of different flavors would arise as different kinds of affects attach to the day’s residue and achieve oneiric representation. The process would mirror Freud’s original formulation except that affects stemming from the death instinct would bear a particularly unsettling, or perhaps frightening character, before becoming a representation of a wish. The unacceptable nature of this terrifying affect would also impinge upon the ego through its function of censoring the unconscious impulses, perhaps potentially more powerfully than an erotic affect taking shape as an unacceptable wish. Contrary to the anxiety arising as a tension between an erotic wish and the ego’s censoring work of representation, in the case of an anxious affect arising from the death drive, the painful affect could be mitigated through the dream work. “A dream in general is poorer in affect than the psychical material from the manipulation of which it has proceeded” (1900, p. 467). An impulse striving for self-destruction would certainly encounter anxious tension as it meets the censoring ego; as a compromise is reached through the dream work, the dream becomes one of anxiety colored by mortal affect rather than one consumed by the negative affect of self-destruction. In this process the censoring ego would perform its duty of producing dreams that are the guardians of sleep. However unsettling, nightmares allow sleep to continue unless they are finally overwhelmed by their destructive impulses, in which case the dreamer awakens. This perhaps explains the common observation that the subject never dies in his own dream; the instant just before he meets his demise, the dreamer wakes. As the death instinct overwhelms the ego’s censoring defenses and takes hold of the reins of the dream narrative, the dream can no longer perform its function of prolonging sleep, and the ego consequently restores a state of consciousness.
In the framework I am envisioning, conflicting destructive and erotic impulses, simultaneously discharged through the dream work, yield an anxious affect as a compromise. Because dreams are incapable of representing contradiction, content of a compound nature arises from the unconscious and binds to residual memories containing both erotic and destructive content. This pertains to dreams simultaneously representing sexual and nightmarish situations. The censorship process works similarly in rendering compromised representations which bear the tempered valences of each drive’s affects.
Dreams with latent content arising from the death instinct still represent wish fulfillments; only wishes of a different nature– death wishes. But if the above speculations are valid, why might dreams directly representing these death wishes seem so uncommon? First, there is the conflict previously mentioned in that dreams of self-destruction undermine the function of dreams in that they must provide a sanctuary for sleep. Nightmares involving close representations of self-destruction wake an individual up. Secondly, death wishes are in conflict with both the erotic drive’s lust for life as well as the ego’s functions of self-preservation involving the management of danger. These conflicts could alter the representation of the self-destructive wishes in several ways. Through the process of displacement, an unconscious wish for one’s own death could be transformed into a representation of another person’s death, especially to a person whom is highly identified with the dreamer, or who exists as an internalized object. By another means of censorship, a death wish could be transformed into a dream in which one struggles to escape a dangerous situation. This common format observed in nightmares would seem to clearly represent a struggle between the self-destructive motives of the death impulse and the ego’s motivation for continued survival.
The censorship involved in these dreams would not only serve the function of reining in the thanatonic current to an acceptable level which would allow sleep. The dream work could also serve as a means to learn to master dangerous situations anticipated in the future. Just as Freud postulated that an unconscious compulsion to repeat painful experiences in waking life could gain a form of pleasure in achieving mastery (1920, p. 42), by repeating the struggle to escape from dangerous situations in dreams, the ego could gain pleasure by achieving mastery over both internal and external dangers. Freud was conscious of this relation between revisiting trauma in both dreams and waking life, and indicated its relevance to his discovery of the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
Now dreams occurring in the traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident, a situation from which he wakes up in fright. This astonishes people far too little…Anyone who accepts it as something self-evident that their dreams should put them back at night into the situation that caused them to fall ill has misunderstood the nature of dreams (1920, p. 13).
By allowing destructive wishes a censored dream representation, the ego could perhaps achieve more control over these unconscious destructive impulses. Likewise, by simulating dangerous situations through the dream work, the preconscious function of the ego could prepare itself to negotiate future conflicts. Additionally, this process of representing a successful escape from dangerous situations could assuage the fear of inescapable dangers. This mechanism of substituting a manageable predicament for an insurmountable crisis in dreams is related to the oneiric process of transference of affect in which an unacceptably disturbing affect is bound to memories of the day’s residue with a similar but less unsettling affect. Although troublesome, these memories represent recent situations which were survived and accepted. Thus by binding the unacceptable affect to the more manageable residual material, the ego achieves a sense of mastery over the more threatening unconscious affect. This process of substituting past for future situations is quite similar to the explanation of matriculation anxiety dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud argues in this case that past anxious situations involving the completion of school requirements which were successfully met are substituted for similar upcoming events. Although the stressful concerns of the past event are revisited, the wish is fulfilled in that the future situation in the dream is successfully resolved just as in the past (1900, p. 273-6).
