The dreamwork and the work with the dream

by Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, translated by Nora Joung

One must be aware of the abysses which divide one order of sense experience from the other.


I once caught sight of a psychoanalytical article by Alice Balint, «Mutterliebe und Liebe zur Mutter», i.e. Maternal Love and love for mother. In spite of never reading the article, the header remained with me. To me, it has come to represent the moment when two things are simultaneously alike and yet opposites. The maternal love for the child naturally has its equivalent in the child’s love for the mother, the mother’s love teaches the child how to love, or more generally: the one who loves is loved in return. But the opposite is also true: this is a case of two kinds of love with undoubtedly disparate conditions, going in opposite directions. Furthermore, everyone knows it’s not always so that love begets love; the (too) beloved may want to withdraw, and it can sometimes be wise – even tactical – not to appear too eager. The simultaneous similar- and disparate aspects even have a genealogical bearing, the parent’s love cedes to the next generation, though not rarely through a pronounced negation, perhaps by bracing oneself against one’s parents. At one point – even after the most affectionate childhood – a person will wish not to live like their parents. Doesn’t it happen quite too often that someone says: «I will not make the same mistakes as my father or mother», while at the same time, moving like sleepwalkers via negativa, they motion ghostily toward the point they want to avoid, albeit so to say, from the opposite direction.

It’s possible, both clinically and poetically, to extract new meaning and to invent nuances by turning word compositions like in Balin’s header: reality’s everyday can be juxtaposed with everyday reality. When shown collocations like these, I imagine the reader searching for both similiarity and difference, and I’d even regard it as a specific poetics: the strive towards the moment when something is tautology and oxymoron at the same time, a navel of language, like the navel of the body or the dream, the privileged place where the external once became internal and the internal external.

Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams plays within this clinical and poetical field; his term The Navel of the Dream concerns the absolutely unknown core in any dream where the attempt to interpret it goes asunder, the point in which both the dreamer and the dream interpreter give up. But also what Freud calls the dreamwork, i.e. the dream’s way of configuring itself, and the work with the dream in itself, the dream interpretation, are, like the maternal love loop, two similar motions, albeit from different directions, which opens up for an aspect of the logics of the unconscious, the fact that it doesn’t contain a negation.


The British artist and conceptual writer Simon Morris published the work Rewriting Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams in 2005, where he let a computer program rearrange the words in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams at random. Graphically, Morris’ cut up version follow the British Penguin/Pelican edition from 1977 quite exemplary, headers, footnotes, registers, bibliography – everything in its right place – only the words are replaced. The method of cutting up texts and letting chance decide the order of them is usually traced back to a tumoutluous performance by Tristan Tzara during a surrealist soirée in 1921. Tzara shredded a poem, put the words in a hat and read them one at a time; disagreement, even fistfights, followed a discussion on the work’s artistic value. William S. Burroughs offered his comment on the case in a characteristically cryptic way: «André Breton excluded Tristan Tzara from the movement, and founded cut up on the freudian chaisse-longue.» Some thirty years later Brion Gysin, and later Burroughs, picked up the method, and nowadays several manouverable cut up-machines are available online.

In the foreword to Rewriting Freud the American poet Craig Dworkin searches for proof that it was in fact Freud who anticipated cut up, and finds, amongst other things, the following convincing passage where Freud argues that dream interpretation takes place at the level of the details and not in the dream as a whole:

If I say to a patient who is still a novice:
‘What occurs to you in connection with this dream?’
as a rule his mental horizon becomes blank.
If, however, I put the dream before him cut up in pieces,
he will give me a series of of associations to each piece.

Speaking strictly of content, we must admit that cut up places some themes, from psychoanalysis in general and dream interpretation specifically, under the microscope: shifts, puns, the dream’s treatment of words as if they were things, the revaluation of all psychical values, the transformation of meanings, the mechanics of association, psychical automatism, free associations, dream distortion, the formation of reactions, subsequent effect, dream disguises, aphasia, sensory disturbance, castration of course, and – I’d claim – the resistance against psychoanalysis. Shredding books, even for the purpose of rearranging them and making new ones, decidedly has destructive components. In the case of cut up (and really all forms of poetic post-production) the question can be posed like this: Am I cutting up the book as a way of reading and working on it or am I cutting it up so that I don’t have to read it?

When Morris leaves his writing to a computer, we’re faced by a language that doesn’t work like a regular language: a pure linguistic materiality that loses parts of its function and is – one could say – dependent on the fourth of the dreamwork’s mechanisms, The Secondary Elaboration, to be legible, the subsequent elaboration of the dream that is necessary to make it apprehensible. When everything is in bits and pieces, an order has to be established, if not necessarily a chronological order, then still, in some sense, a logical one. Furthermore Morris let his students, quite palpably, that is with scissors, cut out The Interpretation of Dreams’ words, 223 704 of them in total. He later made installations using this word-mass: on one occasion he placed the words in the Freud Museum in London, in another piece – documented in the book The Royal Road of the Unconscious – Morris flung the words out of a Renault Clio Sport nineteen-and a-half miles southwest of Freud’s chaisse-longue, more precisely on Redbrick Road, Dorset, moving at excactly a hundred-and forty-five kilometers and hour, at seven-past-five o’clock. Beyond being a reference to Freud’s understanding of the dream as the «Royal Road to the Unconscious», it was also a variation on an earlier conceptual piece that the Pop-artist Ed Ruscha staged in the 60ies, Royal Road Test (1967). In the piece, a classic typewriter by the name of Royal was thrown out of a Buick moving at the same speed, at the same time of day, nineteen-and-a-half miles southwest of Los Angeles.

