The role of internal images, namely those that people dreams, in psychic life has been underscored since Antiquity and was the basis for myths and confabulations on their meaning and importance. Throughout the 19th century to the foundation of psychoanalysis by Freud, the medical class saw dreams as a kind of temporary insanity to which subjects were conditioned during their sleep. However, oniric images became more important after Freud’s theory, and had tremendous repercussions, especially in the world of art, with Surrealism, in artists such as Georges Bataille, Max Ernst and André Breton.
In his article on “The Meaning of Dreams” (1901), Freud reconstructed the way dreams have been seen throughout the centuries. However, he focused mainly on the way his contemporary doctors saw them. From Freud onwards, dreams have been at the core of the study of the subject’s psychic and emotional life. Yet he was mainly concerned with the «the question of meaning» (Freud 1901: 95). To Freud, it was essential to establish continuity between the two moments of psychic life, vigil and dream, and understand how the structure of psychism operates in each of them. Thus, the psychic economy of the dream is the same that occurs during other states of psychic life: the fact that the images of the dream look “ridiculous”, incomprehensible, irrational, is fundamental for their role. Under a more relaxed state of egoic and superegoic censorship, the unconscious may erupt in psychic life and allow the subject to relive some of his deepest desires and conflicts. Yet, the surrealist-like scenario which is a regular staple of dreams, as well as its fragmentarity and narrative discontinuity is caused, according to Freud, by the need to disguise the contents that are represented, which would otherwise be incompatible even with a more diffuse degree of consciousness, such as that of the memory of the same dreams as preserved by the subject. This naturalisation of dreams in psychic life had already been the order of the day in Germany in the second half of the 18th century. According to Doris Kauffmann (Kaufmann 2001), Karl Philipp Moritz published, from 1783 to 1793, the Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde (Magazine of experience and knowledge of the mind), devoted to experimental (field) knowledge of the functioning of the soul, as “maladies of the soul” were “far more various, pernicious and widespread than any physical ailment” ( in Kaufman 2000, 70). The relation between physical and psychological states actually became a core theme for debate during the German Enlightenment. Only later, with Charcot, Janet and Freud, did this relation become the object of a systematic study once again. One of the indicators of this reflection was the avant la lettre concern with the study of dreams, which were regularly a subject for discussion and interaction between the readers of the magazine. The main question raised by dreams was, in this context, that of the relation between their “immoral” and “anti-social” content and conscious life’s rationalist assumptions .
According to Freud, images in dreams are ruled by processes of condensation and dislocation which encompass dismal series of images and perceptions which are individually recognisable, but that, under such processes of disguise, become «unrecognisable» for the dreamer, thus allowing him to preserve sleep. On the other hand, the process of figuration which is responsible for the creation of the images that people dreams is fundamental to understand the visual structure of dreams, whereas the symbolisation of the dream allows us to invest in the figures of certain specific ideas, according to the narrative context of the dream and the dreamer’s psychic life.
For Freud, this theory of dreams functioned as one of the pivotal axis for his treatment of patients on the couch: through free association, the dreamer might be able to achieve the latent meaning of the dream and thus finally understand its full unconscious meaning.
The clash between conscious and unconscious life on which the Freudian theory of the Subject is based is thus closely linked to the study of the meaning of oniric images. The impact of this vision of the subject, in which the rationalisation of the Ego is opposed to an instinctive, unconscious dimension was extremely important in the early 20th century as a source of inspiration for primitivist and surrealist currents, which used the imagery of psychoanalysis and its theory of dreams as the theme for their explorations on the subject beyond logical and rational speech. Although Freud moved away from the «illustrative» uses of his theory of dreams, in his correspondence with Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement continued to militantly explore Freud’s ideas as a source of inspiration for his movement. Some painters from this movement, such Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Luís Buñuel produced works that thematised expressly several contents that had been made popular by psychoanalysis, namely those related to images of anality or death drives. We may therefore say the Oniric image both became the object of a revolutionary scientific research in the field of Psychology and influenced the artistic avant-garde movements of the early decades of the 20th century, namely convoking the most primitive and instinctive dimension of the human being, as they may also be translated into images.
The impact of psychoanalytic studies of dreams was also the motto for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1936), in which the dream of the main character, the analysis of which plays a fundamental part in the plot, was conceived by Salvador Dali.
Freud, Sigmund, “Sobre os sonhos” (1901). Textos Fudamentais de Psicanálise, vol I. Lisboa: Publicações Europa-América, 95-139.
Freud, Sigmund, (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, The Standard Editions of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud by James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1953.
Hitchcock, Alfred (1936) Spellbound.
Dali, Salvador e Luis Buñuel, "Le Chien Andalou", 1929.
Doris Kaufman, “Dreams and self-consciousness”, in Lorraine Daston, Biography Of Scientific Objects. Chicago e Londres: Chicago University Press, 2000, 86-113.