Critical Inquiry 13 (2):394-407 (1987)

Abstract
It is doubtless appropriate to read The Interpretation of Dreams according to the image of the journey which Sigmund Freud describes in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess:The whole thing is planned on the model of an imaginary walk. First comes the dark wood of the authorities , where there is no clear view and it is easy to go astray. Then there is a cavernous defile through which I lead my readers—my specimen dream with its peculiarities, its details, its indiscretions and its bad jokes—and then, all at once, the high ground and the open prospect and the question: “Which way do you want to go?”1This walk has nothing of the nonchalant about it. Rather, it is strewn with tests and trials, as is usually the case in the “myth of the hero” or of the “conquistador,” which we know played a major role in Freud’s thought and in that of his disciples. The progress, in epic poetry, moves toward a discovery, the founding of a city, by means of difficult stages and combats. Every “discourse” capable of attaining a goal distant from its prolegomena finds its appropriate metaphor in the hero’s progress, or in the voyage of initiation. Discursivity then becomes the intellectual equivalent of the epic’s trajectory. At the time of its publication, Freud found his book insufficiently probing, and imperfect in its discursivity. He criticized himself for having failed to link properly his arguments . Doubt was momentarily cast on the achievement of the main goal…. But such severity was not to persist.But one can also read the work by discerning its framing devices. Several authors mentioned in the first chapter reappear at the work’s conclusion. Such a return is far from fortuitous; it is the result of an extremely well-calculated strategy. Another framing system which has been noticed by many readers is the one, shortly before the end of the book, which returns to a line from Virgil that Freud had placed as an epigraph on the title page: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo. This line, because of its repetition at two crucial points in the book, traces its message in the form of an emblem. When it breaks in, it makes explicit that the dream mechanism is the return of the repressed:In waking life the suppressed material in the mind is prevented from finding expression and is cut off from internal perception owing to the fact that the contradictions present in it are eliminated—one side being disposed of in favor of the other; but during the night, under the sway of an impetus towards the construction of compromises, this suppressed material finds methods and means of forcing its way into consciousness.Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.2 1. Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 6 Aug. 1899, Freud, The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes, 1887-1902, ed. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, trans. James Strachey , p. 290.2. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. and trans. Strachey , p. 647; my emphasis. The Latin is translated in n. 1 on that page of Freud’s text: “If I cannot bend the High Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions.” All further references to this work, abbreviated I, will be included in the text. Another framing device is created by the theme of the prophetic dream, discussed at the outset of the first chapters and taken up again, with the ambivalence of denial and concession, in the final paragraph of the book. Jean Starobinski, professor emeritus at the University of Geneva, has devoted studies to Montaigne, Diderot, Rousseau, Saussure, and modern French poets. As an M.D., he is familiar with psychoanalysis and participates in the editorial board of La Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse . Some of his recent research deals with the history of melancholia; his most recent books are Montaigne in Motion and Rousseau . He was awarded the Balzan Prize in 1984
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DOI 10.1086/448398
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