To Read or Love as She Pleased: Dream-Reading ‘Dora’ through Dora’s Reading-Dream

2012-10-12 00.19.42

They do it in fear and trembling, with an uneasy look over their shoulder to see if some one may not be coming.—Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Touchstone: New York, 1997, p. 92.

How are we to approach the singular genre of the case history that Freud develops early on in his psychoanalytic and writing career? This genre is all the more striking in his first case history Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria precisely because it remains in fragmentary form for several reasons. Although the text is divided into five parts—which might spark in the literary critic the desire to see the structure of a Shakespearean play—the plot and subplot of the work is not necessarily easy to locate, for the action seems to encroach on the divisions and overflow on all sides. Perhaps this is another consequence of the fragmentary nature of this first case history or an indication that Freud has not mastered the genre with his first attempt, but it is necessary to remember that there is a multiplicity of narratives at play simultaneously throughout the work whose compositeness requires careful analysis before suggesting any unproblematic theoretical wholeness or unity.  But it is also the fragmentary status of Dora’s desire indicated by the fragments of her memory that sustains and also complicates the narration of this case history.

Ignoring the analytic difficulties that Freud recounts in his treatment of Dora, certain thinkers have tried to cut through the ‘drama’ and uncertainty of the narrative in order to extract the fruit of the insights it might provide without considering the labors involved in its composition. This type of reading reduces the analytical journey to the stable grounds of a destination from which Freud’s endeavors can be judged. A characteristic example of this can be located in the reading provided by a Lacanian edifice. In his first book published in English the Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek undertakes the daunting task of supplementing traditional Marxist concepts with a Hegelian and Lacanian emphasis. Towards the end of the text, Žižek catalogues three different varieties of subject: the subject presumed to believe, the subject presumed to enjoy, and the subject presumed to desire. In order to highlight an example of the latter concept, he turns to Freud’s Dora, the first patient about whom Freud wrote a case history. Although Žižek does not perform a reading of the text itself of Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, the example will highlight the specificity of the diagnosis of hysteria that informs the Lacanian conceptualization of identification in The Sublime Object and thus merits being cited at length:

The last concept would be, of course, that of the subject presumed to desire. If the subject presumed to enjoy plays a central role in obsessional neurosis, the subject presumed to desire plays such a role in hysteria. One only has to remind oneself of Freud’s analysis of Dora: it is quite clear that Frau K. is playing for Dora the role—not of her object of desire, as Freud mistakenly supposed, but of the subject presumed to desire, presumed to know how to organize her desire, how to avoid its deadlock. That is why, when we are confronted with a hysteric, the question to ask is not ‘What is his object of desire?’ but ‘Where does he desire from? Who is the other person through whom he is organizing his desire?’ The problem for the hysterical subject is that he always needs to have recourse to another subject to organize his desire—that is the meaning of the Lacanian formula that hysterical desire is the desire of the other.[1]

Although this reading appears convincing when put within a Lacanian perspective, it does not illuminate or represent Freud’s own struggles in clarifying the question of identification in Dora’s case. It also fails to take into account the different gaps in Dora’s memory during the analysis that will constantly puzzle Freud. For the analyst, it is precisely these gaps or secrets[2] that will be essential for discovering the keys to unlocking the mystery of Dora’s symptoms. Lastly, Žižek does not take into consideration one of the primary motivations behind the writing and publication of Dora’s case history, which is not simply to clarify certain possible misunderstandings surrounding hysteria that might have arisen from Freud’s work with Breuer, but to put into practice a  theoretical framework for investigating dreams laid out by The Interpretation of Dreams[3]. In what follows, I would like to consider and interrogate the importance of these memory lapses in their relation to the sources of knowledge that Freud continually seeks to reconstruct. Going further, I would like to enquire into how these problems in the case of Dora can be particularly illuminating when considered in conjunction with a reading of Dora’s reading in her second and final analyzed dream. Finally, this investigation will better allow us to unpack the particular stakes behind Freud’s question of hysterical identification for the analysis of symptoms in their relation to the gaps in the analysand’s memory.