Morris cites Sol le Witt’s motto in a lecture: «Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically», and claims that «this action liberated the words from Freud’s text’s indivisibility when it subjected them to a ‘coincidental moment’ – a seemingly fortuitous act of complete madness».


Not rarely, at dinner parties and such, one gets a dream presented along with an invitation to interpret it. Such wishes derives from a tradition that is excactly what Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams distances itself fromAccording to the logics of freudian dream interpretation, it is simply not the psychotherapist, other dinner guests or any dream-encyclopedia for that manner, that knows what the dream might mean, the answer instead is in the dreamer’s own associations. The interpretation involves the dreamer’s account of the dream more than the dream itself, the imagery by which it appeared.

Since dream interpretation so often seems to be the subject of misunderstandings, there’s reason to make a summary: The latent dream are the thoughts behind the dream and that the dream is processing; the latent dream consists of memories of the preceding days, so-called Tagesreste, unconscious wishes, repressed conflict and fantasies that often stems from childhood. The manifest dream is the perceived dream content, that which we remember and report on. The manifest dream offers, in a distorted form, an outlet for the latent content. Between the latent dream and the manifest dream, work happens, the so-called dreamwork that aims to give shape to the latent dream; in different ways, thoughts are transformed into the imagery we see whilst dreaming.

It is excactly this dreamwork the patient and the analyst take on from opposite directions while attempting to interpret the dream. The work with the dream, the attempt at interpretation, goes something like this: First we ask the dreamer to describe the dream in its entirety, and then starting from the top again and moving ahead line by line, we encourage the dreamer to associate around the dream material, while we note anything that sticks out, ambiguities, unexcpected expressions etc. Through numerous examples, Freud shows how the manifest dream is only a passive reflection of the dreamwork’s effect on the latent dream. Lacan says in one of his seminars a propos The Interpretation of Dreams: «Nowhere does the analysis concern the dream itself, the dream that the patient sees before him, in every case the anaysis concerns the verbal material surrounding the dream.» To the freudian dream interpretation, the dream itself, curiously, is a secondary phenomena. Friedrich Kittler expresses it like this: «That The Interpretation of Dreams ignores the phenomena dream […] is a first step towards the decoding.»


If the dreamwork is the method by which words become pictures (latent dream-thoughts are visualised) the work with the dream means translating the pictures back into words, like when we tell someone about a film or discuss art. At this point, Freud’s dream interpretation nears a sort of picture theory. What is required for a thought to become apprehensible? Which processes controls the imagery?

Freud claims that when we’re about to fall asleep, incidental conceptions and pictures appear, due to loss of concentration. The dream hallucinates, he adds, it «replaces» thoughts with hallucinations; these dream-thoughts act as pictures and resemble perceptions.

The dream […] thinks preponderately, but not exclusively, in visual pictures. It also makes use of auditory pictures, and to a lesser extent of the impressions of the other senses. […] But still what is characteristic for the dream is only those elements of the content which act like pictures, i. e. which resemble more the perceptions than the memory presentations.


In a particularly dense essay, «Le souffle indistinct de l’image», the psychoanalyst Pierre Fédida discusses whether the picture has to do with silence and muteness. He writes: «One could therefore say that what we call image is, for an instant, the effect language produces when it is suddenly silenced. Knowing this is also knowing that the image, in critical aesthetics as well as psychoanalysis, is the end of language; the instant of the word’s abyss.» Fédida reminds us of Freud’s patient Dora who explained how she’d sat in front of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for two hours, and struggled to leave. When Freud asked what she liked about the painting, she responded by uttering only the name, «The Madonna». Fédida writes: «Dora’s pronounciation of the name denote nothing. She produces the image only to same the extent as she pronounces the silence of the word. Dora’s reverential and dreamlike admiration, in solitude – for two hours – constitutes this physical silence of the image of the Virgin Mother. «The Madonna» invokes a visual material – maternal and virginal – of the face as pure mirror, where no one is reflected. The name doesn’t denote because it remains dormant in the nightly voice of the dream.»

