Thursday, 5 January 2012

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan’s psychoanalytic re-interpretation of Freud's "Irma's Injection" dream

Lacan was a French philosopher, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who described his approach as ‘Freudian’, with his own paradigm sharing many features particular to Freud’s own theory – such as castration complex; the ego; identification; language as a subjective perception etc. Between the years 1954 – 1955 he gave a series of lectures on Freudian psychoanalysis, and specifically, re-interpreted Freud’s “Irma’s Injection” dream (see earlier post for the dream text and Freud's own interpretation.
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (1901-1981)
Lacan too grants the “Irma’s Injection” dream special importance, calling it “the dream of dreams”, but he begins his re-interpretation by making the point that he wants to distinguish his approach from that taken by his contemporary Heinz Hartmann, in not trying to make the dream synchronise Freud’s thought at this stage of his work – 1899 – with  that of his later work. Lacan’s attacks on ego psychology - a theoretical elaboration of psychoanalysis most associated with Hartmann and ascending to dominance in the IPA at the time Lacan delivered his lecture, were sustained and robust. The specific critique Lacan makes is simply propose that we examine Freud’s dream as a response to research questions that occupied him all throughout his life, so that whether he is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ from our perspective is neither here nor there. What matters is the question Freud is asking, and how we find this same question reframed later on.

Lacan’s most immediate critique however is of the developmental psychologist, also a contemporary, Erik Erikson. The latter contributed a paper for the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association entitled The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis, which revisited the dream of “Irma’s Injection”, in the year before Lacan delivered his own lecture. Whilst Erikson’s paper is very illuminating of the many suggestive ambiguities present in the German terms Freud chooses in his narration of the dream (many of which are lost in the translation to the English in the Standard Edition), Lacan is dismissive of this ‘culturalist’ reading as a method by which to approach the dream. Erikson is trying, he claims, to mine all the cultural undertones of the individual dream elements as Freud narrates them in order to map the development of Freud’s ego through general stages that Erikson was famous for having plotted. But Lacan believed that if we are going to revisit this dream it should not be so that we can learn something about the development of the ego, or by extension, Freud’s psychology. As he puts it, “This [Erikson's] culturalism converges quite singularly with a psychologism which consists in understanding the entire analytic text as a function of the various stages in the development of the ego”. In other words, reading the cultural specificity of the dream as giving an indication of the dreamer’s psychology is the wrong approach. As Lacan repeatedly argues in Censorship is not resistance, psychoanalysis - in practice and in theory - cannot be reduced to a psychology, as its object is not an individual’s psyche. On the contrary, for Lacan the essence of the Freudian discovery is “the decentring of the subject in relation to the ego”. He asserts that the dream is extra-psychological: 

“You must start from the text, start by treating it, as Freud does and as he recommends, as Holy Writ. The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second.”

Lacan is only able to relay the same information about the real-life ‘Irma’ as was offered by Freud in his own analysis. There is a general consensus nowadays amongst Freudian scholars that ‘Irma’ was Anna Lichtheim (nee Hammerschlag), the daughter of Freud’s Hebrew teacher and family friend. Whilst Freud’s letter to Abraham about the dream in 1909 does indeed mention an ‘Anna’ as one of the characters in the dream, Freud tells us in his analysis of the dream that the patient’s family name, not first name, bears a resemblance to an association he has to the word ‘Ananas’. This may have been a device used by Freud to provide ‘Anna’ with a veil of anonymity. Lacan notes that the difficulty Freud encounters in her treatment is the result of a counter-transference at the origin of which is Freud’s frustration to get Irma to accept his explanations for her suffering. At this stage in his work, Freud assumed that all that was necessary for the cure to be effected was for the patient to accept his explanation, which we can guess from this point in the development of his thought (July 1895) centred around the theory of seduction at the origin of the neuroses, a theory which he did not abandon until two years later in 1897. The persistence of Irma’s suffering in the form of vomiting attacks are therefore her own fault - a signal of her failure to accept what he tells her. At the time of the dream he has therefore broken off the treatment, but on the day of the dream itself his friend Otto visits and gives him an update on Irma’s condition that implies that she is well, but could be better. Despite this detected rebuke, Freud is characteristically sure of the solution he has provided to Irma. Lacan tells us that the signifier here, Lösung (‘solution’) has the same ambiguity in German as it does in French and English – it can be taken as the solution to a conflict as much as a solution that is injected. However, Lacan believes that Otto’s words are the catalyst that precipitates the dream, and although we know from Freud’s account that he spends the evening of the same day writing up an account of the treatment for a fellow doctor in his circle which he hopes will exonerate him, perhaps the dream indicates something not quite resolved from this exercise. The lingering effects of Otto’s words are picked up on by Lacan, and he refers to a passage in a letter to his then fiancée dated 30th June 1882 in which Freud remarks that it is not so much the events of the day themselves that form dreams, but those that have been cut off, prematurely abandoned or abridged. Lacan appears to believe the origin of the dream, in the form it takes, lies in the fact that something was left unsaid in this exchange with Otto. As we know, Lacan uses this effect of interrupted speech – known as the ‘Zeigarnik effect’ – to great effect in his practice of the variable-length psychoanalytic session (the time of each session would be deterimined by Lacan - sometimes a session would last the entire 50 minutes' others just several minutes or even seconds, taking place as a partical exchange in the waiting-room. Lacan's controversial techniques were a stark alternative to psychoanalysis' traditional '50-minute hour' as preferred by Freud and his successors.