As Freud indicates in his second part of the Dora case, what seems most particularly troubling about other accounts of hysteria is the way in which “the authorities can produce such smooth and exact histories” in these types of cases (10). Utilizing the image and metaphor of a river—a metaphor that will return often throughout the case history, although it will take on new significance in the analysis of the first dream where we are presented with a dream of a burning house and a diagnosis of belated bedwetting—Freud will puzzle[4] over the fact that the analysand’s accounts of their own history will produce flows of speech that range from a raging torrent that threatens the shipwreck of the analysis and a shallow stream that endangers safe navigation to the ultimate deadlocks involved when the river seems to run completely dry. This instability of the patient’s speech (of the analytic “material”), which ultimately provides all the characteristics of the unstable narrator of many modern literary works, are not simply and unproblematically indicative of a hysterical symptom, for it “also possesses great theoretical significance” (10). It is the inherent inconsistency of the hysteric’s accounts that will indicate the undercurrent of the analysis as it proceeds to the theoretical source of this river of the unconscious.

Freud distinguishes this instability related to the gaps in the patient’s memory on the basis of specifically different factors. In essence, there are three different levels of forgetting that have to be taken into account. The first level relates to what Freud calls a function of “conscious disingenuousness” (11). This level relates to the way in which feelings of shame, fear or discretion prevent the analysand from revealing certain facts about their own personal history; yet these facts are “perfectly well known to them”, and they are something the analyst quite naturally assumes should be told during the course of the analysis (10). This is the first layer of protection and the first strategy that the analyst encounters in the search for insight into the unanswered riddles of the case. Obviously the analysis cannot stop here on these unsteady waters, insofar as dissimulated forgetting—or even simulated memories for that matter—can provide nothing but a premature shipwreck for the endeavor to penetrate into the undiscovered sources of particular hysterical symptoms.

The second level is perhaps even more unstable and yet unknown to the patient and without their consent and willing participation. This is the level of “unconscious disingenuousness”, although the question of disingenuousness loses its active meaning of voluntary dissimulation here and takes on the implication that the patient as much as the analyst is being duped. As Freud notes, this is what can be called the first actual level of amnesia and “part of anamnestic knowledge”, although the patient will sometimes have access to this knowledge outside the confines of the verbal narrative her or she is giving. On the third level, there are true amnesias or veritable gaps in the patient’s memory accompanied by the occasional secondary revision of paramnesias that serve to cover over or fill these gaps (11). As Freud will relate in a footnote, the larger the gaps are in the case of true amnesia, the more certain the analyst can be that there is less of a probability that these gaps will contain error, i.e. that they will relate to the first or second levels of conscious or unconscious disingenuousness. Nevertheless, as Freud seems to indicate, there is always the threat that the “purpose” behind the amnesias will be enacted through the dissolution of connections related to the events recalled, most specifically through patient’s memory is susceptible to “altering the chronological order of events” (11). But these types of alterations for Freud generally indicate “the first stage of repression”, and so they only allow access to the shallowest currents of the patient’s memory lapses. In order to work through the analysis more thoroughly, it will be necessary to restore more connections in the patient’s memory than merely those severed by chronological distortion.

Indeed, Freud indicates the crucial and overarching dominance of this very fact by emphasizing the theoretical importance of understanding symptoms in relation to their amnesias and vice versa:

That this state of affairs should exist in regard to the memories relating to the history of the illness is a necessary correlate of the symptoms and one which is theoretically requisite…It is only towards the end of the treatment that we have before us an intelligible, consistent, and unbroken case history. Whereas the practical aim of the treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts, we may regard it as a second and theoretical aim to repair all the damages to the patient’s memory. These two aims are coincident. When one is reached, so is the other; and the same path leads to them both.[5]

These damaged memories, then, can be seen as holding the key to unlocking the sources of the patient’s symptoms, while uncovering these very symptoms will help to reestablish and heal the gaps in the memory. In fact, Freud will argue in a footnote that hysterical symptoms must present themselves with a certain loss of memory or a certain instability in the narrative, lacking which the diagnosis must be different: “When the story came out perfectly clearly and connectedly in spite of the remarkable events it dealt with, I told myself that the case could not be one of hysteria” (10, fn. 3). Taking into account the necessity of memory gaps in the analysis of hysteria, how are we to understand more concretely symptoms in general and specifically in relation to Dora’s case?