On a more elementary level, I think one can recognise the phenomena when looking at something, fascinated – as one says – «in silent admiration» in front of the «image that says more than a thousand words»; «when there is nothing to add» before «that which says everything». What Fédida seems to mean, however, is not just that humans are silenced before the image, but that the image originates where language ends. «As if the image for an instant became the face of a vision that does not see itself. Sometimes, when faced with the foreign, the mute makes the face autistic. How can a face be the mirror of nobody?» How are we to understand these densified sentences? Undeniably as an incompatibility of pictures and language of sorts. We ask ourselves: Does the image take over when or because language ends, or does language end when the image takes over or because it takes over? Or is it quite simply an event, synchronous and binary? Here, I think, we find excactly a navel-moment of simultaneous opposites and similarity, where cause is crossed with effect.


How, asks Freud, does the dream draw up the relationship between the different parts of the dream? Causality, temporal shifts, the subordinate clause’ relationship to the main clause? The individual parts of the dream stands in different logical relations to one another. «They form foreground and background, digressions and explanations, terms, evidence and objections.» Language has its conjunctions: if, but, as, although, either-or, neither-nor. How does the dream draw them up? Freud writes: «We must answer that the dream has at its disposal no means for representing these logical relations among the dream thoughts. In most cases it disregards all these conjunctions, and undertakes the elaboration only of the objective content of the dream thoughts.» There are no pictures for «neither-nor» or «therefore», these types of relations between the dream parts must be expressed by other means.

The dream follows a principal rather like an enumeration, a list. The dream has access to one single conjunction: and, which really is only a chronological effect, when something is dreamed before something else. Nuance and relations between the dream parts become apparent in- and through the work with the dream, i.e. the interpretation.

Once again we can observe the dream’s similarity to cut up or other language-poetic strategies using parataxis to juxtapose language elements, as in a list of propositions of no given prioritiy. We could compare the dream with a list, where one of the dream interpreter’s tasks is to determine what the theme and headline of the dream should be. Let’s quote some lists from a book containing what is presumably the world’s most beautiful and surprising ones, the Japanese classic The Pillow Book from tenth century Kyoto, written by Lady in Waiting Sei Shōnagon, and ask the dream interpreter’s question: What are these lists of?

  1. A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry. A lamp stand. The hair of a woman of the lower classes. The speech of a young girl.
  2. The voice of someone who blows his nose while he is speaking. The expression of a woman plucking her eyebrows.
  3. The capital city. Arrowroot. Colts. Hail.
  4. Pinks, cherry blossoms, yellow roses. Men or women who are praised in romances as being beautiful.
  5. Pines. Autumn fields. Mountain villages and paths. Cranes and deer. A very cold winter scene; an unspeakably hot summer scene.


The right answer – and coincidentally the titles of Shōnagon’s lits poems: 1) Things that should be short. 2) Things that give a pathetic impression. 3) Poetic subjects. 4) Things that lose by being painted. 5) Things that gain by being painted.


The logics of the list as well the dream interpreter’s task of contextualizing is close to the reading experience we get seeing a common trick in language poetry, what the poet Ron Silliman calls «The new sentence». Texts like this consists of commonplace sentences, but may still be considered diffucult. The reason is that they don’t seem to follow a logical order, they aren’t integrated into a story.

We’ve ascertained that the dream, too, puts phenomena and occurences alongside one another without indicating in which way they are connected. A mathematical analogy might prove fitting: the figures are dream-parts and the interpretation-work is figuring out what operation to use:

5 ? 5 = 25

5 ? 5 = 0

5 ? 5 = 10

5 ? 5 = 1

Or pseudomathematically!

5 ? 5 =55


Sometimes dream interpretation is compared to translation, where the manifest dream-text is traced back to a laten dream-thought, approximately the way a scrambled text is reset to its original. Freud himself writes: «We regard the dream thoughts and the dream content as two representations of the same meaning in two different languages; or to express it better, the dream content appears to us as a translation of the dream thoughts into another form of expression, whose sign and laws of composition we are to learn by comparing the original with the translation.» Still it isn’t translation in the prevalent sense of the word, Octave Mannoni compares it to « a ‘bad pupil’s’ translation» where the pupil misunderstands or single-mindedly chooses to stress some aspect of the original, for example the graphic look of the letters and words or phonetic similitude. As if we should translate Anaïs Nin’s novel A spy in the house of love to «Att spy i kärlekshuset» (To vomit in the house of love). Or when Fredrik Nyberg in the poetry collection Att bli ved (To become firewood) intentionally mistranslates the Danish expression «at blive ved», which means «to stay». Or when Mara Lee poetically exploits the Asian tendency to pronounce the letter r as l in her violent poetry collection Hennes vård (Hennes = her, vård = care, however våld = violence, translators remark.) Or the man I heard on the radio, requesting the Beatles song «Happiness is a warm gun», with a dedication to his wife Gun.


The Canadian poet bpNichol (1944-1988) lists a great number of playful and innovative methods for translation in the project «Translating Translating Apollinaire», TTA for short. bpNichol uses his first published poem titled «Translating Translating Apollinaire» as a point of departure. He writes: «I decided to have that poem go through as many translations/transformations as I or anyone lese could possibly think of. I saw it as an open work, possibly unpublished in its entirety.»
The following is a selection of the sixty or so possibilities for translation that bpNichol names and finds proof of:

TTA 1: translation from memory of words and phrases from poems in the order one recalls them in.

