Freuds Specimen Dream of the Botanical Monograph

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Freud's dream of the Botanical Monograph remains one of the best illustrations of the dream as an unconscious meta-phoric process. Freud did not directly identify what we now recognize to be metaphor. Freud instead characterized as condensation the superimposition of dream thoughts and images.7 He may have further obscured the significance of unconscious metaphor in dreams, for he also mistakenly thought that certain dream images could be decoded in accordance with a universal and impersonal symbolism, which, if true, would negate the dream's idiosyncratic meaning. If the dream could be decoded using elements of a universal symbolism, this would deny the existence of an autonomous imagination. This fundamental contradiction and inconsistency in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams is discussed at some length in Rand and Torok's Questions for Freud (1997).

When Freud interpreted certain dream elements as conventional symbols, he unsuspectingly illustrated the difference between metaphor and symbol. A symbol has a fixed referent determined by convention, whereas metaphor has no fixed referent. There are, of course, conventional or worn-out metaphors, but that is usually not the stuff that dreams are made of. The unconscious metaphoric process of the dream is autonomous, but this does not exclude the possibility that a dream may make use of conventional sym bols. In any case, there is no standard interpretation of dream images. This distinction between the individual's imagination and conventional symbolism reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's critical analysis of poetry. Coleridge (1817) contrasted the author's ready-made, conventional associations, which he described as "fancy," with the poet's true autonomous imagination.

This is one version of the dream of the Botanical Monograph. Three slightly different versions of the dream appear in The Interpretation of Dreams, which suggests that this dream was one that was especially significant for Freud (for further discussion of this point, see Anzieu 1986).

I had written a monograph on a certain plant. The book lay before me and I was at that moment turning over a folded colored plate. Bound up in each copy there was a dried specimen of the plant, as though it had been taken from a herbarium. (Freud 1900, p. 169)

On the night before Freud received a letter from Wilhelm Fliess: "I am very much preoccupied with your dream-book. I see it lying finished before me. I see myself turning over its pages."8 That morning, preceding the dream, Freud had seen a new book on the genus Cyclamen in the window of a book shop. Freud recounts a further day residue of the dream. During the same evening he had a long conversation with his friend Konigstein regarding a Festschrift that omitted reference to Freud's contribution to the discovery of the anesthetic properties of cocaine. Freud's conversation with his friend also included an allusion to a patient of Freud's called Flora and a friend of his wife, Frau L., who had met Freud's wife Martha two days before the dream and whom he had treated some years earlier. Frau L. had been accustomed to receiving a bouquet of flowers from her husband on her birthday, and once, he forgot, causing her to burst into tears. Freud thought of his own failure as a husband, for Cyclamen was Martha's favorite flower, which he also neglected to bring her. A further botanical reference in the events preceding the dream is that when Freud was conversing with his friend Konigstein, he was joined by a Professor Gartner (the German for gardener).

Freud's associations to his dream also included a revealing fantasy or daydream: "If ever I get glaucoma, I thought, I should travel to Berlin to get myself operated on incognito, in my friend's [Fliess's] house, by a surgeon recommended by him. The operating surgeon, who would have no idea of my identity, would boast once again of how easily such operations could be performed since the introduction of cocaine; and I should not give the slightest hint that I myself had a share in the discovery" (Freud 1900, p. 170).

This pleasurable fantasy was also accompanied by associations of an opposite nature, memories of failure in school as a child, a rare event for Freud. As a young student he did poorly in botany and failed to identify a specimen of a plant.

As a further association of this dream, Freud cited the following selection from Goethe's Faust:

A thousand threads one treadle throws, Where fly the shuttles hither and thither, Unseen the threads are knit together, And an infinite combination grows.

These few lines can be interpreted as a description of the unconscious metaphoric process that weaves and synthesizes disparate elements. The wish for the appearance of the completed master work that will assure his fame is woven together with opposite thoughts of inadequacy, failure, and the absence of recognition such as occurred in the cocaine episode. Dream condensation, the unconscious metaphoric process, creates a mosaic of layered interrelated meanings. So when one selects one element, it says nothing about other possible interpretations. In accordance with the theme of failure and inadequacy, some commentators on the dream of the Botanical Monograph have interpreted the "dried specimen" as a metaphor for Freud's fear of a waning sexual and creative potency (Anzieu 1986).

The botanical associations that preceded the dream and that Freud described as the day residues—the sight of the monograph on Cyclamen, hearing about the woman Flora, meeting Professor Gartner—are all metonymic associations, concrete and literal, and lack the synthetic quality of metaphor.

The linguist Roman Jakobson (1995) also observed that metaphor and metonymy contributed to the dream process but are always antagonistically linked.9 Jakobson believes that metonymic associations explain the dream work that Freud described as displacement. The concept of displacement refers to the distinction between manifest and latent dream elements. The manifest elements of the dream—in this instance, plants, flowers, and botanical specimens— have in themselves little to do with the true subject matter of the dream—Freud's career and his hopes for the fame that will follow from The Interpretation of Dreams. The deeper meaning of the dream resides elsewhere, yet the metonymic associations form a linked network of their own. Jakobson viewed metonymy as a kind of contiguity, prevalent in magical thought, where the part stands for the whole. He further believed that prose, in contrast with poetry, is forwarded essentially by contiguity: "Thus for poetry, metaphor, and for prose, metonymy" (Jakobson 1995).

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