Freud lays out the concept of the symptom in the most straightforward way—albeit with some reservations—by claiming that as a rule it has been confirmed by his own experience, although here he is not ready to found it as a guiding principle. After providing this caveat, he writes: “a symptom signifies the representation—the realization—of a phantasy with a sexual content, that is to say, it signifies a sexual situation” (39). Nevertheless, here and elsewhere Freud will emphasize to the reader that we should be aware of a fundamental overdetermination that is at work in symptom formation and its functioning. Because of this fact, a symptom cannot be reduced to a singular entity but of itself requires that we respect its very multiplicity; only one facet or “one of the meanings of a symptom” relates to the sexual phantasy and its representation (39). In fact, the symptom is never monolithic or always requires “several unconscious mental processes” at the same time (40).

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, against the wishes of Dora’s father, Freud is skeptical about the evidence used against Dora by Herr K. that she has done nothing but fantasize the scene at the lake. While Herr K. argues that Dora’s reading of Mantegazza’s book of anatomy ultimately leads her to fantasize the lake scene, here Freud’s definition of symptom would argue against this logic, showing that there would require a number of other factors for this supposed daydream to reach the status of full-blown hysteria. As we shall witness with the analysis of the second dream, there is much more lying beneath the surface than this so-called fantasy, and therefore we cannot take it as the actual primary symptom without shipwrecking the analysis on the dry bedrock of misrecognition.

Proceeding in this way, we have examined what Freud reveals hysteria is not, but how does he specifically define it in Dora’s case history? In general, Freud writes that he has remained faithful to the original understanding of hysteria as he and Breuer present it in their Studien über Hysterie, namely as the presence of a conflict of affects and a psychical trauma (18). However, Freud informs us that after writing on his own he has become convinced of the existence of a “disturbance in the sphere of sexuality”. And since any disturbance in this sphere requires that there be some knowledge on the unconscious level, it will become all the more important to interrogate the sources that lie beneath.

It should also be noted that Freud is interested in understanding how the body can become predisposed to symptoms through the development and operation of somatic compliance, which is a predisposition for the psychical trauma to take root in the body. This somatic compliance will range from Dora’s early years sucking on her thumb while pulling on her nurse’s ear to the “displacement” of the pressure of Herr K.’s erect member during the lake scene that will become “fixed” in her thorax (24). This corollary of sexual disturbance and somatic compliance will focus Freud’s analysis of Dora specifically into the realm of her sexual knowledge and exposure. As he points out, when he begins Dora’s analysis he is careful not to introduce any “fresh facts”[6] and not to touch upon any “repressed perception” that might be revived during the discussion of sexual facts. He writes:

Accordingly, I did not call a thing by its name until her allusions to it had become so unambiguous that there seemed very slight risk in translating them into direct speech. Her answer was always prompt and frank: she knew about it already. But the question of where her knowledge came from was a riddle which her memories were unable to solve. She had forgotten the source of all her information on the subject (24).

