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 The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 1 - E. The Psychological Peculiarities of Dreams Psychology

The Interpretation of Dreams


CHAPTER 1, Section F

F. The Ethical Sense in Dreams

For reasons which will be intelligible only after a consideration of my own investigations of dreams, I have isolated from the psychology of the dream the subsidiary problem as to whether and to what extent the moral dispositions and feelings of waking life extend into dream-life. The same contradictions which we were surprised to observe in the descriptions by various authors of all the other psychic activities will surprise us again here. Some writers flatly assert that dreams know nothing of moral obligations; others as decidedly declare that the moral nature of man persists even in his dream-life.

Our ordinary experience of dreams seems to confirm beyond all doubt the correctness of the first assertion. Jessen says (p. 553): "Nor does one become better or more virtuous during sleep; on the contrary, it seems that conscience is silent in our dreams, inasmuch as one feels no compassion and can commit the worst crimes, such as theft, murder, and homicide, with perfect indifference and without subsequent remorse."

Radestock (p. 146) says: "It is to be noted that in dreams associations are effected and ideas combined without being in any way influenced by reflection, reason, aesthetic taste, and moral judgment; the judgment is extremely weak, and ethical indifference reigns supreme."

Volkelt (p. 23) expresses himself as follows: "As every one knows, dreams are especially unbridled in sexual matters. Just as the dreamer himself is shameless in the extreme, and wholly lacking in moral feeling and judgment, so likewise does he see others, even the most respected persons, doing things which, even in his thoughts, he would blush to associate with them in his waking state."

Utterances like those of Schopenhauer, that in dreams every man acts and talks in complete accordance with his character, are in sharpest contradiction to those mentioned above. R. Ph. Fischer * maintains that the subjective feelings and desires, or affects and passions, manifest themselves in the wilfulness of the dream-life, and that the moral characteristics of a man are mirrored in his dreams.

* Grundzuge des Systems der Anthropologie. Erlangen, 1850 (quoted by Spitta).

Haffner says (p. 25): "With rare exceptions... a virtuous man will be virtuous also in his dreams; he will resist temptation, and show no sympathy for hatred, envy, anger, and all other vices; whereas the sinful man will, as a rule, encounter in his dreams the images which he has before him in the waking state."

Scholz (p. 36): "In dreams there is truth; despite all camouflage of nobility or degradation, we recognize our own true selves.... The honest man does not commit a dishonouring crime even in his dreams, or, if he does, he is appalled by it as by something foreign to his nature. The Roman emperor who ordered one of his subjects to be executed because he dreamed that he had cut off the emperor's head was not far wrong in justifying his action on the ground that he who has such dreams must have similar thoughts while awake. Significantly enough, we say of things that find no place even in our intimate thoughts: 'I would never even dream of such a thing.'"

Plato, on the other hand, considers that they are the best men who only dream the things which other men do.

Plaff, * varying a familiar proverb, says: "Tell me your dreams for a time and I will tell you what you are within."

* Das Traumleben und seine Deutung, 1868 (cited by Spitta, p. 192).

The little essay of Hildebrandt's from which I have already taken so many quotations (the best-expressed and most suggestive contribution to the literature of the dream-problem which I have hitherto discovered), takes for its central theme the problem of morality in dreams. For Hildebrandt, too, it is an established rule that the purer the life, the purer the dream; the impurer the life, the impurer the dream.

The moral nature of man persists even in dreams. "But while we are not offended or made suspicious by an arithmetical error, no matter how obvious, by a reversal of scientific fact, no matter how romantic, or by an anachronism, no matter how ridiculous, we nevertheless do not lose sight of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice. No matter how much of that which accompanies us during the day may vanish in our hours of sleep, Kant's categorical imperative dogs our steps as an inseparable companion, of whom we cannot rid ourselves even in our slumber.... This can be explained only by the fact that the fundamental element of human nature, the moral essence, is too firmly fixed to be subjected to the kaleidoscopic shaking-up to which phantasy, reason, memory, and other faculties of the same order succumb in our dreams" (p. 45, etc.).

