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Sigmund Freud on 'Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming'


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Sigmund Freud on 'Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming'

  1. 1. 1 CLINICAL NOTES Sigmund Freud (1907-08). ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,’ Art and Literature, translated by James Strachey, edited by Albert Dickson (London: Penguin Books, 1990), Penguin Freud Library, pp. 129-141. These clinical notes attempt to explain the difference between ‘day-dreams’ and ‘night-dreams’ (if we can put it like that). When the term ‘dreams’ is invoked in acts of interpretation, what clinicians are really looking at are dreams that patients have when they are asleep. These dreams are sometimes remembered but usually forgotten when the patient gets up in the morning. Patients in analysis also find that they are producing dreams which they believe have something to say to the analyst. These are dreams that are mediated by the positive transference. Such dreams are more likely to be remembered because the patient feels that there is somebody who is really interested in his dreams. Sometimes patients even try to jot down the basic plot structure of the dream when they get up in the middle of the night. Clinicians are acquainted with these phenomena; there is a large literature on whether or not patients should be encouraged to put down their dreams in writing; and whether the dream that the patient will eventually discuss in analysis is the same as that which appeared in his sleep. The ontology of dreams then is affected by the fact that the analyst cannot see the dream in the way that the patient can, but can only infer how the manifest and latent content of the dream are related to each other in terms of the associations produced by the patient on the couch.
  2. 2. 2 But there is more to dreaming than what the term ‘interpretation of dreams’ means in the conventional sense. There are also ‘day-dreams, fantasies, and reveries’ that the patient is subject to throughout the day. It is easy to overlook the fact that these aspects of mental life could be as important as dreams in the strict sense of the term and must be subject to interpretation if we want to understand the patient’s unconscious. These dreams, fantasies, and reveries, for instance, constitute the mental life of not only the subject of analysis, but also of artists, scientists, and creative writers. In this paper, Freud focuses on what we can learn about the unconscious by looking at these dream-like phenomena. Unlike the lay-person, who does not dwell on his day-dreams because he thinks that there is something wrong in doing so, creative writers take their mental life seriously; they are not afraid of looking into their unconscious when they get a chance to do so. The age-old question of where creative writers find their material is easy to answer if we realize the importance of day-dreams in their life. Since the creative writer has a sense of ‘literary form’ (i.e. genre), he is able to put his day-dreams to good use unlike most subjects who waste these dreams. The reason most subjects waste these day-dreams is that they do not know how to construct a poem, a play, or a story out of these day-dreams. So what differentiates the creative writer from the usual subject of analysis is that he is able to shape his day-dreams, fantasies, and reveries into works of literary art. As Freud was fond of putting it, the creative artist does not dwell in fantasies as an end in itself like the neurotic subject, but ‘regresses in the service’ of a higher purpose that can be termed ‘sublimation.’ The purpose of sublimation is to further the interests of literature, culture, or science. In order to understand why the creative artist or writer has this ability to sublimate his instincts, Freud points to the importance of ‘play’ and ‘playing’ in the life of young children. Children, who are encouraged to play with other children and ask questions, are more likely to develop the ability to sublimate their instincts than children who either don’t play or who are not encouraged to do so.
  3. 3. 3 The importance of observing children play as a way of analysing a child’s psyche was also understood by the pioneers of child analysis like Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. These analysts argued that since a child cannot free-associate in the way adults do, getting them to play with toys, or with each other, will give the analyst insights into how they think, and what might ail them, when they are subject to analysis in the clinic. Play analysis was an important source of information that had been over-looked by analysts who thought that only adults can be subject to analysis in the strict sense of the term – that is why it took so long for child analysis to develop as a distinct area of practice in the history of psychoanalysis. So though a child may not have an unconscious in the technical sense, many important clinical insights can be generated by exploring how they relate to the acquisition of language, to their own families, and the symbolic. Likewise, the creative writer who has kept his ‘inner-child’ alive will give clinicians a clue as to how children think. Insights generated by observing children at play will also give clinicians a clue as to how creative writers think. Freud discusses a number of typical fantasies that constitute the mental life of children, and how these fantasies are a response to the real or perceived inadequacies that they might have experienced in their life. These inadequacies might relate to their parents, families, or social situation. Freud both here and elsewhere talks about the ‘family romance.’ This is a typical fantasy in which a child imagines that he is ‘high-born’ and that his parents are not those he actually lives with. Sooner or later, the child tells himself, he will have to assume the status that comes from being high-born and that his real parents will be revealed to him. Such fantasies will not make a positive impression if the child were to reveal them as a cold fact, but will appear endearing if he is able to transform them into works of literary art when he grows up and becomes a writer. How exactly the creative writer is able to transform such commonplace oedipal fantasies into literature is his ‘innermost secret.’ In doing so, the creative writer is able to win over his reader by giving them a ‘fore- pleasure’ because of his hold on literary form.
  4. 4. 4 In the absence of this ability at forging a sense of literary form, the writer is no better than the neurotic who merely ‘suffers’ his fantasy. The essence of the ars poetica is the ability to sublimate rather than suffer a fantasy from early childhood. Most fairy tales are but variations on the theme of the ‘family romance.’ It is therefore important to understand the analytic difference between day-dreams and night-dreams and relate them to the state of the analysis. The ability to sublimate then, to conclude, is an important indicator for whether the neurotic subject of analysis will get well in the course of the treatment or be tempted to regress, act-out, or drop out of the treatment at the slightest provocation. SHIVA KUMAR SRINIVASAN