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American Imago 60.3 (2003) 259-284

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Mouth to Mouth:
Freud, Irma, and the Dream of Psychoanalysis

Madelon Sprengnether

Psychoanalysis was Freud's dream—in every sense of the word. A validation of his creative powers and a worldly achievement he considered on a par with the conquests of military leaders such as Alexander the Great, Cromwell, or Napoleon. A dreamboat of an idea. But it was initially something he literally dreamed, night after night, and transcribed by day in convoluted structures of imagery and word play—a product of his sleeping, unconscious mind and, as such, resistant to full elucidation. Unavoidably, Freud's own interpretations seem incomplete, leading one to speculate about lines of association that he either fails to recognize or deliberately avoids; the richer the dream, the more opportunity it offers for further analysis.

Such is the case with the dream of Irma's injection, which Freud referred to as his "specimen dream," the centerpiece of his new theory of interpretation. Freud's insistence that the dream represents his wish to exonerate himself from blame for Irma's physical complaints fails to satisfy most contemporary readers, who make use of Freud's own hermeneutic methods to arrive at a variety of different conclusions. The line of interpretation I wish to pursue builds on the work of Max Schur (1966), Erik Erikson (1954), and Jim Swan (1974), all of whom emphasize Freud's latent identification with his patient—an association that Freud himself assiduously avoids, preferring instead to focus on his role as conscientious physician. 1

Freud's insistence that the dream represents his wish not to be held responsible for Irma's condition reveals his preoccupation with issues of mastery and competence—both "masculine" or phallic concerns. Aspects of the dream that associate him with Irma herself, however, emphasize vulnerability and helplessness, traits Freud consistently regarded as "feminine." [End Page 259] Irma's mouth, both the sign of her "femininity" and the dream's imagistic center, offers a point of departure for an oral (as opposed to phallic) interpretation. Such an implicitly "feminine" reading, in turn, subverts the normative and prescriptive aspects of the Oedipus complex, while revealing a concern with the oral fixations and traumas of infantile life that Freud hints at elsewhere in his work but does not fully theorize. These issues, which find expression in images of oral violation, point to a preoccupation on Freud's part with traumatic loss.

Ironically, the latent content I plan to excavate in Freud's Irma dream became manifest in his life. The oral cancer diagnosed in 1923 that led to Freud's death in 1939 literalizes his dream imagery, while compelling him to act the part of Irma. 2 In this sense, Freud's body bears the burden of his dream—as its uncanny container and conduit. Irma's mouth is Freud's mouth, offering silent testimony to the legacy of trauma embedded in the dream of psychoanalysis.

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Freud's Irma dream occurred on the night of July 23, 1895. The text is as follows:

A large hall—numerous guests, whom we were receiving.—Among them was Irma. I at once took her on one side, as though to answer her letter and to reproach her for not having accepted my "solution" yet. I said to her: "If you still get pains, it's really only your fault." She replied: "If you only knew what pains I've got now in my throat and stomach and abdomen—it's choking me—I was alarmed and looked at her. She looked pale and puffy. I thought to myself that after all I must be missing some organic trouble. I took her to the window and looked down her throat, and she showed signs of recalcitrance, like women with artificial dentures. I thought to myself that there was really no need for her to do that.—She then opened her mouth properly and on the right I found a big white patch; at another place I saw extensive whitish grey scabs upon some remarkable curly structures [End Page 260...