I Don’t Sleep I Dream

Once you pass through the odd and oversized foyer, which feels like a half finished storefront for H&M or the like, stairs lead up to the first floor. There are essentially only two rooms that bear any resemblance to what the place looked like in his day. In glass cases are a few knickknacks, figurines, actually it’s a rather impressive collection with pieces from the Sumerian, India, Polynesia and other exotic locales. Another room is full of photographs and explanatory notation in German and English.

The rest of the apartment is given over to something between an exhibition room and an art gallery. But what everyone came here for then is absent now. No word on where the couch might have gone or why some duplicate hasn’t been made. Plenty of other sofas, divans and other reclining furniture are on display in one of the gallery rooms, but the original is nowhere to be found.

Waiting Room, Frued's office, Vienna Austria

The closest thing is up against the wall, behind a small writing desk in what was then the waiting room. There were no ropes saying you couldn’t so I did what everyone used to come here for, to lie down on the divan and stare at the patternless ceiling until the patterns emerge as it were.

I lay down. I stared at the ceiling.

“Tell me about it.”

“About what?”

“What did you come here for?”

“I’m not sure. I think I wanted to see it. To maybe have something to attach the abstractions too, maybe to know, rather than wonder — what did it look like? What sort of trees were on the street? What did the air taste like? How did the concrete and asphalt smell when it rained? What was the view from the window? How hot was the upstairs room where you worked? All the mundane details of life in places where I don’t live… And I know I can’t know these things in any real way without actually being there at the time. I know all I will find are half truths and suggestions, but the more I know the freer my imagination seems to become, the more it builds things out of the details, things which often bear no resemblance to reality but to me are more real.”

Window, Freud's Office, Vienna Austria

“Interesting.”

“Yeah it is. It totally contradicts an old quote from somebody named Suzuki that I used to like.”

“Which is?”

“‘For the beginner an infinite range of possibilities exist, for the expert few options remain.’ Or something along those lines. And I don’t by any means consider myself an expert. In fact the more I know and see the more I feel like a beginner. I don’t even know what an expert is.”

“Perhaps that’s the veiled significance of this Suzuki’s words, that we are all beginners, that there are no experts so we are free, as you say, with our imaginations. But remember that imagination is not all daydreams and pretty flowers; there are monsters and demons in us too. There seems to be in us all a struggle between light and dark…”

“Like the Robert Mitchum movie? Or Spike Lee’s version? A friend of mine claims that there are equal proportions of light and dark in the world, or good and evil or whatever metaphor you want to use, anyway her point is, I think, that these dualities are struggling for balance and that’s where we find ourselves — caught in that struggle. I think it’s actually an idea she borrowed from Jewish Scripture, and it’s a good metaphor so long as we consider the fact that which is which — good/bad etc — is wholly dependent on our judgments. That is, what you or I call dark or evil is actually neither, that is simple our interpretation of it. Not to be relativistic, which I don’t like, in fact I think relativism misses out on the subtle undercurrents of life in favor of simplistic rationalism to offer an easy to grok interpretation of life’s essential mysteries. But that said, there is some relativism in our interpretations of good and evil etc. Any given event, no matter how good it seems, is itself the result of all sorts of other events, some may have been good, some bad, but without them we wouldn’t be doing that “good” thing now. And so with the future. If I give you some money to pay a debt that may be a good thing, but down the road it’s possible that you will find yourself in a bad situation not just in spite of my good act, but perhaps because of it.”

“Mmmhmm. Tell me about your dreams…”

“No.”

“…”

painting

“Okay. Just yesterday I dreamed a friend of mine was in trouble. So today I called her. Turns out she’s not in trouble. She’s doing just fine. So what the hell does that mean?”

“Perhaps you feel a certain helplessness at not being able to know whether your friend is in trouble or not. Your subconscious feels helpless and seeks to create a situation in which it can help someone else so that it alleviates the feelings of helplessness.”

“…”

“The imagination can ruin and cripple as much as it can heal and give hope.”

“Well don’t you sort of have a vested interest in promoting that idea since your life’s work hinges on it being true, on the notion that there is something wrong with me that I can not directly get to, but with assistance it can be drawn out…”

“My vested interest was in helping people for whom there was no help at the time.”

“Okay. Fair enough. Sorry. There is just so much baggage around you. I want to believe, I really do.”

“It’s possible I was wrong, I did make some mistakes.”

“Yeah you did. Turns out cocaine is addictive.”

“I made bigger ones than that.”