Lacan states that Freud’s interpretation of his own dream was “to be relieved of his responsibility for the failure of Irma’s treatment”. However, Lacan is interested in another question:

“But the question in my view is rather more like this – how is it that Freud, who later on will develop the function of unconscious desire, is here content, for the first step in his demonstration, to present a dream which is entirely explained by the satisfaction of a desire which one cannot but call preconscious, and even entirely conscious?” 

Given that the desire expressed in the dream (as it is interpreted by Freud), requires no more special conception of desire than the one we use in popular understanding, why does Freud choose this dream to open his book on dreams? It is surely not a very good demonstration of the central theory. This is an oddity that has been noted by other analysts that have examined the “Irma’s Injection” dream, and others published in the Interpretation of Dreams – if the dream expresses an unconscious wish that is usually sexual, where is it? Most prominently, the psychologist Hans Eysenck has written of this in his attack on Freudianism, The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985):

“The wish involved in the dream is a perfectly conscious and present one, and this goes completely contrary to Freud’s hypothesis. Thus we have the odd but often repeated situation that facts are offered us as proof of the correctness of Freudian theories when in fact they serve to disprove them...One of the oddities of The Interpretation of Dreams is… the fact that all the dreams quoted by Freud in his book as illustrating and proving his theories, in fact do the opposite; none of them is based on wishes arising from infantile repression, and hence his chosen examples serve to disprove his own theory.” 

Whilst Lacan evidently does not disagree with this criticism as such - “since in the end it is only a preconscious desire which emerges”– his point about bearing in mind the difference between the ego and the subject in looking at the dream should make us wary of expecting the dream to tell us something about the desires and intentions that we might try and attribute to Freud’s ego. Desire, for Lacan, is not located at the level of the ego but at the level of the Other, so for him we cannot take the dream as an indication of what Freud is ‘really thinking’. Lacan does not want to just re-analyse the dream, which he says is a futile task because Freud’s associations end despite his admission that there is more to say. Rather, Lacan says he wants to “take this dream and the interpretation which Freud gives of it as a whole, and see what it signifies in the symbolic and imaginary orders”. The dream, and the interpretation of the dream, are bound up together, a binding which he says he can conceptualised through his categories of the imaginary and the symbolic:
  • iS – imagining the symbol, putting the symbolic discourse into a figurative form, namely the dream.
  • sI – symbolising the image, making a dream interpretation.
So the dream itself is a ciphering of the discourse of the Other into the manifest content of the dream (iS), whilst the interpretation of the dream is a putting into words or signifiers of the manifest content of the dream. This does not aim at sense-making, however. The interpretation does not simply retrace the signifiers or impressions of the previous day that have been ciphered into the dream; it dredges them back up and re-orders them, to make a sense different from the latent thoughts, one that does not necessarily refer to the day-residues. Lacan is using these categories of the imaginary and the symbolic to demonstrate how to avoid one of the impasses in Freud’s thought, namely, how Freud conceives of the hallucinated satisfaction in dreams as a regression to perception (the left end of the schema of the psychical apparatus).

Lacan argues that “if he [Freud] already could have used the term imaginary, then it would have removed a large number of the contradictions” in the hypothesis of regression that Freud employs to explain what goes on in the dream.

Returning to the dream itself, Lacan notes the fact that Freud’s associations centre on the resistance displayed by Irma. We assume that Lacan is referring to the resistance put up by Irma in the dream, against Freud’s conducting an examination by looking down her throat – as opposed to her resistance to Freud’s treatment – although the former is described as “recalcitrance” by Freud. In connection with this scene in the dream, Lacan also draws our attention to associations Freud makes to two other women besides Irma, whom he describes as “despite being symmetrical, are nonetheless problematic”. The first is his wife, who does not feature in the dream but is associated with its scene – the hall in the Bellevue pension – because this is where they plan to host the celebrations for her birthday, to which Irma amongst others is invited. The second is someone Freud describes as Irma’s “intimate woman friend of whom I had a very high opinion”. He suspects her of being a hysteric, like Irma, says that she suffers from hysterical choking, also like Irma, and that whilst he would like to have her as a patient she is very “recalcitrant”, the same word he uses to describe Irma’s attitude in the dream. So we see that  three women now feature in the dream’s latent thoughts – Irma, her friend, and Freud’s wife. Lacan believes that:

“If Freud analysed his behaviour, his responses, his emotions, his transference at every moment in the dialogue with Irma, he would see just as easily that behind Irma is his wife, her intimate friend, and just as easily the seductive young woman who is just a few steps away and who would make a far better patient than Irma”.