Just as Freud found repetition to be an essential behavioral manifestation of the death instinct, repetition also seems to be an integral part of the structure of anxiety dreams. Repetition occurs both in the short intervals of looping anxiety dreams as well as in an expanded scale in which a series of nightmares can reoccur for years. In the case of looping dreams, the dangerous situation is continually re-experienced in the dream with slight variations. It seems as if the anxiety-inducing discharge of the death instincts forces itself upon the censoring ego. As previously noted, these dreams involve the subject continually staving off catastrophe while struggling and swashbuckling his way through a dangerous stream of predicaments. These dreams often occur in looping fashion as if the ego is trying to safeguard itself against any slight variation in danger that a future situation may pose. This appears to be the oneiric analog of the compulsion to repeat with the aim of achieving mastery in waking life. This parallel process of repetition in dreams also seems to exist in the overarching scale of the recurring nightmare. It seems that the dynamics of representation are the same, only that there is a deeper and more persistent impulse of the death drive persistently reactivating similar manifest content, or perhaps a deeply seated dream manifestation of anxiety forcing the ego’s attention to a persistent danger. These unconscious internalized warnings of danger could perhaps be structurally accounted for as being the voicings of the unconscious superego bound to the impulses of the death drive, punishing the ego while demanding the achievement of mastery of the adverse circumstances. The occurrence of these repetitive structures in anxiety dreams may indicate a specific relation between repetition and anxiety dreams that resembles the relation of repetition to the death drive that Freud explored in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920, p. 32-3).
Having examined some of the possible expressions of the death drive through its relation to nightmares and anxiety dreams, I would like to turn our attention to a few of the dreams that Freud analyzed in The Interpretation of Dreams, and explore them with the insights gleaned from Freud’s dual drive theory and their theoretical implications. Here is part of Freud’s analysis of a patient’s dream involving the young man’s relation to his brother:
I will quote one such dream, produced by a young man who in his earlier years had greatly tormented his elder brother, to whom he had a homosexual attachment. His character having undergone a fundamental change, he had the following dream, which was in three pieces: I. His elder brother was chaffing him. II. Two grown men were caressing each other with a homosexual purpose. III. His brother had sold the business of which he himself had looked forward to becoming the director. He awoke from the last dream with the most distressing feelings. Nevertheless it was a masochistic wishful dream, and might be translated thus: ‘It would serve me right if my brother were to confront me with this sale as a punishment for all the torments he had to put up with from me.’ (1900, p. 159).
While not exactly comprising a typical anxiety dream, this simple dream analysis could be expanded to consider contradictory wishful impulses of the fundamental drives. In his early years the younger brother’s tormenting of his elder could be a manifestation of a displacement of his destructive impulses working in concert with the libidinal energy of his repressed homoerotic wishes. In the first part of the dream, the dreamer’s unconscious self-tormenting wishes are reclaimed by withdrawing them from the brother as a displaced object and re-turning them back to himself in the form of his brother’s chaffing. In the second part of the dream, the boy’s unconscious erotic impulses towards his brother are represented with minimal censorship. The third part resumes the dreamer’s masochistic reclaiming of his own self-destructive wishes, with his brother denying him the livelihood of the family business to which he consciously feels entitled. Furthermore, the realization of his incestuous erotic wishes with his brother in the dream seems to be countered by a stimulation of a mortal impulse that withdraws the destructive fantasies from his brother and re-directs them inwards. The interplay between guilt and the inward and outward manifestations of the destructive impulse in this dream closely relates to Freud’s correlation of the superego and the death drive in which the ego must defend itself “against the instigations of the murderous id and against the reproaches of the punishing conscience” (1925, p. 53-4).
More compelling is an examination of the dynamics of the transference of affect in Freud’s own thoroughly-analyzed ‘castle by the sea’ dream. In his analysis, Freud emphasizes the predominance of the negative affect in the dream content despite the manifest representation associated with residual memories of a disparately cheerful character. In his dream, Freud is standing in a hall of a castle looking over the sea as a fleet of English warships threateningly approach. Herr P., the governor of the castle, falls dead in the dreamer’s arms, leaving Freud responsible for protecting the governor’s family as well for defending the castle from the invaders. As the dreamer watches the fleet entering the canal he is surprised to find that the warships have transformed into rather harmless merchant ships. Finally, a strange ship “cut off short, in a comic fashion, in the middle” covered with curious cup-shaped objects approaches. The dreamer, along with his brother who has appeared beside him, exclaims ‘That’s the breakfast-ship!’ as the dream ends (1900, p. 463-4).
In his analysis Freud examines this dream in terms of unconscious affect and its transference to residual images, but does not satisfyingly explore the nature of its wish fulfillment. Could there be more to this other than the proposed wish for Freud’s family to be taken care of in the event of his untimely death? I propose that the underlying unconscious wish could perhaps be a deeper and darker wish—a self-destructive wish which would necessarily precede the wish for the well-being of the dreamer’s family in his absence. Could the impulses of the death drive generate this wish for self-destruction while saturating the dream in negative affect? Through the process of censorship in this dream, the negative affect binds to a series of residual images and thus creates a continuing sequence of relatively benign associations, partially inoculating the latent content of the death wish.
