Is Freudian Symbolism a Myth?

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine

It has become a commonplace among the general public, and perhaps among journalists in particular, that some things are Freudian symbols. In the popular usage of this phrase, the word Freudian is synonymous with “sexual,” the word “sexual” is synonymous with “genital,” while the question “What does the word ‘symbol’ mean?” is answered, if it is asked at all, by saying that it is something that stands for something else. A pipe, a sword, a gun are held to be Freudian symbols on the ground that Freud reputedly said that they stand for penises. In view of this widespread’ assumption, I thought it might be appropriate to start this essay by investigating whether the general public has in fact correctly divined and understood an essential part of Freud’s thinking or whether some distortion of his ideas has taken place during their passage from the learned literature into the popular press.

Now, in one very simple sense, a distortion certainly has occurred, Freud himself was not the psychoanalyst who first attached central importance to sexual symbolism. As he himself said, he arrived late at a full realization of the importance of symbolism of any kind. The first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) contains only a few pages devoted to the subject of symbolism in general and only one dream exemplifying sexual symbolism. These few pages came at the end of a section entitled “Considerations of Representability,” and the matter under discussion was not primarily “How are sexual ideas symbolized in dreams?” but two more general questions: How are thoughts, which are not necessarily visual, converted into the visual imagery characteristic of dreams? And how can forbidden, taboo ideas be expressed in dreams in such a way that the dreamer, when he awakens, will not understand them? (Sexual ideas being only one of several classes of forbidden ideas which the “dream work” has to translate into imagery that will get past the censor.)

Freud did, however, eventually get around to attaching great importance to symbolism in general and to sexual symbolism in particular, successive editions of The Interpretation of Dreams containing additions referring to sexual symbolism. But it was not until the fourth edition (1914) that Freud included a section concerned exclusively with symbolism. However, even in the present definitive Standard Edition, this section consists of only 55 pages in a work running to 623 pages.

Freud’s reasons for taking fourteen years to attaching central importance to the idea with which his name has become most widely associated are expressed clearly in the opening paragraphs of this section, and I should like now to quote extensively from them.

The analysis of this last, biographical, dream [i.e., the one discussed at the end of the previous section] is clear evidence that I recognized the presence of symbolism in dreams from the very beginning. But it was only by degrees and as…

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