We then come upon what we might consider the first of two highpoints of the dream – the point at which Freud gets Irma to open her mouth so he can examine inside. Both Lacan and Freud note the obvious association to speaking and revealing things, which Freud does not get from Irma but believes he could get from her female friend. “Her friend would have been wiser”, says Freud, “that is to say she would have yielded sooner. She would then have opened her mouth properly, and have told me more than Irma”. Lacan believes that this point in the dream is rich with associations - “Everything blends in and becomes associated in this image, from the mouth to the female sexual organ by way of the nose” – and indeed Freud himself admits in a footnote that he could take the associations further along the line of the three women but does not want to. He does however note that the white scabs he sees in Irma’s mouth remind him of the turbinal bones of the nose, and expresses the fear that he might be damaging his own through frequent use of cocaine.

However, it is probably best to be careful about attributing too many associations to what Freud sees inside Irma’s mouth. Lacan recognises in it associations to the mouth and what does or does not come out of it, the nose, the sexual organs, but in Freud’s text the only associations Freud notes are to himself and another patient regarding their use of cocaine, and to his daughter’s diphtheria. Although we can assume that the nose had a sexual significance for Freud – given the importance attached to it as a sexual organ by his then close friend and colleague Fliess – it is interesting that Freud does not elaborate upon this point. Moreover, the associations that Freud does make to it suggest that it is wrong to perceive the experience of looking into the mouth as a manifestation of the Lacanian ‘Real’. Even if he does later describe it as a “horrific image” can this really be taken as a manifestation of the Real, given that Freud never says that he finds what he sees disturbing? There are too many associations attached to the scene to label it as being an experience of the Real – the Real being the domain where words fail – and, as Lacan credits Erikson for noting, it is important to remember that rather than waking up in horror Freud carries on dreaming.

However, Lacan takes the opportunity to elaborate his critique of Erikson’s handling of the dream at this point. Erikson’s research had tried to analyse the dream as representing a particular stage in Freud’s ego’s development, which he there labels “a reflection of the individual ego’s peculiar time-space” and later says that “the Irma Dream and its associations clearly reflect a crisis in the life of a creative man of middle age. As the psychosocial criterion of a successful ego synthesis at that age I have named a Sense of Generativity”. Lacan calls these “psychological diversions”, and we can note again Lacan’s eagerness to distinguish his conception of analysis from anything that might be considered the psychological. He says the different ego-stages that Erikson maps out in his paper – and for which he is famous (the ‘Eight Stages of Man’) - “goes against the very spirit of Freudian theory. On the contrary, Lacan - who claims fidelity to Freud on this point - defines the ego as “the sum of the identifications of the subject, with all that that implies as to its radical contingency. If you allow me to give an image of it, the ego is like the superimposition of various coats borrowed from what I would call the bric-a-brac of its props department”. In other words, contrary to Erikson’s conception, the ego does not evolve.

As if to underline this point, in the following scene of the dream Lacan says that Freud’s ego disappears completely - “from this point on, it’s no longer a question of Freud”. The appearances of the three doctors – Dr M, Leopold and Otto – represent “the site of an identification whereby the ego is formed”. Their differing explanations as to Irma’s suffering, whilst contradictory together, taken in their singularity function to absolve Freud of blame for the failure of her treatment. Like Freud, Lacan pays close attention to the figures of the three doctors in the dream. Freud’s associations to Dr M are of his senior position in Freud’s professional circle and in relation to Freud himself. Freud recalls an incident in which he was culpable of malpractice and called on the assistance of Dr M, just as calls for his immediate assistance in the dream. Dr M.’s physical appearance in the dream also reminds Freud of his older half-brother, Philippe. Lacan makes much of this connection to Freud’s own family and its senior male members in relation to the three doctors in the dream. Freud’s two older brother, Emmanuel and Philippe, were “already old enough for each of them to have been the father of the little Freud, Sigmund, who was born to a mother exactly the same age as Emmanuel”. Thus, Freud’s two older brothers from his father’s first marriage incarnate the problem of paternity, and more precisely, of whose woman the mother is. According to Lacan, in their pseudo-paternal position they dilute the function of the father, sharing it with the actual father, Jakob Freud, with the effect that “the symbolic father remains intact thanks to this division of functions”.  This strange family constellation into which Freud was born is given accorded capital importance by Lacan, who tells us that “If Freud’s induction into the Oedipus complex was decisive for the history of humanity, it is obviously because he had a father who already had two sons from a first marriage”. With respect to the other two doctors, Leopold and Otto, Freud associates their rivalry, the two being related and both practising as physicians in the same field. Of the three characters, Lacan summarises their relationship to Freud thus:

"Dr M. represents the ideal character constituted by the paternal pseudo-image, the imaginary father. Otto corresponds to the character who played a perennial role in Freud’s life, the intimate, close friend who is both friend and enemy, who from one hour to the next changes from being a friend to being an enemy. And Leopold plays the role of the character who is always useful to counter the character of the friend-enemy, of the beloved enemy”.

