Abjecting the Abject in Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams

Often in reading Freud, one makes the mistake of taking him at his word, the one thing above all else that psychoanalysis insists one cannot do. Freud must be read through Freud; that is to say, his writings are neither infallible nor objective and often betray the psychic phenomena that he himself describes. An example of this to which we’ve returned time and again is that of Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection, which he recalls and analyzes in The Interpretation of Dreams. In Irma’s throat Freud discovers “a big white patch; at another place I saw extensive whitish grey scabs upon some remarkable curly structures which were evidently modelled on the turbinal bones of the nose” (131). We might well call this psychoanalysis’s earliest figuration of the abject, an unthinkable, unnameable blight which must be cast out to restore coherence to the subject. Freud, however, betrays an unwillingness to confront this abject thing for what it really is; his analysis of the dream performs the same work of displacement performed in producing the manifest content of the dream, disavowing the abject quality of Irma’s growth and sublimating it such that it can be understood, such that the dream (and Freud’s psyche) can be made to cohere.

In “Troubles with the Real,” Slavoj Žižek elaborates the idea of Irma’s growth as a figuration of the Lacanian Real. “The dream’s first part, Freud’s confrontation with Irma, ends with Freud looking deep into Irma’s throat; what he sees there renders the Real in the guise of the primordial flesh, the palpitation of the life substance as the Thing itself, in its disgusting dimension of a cancerous outgrowth. The dream’s second part, the comic conversation among the three doctors, Freud’s friends, who offer different excuses for the failure of the treatment, ends up with a chemical formula (of trimethylamine) writ large. Each part thus concludes with a figuration of the Real, first, the real of lamella, of the terrifying formless Thing, then, the scientific Real, the real of a formula which renders the nature’s meaningless functioning.” That Freud should back away from the “meaningless functioning” of this formula-explanation in order to inject his own agenda into his interpretation is the site of a divergence between Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis: Freud sees his dream as an elaborate, overdetermined wish fulfillment, exonerating himself of his guilt over a mismanaged treatment; Lacan might see this exoneration as only a symptom, a covering up of the traumatic Real that Irma’s growth represents. Freud himself highlights the overdetermination of this exoneration in his analogy of the borrowed kettle: “The defendant asserted first, that he had given it back un-damaged; secondly, that the kettle had a hole in it when he borrowed it; and thirdly, that he had never borrowed a kettle from his neighbour at all.” What better example of disavowal than the sheer forcefulness with which the dream belabors this point? Freud nonetheless disavows this very disavowal, abjecting the abject by displacing it into the comparatively more coherent framework of wish fulfillment maintained by his reading of the dream as an exculpation.

John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion thematizes this very disavowal that initially characterizes Freud’s approach to dream interpretation. The film’s first dream sequence, following Freud’s evidently traumatic encounter with Carl von Schlossen, sends Freud into something of a hysteria of his own, as evidenced by the scene immediately following it wherein Dr. Breuer drops by Freud’s apartment to, as it were, “check up” on him. Breuer insists upon analyzing Freud, despite Freud’s fervent denial (disavowal) of any illness. The exchange is marked by an insistence on the negative on Freud’s part, uncharacteristically stammering and trailing off. Breuer notes that Freud’s article has nothing to do with their former work together, when pressed, Freud replies:

F: It’s good to be back with experimentally proven facts again. I was homesick for neurology and I… I… I didn’t know it.
B: What about our studies on hysteria?
F: The discovery is yours; I contributed nothing. There’s no reason why you should share the credit.
[Breuer grills Martha as to Freud’s well-being.]
B: I’m going to examine him here and now. Sit down Freud, open your shirt.
F: No. Uh, no. There’s nothing wrong with me, I assure you.

The problem, as it happens, is that Freud has, in his dream and in the figure of Carl, encountered another form of the traumatic Real: Carl’s incestuous desire for his mother. In his dream, he attempts to cast out this kernel, to abject the abject that Carl represents. But this effort towards abjection is itself a revealing disavowal: when Freud succeeds in ejecting the figure of Carl from the mouth of the cave, he realizes only too late that felling Carl, to whom he is tied at the waist, will make Freud fall too. Carl’s transgression is so traumatic for Freud because it evokes the Oedipal drive already living within Freud; his abjection is an abjection proper because Carl is that within Freud which is unnameable, which fails to cohere. As in The Interpretation of Dreams, this Real is covered up by a series of displacements both within the dream and outside of it; it is only later in the film that Freud will discover that Carl’s desire is (the horror!) his own.