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Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is regarded as a cornerstone of psychology, and it is the most notable early study of the impact of dreams on human consciousness. First published in 1899, Freud's work was met with harsh criticism and widely ignored by the medical community, selling a mere 600 copies in its first eight years. Later in Freud's life, The Interpretation of Dreams was revisited by scholars and became regarded as a masterwork.
Viewing dreams as primarily "wish fulfillment," Freud wrote of his own dreams as well as those of his patients. Today, many of Freud's psychoanalytic theories have been disregarded in favor of a more scientific, less theoretical approach to the study of psychology. However, The Interpretation of Dreams is still regarded as a milestone in the field, and it is referenced frequently in studies of literature and the arts. Scholars generally consider The Interpretation of Dreams one of Freud's most significant studies, and it sparked conversations and controversy for more than a century.
Freud's interest in dream analysis began with the now-famous "Irma's Injection" dream. In 1895 Freud experience a chilling, uncanny dream in which one of his former patients, Irma, condemns him for administering an injection that caused pain instead of alleviating her condition. Freud subjected his dream to thorough psychological analysis and would later credit it as the first dream he ever dissected and deconstructed appropriately. He noted that it was responsible for revealing the "secret of dreams" that would inspire him to write The Interpretation of Dreams.
Although The Interpretation of Dreams is now considered a fundamental, albeit controversial, work of early psychology, Freud's book initially was not warmly received. In fact, most scholarly journals considered The Interpretation of Dreams to be thoroughly unscientific, and few outlets would even agree to review it. A reputable psychologist, Wilhelm Stern, wrote a scathing critique in 1901, claiming:
Uncritical minds would be delighted to join in this play with ideas and would end up in complete mysticism and chaotic arbitrariness.
In 1900, the same year The Interpretation of Dreams was copyrighted, Freud wrote a letter to his old friend, Wilhelm Fleiss, expressing doubt regarding the book's potential impact. He wrote to Fleiss in reference to Bellevue Manor in Austria, where he had experienced the "Irma's Injection" dream that inspired his study. Freud wrote:
Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: 'In this house on July 24, 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud'? At the moment I see little prospect of it.
Bellevue Manor was demolished in 1963, but the Sigmund Freud Society of Austria placed a plaque with that exact quote on the site where it once stood.
Freud's father, Jakob Freud, struggled to support his family, moving them between cramped apartments in a poverty-stricken area of Vienna, Austria. Freud acknowledged his disappointment in his father, as well as the profound effect his father's death had on him. Jakob Freud died in 1896, just a few years beforeThe Interpretation of Dreams was written. Freud disclosed in a preface to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1908, that his desire for self-analysis was a delayed reaction to his father's death—essentially a coping mechanism. Freud wrote:
This book has a further subjective significance for me personally—a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father's death—that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life.
The most common Freudian psychoanalytic theory taught in classes and discussed to this day is known as the "Oedipus complex." The Oedipus complex claims that a male child inherently tends to sexualize his mother while fearing his father, before he becomes aware of the societal nuances of familial roles. Freud reached this theory through his process of intense self-evaluation, which began when he started studying dreams and the unconscious while writing The Interpretation of Dreams. The death of his father played a pivotal role in his creation of the Oedipus complex theory, as he analyzed his own complicated emotions regarding his relationship with the man.
Freud's dream analyses and methods of psychoanalysis in general nearly always focus on male psychology. Some critics have described this male-centric form of examination as blatantly sexist. Furthermore, Freud's theory of "penis envy"—the notion that women subconsciously wish to have male genitalia—posits that women are more prone to jealousy and vanity than men. Scholars have described Freud's views on female psychology as simply "deviating from the norm" of male psychology, which he seemed to consider the standard for his research.
Certain aspects of Freud's study on dreams had already been hypothesized, such as the disconnect between sexual impulses in dreams and sexual morality while awake. Psychologists such as F.W. Hildebrandt and Karl Scherner had already published studies of dreams that were similar to Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. However, Freud neglected to cite any of these sources in his work, and some scholars believe that the absence of citations may have been intentional in order to make his research seem more original. Freud's ideas regarding the role of symbolism in dreams—which he added to later editions of The Interpretation of Dreams—were extremely similar to those of Scherner, yet Scherner wasn't cited in the text until Freud added a footnote to a 1911 edition.
Many believe that the unsettling "Irma's Injection" dream that gave rise to Freud's study was a subconscious reaction to guilt that he felt for mistreating an actual patient. Freud treated Emma Eckstein for "hysteria" and later referred her to his friend Wilhelm Fliess. Fliess operated on Eckstein's nose in an attempt to alleviate her symptoms, but the procedure backfired and left her severely injured. Although Freud didn't botch this operation himself, his dream may have been a symptom of regret for referring her to a doctor who nearly killed her. Other scholars disregard this theory, as Freud once stated that the real name of "Irma" had been Anna and that he'd named his daughter after the patient. Some psychoanalysts also find it hard to believe that Freud's supposed guilt would've manifested itself in his dreams so many months after the incident, and they suggest the woman's operation may not have gone quite as horribly awry as was recorded.
Late in his life, Freud developed oral cancer and experienced severe, constant agony. Among various procedures, Freud's jaw was partially removed and replaced. In 1938 Freud, who was Jewish, fled Austria due to the rise of the Nazi regime. He lived in Britain in self-exile, but his disease became too painful to bear. Freud died in 1939 after requesting a lethal dose of morphine from his doctor.
During Freud's time, cocaine was considered a remedy for certain painful symptoms instead of a dangerous drug. Freud first experimented with cocaine in 1884 and quickly viewed the substance as a "miracle cure" that could both alleviate pain and "untie his tongue" at parties. When one of Freud's friends became addicted to morphine, Freud actually proposed cocaine use as a way to cure his addiction—unaware of the addictive properties of cocaine itself. Freud was also using the drug heavily during the composition of The Interpretation of Dreams, and he only attempted to quit once he nearly killed a patient while under its influence in the 1890s.