Every dream is connected “through its manifest content with recent experiences, while through its latent content it is connected with the most remote experiences…”

Sigmund Freud[1]

[What in the world did Freud mean by this? Really, sometimes his English verged on the impenetrable. But I guess it’s understandable, because mostly he wrote in German, the lingua franca of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He lived and practiced in Vienna, and was a loyal subject of the Empire until it was dissolved after World War I[2]. In fact, Freud was stubborn; he remained in Austria until 1938, when Adolph Hitler and his crowd drove him out. Freud’s books were burned, his passport confiscated, his apartment invaded by hoodlums who demanded money; and his daughter was detained for a time by the Gestapo. It was time to leave, and he did so after paying a “fugitive tax.” [3]]

This is G; these days one of my jobs is to bat cleanup when Fred and Phil raise more questions than they answer in one of their otherwise excellent pieces. Last time, you’ll recall, they described a dream sequence in the story they covered as having “interesting Freudian overtones.” They were a little coy in the rest of the discussion, and probably confused some of our younger readers. My job is to clarify matters in as few words as possible. So, in a nutshell, if you are Sigmund Freud, or one of his followers, the dream sequence was about sex.

Do you need more clarification? OK, most if not all dreams are about sex, so why be surprised?

Perhaps we need to back up a bit to fully understand what dreaming meant to Freud. Let’s start with a little book he wrote in 1929 called Civilization and Its Discontents.[4] In it he hypothesized that sex is the primary instinct that brings humans together. People seek pleasure – especially sex – and try to avoid pain. But men “are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but … a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.”[5]

Children, when they are frustrated in their early attempts to express themselves sexually, must feel similar aggression, but of course have to repress it in one way or another. They’re too small to wreak vengeance.[6] Adults are a different matter, and have to be controlled by civilization.

Freud’s is not a happy view of childhood, or of civilization for that matter. But he makes an important point, i.e., that in many ways a civilization is a set of rules, designed to curb the natural impulses of people, so that they can live together and cooperate with one another. Civilizations have their uses, unless or until they break down. But they also create stresses because, of course, in a civilized society no person can have everything he or she might want. And therein lays the problem, because men are aggressive creatures.[7] The whole enterprise can come apart if people become too angry and aggression triumphs.

While sex might be the primary drive that brings humans together, it’s not without pitfalls. There is, for example, the natural desire of the male child to eliminate his father and take his father’s place with the mother. Female children have the same desire, but want to replace their mother and take up with the father.[8] Of course, society frowns on this kind of thing, and so far as I know it rarely happens except in ancient myths and, possibly, modern TV dramas. But the stories live on, in literature, folklore and certainly in our dreams.[9]

Why in dreams? Well, Freud said civilization suppresses the sexual instinct, and that’s why we dream so much about sex. “The more one is occupied with the solution of dreams, the readier one becomes to acknowledge that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes. … No other instinct has had to undergo so much suppression, from the time of childhood onwards, as the sexual instinct in all of its numerous components; from no other instincts are so many and such intense unconscious wishes left over, which now, in the sleeping state, generate dreams.”[10]

Dreams speak to us in symbols, not in facts. For the most part dreams express sexual themes in a kind of standardized way. That means, of course, that dreams of this sort employ a symbolic language that patients and doctors can understand and discuss with one another. But Freud warns us that nothing about dreams is set in concrete. Psychic material has a “curious plasticity.” If necessary a dreamer might employ “anything whatever” as a sexual symbol.[11]

Nevertheless there are standard dream symbols; so what are they, to the extent we know them? How do they pop up in dreams? This is where the story Phil and Fred discussed last time becomes relevant. You remember it, don’t you? It was The Waker Dreams, by Richard Matheson.[12] Anyway, we’re going to apply Freud to it as a literary exercise. We’re not purporting to diagnose any real person, or to practice medicine. After all, the hero of the piece is fictional. When it comes to doctoring real people, we leave that kind of thing to the doctors.

Am I paranoid, or what? Anyway, let’s review the hero’s dream. Basically the he is asleep; the phone rings, and a superior officer tells him the enemy has attacked; the hero jumps into some nifty duds, runs down to his air car, and flies to headquarters; there he gets his orders, is assigned a nurse to protect him from enemy poison, gets his ray gun, and races off to engage the enemy. Headquarters is a tower, by the way. Little is known about the enemy, except that he [it?] has 12 legs, is covered in foul reptilian slime, and sallies forth from unknown pits in the ground. What is the enemy’s purpose? Why, to destroy the machines that operate the hero’s city!