In the further discussion of the subject we find in both these groups of authors remarkable evasions and inconsequences. Strictly speaking, all interest in immoral dreams should be at an end for those who assert that the moral personality of the individual falls to pieces in his dreams. They could as coolly reject all attempts to hold the dreamer responsible for his dreams, or to infer from the immorality of his dreams that there is an immoral strain in his nature, as they have rejected the apparently analogous attempt to prove from the absurdity of his dreams the worthlessness of his intellectual life in the waking state. The others, according to whom the categorical imperative extends even into the dream, ought to accept in toto the notion of full responsibility for immoral dreams; and we can only hope that their own reprehensible dreams do not lead them to abandon their otherwise firm belief in their own moral worth.

As a matter of fact, however, it would seem that although no one is positively certain just how good or how bad he is, he can hardly deny that he can recollect immoral dreams of his own. That there are such dreams no one denies; the only question is: how do they originate? So that, in spite of their conflicting judgments of dream-morality, both groups of authors are at pains to explain the genesis of the immoral dream; and here a new conflict arises, as to whether its origin is to be sought in the normal functions of the psychic life, or in the somatically conditioned encroachments upon this life. The nature of the facts compels both those who argue for and those who argue against moral responsibility in dream-life to agree in recognizing a special psychic source for the immorality of dreams.

Those who maintain that morality continues to function in our dream-life nevertheless refrain from assuming full responsibility for their dreams. Haffner says (p. 24): "We are not responsible for our dreams, because that basis which alone gives our life truth and reality is withdrawn from our thoughts and our will. Hence the wishes and actions of our dreams cannot be virtuous or sinful." Yet the dreamer is responsible for the sinful dream in so far as indirectly he brings it about. Thus, as in waking life, it is his duty, just before going to sleep, morally to cleanse his mind.

The analysis of this admixture of denial and recognition of responsibility for the moral content of dreams is carried much further by Hildebrandt. After arguing that the dramatic method of representation characteristic of dreams, the condensation of the most complicated processes of reflection into the briefest periods of time, and the debasement and confusion of the imaginative elements of dreams, which even he admits must be allowed for in respect of the immoral appearance of dreams, he nevertheless confesses that there are the most serious objections to flatly denying all responsibility for the lapses and offenses of which we are guilty in our dreams.

(p. 49): "If we wish to repudiate very decisively any sort of unjust accusation, and especially one which has reference to our intentions and convictions, we use the expression: 'We should never have dreamt of such a thing.' By this, it is true, we mean on the one hand that we consider the region of dreams the last and remotest place in which we could be held responsible for our thoughts, because there these thoughts are so loosely and incoherently connected with our real being that we can, after all, hardly regard them as our own; but inasmuch as we feel impelled expressly to deny the existence of such thoughts even in this region, we are at the same time indirectly admitting that our justification would not be complete unless it extended even thus far. And I believe that here, although unconsciously, we are speaking the language of truth."

(p. 52): "No dream-action can be imagined whose first beginnings have not in some shape already passed through the mind during our waking hours, in the form of wish, desire, or impulse." Concerning this original impulse we must say: The dream has not discovered it- it has only imitated and extended it; it has only elaborated into dramatic form a scrap of historical material which it found already existing within us; it brings to our mind the words of the Apostle that he who hates his brother is a murderer. And though, after we wake, being conscious of our moral strength, we may smile at the whole widely elaborated structure of the depraved dream, yet the original material out of which we formed it cannot be laughed away. One feels responsible for the transgressions of one's dreaming self; not for the whole sum of them, but yet for a certain percentage. "In short, if in this sense, which can hardly be impugned, we understand the words of Christ, that out of the heart come evil thoughts, then we can hardly help being convinced that every sin committed in our dreams brings with it at least a vague minimum of guilt."

Thus Hildebrandt finds the source of the immorality of dreams in the germs and hints of evil impulses which pass through our minds during the day as mental temptations, and he does not hesitate to include these immoral elements in the ethical evaluation of the personality. These same thoughts, and the same evaluation of these thoughts, have, as we know, caused devout and holy men of all ages to lament that they were wicked sinners. *

* It is not uninteresting to consider the attitude of the Inquisition to this problem. In the Tractatus de Officio sanctissimae Inquisitionis of Thomas Carena (Lyons edit., 1659) one finds the following passage: "Should anyone utter heresies in his dreams, the inquisitors shall consider this a reason for investigating his conduct in life, for that is wont to return in sleep which occupies a man during the day" (Dr. Ehniger, St. Urban, Switzerland).

