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Deciphering the "Dream of the Botanical Monograph"
School of the Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, MA 02115
"The productions of the dream-work," Freud (1900) contended, "present no greater difficulties to their translators than do the ancient hieroglyphic scripts to those who seek to read them" (341). This comparison reflects his belief in the existence of parallel languages within a dream, with the manifest content resembling "a pictographic script" (277) that can be decoded to render the latent "thoughts" legible. In framing his epigraphy of the unconscious in terms of hieroglyphic texts, Freud was perhaps also aligning the method of his "discovery" with the well-known accomplishments of nineteenth-century European linguists. Notable among them was Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), credited with bringing legibility to early Egyptian texts by recognizing the relationship among three inscriptions on a damaged stele brought to France from an old port city near Alexandria. Champollion identified the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone as versions of the same narrative: the pictographs could be made intelligible by recourse to the other, more readable, scripts carved below them. Freud, likewise, imagined the dual character of the dream to be "two versions of the same subject matter in two different languages" (1900, 277). He considered these to be as particular in form and syntax as the languages preserved on the fragment from Rosetta; for Freud, the operations of the dream-work made the manifest content and the latent thoughts appear to be distinct and incommensurable, as if etched into separate psychic registers, although they were really saying the same thing. [End Page 157]
In the century since the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, the terms "latent" and "manifest" have continued to function as markers of difference and "opposition" (Laplanche and Pontalis 1967, 235) within the discourses of psychoanalysis. This bifurcation has also sustained Freud's assumption that interpretation is possible only through acts of translation. But might there be other codes presented by a dream and its associations that defy this binary model of reading? In this paper, I shall examine visual, linguistic, and documentary evidence that complicates Freud's paradigm of "parallel languages" separating the incidental from the significant. This investigation will focus on one dream, chosen here for the same reason that Freud included it in his text: it was thought to exemplify the existence of these markedly different realms of psychical functioning.
The "Dream of the Botanical Monograph," which took place in March 1898, appears in a section of The Interpretation of Dreams devoted to "recent and indifferent material," where Freud suggests it was stimulated by his having seen a book devoted to a specific flower, the cyclamen, in a bookshop window earlier in the day.1 He continues: "I had written a monograph on a certain plant. The book lay before me and I was at the 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" (1900, 169). Freud returns to the dream several times in his "dream book," and in each instance he foregrounds the "indifferent" nature of its manifest content. He is most emphatic in the section dealing with displacement; here this dream is offered as the first example of this phenomenon, where "what is clearly the essence of the dream-thoughts need not be represented in the dream at all" (305). Thus, while the central theme of the manifest content was the botanical monograph, the latent dream thoughts were, he suggested, concerned with "the complications and conflicts arising between colleagues from their professional obligations, and the further charge that I was in the habit of sacrificing too much for the sake of my hobbies." To allay any lingering doubt about the unimportance of the botanical element, Freud reiterates that it "had no place whatever in this core of the dream-thoughts, unless it was...