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  • Freud’s Wishful Dream Book
  • Sander L. Gilman
Alexander Welsh. Freud’s Wishful Dream Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xii + 145 pp. $19.95; £14.95.

In 1899 a relatively minor medical publisher in Vienna and Leipzig brought out a new work on the psychology of dreams with a strangely popular title, The Interpretation of Dreams. Dated 1900 on the title page, it was a serious (if the footnotes and the historical references were to be believed) but rather odd volume. Its title was more redolent of the pamphlets one could buy that provided keys to the readings of dreams, often hawked at questionable shops that dealt in many other unsavory things. Its effect was much as if Princeton University Press were today to publish a serious monograph on psychology with a “how-to-do-it” title. Widely if not always well reviewed (even if the author did not think this was the case), Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams remains the most important book he ever published and one of the very few (along with the Three Essays) that he constantly updated and rethought.

Alexander Welsh, the Emily Sanford Professor of English at Yale University, has presented a new reading of the “Dream Book.” This is a book devoted to a book, and strangely, it is a book that truly needed doing. The earlier detailed studies of Freud’s theory of dreaming, including my own, focused on the context of the theory rather than a close reading of the text (see my books The Case of Sigmund Freud: Medicine and Identity at the Fin de Siècle [1993] and Freud, Race, and Gender [1993]). Having just moved to the University of Chicago, where such close readings are part of the ethos of the institution, I was amazed to see how Welsh’s close reading of a single text truly illuminated the mode of argument (and the fascinating gaps in the argument) of this most serious and most extensive of Freud’s works.

Alexander Welsh sees Freud’s volume as a mode of performance. It was an acting out in writing of his professional and personal quest of identity. Freud had written to Wilhelm Fliess that The Interpretation of Dreams was “planned on the model of an imaginary walk” (6 August 1899), and this walk is, of course, Dante’s walk through the Inferno and eventually (abandoned by Virgil) into Paradise. Freud’s motto for the volume pointed to the hellish aspects of the unconscious but not to the hoped-for academic laurels to be offered by the divine Mary, the Catholic state. Welsh’s reading of the “Dream Book” takes us, his readers, along on a Boccaccian rereading of Freud’s Dante. Like Boccaccio in his treatment of Dante, Welsh is a helpful, insightful reader, whose attention to the details, to the [End Page 145] pebbles on the path, provides the reader of Freud with new ways of understanding the “Dream Book” as a text. Such an approach is not unique in Freud Studies: one can turn to a number of analogous studies of Freud as a writer, specifically to the work of Patrick J. Mahony (Freud as a Writer [1987] and On Defining Freud’s Discourse [1989]).

Welsh provides a close reading that answers a number of questions (or at least posits relatively acceptable answers for our time): Why dreams as a subject of study? What does memory mean for Freud? And, important: how does Freud constitute himself as the author/investigator in the world of the text? It is this last question, addressed by Welsh in terms of the narrative stance of The Interpretation of Dreams, that is most central in my mind. For Freud may write to Fliess seeing his role as that of Dante or of Virgil (the characters), but his role as Dante/Virgil (the authors) is what captures Welsh’s attention. Here the author as “guide” presupposes an understanding of the complex realities of the framing of the narrative voice in nineteenth-century scientific discourse. Welsh works this problem out within the text, showing how Freud moves between self-analysis (analyzing himself rather than being analyzed as a case study...

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pp. 145-147
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