TTA 2: restructuring TTA 1 in the order one thinks they were in in the poem.

TTA 3: processing TTA 1 as the first draft for a new poem,revise it.

TTA 5: rearrange the words in the poem in alphabetical order.

TTA 7: rearrange the leters in each word of the poem in alphabetical order.

TTA 9: replace the words in the poem with words of the same length.

TTA 10: replace the words with synonyms.

TTA 12: rearrange the letters in each word alphabetically.

TTA 13: sound translation

TTA 49: replace the words with their opposites.

bpNichol describes Translating Translating Appolinaire as a research project, and it can justly be called a taster menu of «bad translations», intentionally bad, I should add, and similar to the dream interpretors repertory. TTA seems just as stringent as it is wide-open. Whichever method of transformation we thought out – anything from the thoroughly educated and intelligent to the most preposterous stupidity – would presumably be approved. However, once you’ve made your choice, you should stick to it inexorably.


In his influential reading of Freud in Aufschreibesysteme 1800-1900, Friedrich Kittler claims that Freud’s dream interpretation technique is not about translation (or interpretation), but transposing. He writes: «A medium is a medium is a medium. Thus it cannot be translated. To transfer a message from medium to medium involves subjecting it to other standards and materialities», and means, in company with Rilke, that «one must be aware of the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other». Doesn’t Tomas Tranströmer’s poem about jellyfish in Baltics spring to mind: «…if you take them out of the water all of their shape disappears, as when an indescribable truth is lifted up out of silence and formulated into a lifeless mess, yes, they’re untranslatable, they have to stay in their element.»
Kittler stresses the essential difference between the psychoanalytical semiotics and the actual dream interpretation the way Freud describes it. Semiotics entails that an expression, by means of a special key may be replaced by another meaning. The psychoanalytical semiotics in my view is the point that ages most ungracefully in Freud’s psychoanalysis. In the years after the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, semiotics became increasingly popular, partially due to Wilhelm Stekel’s book Die Sprache des Traumes from 1911, and the popularization even led to Freud’s chapter on semitocs being expanded all the more in later editions of The Interpretation of Dreams. I find the chapter rather painful; the numerous symbols for the male genitalia have been cliché for decades, and comprises all and any object like sticks, tree trunks, twigs, umbrellas, knives, daggers, lances, nailfiles, keys, hats, neckties, weapons, plows, hammers, rifles, sables, revolvers, bridges; as well as machines, apparatuses, tools, forest-clad mountains, children, the expression «the little one», zeppelins, snakes, trips, hands, feet.


However, things aren’t always as simple as they first seem. Like when Freud writes: « In a dream, relatives generally means genitals.» Why on earth, one wonders, should relatives mean genitals? The statement is incomprehensible if you’re unaware that «relatives» and «gender» stems from one and the same word in the German language: Geschlecht. In other words, something in the expression explains the symbolic value. Peculiarly, no explanation is given and Freud uses the words Verwandten, relatives, and Genitalien, genitalia: «Die Verwandten überhaupt spielen im Traume meistens die Rolle von Genitalien.» Why isn’t the common denominator of the words spelled out? Is it implicit, repressed or does Freud wish to allude to the German reader’s diffuse, but never pronounced feeling that the words are interconnected?
This type of interpretation, which utilises the ambiguity of words and even puns, we also find in history, even in the first preserved attempts at dream interpretation, which are mostly Mantic, and made with the intent to predict the future. Presumably the very first recorded examples of dream interpretation are found in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, refered to as the world’s oldest literary work, written on clay tablets in cuneiform around 1200 B.C. Already on the first tablet, we read how the king and demigod Gilgamesh recounts a dream to his mother in which he wanders around in the middle of the night «filled with lust» when a kisru from Anum, the God of Heaven, falls down on him. The mother’s interpretation builds on the ambiguity of the word kisru, which means «meteorite», but also «knot», but most importantly, it is phonetically close to kezru, which means «male prostitute with curly hair». Right thereafter, Gilgamesh has another dream where he sees an axe and embraces it like a wife. This time, too, the mother’s interpratation involves noting wordplay in the dream text, among other the phonetic semblance of the word axe, hassinu to assinu, which means «male prostitute with the god Ihtar». The mother’s interpretation concludes that Gilgamesh will «meet a person full of might» and that this person will be none other than Enkidu, the being that was molded out of clay by the gods to accompany Gilgamesh. The inference follows a thread from earlier in the epos, where Enkidu is described as «wild and hairy», and is introduced to human sexuality by exactly a prostitute.
In a few articles, the Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska and Scott B. Noegel, a scholar specializing on antiquity, gives an abundance of examples on Babylonian and Egyptian dream interpretations and omens where puns building on ambiguities or words sounding alike steers the interpretation, among other the following Babylonian example:

If a man dreams that he’s eating a raven (arbu) he will get income (irbu).