We can therefore represent the male characters from the dream; the male characters from Freud’s life; and also, the female characters referred to above into a tripartite model. Lacan calls this the “mystic trio” and asserts that the presence of these three characters hints at death. He draws our attention to Freud’s association to a patient he inadvertently poisoned, and whom had the same name – Mathilde (Matilda) – as Freud’s own daughter. For Freud the fact that each of these three characters are connected by similar situations means that the three characters are interchangeable. As he puts it, “The identity of these situations had evidently enabled me to substitute the three figures for one another in the dream”. He also draws our attention to Freud’s paper The Theme of the Three Caskets (1913). The suitors of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice must choose between three caskets in order to marry her. Freud refers to three women in this context, one of whom is mute, which he claims symbolises death.

Lacan locates the second highpoint of the dream as coming with the emergence of the chemical formula for trimethylamine, which Freud sees printed in heavy type before him. In the text of his dream, this is the substance that Otto has injected Irma with, and which at the end of the dream Freud isolates as showing that Otto is to blame for Irma’s illness: “Irma’s pains had been caused by Otto giving her an incautious injection of an unsuitable drug – a thing I should never have done”. Thus, Freud is exonerated, and the desire of the dream is just that. On the signifier itself though, Freud associates the aspect of sexuality, both from Fliess, who believes this substance to be a product of the sexual metabolism, and also to the person of Fliess himself, a trusted friend who is receptive to Freud’s views on the sexual aetiology of the neuroses at a time when few others are. As an ear, nose and throat specialist, he also connects to the examination of Irma in the dream, in which Freud stares into her mouth but encounters the turbinal structures found instead in the nose. For Lacan, “This explains everything trimethylamine”. He compares its sudden and autonomous appearance to the Meme, Tekel, Upharsin from the Book of Daniel - the writing on the wall which appears mysteriously on a temple foretelling the fall of the Babylonian Empire. Again, there is evidence of  a pattern of three elements, as with the three doctors and the three women. Lacan follows up on the sexual associations Freud makes to trimethylamine, saying “Indeed – I’ve made inquiries – trimethylamine is a decomposition product of sperm, and it gives it its ammoniacal smell when it’s left to decompose in the air”. Trimethylamine is also responsible for the odour given off by some infections, and the smell of bad breath, which perhaps you might smell if you looked into someone’s mouth. What does trimethylamine mean, then? Aside from the above states associations Freud makes to Fliess’s theories, a few years later, in a letter to his colleague Karl Abraham, he offers an alternative interpretation. Abraham asks Freud whether there is not a suggestion of syphilitic infection in the dream. Freud responds thus: 

“In the paradigm dream there is no mentioning of syphilis. Sexual megalomania is hidden behind it, the three women, Mathilde, Sophie and Anna, are the three godmothers of my daughters, and I have them all!”
(Freud’s letter to Abraham, dated 9th January 1908)
For his part, perhaps surprisingly, Lacan says that “the formula gives no reply whatsoever to anything” . Lacan appears to treat it as independent of what precedes it in the dream, although he does focus on “the structure of this word, which here makes its appearance in an eminently symbolic form”, picking up on the significance of the structure of the formula – the two sets of threes – that so easily remind us of the two sets of threes that Freud associates to the other dream elements (the three doctors and the three women).

Returning to the categories of the imaginary and symbolic that Lacan utilises at the start of the chapter, we can perhaps say that if iS represents the imagining of the symbolic (the ciphering by the dream work of signifiers into manifest dream elements); and if sI represents the work of interpretation; because the formula for trimethylamine is not an imagining of the symbol but the symbol itself we can call it an sS – a symbolisation of the symbol. That is not to say that the formula represents some pure, unciphered element that emerges with clarity in a raw form, but rather that it has not undergone transformation into what Lacan calls an imagining of the symbolic, an iS. Lacan states again that, contrary to the argument of Erikson, the dream does not show us the developmental passage of Freud’s ego, but on the contrary that Freud’s ego is so difficult to identify in the dream:

“The structure of the dream shows us clearly enough that the unconscious is not the ego of the dreamer, that it isn’t Freud in the guise of Freud pursuing his conversation with Irma…. His ego was identified with the whole in its most unconstituted form. Quite literally, he escaped, he called upon, as he himself wrote, the congress of all those who know [the three doctors]. He fainted, was reabsorbed, was abolished behind them. And finally another voice is heard [the appearance of the formula for trimethylamine].”

But Lacan also does not accept Freud’s own resolution to the dream given in The Interpretation of Dreams. It is not Freud’s professional pride that is at stake, nor his medical conscientiousness with his patients. Lacan is very clear that “what is at stake in the function of the dream is beyond the ego, what in the subject is of the subject and not of the subject, that is the unconscious”. He also makes a remark which seems to contradict Freud’s assertion that the dream represents the infantile, usually sexual wishes of the dreamer. As with Erikson, it is easy to see how such a theory might require support from the notion of regression. But Lacan is not interested in the psychology of the dreamer himself. He says:

“What gives this dream its veritable unconscious value, whatever its primordial and infantile echoes, is the quest for the word, the direct confrontation with the secret reality of the dream, the quest for signification as such”.