“I know, but I saw that quote over there on the wall by that picture of Dora.”

“Ah yes. Dora.”

“The one that got away huh? So, why was all of your early work focused on women?”

“…”

“Okay. Well…. Do you like what they’ve done with the place?”

“Well. It was just a place you know. This room we are sitting in was originally the waiting room, the consultations were in there. But it is just a place, one room is as good as another.”

“Yeah. But weren’t you the one who always directed attention toward trivialities like “methodological principle,” which in some ways is influenced by the room, the mood it creates. I mean if you had disco lighting and Al Green playing when patients came over things would’ve been different no?”

“Yes I did say that. And methodology, set and setting as that American doctor put it, are important. But I also said sometimes a cigar…”

“Yeah and we all wish you hadn’t. That undercuts almost everything else you said because it highlights the subjective — dare I say arbitrary? — interpretations in your theories. I mean what if Newton has said ‘well gravity exists, but it doesn’t always exist, it certain doesn’t exist for me? That’s a bit elitist don’t you think? In the end we’d have to conclude that either gravity doesn’t exist or that a cigar is never just a cigar, neither of which are particularly helpful.”

“You seem hostile toward me.”

“I’m not hostile, I’m just saying that psychology and this therapy bit is, in the end, no different than the kind of insight you can get from a book or a night out with friends or just sitting on the toilet contemplating life. But you invested the whole process with a pseudo-scientific framework that makes some people think they can’t find their own answers.”

“People can’t find their own answers. And even those that can find some can’t find others. We cannot see our own subconscious, we can only see the effects of it, the manifestations of it.”

“Look I’m not saying I have it all sussed out. Far from it. But what you’re talking about seems to me like a rewritten metaphor for god. And I think your metaphors were wrong about some key stuff. Like Oedipus for example. First off mythology is probably not a good base to draw from if your goal is to make sweeping ‘scientific’ generalizations about human development. And secondly the stages Oedipus passes through, well you skipped a fairly key one, he was abandoned by his parents as a baby, which is tantamount to child abuse and hardly seems archetypical to the way most children are raised. I think you were a brilliant literary critic centuries ahead of his time, but I think your science was, well, to be blunt, nonexistent. Which would have been fine except…”

“Hmmm. Yes. Perhaps. But I could argue that birth itself is abandonment”

“Please don’t.”

“I wasn’t going to, I was just saying I could.”

“And yet that Oedipal theory, while professional psychologists may not pay much attention to it, holds a powerful sway over how we perceive ourselves today. And it carries that weight because it passed and continues to pass as science. See science is our god now so anything that gets you the title doctor is perceived as having some authority that overrides even common sense.”

“Well, in my defense, it isn’t really all that different than the story of the fall in the Jewish and Christian mythologies which also influences how you see yourself. And I did have a degree in medicine.”

“I know you did. I’m not debating your training or skills I’m saying that psychology is not was not and never will be a science.”

“…”

“I’m sorry. It just isn’t.”

“Have you read The Interpre…”'Fire' by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

“Yes. But to be honest I don’t see why our dreams need to be interpreted. Isn’t it possible that they have no meaning at all? That we really really want them to have meaning because this is what we do, we find connections, metaphors to link things, and we can find threads in our dreams that seem to connect them to this world, but in the end what if they are just dreams? Something outside meaning and interpretation because the world which they inhabit is guided by rules and schema that bear no resemblance to the ones that guide this world? What if there is no common language by which we can make interpretations, metaphors or any meaning at all out of our dreams?

“…”

“I’ll tell you what does interest me though — the differences in the way we conduct ourselves in our dream lives and real lives and those people who seem to break down the differences.”

“Such as?”

“Well on the positive side you have someone like Antonio Gaudí or Frank Stanford. But of course there’s the negative side as well, Jeffrey Dahmer, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, etc.”

“It’s interesting that you choose artists and writers as representative of the positive and serial killers, despots and murderers as the negative… perhaps neither is really accurate. It’s possible you know that Gaudí was inspired by imagination and Pol Pot by greed and lust for power and that neither of them is representative of someone bringing dreams to life.”

“Yes but don’t dreams underlie imagination and greed and lust and everything else? We act out our dreams in realities. In fact I would say nearly everything we do is an act of externalizing our dreams — the hopes, fears and strangeness that they contain. We bring them forth into the world of struggling forces and they are bandied and battered about by circumstances which are often beyond our control.”

“Didn’t you just say the opposite?”