The general occurrence of these contrasting thoughts in the majority of men, and even in other regions than the ethical, is of course established beyond a doubt. They have sometimes been judged in a less serious spirit. Spitta quotes a relevant passage from A. Zeller (Article "Irre," in the Allgemeine Encyklopadie der Wissenschaften, Ersch and Gruber, p. 144): "An intellect is rarely so happily organized as to be in full command of itself at all times and seasons, and never to be disturbed in the lucid and constant processes of thought by ideas not merely unessential, but absolutely grotesque and nonsensical; indeed, the greatest thinkers have had cause to complain of this dream-like, tormenting and distressing rabble of ideas, which disturbs their profoundest contemplations and their most pious and earnest meditations."

A clearer light is thrown on the psychological meaning of these contrasting thoughts by a further observation of Hildebrandt's, to the effect that dreams permit us an occasional glimpse of the deepest and innermost recesses of our being, which are generally closed to us in our waking state (p. 55). A recognition of this fact is betrayed by Kant in his Anthropology, when he states that our dreams may perhaps be intended to reveal to us not what we are but what we might have been if we had had another upbringing; and by Radestock (p. 84), who suggests that dreams disclose to us what we do not wish to admit to ourselves, and that we therefore unjustly condemn them as lying and deceptive. J. E. Erdmann asserts: "A dream has never told me what I ought to think of a person, but, to my great surprise, a dream has more than once taught me what I do really think of him and feel about him." And J. H. Fichte expresses himself in a like manner: "The character of our dreams gives a far truer reflection of our general disposition than anything that we can learn by self-observation in the waking state." Such remarks as this of Benini's call our attention to the fact that the emergence of impulses which are foreign to our ethical consciousness is merely analogous to the manner, already familiar to us, in which the dream disposes of other representative material: "Certe nostre inclinazioni che si credevano soffocate e spente da un pezzo, si ridestano; passioni vecchie e sepolte revivono; cose e persone a cui non pensiamo mai, ci vengono dinanzi" (p. 149). Volkelt expresses himself in a similar fashion: "Even ideas which have entered into our consciousness almost unnoticed, and which, perhaps, it has never before called out of oblivion, often announce their presence in the mind through a dream" (p 105). Finally, we may remember that according to Schleiermacher the state of falling asleep is accompanied by the appearance of undesired imaginings.

We may include in such "undesired imaginings" the whole of that imaginative material the occurrence of which surprises us in immoral as well as in absurd dreams. The only important difference consists in the fact that the undesired imaginings in the moral sphere are in opposition to our usual feelings, whereas the others merely appear strange to us. So far nothing has been done to enable us to reconcile this difference by a profounder understanding. But what is the significance of the emergence of undesired representations in dreams? What conclusions can the psychology of the waking and dreaming mind draw from these nocturnal manifestations of contrasting ethical impulses? Here we find a fresh diversity of opinion, and also a different grouping of the authors who have treated of the subject. The line of thought followed by Hildebrandt, and by others who share his fundamental opinion, cannot be continued otherwise than by ascribing to the immoral impulses, even in the waking state, a latent vitality, which is indeed inhibited from proceeding to action, and by asserting that during sleep something falls away from us which, having the effect of an inhibition, has kept us from becoming aware of the existence of such impulses. Dreams therefore, reveal the true, if not the whole, nature of the dreamer, and are one means of making the hidden life of the psyche accessible to our understanding. It is only on such hypotheses that Hildebrandt can attribute to the dream the role of a monitor who calls our attention to the secret mischief in the soul, just as, according to the physicians, it may announce a hitherto unobserved physical disorder. Spitta, too, must be influenced by this conception when he refers, for example, to the stream of excitations which flow in upon the psyche during puberty, and consoles the dreamer by assuring him that he has done all that is in his power to do if he has led a strictly virtuous life during his waking state, if he has made an effort to suppress the sinful thoughts as often as they arise, and has kept them from maturing and turning into action. According to this conception, we might designate as "undesired imaginings" those that are suppressed during the day, and we must recognize in their emergence a genuine psychic phenomenon.