However, this does not absolve us of the need to analyse the formula for its particular significance in the light of Freud’s associations. We still need to ask the question: why does this element appear and not some other. This is something that Lacan does not go into, perhaps because of his stated wariness of being seen to re-analyse the dream after Freud. We will look at how much further we can take the analysis of trimethylamine in our discussion of the next chapter, the conclusion of Lacan’s commentary on this dream. Here however Lacan says very little about its significance, rather stating that “symbols only ever have the value of symbols”. This might make us wonder however what sense it makes to speak of the meaning of a dream? Is it the case that we cannot positively identify a meaning in the dream, and that the only thing that dreams demonstrate is the mechanism of the unconscious, the dream-work itself? Lacan does however say a bit more about how the trimethylamine formula is produced. “The important thing” he says, “and this dream shows us it, is that analytic symptoms are produced in the flow of a word which tries to get through”. Just as he found that the hysteric suffers from a word literally caught in the body, and just like censorship conceals a word that cannot be said but is expressed elsewhere, in a ciphered and clandestine form, so the dream element is produced in the same way. The word is caught between the resistances of the ego of the subject and its image, he claims, and the force of these two resistances resolves itself into the dream element:

“It always encounters the double resistance of what we will call just for today, because it is late, the ego of the subject and its image. So long as these two interpositions offer a sufficient resistance, they clarify each other, if I may put it like that, within this flow, they are phosphorescent, they flash”.

Lacan asserted that where the patient expresses doubt about an element of the dream, that doubt is not to be taken as a weakness of his account of the dream, but of an emphasis, a “soulingage” or ‘underlining’ of that element.

Lacan was able to conclude that the proper object of psychoanalysis, is not the ego of the individual, or his particularly psychology, but the signifier, the extra-psychological aspect. Lacan privileges the transmission of the signifier – here the formula for trimethylamine – rather than Freud’s wish to absolve himself of professional misconduct or even the sexual connotations Erikson notes in his article. The appearance of the three doctors, and the sudden, mysterious manifestation of the formula produce the dissolution of the ego of the dreamer, and so to analyse the dream by reference to what it can tell us about the dreamer’s ego is misguided. Instead, Lacan refers to “the inmixing [immixtion] of subjects” that the dream produces. He describes this as “an unconscious phenomenon which takes place on the symbolic level, as such decentred in relation to the ego, always takes place between two subjects”. What can we make of this? Perhaps one possible reading is from the angle of Lacan’s famous maxim that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier. The ego is out of play here; the unconscious is of the order of the symbolic, the signifier, and whilst prior to the subject, its place can be located between two subjects. Lacan goes on, “As soon as true speech emerges, mediating, it turns them into two very different subjects from what they were prior to speech. This means that they only start being constituted as subjects of speech once speech exists, and there is no before”. This ‘true speech’ is therefore something that splits him from his ego and divides the subject, splits him between signifiers. Whilst we might read this as another way of phrasing symbolic castration, Lacan says there is “no before”, indicating that the subject will be divided or barred by the signifier – which we can represent as $ - even if it is not your own speech that is in question.

Lacan’s re-interpretation of Freud’s “Irma’s Injection” dream  hinges on the dreams importance in enabling Freud to take the decisive theoretical step towards the unconscious, at a time, 1895, when he is still two years away from abandoning the seduction theory. Lacan believes that the very meaning of the dream is entwined with this discovery – “The dream Freud had is, as a dream, integrated in the progress of his discovery”  – but he also suggests that despite its status as the paradigmatic dream in the history of psychoanalysis, Freud was not able to provide us with an adequate enough analysis of the dream itself. Although placing it at the start of his major work – a work that was to inaugurate psychoanalysis with a theory of dreams as its keystone – Freud could not have given us the reason for the importance of this dream at a time when his theoretical orientation was towards the effects of seduction in childhood as determinative for the different forms of neurosis in adulthood. Lacan states:

“The value Freud accords it went far beyond what Freud himself is at this point in time capable of analysing for us in what he writes. What he weighs up, the balance-sheet he draws up of the significance of the dream is far surpassed by the de facto historical value he grants it by placing it in this position in his Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams). That is essential to the understanding of this dream.”

It is not therefore the interpretation of the dream, its meaning, that Lacan feels accords it importance; rather it is because the dream is illustrative of the point which Freud had reached in his thought, and in particular for Lacan, the way that it throws light on the question of regression. As Lacan points out, we have to be careful to distinguish a topographical regression from a temporal regression. Whilst the latter is the stuff of psycho-sexual development, libidinal phases and so on, this is not the regression Freud is referring to here. In its topographical sense, we are once again instead referring to Freud’s schema of the psychical apparatus found in chapter VII of The Interpretation of Dreams.