In Freud’s analysis, he himself is a stand-in for Herr P. in the manifest content, who in turn, is a stand-in for Freud in the dream as he dies in his place. Perhaps this process of displacement in the dream censorship attempts to neutralize the death wish to make it if not acceptable, at least manageable by the dreamer’s ego. By substituting Herr P. for himself as the one who dies, Freud redirects his death wish towards his stand-in as he becomes the one catching the dying man in his arms rather than being the collapsing dead man. Freud manages to fulfill the secondary wish of being able to take care of his wife and children represented in the manifest content of being able to defend the castle from the warships which turn out to be harmless. From a troubling mortal affect, the preconscious dream work ultimately yields a depiction of a temporarily safe situation.
Much of the narrative created by the dream work seems to involve neutralizing and mastering dangerous situations. The dream begins with a castle looking down on a dangerous sea, but the image of the sea quickly contracts to represent a contained canal. Under the threat of the warships, through the narrative the dreamer cedes the duties of securing the castle from the bombardment and taking care of the “invalid wife” (1900, p. 463) to Herr P. As Herr P. falls dead, admittedly in place of the dreamer, Freud is now placed with the responsibility of defending the castle and the family. But these concerns are quickly relieved as the warships turn into harmless merchant ships and his brother arrives as a supportive companion. The figure of the brother might not merely represent an ally against the battalion but perhaps another stand-in which further displaces the danger of the situation away from the dreamer. If one is to die or be embroiled in a battle against the naval fleet, it might as well be the brother instead of the dreamer. In the finale of the dream, the images of danger are transformed into those of comedy as the “breakfast ship” split down the middle and topped with curious cup-shaped objects drifts into the canal. It would seem that the progression of the censorship process involves a continual amelioration of the troubling affect at the root of the dream which may spring from an unconscious wish for the realization of the Freud’s own death.
While the dream work neutralizes the dangerous situation, the disturbing affect is still attached to comforting recollections of Freud vacationing in the Mediterranean with his wife, breakfasting on the deck of a boat in the highest spirits and joking about the possible functions of Etruscan crockery (1900, p. 465-6). The progression of the dream work would seem to be an unconscious death wish laden with mortal affect transforming itself into cheerful content. First, fearful concern, bubbling its way into the preconscious, binds itself to residual memories which conjure up precarious situations. These dangers, through a repetitive process involving displacement and condensation, yield manageable situations through the progressive transformations of the manifest imagery. Yet, as Freud emphasized, still incongruously, they seem to bear the troubling unconscious affects.
This transformative process of displacement is exemplary of the death drive’s corollary of repetition. The warships change into merchant ships and then to the entirely benign and comic breakfast ship just as the mortal danger of the situation is partially displaced from the dreamer to at first Herr P., and then to the brother as the threat of the siege is oneirically neutralized. Could this dream’s repetition involving introducing less threatening stand-ins into the narrative be related to the compulsion to repeat as well as the continual tendency to reactivate traumatic anxieties in waking life? In each process, troubling unconscious material seeks representation and forces its way towards consciousness. The ego in turn, repeats a series of repetitively transforming representations with perhaps the aim of achieving mastery or at least a neutralization of the destructive unconscious impulses.
As we consider the implications of the Freud’s dual drive theory and his revised explanation of anxiety, it is fascinating to speculate on the role that the death drive could have played in his later theorizations of the unconscious impulses accounting for horror and anxiety in dreams as well as in waking life. In attempting to integrate the death drive into our methods of dream interpretation, what considerations might we emphasize? Firstly, when analyzing dreams, especially those bearing a negative affect, we should seek to understand the nature of the unconscious wish. Does the character of the unconscious desire appear to be erotic or mortal? If the dream content represents destructive, along with libidinal wishes, we can achieve a wider range of interpretive possibilities for understanding the dreamer’s unconscious motives. Secondly, what is the nature of the affect in the dream? If the dream is unsettling, does the negative affect seem to spring more from an unconscious impulse or from the conflict between the motivation of the unconscious wish and the ego’s censoring function in the dream work? Exploring these questions can help us locate topographically some elements of the conflict. Does the unconscious affect bear an inherently negative quality, or does the anxiety-laden conflict in the dream seem to arise from the censorship process involving the preconscious ego? Thirdly, is there a process of repetition in the dream work taking place, either at the small scale of a looping dream or the grand scale of persistently reoccurring nightmares? And if so, what motivates the repetition? Since Freud proposed that repetitive processes were, on some level, unconscious manifestations of the death drive, we might arrive at insights by exploring repetitive patterns in dreams in terms of being expressions of destructive impulses. Is there a destructive wish being worked through in the dream process? Is there an unconscious realization of danger in which the subject is attempting to gain a sense of mastery through the repetitive preconscious dream work? How does the repetitive process manifest itself and what can it tell us about the dreamer’s defensive processes in waking life as well as dreams?
In 1925, Freud had in mind this ‘interesting problem’ of whether dreams can be created by instinctual destructive forces. If dreams do indeed present the royal road to the unconscious and the impulses of the death instinct are fundamentally involved in the latent dream material, incorporating the dual drive theory into the interpretation of anxiety dreams seems promising and is long overdue.
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Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition, IV-V:1-617.
(1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Standard Edition, XVIII: 7-64.
(1923). The Ego and the Id. The Standard Edition, XIX: 12-66.
(1925). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. The Standard Edition, XX: 87-174.