If a man dreams that he eats human flesh (šēru), he will become rich (šarû).

If a man dreams that he has anal sex (qinnatu) with his comrades, he will become the leader of his brothers and colleagues (kincitii).

It seems that it is not only the case that Freud occasionally is closer to ancient dream interpretation than what is commonly thought, but also – which isn’t necessarily the same – that ancient dream interpretation occasionally is close to the freudian.


In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud establishes the transposition of medium as a science, according to Friedrich Kittler. Simply put, in transposition it isn’t the relationship between the indicating and the indicated, i.e. the expression and its content, that is the most interesting, but the relationship between the indicating. Among other things, the tranposing of music involves moving a part of a musical composition up or down in pitch; the internal intervals are unchanged, but the whole composition changes key. In mathematic transposing, a new matrix forms when the rows of the first matrix (T) become columns in the second matrix or vice versa.

We find a clear example of Kittler’s idea of transpositions in Claude Lévi-Strauss classic work on totemism; where he discusses why a tribe or clan has a specific totem. Earlier social anthropologists tried to understand this by looking at the clan’s relationship to their totem animal. In other words, if for example clan A uses the bear as a totem animal, and clan B uses an eagle, one asked questions about A:s relationship to the bear and B:s relationship to the eagle. However, Lévi-Strauss elegantly turns the question around and claims that it is not the bear’s relationship to clan A and the eagle’s relationship to clan B that is most important, it is rather the the relationship between the bear and the eagle that tells us about clan A:s relationship to clan B.


Kittler stresses that transposition is different from psychoanalytical semiotics, and we ought to ask ourselves if not the interpretation of poetry, like dream interpretation shares distinct features with transposition, simply because certain things are impossible to express in a different language, especially in the case of poems obeying metric rules, written in rhyme. If purely literal translation never works – in fact not even with the simplest of texts, something anyone who’s ever used translation software will verify – we still have transposition.

I imagine that Ann Jäderlund’s translations of Emily Dickinson in the volume Gång på gång är skogarna rosa (Frequently the woods are pink, translators remark) belong in the realm of questions like these. Jäderlund writes in her epilogue: «I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to transfer Emily Disckinson’s poems to Swedish, as literally as I could. Down to the smallest syntactic movement. Altering as little as possible.» Many critics still claimed – some with bewilderment, but most highly appreciatively – that the Dickinson translation ought to be considered as a new poetry collection, authored by Jäderlund herself. And it’s true: the poems occasionally look remarkably different in their Swedish rendition, the rhymes are far fewer, and there are even headstrong additions of hyphens, the «dashes» so charachteristic of Dickinson. The poems are often given more line shifts (on one occasion, an original eight-line poem becomes an eighteen-line poem), and the aforementioned mathematical transposition’s shift from row to column indeed seems near at hand. The differences aside, Jäderlund is still completely genuine in her literal sincerity, where «Oh, honey…» logically becomes «Åh, Honung…». What is stupefying about the translation is that it is simultaneously consistently literal and a highly personal interpretation, simultaneously alike and dissimilar to its model, shifting the main point of the translation from verse line to individual word. Jäderlund’s interpretations are remarkably immediate in their literalness, like a form of simultaneous interpretation – or rather: simultaneous transposition – where Dickinson’s words are prepared for a new site, the Swedish language, in a way that resembles a melody’s transposition to a different key.


The dream, the poetic list and cut up all put the reader and interpreter before the task of figuring out the context, the piece’ place in the whole. This creative dilemma might be most obvious concerning the question of negation. Freud claims the following is the case with dreams: «The attitude of the dream towards the category of antithesis and contradiction is most striking. This category is unceremoniously neglected; the word «No» does not seem to exist for the dream. Antitheses are with peculiar preference reduced to unity or represented as one. The dream also takes the liberty of representing any element whatever by its desired opposite, so that it is at first impossbile to tell about any element capable of having an opposite, whether it is to be taken negatively or positively, in the dream thoughts.»

The fact is that negation, like prepositions, yes the relationship between the dream parts in their very picture production must take shape by other, quite diffuse, or let’s say open ways, since the key to the relations largely is found in the patient’s own associations and not in the manifest dream.


One of the most spectacular antithetical interpretations followed one of the most famous moments in psychoanalysis, namely the dream that an immensely wealthy laird from Odessa, Sergej Pankejev, known as the Wolf Man, recounted on Freud’s chaisse-longue some time in 1910. Pankejev had dreamt the dream as a child, just before his fourth birthday, and told Freud that in the dream, he was laying in his bed when the window opened to reveal six or seven wolves sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. «The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.» The Wolf Man continues: «The only act in the dream was the window opening on its own accord, for the wolves sat still without moving on the branches, to the right and left of the trunk, focusing on me».