On this model, excitation usually follows in a progredient direction from perception to motor discharge, but because in sleep the body is paralysed and so the excitation cannot proceed to motility, it regresses instead towards perception (Pcpt.), presented as the semi-hallucinatory images we experience when we dream. As Lacan summarises it:

“On the level of topographical regression, the hallucinatory nature of the dream led Freud, in accordance with his schema, to articulate it with a regredient process, to the extent that it would bring back certain psychic requirements to their most primitive mode of expression, which would be situated at the level of perception”.

However, Lacan adds that the images we see in dreams are not simply perceptions, as if we were going backwards in the schema above. The images themselves have too much symbolic or associative value, as Freud’s analysis of the dream of Irma’s injection shows clearly. Lacan argues, “These images are further and further away from the qualitative level on which perception occurs, more and more denuded, they take on a more and more associative character”. What Lacan finds interesting is that the associations that are made to the mnemonic dream elements – Freud’s Mnem., Mnem., Mnem.”- lead to a point of perception. He asks: “[d]o we have to consider that what happens at the associative levels… brings us back more closely to the primitive point of entry of perception?” When we become conscious of processes that were unconscious, consciousness would surely be at the end of the model, between pre-consciousness and motor discharge; but by placing it at the opposite end of his model Freud is clearly showing that consciousness and perception cannot be equated.

Lacan returns to what he sees as the two crucial moments in the phenomenology of the dream, the first being the point at which Freud looks into Irma’s mouth, and the second being the emergence of the formula for trimethylamine. His comments about the first scene might strike us as a bit melodramatic. Looking into Irma’s mouth is what he calls:

“An anxiety-provoking apparition of an image which summarises what we can call the revelation of that which is least penetrable in the real, of the real lacking any possible mediation, of the ultimate real… something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence”.

However, as we noted last time, nowhere in Freud’s account of the dream in The Interpretation of Dreams does he give us the impression that there is something horrifying about the image. Moreover, the multitude of associations connected to it, and the fact that Freud goes on dreaming and producing signifiers – the doctors’ diagnoses, trimethylamine – seem out of step with the impression that this is of the order of the Real, if we understand it according to Lacan’s assertion that the in the Real “all words cease and all categories fail”.

He does also say, however, that this moment of looking into Irma’s mouth heralds what he labels “the fundamental destructuation” of Freud’s ego in the dream. When the doctors enter the scene to confirm Freud’s diagnosis or offer their own, “there’s no Freud any longer, there is no longer anyone who can say I”, as Freud appeals to his colleagues’ professional opinions. Freud’s ego dissolves into the imagos, or semblables, out of which it has been constructed. Can we call this the ‘regression’ of the ego, asks Lacan. If there is a regression of the ego it has to regress to something, and that would seem to imply a development of the ego, possibly through developmental or libidinal stages, a trajectory which could easy be taken as normative.

Lacan is adamant that this would be a false step. Referring to Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), he argues that “we can in no way introduce the notion of a typical, stylised development of the ego”. Lacan does not believe that a defence mechanism corresponding to a particular developmental stage of the ego can be identified, to which in turn would correspond a symptom, such that you could trace an entire neurosis back from its symptom to the corresponding point at which the development of the ego stalled. Neither can this be used to fashion a developmental theory of the instincts. On the contrary, what the dream of Irma’s injection shows us about the ego is that in the dream “We’re not dealing with an antecedent state of the ego, but, literally, with a spectral decomposition of the function of the ego”. The ego is not something that flowers from a tiny bud; it is nothing more than the sum total of identifications formed at any particular point in a subject’s life. The ego therefore does not regress; it dissolves because it is constructed from images radically alien to the subject, but as Lacan says in the last chapter, “borrowed from what I would call the bric-a-brac of its props department”. As the ego falls apart, the images on which it was founded come into sharper relief, which is why Lacan says that “This spectral decomposition is evidently an imaginary decomposition”.

This is a refrain familiar to us from Lacan’s work on the mirror stage and Lacan utilises that theory again here to make the point that what happens in perception itself is modelled on the construction of the ego. The way the ego is constructed is a prototype for all relations to the external world. And man’s desire, insofar as it is never truly his own, never simply something he knows he wants, is only accessed via the mediation of the image. Although “The image of his body is the principle of every unity he perceives in objects…. he only perceives the unity of this specific image from the outside”. This seems a bit paradoxical, perhaps even contradictory. If everything I perceive has its unity thanks to being based on the image of my own unity, but this unity itself is anticipated from identifications made with objects from the outside, how do I have any sense of the unity of my own image in the first place? This is one of the difficulties in the theory of identification, and it is probably no accident that when Lacan devotes a year-long seminar to the topic of identification between1961- 1962, he makes extensive use of topological models such as the Möbius band, the defining feature of which is the impossibility to distinguish one side from another.