Where’s the sex in any of this? “Everywhere,” Freud would answer. “All elongated objects, sticks, tree-trunks, umbrellas … all sharp and elongated weapons, knives, daggers and pikes, represent the male member.”[13] You know what the “male member” is, don’t you? The headquarters tower seems to fall in that category – it’s tall and elongated – together with the hero’s ray gun [it’s a weapon]. Also his air car qualifies, partly because of its shape, and partly because it flies.[14] And finally, what is the hero assigned to protect? Why, complex machines, which probably are symbolic of genitalia, and male genitals in particular.[15] In dreams all weapons and tools represent the male organ.

It’s also significant if the hero and his female sidekick have to run up or down stairs in the headquarters tower. “Steep inclines, ladders and stairs, and going up or down them, are symbolic representations of the sexual act.”[16]And what about the slimy villains of the piece? Well, they have 12 legs, so their bodies must be pretty long. We all know what that means. And they come from unknown pits in the ground to attack the upright machines of the city. To do that they have to climb out of their holes. Is that symbolic of the sex act? If so it’s not a very attractive symbol, is it?

I could go on, but I’ve made my point. If you start with the notion that all dreams are about sex, then you’ll find sexual references everywhere. That doesn’t mean, however, that Freud thought sex dreams were sick. Instead, he took the position that there was no essential difference between the psychic life of a normal person and that of a neurotic. The psychic mechanisms in play were the same, and the only differences, if any, were quantitative, i.e., lay in the frequency and severity with which they were employed.[17]

And what about Richard Matheson and his story? Well, he was writing fiction, actually disreputable science fiction, and was trying to entertain. That’s what genre authors did back then. But it also looks as though he had a checklist of Freudian symbols to work from, and stuck in as many as would fit into his narrative. Why? Most likely to see what might work in the sci-fi context.  But really, if you read his story a couple of times, you’ll probably conclude that he also had fun writing it. At that time Freudian analysis was the next big thing in English Lit., so perhaps he thought a bit of satire was in order. There’s nothing like a good laugh, at someone else’s expense, to brighten the day.

Anyway, satire was policy in Galaxy Science Fiction back then, and that’s all the support I need for my interpretation. Otherwise, I might have to believe that the author was trying to describe something real. But nobody could have a dream like that Freudian monstrosity. Could they?


[1] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. II, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 204. Henceforth Vol. II will be cited as Interpretation of Dreams at ___.

[2] If you want to know more about the Empire, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on Austria-Hungary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austro-Hungarian_Empire  .

[3] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. 1, About the Portfolio, p. 1.

[4] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. 1, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 615 – 683. Henceforth this will be cited as Civilization at ___.

[5] See Civilization at p. 654.

[6] See Civilization at p. 669.

[7] See Civilization at p. 663: “The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all, and of all against each one, opposes this program of civilization.”

[8] Freud devotes quite a bit of analysis to parent replacement [that’s my term, not his] in dreams. See, for example, Interpretation of Dreams at The Material and Sources of Dreams, p. 229 – 245.

[9] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 242: “The dream of having sexual intercourse with one’s mother was as common then as it is today with many people, who tell it with indignation and astonishment. As may well be imagined, it is the key to the tragedy and the complement to the dream of the death of the father.”

[10] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 337.

[11] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 314: “Dreams employ this symbolism to give a disguised representation to their latent thoughts. Among the symbols thus employed there are, of course, many which constantly, or all but constantly, mean the same thing. But we must bear in mind the curious plasticity of psychic material. Often enough a symbol in the dream content may have to be interpreted not symbolically but in accordance with its proper meaning; at other times the dreamer, having to deal with special memory material, may take the law into his own hands and employ anything whatever as a sexual symbol, though it is not generally so employed.”

[12] It appeared in the December, 1950 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo, so it’s our source for the story. (We’ll cite it as 12/1950 Galaxy at __). You can find a discussion of Matheson in Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) at Matheson, Richard (Burton), p. 786-787.

[13] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 315.

[14] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 317: “As a very recent symbol of the male organ I may mention the airship, whose employment is justified be its relation to flying, and also, occasionally, by its form.”

[15] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 316 – 317: “All complicated machines and appliances are very probably the genitals – as a rule the male genitals – in the description of which the symbolism of dreams is as indefatigable as human wit.”

[16] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 316.

[17] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 326 – 327: “But while psycho-analysis recognizes no essential distinctions, but only quantitative differences, between the psychic life of the normal person and that of the neurotic, the analysis of those dreams in which, in sound and sick persons alike, the repressed complexes display the same activity, reveals the absolute identity of the mechanisms as well as of the symbolism.”