To Freud the realistic impression of the dream and the wolves complete stillness and silence, led him to assume that there was a piece of reality behind the dream that had been recreated and distorted in the dreamwork. Freud constructs a repressed memory behind the dream, a memory of something that is charachterized by the antithesis of the dream’s striking silence, i.e. the utmost motion and acitivty. Freud thought it concerned nothing less than the Primal Scene, in this case, the parents’ repeated coition a tergo, which the Wolf Man was thought to have observed around the age of 1 1/2 years, according to Freud’s reconstruction.


In the autumn of 1909, Freud discovered a short text by an uknown and obscure linguist, or philologist as they were called at the time, by the name of Carl Abel, written as early as 1884, «Über den Gegensinn der Urworte», (On the antithetical meanings of primal words, translators remark.), a discovery that caused Freud to write a short article with an identical title. In it, Freud attempts to find support for his thoughts on the dream and the unconscious’ lack of negation and to base them on linguistic research. He starts his article by referring to Abel’s data showing that, in the Egyptian language, there are a great number of words having two contrasting meanings, as an example, the word for «strong» was the same as the word for «weak». But compound words pointing in completely different directions were also found, like «oldyoung», farnear», «tiesplit», «withoutbefore»…

Later Freud himself finds several examples in languages considerably closer than Egyptian:

… in Latin, altus means high and deep, sacer sacred and cursed […] To our bös (bad) belongs a bass (good), to the early Saxon bat (good) an English bad….

The linguist Émile Benveniste subsequently criticised Freud’s analogy between the dream process and the so-called «primitive» languages, where an expression simultaneously states one thing and its antithesis. Benveniste wishes to, as he puts it, «correct the comparisons» by turning to the facts of language history, and points to several factual errors in Abel’s and Freud’s examples.

Apart from the strictly methodological objections, it is Abel’s and Freud’s notion of «origin» Benveniste turns against. Peculiarities found in the old languages should not be subjected to any hasty universal valuation, but should be coupled with their own underlying logics. Hence, the old languages should be no more curious than the ones we speak today, their mystery is the same one as we attribute any alien subject. Benveniste writes: «Freud’s confusion seems to stem from from his ceaseless references to the «origin»; the origin of art, the origin of religion, of society, of language… He constantly links what strikes him as «primitive» in humans to an original primitiveness, projecting on world history what we might call the chronology of the human soul.» Here we may happen to think of all the freudian expressions and concepts beginning with primal: primal word, primal scene, primal father, primal horde, primal fantasy, primal repression…


Even if attempts to establish a connection between the primal word, the dream and a real language system proves insufficient for scientific review, Benveniste admits that a comparison of language and the structure of the soul adds something novel. There is reason to assume that the unconscious is structured as a language, as Lacan’s famous motto states. Benveniste writes:

The analogies surmised are striking. The unconscious uses a real «rhetorics», that much like style has its «figures», and the old catalogues of tropes could provide us with a set of terms that would fit both registers of expression. There, we can find all the compensating processes that the taboo gives origin to: Euphemism, allusion, antiphrase, preteriton, litotes.


Octave Mannoni discusses these questions in the article «L’ellipse et la barre», and agrees with Benveniste in his critique regarding the individual examples and their ethymologies. Still Mannoni thinks Abel wasn’t that misguided after all, indeed in languages we find words where their antithetical meaning surprise us, but that simply has nothing to do with the hypothesis of origin. The problem, Mannoni points out, is that Benveniste’s argument is not general enough. According to Mannoni, Benveniste’s use of altus as an example to highlight how we project our own language categories onto latin is faulted, as we could easily show that latin speakers share an ability to understand whether height or depth is the meaning intended. Similar, we’ll assume, to the way a Swede is able to decide whether «the testresults came back positive» involves something advantageous or not. It is the context that determines the meaning, and this is charactheristic of all languages. Mannoni writes:

If I mention the tall mountains we’re passing to the person next to me on an airplane, he will not look up into the air! And if I talk about low clouds to someone strolling, he will not look down at his shoes . . .


Let us look at some unsystemized examples of our own, showing how the same expression can have antithetical meanings:

  1. The piece «Say Hello» in Laurie Anderson’sUnited States notes an undiscovered self-evidence of sorts. Anderson performs a dialogue (with herself) concerning the messages the American space organisation NASA printed onto the spacecraft Pioneer. These messages had the purpose of explaining something about what the earth and humanity are like to hypothetical beings on other planets. Among other things, the spacecraft shows an image of our solar system with the sun at the centre, and an arrow pointing to the thrid planet; earth, but also an image of a nude man and woman, the woman somewhat slumped over, but still inviting, the man taller with a more upright posture. The man reaches out on arm, the elbow bent at ninety degrees, as if to show the aliens how you make contact or say goodbye. Motions that are identical, Anderson points out.

– Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?
– In our country, this is the way we say Hello. It is a diagram of movement between two points. It is a sweep on the dial. In our country this is also the way we say Good bye. Say Hello.
– Hello. Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?
– In our country, this is the way we say Good bye, it is shorthand for «last night, you were here, but when I woke up in the morning, you were gone. In our country «Good bye» looks just like «Hello». Say Hello.
– Hello. Excuse me, can you tell me where I am
– In our country, we send pictures of people speaking our sign language into outer space. We are speaking our sign language in these pictures. Do you think that they will think «his arm is permanently attached in this position», or do you think that they will read our signs? In our country, Good bye looks just like Hello. Say Hello, say Hello…

  1. The word «dag» (day t. r.) probably originally meant both day and night, in some dictionaries, the word is said to be related to to the word «dygn» (24 hours t. r.). Only later did the wish for precision and the borrowing of the word «natt» (night t. r.) occur.
  2. A common Swedish expression with an antithetical meaning is the way in which one can say «en annan» (someone t. r.) to mean «jag» (I t. r.), for example saying «en annan har det inte lätt» (someone is having a hard time t. r.). Similarly, «man» (one t. r.) can signify both one’s own person and people in general.
  3. Irony, i. e. when the author says the antithetical to what he really means but with the intention that the listener or reader should realise this.
  4. By usingSvenska Akademiens Ordbok(SAOB, The Swedish Academy’s Dictionary t. r.) we can investigate the words icke and inte (non-, no, none, and not, none, don’t etc, depending on context t. r.) and how these have different meanings. On closer inspection we find that these words have various meanings, sometimes they even seem to have a more fortifying, affirmative tendency, as in the following:
  5. a) In «rhetorical questions» where the asker already has an opinion he expects to have confirmed. One example could be: Nu gjorde det bestämt ont, gjorde det inte? (It decidedly hurt, did it not? T.r.)
  6. b) In statements that are indirect queries, ruled by verbs meaningdoubtful, question, to denote a positive answer as the most likely. An example fromThe Wonderful Adventures of Nils: «Jag vill nu se efter om Mårten gåskarl inte är hemma.» (I will go check if Mårten goose isn’t at home, t. r.)
  7. c) In statements that are emphatic exclamaitions, to forms consistent with questions where the first word is interrogative:Hur vackert är här inte! Hur vis är icke försynen!(How beautiful isn’t it here! How wise is not providence! T. r.)
  8. d) SAOB provides a flurry of examples where a negation could be deleted without changing the meaning at all. Here are three: «Jag hinner omöjligen inte.» «Sannerligen tror jag inte jag glömt salta!» And the following uncanny sentence: «Det är inte utan, att icke albatrossens blick mörknar, då han får se fregattfågeln». (Tentative translations: «I will not impossibly have time.» «Indeed don’t I think I’ve forgotten to put salt in!» and «It is not without that the albatross’ eyes don’t darken when he sees the frigatebird.» T. r.)

6) Lastly we must mention the rhetorical figure called oxymoron. Oxymoron stems from the Greek oxy «sharp» and maro «dumb», and hence its literal meaning ought to be something like «sagacious idiot». An oxymoron joins opposites to form an effectful expression. There are two main categories: Antithetical composition and Antithetical phrasing. Some examples of antithetical composition are: arbetssemester (working holiday t. r.), asgod (literally «ass-good», but it means «very good» t.r.), barnsäker (childproof t.r.), bitterljuv (bittersweet t.r.), civilmilitær (literally «civilian military», but means non-combatant t.r.), dödspigg (literally «deathly alert», means «perky» t.r.), fulsnygg (ugly and good-looking at the same time t.r.), hatkärlek (love/hate t.r.), hemmaarbete (literally «homework», means «home office» t.r.), jätteliten (literally «giant little», means «very small» t.r.), klärobskyr (clair-obscur t.r.), konservativliberal (conservative liberal t.r.), konvexkonkav (convex concave t.r.), ljusdunkel (literally «light dim», means «dawn/dusk» t.r.), nutidshistoria (contemporary history t.r.), nyklassisk (neo-classical t.r.), originalkopia (original copy t.r.), pojkflicka (literally «boy girl», means «tomboy» t.r.), prosadikt (prose poetry t.r.), psykosomatisk (psychosomatic t.r.). Examples of antithetical phrases are: avlönad voluntär (paid volunteer t.r.), bländande mörker (blinding dark t.r.), extra ordinarie (extraordinary t.r.), gamla nyheter (old news t.r.), genuin imitation (genuine imitation t.r.), heligt krig (holy war t.r.), konstant variabel (constant variable t.r.), levande död (living dead t.r.), mindre mirakel (minor miracle t.r.), normal avvikelse (normal deviation t.r.), offentlig hemlighet (public secret t.r.), större halvan (bigger half t.r.), tyst skrik (silent shout t.r.), vis dåre (wise fool t.r.), öronbedövande tystnad (deafening silence t.r.). Oxymorons could correspond to Abel’s (and Freud’s) aforementioned examples from the Egyptian language, with compositions like «oldyoung» and «farnear» and so on.