Lacan seems to cling to this paradox, making it constitutive of subjectivity. The subject oscillates between recognising the identity of his perceptions, attributing an identity to objects, and on the other hand grasping his own unity. This is a zero-sum game: he wins his own unity at the cost of that of his objects, and vice versa, despite the fact that for desire to be experienced as such it needs to be hinged to objects:

“If the object perceived from without has its own identity, the latter places the man who sees it in a state of tension, because he perceives himself as desire, and as unsatisfied desire. Inversely, when he grasps his unity, on the contrary it is the world which for him becomes decomposed, loses its meaning, and takes on an alienated and discordant aspect. It is this imaginary oscillation which gives to all human perception the dramatic subjacency experienced by a subject, in so far as his interest is truly aroused”.

Where the image is broken, where the imaginary fixing comes apart, both the ego and the object face obliteration, as it is impossible to separate them from each other, to find them a place on one side or the other of the Möbius band:

“It is in the nature of desire to be radically torn. The very image of man brings in here a mediation which is always imaginary, always problematic, and which is therefore never completely fulfilled. It is maintained by a succession of momentary experiences and this experience either alienates man from himself, or else ends in a destruction, a negation of the object”.

Apropos of the question of regression, Lacan’s central argument therefore is that if we want to know why dreams take an imaginary form, with quasi-hallucinatory representations stacked upon each other, we do not need to reach for the concept of regression, as Freud had done when he constructed the model of the psychical apparatus that he presents in seventh chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams. The scene in which Freud looks down Irma’s mouth precipitates the appearance in which the three fellow doctors appear, which demonstrates only an “imaginary decomposition which is only the revelation of the normal component parts of perception”. Perception has this imaginary character which is exactly the same as the construction of the ego, and is fragile and liable to break down. “So we do not have to look to regression for the reason why it is imaginary apparitions [surgissements] which are characteristic of the dream”. We only have an identity of perception because our relationship to the world is fundamentally narcissistic. This anchors us in the external world; our own image helps reconcile us to it. As Lacan puts it:

“If the picture of the relation to the world is not made unreal by the subject, it is because it contains elements representing the diversified images of his ego, and these are so many points of anchorage, of stabilisation, or inertia. That is exactly how I teach you to interpret dreams in supervisions – the main thing is to recognise where the ego of the subject is.”

Lacan says he finds Freud’s ego represented right throughout The Interpretation of Dreams, but in the dream of Irma’s injection in particular he says it crystallises around the rupture caused by the intrusion of the real, the moment at which “something at its most unfathomable”  appears. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be a prerequisite, as Lacan’s examples earlier in this seminar show. He tells us about two dreams: in the first, the subject dreams of a helpless infant lying on its back, flapping its arms and legs about; in the second, the subject is swimming in a sea of numbers which relate to his date of birth and age. Both, he says, represent the subject, and whilst he is not talking here simply about the ego, but about the subject’s “symbolic assumption of his destiny”, it is clear that Lacan is alert to the plasticity with which representations of the subject and his ego are presented in dreams. Indeed, the subject is non-reducible to the ego of the individual’s psychology. What Lacan sees in the dream is “the imaginary plurality of the subject, of the fanning out, the blossoming of the different identifications of the ego” into the persons of the three doctors. Lacan says that this subject-without-an ego, a headless or acephalic subject, is an apt representation of the Freudian unconscious – a subject that speaks without hearing the meaning of his own words, a subject supposed of a knowledge of which he himself is unaware. If the scene in which Freud looks into Irma’s mouth is, as Lacan insists, an experience of the real, and if the appearance of the three doctors represents the dissolution of Freud’s own ego into the identifications by which it is constituted, then the mysterious appearance of the formula for trimethylamine can be seen as “The coming into operation of the symbolic function in its most radical, absolute, usage”, such that it “ends up abolishing the action of the individual so completely that by the same token it eliminates his tragic relation to the world”. Taking into account Freud’s suggestion that the dream fulfils the wish of removing culpability for the failure of Irma’s treatment which he believes his friend Otto tacitly blames him for, this can be read as the most extreme solution to Freud’s predicament – a total abolition of the individual, an “ataraxia in which any individual is justified”, as Lacan calls it. But we can still ask why the formula for trimethylamine appears and not something else? If the symbolic function manifests itself so starkly, surely this does not take an arbitrary form?

Lacan however turns to explore the junction between the imaginary and symbolic. Recalling his slightly absurd analogy, he imagines an automaton that depends for its continued movement on the perception of another machine having reached that stage, he claims we come across the same thing in humans. The imaginary relation is hinges on a single opposition – same or different, you or me – which is a zero-sum game. This entails that: “On the imaginary level, the objects only ever appear to man within relations which fade. He recognises his unity in them, but uniquely from without. And in as much as he recognises his unity in an object, he feels himself to be in disarray in relation to the latter”. The unity of the image of oneself therefore comes at the expense of a fundamental discordance, a “lack of adaptation… characteristic of the instinctual life of man”.

Freud had remarked in his essay The Uncanny (1919) upon the fundamental ambivalence to the image. In discussing Otto Rank’s article on Der Doppelgänger, Imago (1914), he says that the ‘double’ was “originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego”, and is perhaps the reason why the Ancient Egyptians made images of the deceased from such durable materials. But he also notes that “when this stage has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death”. We still find this idea in folklore – that the encounter with one’s double is a sign of impending death.

