Whether or not Sigmund Freud belongs amongst the most important writers of the last century depends a great deal on who you ask, as he has certainly become one of its most divisive. Revered by his devout admirers alongside the likes of Newton and Darwin, he is damned by his critics as a self-aggrandising peddler of pseudoscience. Whether genius or fraud, his work exerted an undeniable hold over the imagination of the 20th century, and The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) is where it really began. The first major publication of his solo career, it was also the most significant. According to his ‘Forward’ to an edition published thirty years later: "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime".
While the book attempts to bring a scientific rigour to the analysis of dreams, a popular pastime of various cultures for millenia, the implications of its analyses reach very deliberately into the waking world beyond. Freud's central, apparently paradoxical claim that even disturbing nightmares are in fact wish-fulfilling fantasies allows him to illustrate the twisted conception of the mind at the base of all his theories: a divided entity which constantly works to disguise its dynamics and desires, even from itself. Here dreams are simply the tell-tale clues which the sleeping mind unwittingly lets slip, revealing glimpses of its true nature.
From his hierarchical blueprint of the unconscious mind to the infamous ‘Oedipus complex’, all of Freud’s best known theories are either laid out or alluded to within, along with his worst traits as a writer and as a scientist. Since its original publication, concerned readers have noted how freely the author often shapes materials to fit his theories rather than vice versa. He follows too surely the associative chains of phonetically similar words, and explains a little too deftly exactly what kind of wish might be fulfilled by a dream of being guillotined. Critics maintain that Freud applied the same heavy-handed methods to his patients as to their dreams, coaxing from them the evidence he required for theories, which many have since found good reason to doubt. The book's autobiographical passages are telling indeed, revealing the childhood frustrations and ambitions of great power which drove him to succeed.
Yet in this early work, for once, domineering authority is balanced by self-exposure: the petty professional jealousies he harboured for his colleagues, the guilt he felt over a close friend’s death, even a nasty case of infected scrotal boils are freely revealed in analyses of his own dreams. Freud almost seems to enact a form of penance for the demands he makes of his readers, “revealing more…than usually falls to the task of an author who is not a poet, but a scientist” (p.5). Ironically it is when the would-be scientist draws on his poetic sensibility that his arguments are at their most convincing – throughout The Interpretation of Dreams, literature, drama, religion and ancient legend are analysed as large-scale 'symptoms' of the same psychic struggles Freud diagnosed in his patients. It is in this blurring of the distinction between life and art that his message is most powerfully delivered: the past is not dead to the present, but touches and shapes it in countless unseen ways.