I’m willing to agree with Octave Mannoni that it’s not by examples like these – or the Polynesian examples that are Mannoni’s primary focus – one gains clarity in a linguistic problem that has bearing in both dream interpretation and the unconscious, but, that is not the intent, either. Mannoni writes:

My intent is to position myself between Freud’s discovery and Abel’s mistake. Abel discovered something, and now we can see that it was a public secret, so simple and banal that one questions how it could be of any use in dream interpretation, if for example «the opposite meaning» in the dreams no longer constitutes a problem, or on the contrary, it is there and only there it constitutes a problem?

Instead, every expression should, in principle, be able to lend itself to an, if not antithetical, then at any rate ambigious meaning, at least as long as the speaker needs it to. For that matter, it isn’t necessary for language to disposes expressions or «primal words» with antithetical meanings. However, the ability to separate this question from the fact that a word refers to different things depending on the context they’re uttered in, i.e. that an expression does not unambiguously refer to any content, but finds its significance in other expressions, is of the utmost importance. This would be a case of what Mannoni calls the universal ambiguity – a question of a considerably wider and broader character, Mannoni energetically insists: «These facts are from a different order altogether».


I’m eight years old and at a sleepover at my cousins’ in their cabin. In my pillow I «see» a ship about to sink, people on deck screaming, and I know they will all drown. Their lives depend on me.

I sit up in bed and attempt to explain, pointing to the pillow, utter a few words, but to no avail. Even though I know what I want to say, the words escape me. I understand that I seem very weird. Then the really horrible thing happens: my cousins laugh at me. And I realize that nothing I can say can save me, as I have lost the ability to make myself understood forever.

The childhood memory isn’t mine, but belongs to a person close to me who is a classic sleepwalker. Her stories of truly strange noctrunal conversations, bizarre night wanderings around football camp and in hotel corridors are many. Like the time her mother was away and she – this time too maybe eight years old – scared the daylight out of the rest of her family when she clothed herself in her mother’s dress, shoes and necklace and, in a mixture of a shout and a hiss, sounded a «Hellooooo!» in the dim hallway.

Still, the early experience of having lost the ability to speak intelligebly, understandably seem the worst. In defense of the grinning cousins, one might claim that the laughter could be seen as a defense against the tangible eerieness caused by sleepwalking. What happened to the normal person? What is happening when someone we know well suddenly changes, transforms, looks right past us? And who is really speaking?

Several years later, when the sleepwalker worked at a home for patients suffering from dementia for a few summers, the recognition was total. «It was strange, I felt an absolute affinity with some of the elderly demented. I actually think I know how they feel.»

A statement: Couldn’t the resignation of the sleepwalker or demented, faced with not finding the words, or feeling that the words won’t say what you mean be compared to an experience of untranslatability? No longer being able to speak in words, only pictures.




Simon Morris Rewriting Freud 4: The Interpretation of Dreams (Information As Material 2005),

William S. Burroughs Brion Gysins cut-upmetod (OEI no 15/16/17 2003/2004) translated by Anders Lundberg,

Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams translated by Abraham Arden Brill,

Simon Morris The Royal Road of the Unconcious (Information As Material 2003),

Friedrich Kittler, Aufschreibesysteme,

Pierre Fédida, Le souffle indistinct de l’image from the essay collection Le site de l’étranger (P.U.F. 1995),

Sei Shōnagon The Pillow Book (Colombia University Press 1991) translated by Ivan Morris,

Ron Silliman The New Sentence,

Octave Mannoni Freud (Glänta produktion 2001) translated by Håkan Liljeland,

Fredrik Nyberg Att bli ved (Norstedts 2013),

Mara Lee Hennes vård (Vertigo 2004),

The project Translating Translating Apollinaire was first printed in bpNichol and Steve McCaffery’s Rational Geomancy (Talonbooks 1992),

Tomas Tranströmer Östensjöar English Baltics (Bonniers 1974, Tavern Books 2012) translated by Samuel Charters,

Scott B. Noegel On puns and divination: Egyptian dreams exegesis (2006)

Kasia Szpakowska Through a Glass Darkly: Magic, Dreams, and Prophecy in Ancient Egypt (The Classical Press of Wales 2006),

Claude Lévi-Strauss Totemism,

Emily Dickinson Gång på gång är skogarna rosa (Bonniers 2012) translated by Ann Jäderlund,

Émile Benveniste Anmärkningar om språkets funktion i Freuds upptäckt translated by John Swedenmark and Maja Lundgren,

Octave Mannoni Clefs pour l’Imaginaire ou l’Autre Scène (Seuil 1985),

Laurie Anderson United States I-V (Warner Brothers 1983).


In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud establishes the transposition of medium as a science, according to Friedrich Kittler. Simply put, in transposition it isn’t the relationship between the indicating and the indicated, i.e. the expression and its content, that is the most interesting, but the relationship between the indicating. Among other things, the tranposing of music involves moving a part of a musical composition up or down in pitch; the internal intervals are unchanged, but the whole composition changes key. In mathematic transposing, a new matrix forms when the rows of the first matrix (T)