According to certain other authors, we have no right to draw this last inference. For Jessen (p. 360) the undesired ideas and images, in the dream as in the waking state, and also in the delirium of fever, etc., possess "the character of a voluntary activity laid to rest, and of a procession, to some extent mechanical, of images and ideas evoked by inner impulses." An immoral dream proves nothing in respect of the psychic life of the dreamer except that he has somehow become cognizant of the imaginative content in question; it is certainly no proof of a psychic impulse of his own mind. Another writer, Maury, makes us wonder whether he, too, does not ascribe to the dream-state the power of dividing the psychic activity into its components, instead of aimlessly destroying it. He speaks as follows of dreams in which one oversteps the bounds of morality: "Ce sont nos penchants qui parlent et qui nous font agir, sans que la conscience nous retienne, bien que parfois elle nous avertisse. J'ai mes defauts et mes penchants vicieux; a l'etat de veille, je tache de lutter contre eux, et il m'arrive assez souvent de n'y pas succomber. Mais dans mes songes j'y succombe toujours, ou pour mieux dire j'agis par leur impulsion, sans crainte et sans remords.... Evidemment les visions qui se deroulent devant ma pensee, et qui constituent le reve, me sont suggerees par les incitations que je ressens et que ma volonte absente ne cherche pas a refouler."- * Le Sommeil (p. 113).

* Our tendencies speak and make us act, without being restrained by our conscience, although it sometimes warns us. I have my faults and vicious tendencies; awake I try to fight against them, and often enough I do not succumb to them. But in my dreams I always succumb, or, rather, I act at their direction, without fear or remorse.... Evidently, the visions which unfold in my thoughts, and which constitute the dream, are suggested by the stimuli which I feel and which my absent will does not try to repel.

If one believed in the power of the dream to reveal an actually existing, but suppressed or concealed, immoral disposition of the dreamer, one could not express one's opinion more emphatically than in the words of Maury (p. 115): "En reve l'homme se revele donc tout entier a soi-meme dans sa nudite et sa misere natives. Des qu'il suspend l'exercise de sa volonte, il devient le jouet de toutes les passions contre lesquelles, a l'etat de veille, la conscience, le sentiment d'honneur, la crainte nous defendent." * In another place makes the striking assertion (p. 462): "Dans le reve, c'est surtout l'homme instinctif que se revele.... L'homme revient pour ainsi dire l'etat de nature quand il reve; mais moins les idees acquises ont penetre dans son esprit, plus 'les penchants en desaccord' avec elles conservent encore sur lui d'influence dans le rive." *(2) He then mentions, as an example, that his own dreams often reveal him as a victim of just those superstitions which he has most vigorously attacked in his writings.

* In a dream, a man is totally revealed to himself in his naked and wretched state. As he suspends the exercise of his will, he becomes the toy of all the passions from which, when awake, our conscience, horror, and fear defend us.

*(2) In a dream, it is above all the instinctive man who is revealed.... Man returns, so to speak, to the natural state when he dreams; but the less acquired ideas have penetrated into his mind, the more his "tendencies to disagreement" with them keep their hold on him in his dreams.

The value of all these acute observations is, however, impaired in Maury's case, because he refuses to recognize in the phenomena which he has so accurately observed anything more than a proof of the automatisme psychologique which in his own opinion dominates the dream-life. He conceives this automatism as the complete opposite of psychic activity.

A passage in Stricker's Studien uber das Bewusstsein reads: "Dreams do not consist purely and simply of delusions; for example, if one is afraid of robbers in a dream, the robbers indeed are imaginary, but the fear is real." Our attention is here called to the fact that the affective development of a dream does not admit of the judgment which one bestows upon the rest of the dream-content, and the problem then arises: What part of the psychic processes in a dream may be real? That is to say, what part of them may claim to be enrolled among the psychic processes of the waking state?

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 1 - G. Dream-Theories and the Function of the Dream