So perhaps we can assert that the terrifying “point of entering the order of anxiety… [the] drawing nigh of the ultimate real” is not quite so separate from the imaginary order as we might expect, given that it is necessary to distinguish these three orders from each other in Lacanian jargon. What causes anxiety is not an experience of the real, understood as that which is unnameable or unsymbolisable; rather, it is more precisely an encounter with your own image, but divorced from your perception of it as your image, an exact likeness, but unrecognisable all the same. This is an idea represented in the 1950s horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The heroine begins to realise that whilst her loved ones and those around her are physically the same, something that she cannot put her finger on is different about them. They become uncanny, ‘unhomely’ or unheimlich, to use the German Freud reaches for in the title of this article. Clinical psychiatry even grants this the status of a disorder – the Capgras delusion – in which the subject believes their loved one has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.

For Lacan, it is in the face of this terrifying ambivalence to the proximity of the image that the symbolic relation asserts itself. “This is where the symbolic relation comes in”, he tells us. “The power of naming objects structures the perception itself. The percipi of man can only be sustained within a zone of nomination. It is through nomination that man makes objects subsist with a certain consistence”. The symbolic can provide a designation to the image which offers it a meaning, just as the way that the function of the ego ideal – I(A) in Lacan’s algebra – is to give an image a symbolic sanction, investment or guarantee that enables us to assume it as our own image. Why does the symbolic have this special ability that distinguishes it from the imaginary, and provides a supplement to the imaginary that reconciles us to our image? Lacan argues that “[t]he word doesn’t answer to the spacial distinctiveness of the object, which is always ready to be dissolved in an identification with the subject, but to its temporal dimension”. The symbolic gives a space between the images, it differentiates them from one another and prevents them from collapsing into one another, or being super-imposed on one another in the way that we find in Freud’s dream, in which a single person in the dream is a composite of a number of representations of other people – Otto has Freud’s brother’s limp, Irma is reticent to open her mouth like the other female patient, etc. So this is the point at which we see the joint, “the emergence of the dimension of the symbolic in relation to the imaginary”.

Lacan says that in the dream of Irma’s injection, “it is just when the world of the dreamer is plunged into the greatest imaginary chaos that discourse enters into play” but he only says that this is “discourse as suchindependently of its meaning”. So does Lacan mean by this that the formula for trimethylamine has no associative connections, that there is no significance in the choice of signifier? Surely we still need to ask why it is that this element appears to Freud in the dream and not another? Lacan appears quite adamant, however: “This word means nothing except that it is a word”. Here he seems to be presenting a treatment of the trimethylamine formula as a pure, reified symbolic element, a symbolic of the symbolic, perhaps. It does not matter for Lacan so much what it is as what it does. At its conclusion the subject of the dream is simply overtaken by the signifier. When the unity of the image fails, the signifier emerges as a pure signifier, such that the dream element presented – the formula – escapes a psychology.

We need to challenge Lacan on this however, but from a point which surpasses his own knowledge of the case. In the first instance, it is not a simple word that Freud sees but a formula, and whilst it functions as a signifier in the sense that it is unhinged from any referent, Lacan nevertheless picks up on the associative connections which must have been familiar to Freud at the time – that trimethylamine is a decomposition product of sperm, for instance. In summing up his own analysis of the dream Lacan does not deviate far from that of Freud’s (though perhaps he was unaware of the alternative interpretation Freud provided for his dream in the 1908 letter to Abraham, cited in our comments on the first of these two chapters). Lacan’s reading is that Freud displaces his desire as a psychoanalyst onto the figures of the three doctors, who offer what becomes their interpretations of the cause of Irma’s suffering from within the dream itself.

But returning to the enigmatic formula for trimethylamine, we can connect it not only to the sexual associations Freud himself notes – the ideas that Fliess “confided… to me on the subject of the chemistry of the sexual processes… [that]… one of the products of sexual metabolism was trimethylamine” – but also to the recurring sets of three that emerge in the dream (the three doctors, the three women, and the three sons of Jakob Freud). In 1968, the Freud researcher Joseph Sajner made what might be considered a very significant discovery whilst searching through the records in Freud’s birthplace of Frieberg. There he found evidence that Freud’s father had not two wives as previously thought, but three (Sajner, 1968). Whilst the evidence for this is only indicative, it is nonetheless extremely tantalising in respect to this dream. Could this be what the series of threes in the dream refer to? Was Freud himself even aware of his father’s first wife, or is this yet another example of trans-generational phenomena asserting themselves unconsciously through the displacement of the signifier? And, if so, did he not wish to acknowledge this, or did he just prefer an alternative explanation? And if so, which explanation – the one provided in The Interpretation of Dreams, or the one given to Abraham in the 1908 letter? Lacan’s interventions on this dream provide us with some very provocative insights, but the dream’s apogee - its enigmatic centrepiece - surely deserves further investigation.

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