“No I said it was possible that our dreams have no meaning in this world that we can ever understand, but that doesn’t mean we don’t spend our lives externalizing them and trying to understand them.

“Exactly. Sometimes you get art, other times murder, such is the nature of dreams and the world in which we find ourselves.”

“…”

“…”

“What do you think of these art exhibits in the other room…?”

“That’s the sort of rhetorical question you pose so you can skip over whatever my answer may be and delve into what you really wanted to talk about — what you think of the art in the other room. Why don’t we skip what I think and you tell me what it is you must get off your chest?”

“You just can’t put one over on you can you? I think the art’s crap. In execution anyway. But I think the idea of the couch is very significant. I think the fact that you chose to have patients on a couch, or divan, or sofa or whatever you want to call it was genius, possibly your only moment of genius. I mean you could have had then in bed, but that’s too close to actual sleep you could easily lose them in their unconscious worlds. You could have had them sit in a chair, but that’s too formal, too far removed from dreams. The couch is perfect, reclined, perhaps close to sleep, but not all the way there, still able to pull back from the brink so to speak. It’s like that sign over there says: ‘In a prone position, the clear certainties of thought can be diverted from their course into a twilight state of drowsiness and further into the anesthetized state of sleep or into the depths of illegitimate sexuality’”

“And I’ve noticed that this thing, this couch, which was fairly arbitrary by the way, has become the symbol of choice…”

“Yeah if I needed to create one of those universal language airport ideograms for psychology the couch would get the idea across. In the west anyway.”

“But why do you think the art is ‘crap’?”

“I’ve come to think painting peaked in the 16th century or so. These modern things just don’t have any soul, their narcissistic, self-absorbed, lacking depth… Though some of the painters around your day were good, Egon Schiele, Hannah Höch, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, others. I sound like a grumpy old man don’t I?”

“Well. Yes. But there are great painters in every age, great writers, great musicians, great everything, you just have to know where to look and how to look.”

“I know. I didn’t mean it. I got carried away with my tendency toward hyperbole. I do that a lot, but I never really mean it, I just like to string the words together… I try you know. I try to find the good stuff. But sometimes I feel like I’m always trying and rarely succeeding.”

“Trying is all that matters”

“Just yesterday I was thinking of an old cover from a new York literary magazine… It was a drawing of a pigeon or a dove or some sort of bird, a bird with one wing and one arm. The caption read: trying trying trying.”

“Mmmm. Yes. About like that.”

“Yeah I thought so too, that’s why it’s stuck with me. Everything seems to stick with me. And yet sometimes I deny remembering things which I remember better and more clearly than the person telling me about them just so I can see what they remember. I don’t know why I do that.”

“You’re avoiding something.”

“Maybe. Maybe I just enjoy hearing things retold by other people. Maybe I don’t like to think too much about the past, my history, the world’s history, our history. It can get pretty ugly at times. There is a whole lot of violence and bloodshed and war and famine in the past, sometimes I think that this whole notion of trying is waste of time. I mean we’ve yet to succeed. Big business runs the world, people die, wars are fought so certain people can gain access to certain things. It seems so totally pointless and stupid and yet we keep doing it. The forces keep struggling and we keep twisting and turning some riding atop and some crushed beneath.”

“Yes the world is a mess. But if we stop trying then there isn’t even the hope of anything getting better.”

“Isn’t that a tad bit delusional though? I mean if it’s always going to be a mess than what’s the difference? Why is hope necessary?”

“Because without hope there is no love. And without love there is nothing, because whoever loves becomes humble; those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.”

“And it’s our narcissism that has us in the situation we find ourselves?”

“Among other things yes. Naturally nothing is reducible to any one factor, but I would say, did say in fact, that most of our problems, whether personal or geopolitical or anywhere in between, stem from our narcissism.”

'Winter' by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

“See you were a much better writer than scientist.”

“Well I once wrote, ‘Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me’”

“Well just about anybody could say that.”

“…”

“A lot of people I know say they feel lost.”

“They should read more poetry.”

“Sometimes I feel lost too. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing. Other times I feel like I am in the place where I should be. Lately I’ve been feeling more confident, but I worry about my friends.”

“Love and work… Work and love, that’s all there is.”

“…”

[Note that some of this faux dialogue is actual quotes and some are more summaries and some I just made up. None of it is in any way intended to represent the opinions in the writings, lectures and other works of Sigmund Freud. More or less if something sounds like it’s too smart for me to have come up, that’s an actual Freud quote.]