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3.2 Symbolic Lacan

[T]he step I ask you to take in this seminar is to follow me when I say to you that the sense of the analytic discovery isn’t simply to have found meanings but to have gone much further than anyone has ever gone in reading them, namely right to the signifier. That this fact is neglected explains the dead ends, the confusions, the circles and tautologies, that analytic research encounters. The mainspring of the analytic discovery isn’t to be found in the so-called libidinal or instinctual meanings relative to a whole range of behavior. These exist, it’s true. But in the human being those meanings that are the closest to need, meanings that are relative to the most purely biological insertion into a nutritive and captivating environment, primordial meanings, are, in their sequence and in their very foundation, subject to laws that are the laws of the signifier.

—Lacan, April 18, 1956

Besides the Oedipus complex, other offending overreaches of The Interpretation of Dreams include its account of typical dreams, and especially its sixth chapter which seemingly sets the meaning of dream imagery once and for all. What his critics overlook, however, is how Freud always takes the subject’s individual appropriation of culturally inherited symbols. Indeed Freud ‘should like to utter an express warning against over-estimating the importance of symbols in dream-interpretation, against restricting the work of translating dreams merely to translating symbols and against abandoning the technique of making use of the dreamer’s associations.’16 Symbolic interpretation is merely an auxiliary method to the primary method of following the chain of associations the dreamer himself makes upon waking and speaking of the dream. Here is an aspect of the second level at which Freud can be read. This level is upheld whenever his readers are admonished not to be seduced by the imagery of the manifest content of the dream, but to turn instead to its latent dream-thoughts if the disentanglement of its meaning is desired. To make this clear, he famously likens the dream to a rebus whose solution can only be found by submitting its pictorial values to an analysis which takes place at the signifier level. The dream interpreter is to set aside the (hermeneutical) relations of the whole composition and its parts, and ‘try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way or other.’17 To illustrate, a dreamer who sees a clock in his dream that reads ‘twenty to five’ is to write it down with just these words, and not as 4:40. Otherwise, he is likely to overlook how it represents the number 225 – the dollar amount which caused him anxiety the previous evening as he filed his taxes. Picture-puzzles simply lose their true significance if merely treated as pictorial compositions.

It might be countered that it is precisely the absurdity of dream images which triggers the questioning upon waking of what the dream means. However,

16 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 359–60.
17 Ibid., 278.

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