Here and elsewhere Freud argues that the solution to this riddle will be provided in the analysis of Dora’s second dream. Furthermore, Freud becomes all the more interested in the sources of her sexual knowledge when the analysis becomes stymied on a particular point of contention: why does Dora’s father’s accusation against her that the scene at the lake is merely a phantasy seem to be the only thing that has until now been intolerable for Dora on his part? For Freud, this vehemence can only itself indicate something else that lies concealed, for the anger that Dora feels must be read in reverse as a self-reproach (39). Thus he will again confront the riddle of the analysis and point us to the second dream for its key: “In our discussion of Dora’s second dream we shall come upon the solution of this riddle as well as upon the self-reproach which we have hitherto failed to discover” (39).[7]

Before examining elements of Dora’s second dream, it would be helpful to turn to The Interpretation of Dreams to highlight one of the primary facets of hysteria as revealed in dreams and their reading. As Freud shows there, one of the primary vehicles for hysterical symptoms is revealed through the perspective of identification. In chapter IV on “Distortion in Dreams”, Freud writes:

Identification is a highly important factor in the mechanism of hysterical symptoms; by this means patients are enabled in their symptoms to represent not merely their own experiences, but the experiences of a great number of other persons, and can suffer, as it were, for a whole mass of people, and fill all the parts of a drama by means of their own personalities alone. It will here be objected that this is well-known hysterical imitation…But this only indicates the way in which the psychic process is discharged in hysterical imitation; the way in which a psychic act proceeds and the act itself are two different things…Identification is therefore not a simple imitation, but a sympathy based upon some etiological claim; it expresses an “as though”, and refers to some common quality which has remained in the unconscious.[8]

Along with keeping in mind the nine criteria of hysterical symptoms laid out in Freud’s “Hysterical Phantasies in Their Relation to Bisexuality”, the significance of the passage quoted above is essential for understanding some of the key aspects in the interpretation of Dora’s second dream. As Freud seems to hint all throughout the case history itself, the second dream—and specifically the addenda[9] that Dora adds to it—will shed light on her symptom formation and the way in which it betrays her “unconscious disingenuousness” in the guise of an identification that has been repressed until the time at which the analysis abruptly ends.

There are two sources of reading present in the second dream that detail the extent to which Dora’s enactment of identification is functioning in the dream. The first source is that of the letter she receives from her mother regarding the death of her father: “Now he is dead, and if you like? you can come” (86). At first sight, Freud reads this letter as the instantiation of a wish having been fulfilled by the dream, insofar as he reads it as a sign of Dora’s unconscious willingness to take revenge on her father for never giving up on his desire to save his relationship with Frau K. at all costs. Furthermore, the form of the letter and its subject harkens back to the incident that Dora recounts concerning the suicide letter that she wrote and that was discovered by her parents, which is presumably also her identification with her father’s own supposed suicide attempt: “We are here concerned with the subject of her death and of her father’s death” (89). Nevertheless, this identification with her father obscures the source of the question-mark that interrupts the flow of the sentence; as Dora points out afterwards, the presence of this typographical anomaly recalls the wording of the letter that Frau K. writes to Dora extending an invitation to join them at the lake where the infamous scene with Herr K. occurs. Thus the fantasy of Dora’s father’s death indicated with Frau K.’s wording in the letter perhaps reveals a secret desire to be invited to the lake by Frau K. alone, without the extra crowd of her father or Frau K.’s husband.[10]

On the other hand, Dora’s addendum to the dream shows how it ends with her perusing a big book on her writing-table (92). Here again the logic of the dead father is at play, for Freud seizes upon the element of the dream that Dora relates about reading this book “calmly”. Since the wish fulfilled by the dream involves the death of the father, this type of reading, which Freud speculates is that of an encyclopedia, must also be connected this wish: “Parents are very much in the way while reading of this kind is going on. But this uncomfortable situation had been radically improved, thanks to the dream’s power of fulfilling wishes” (92). This revenge against her father is depicted by Freud as a resistance to her parents’ constraint,[11] and the desire for a state of affairs such that “she could read or love as she pleased” (92).

Hereafter Freud details two complimentary readings of the encyclopedia, one innocent and one “guilty” (94); thus the innocent and “calm” reading not only covers up the guilty reading itself, but also points back to the “nature of the subjects she had read about on that occasion” that seems to correlate with the various different references to the lapse in Dora’s memory concerning the sources of her sexual knowledge. Although here I cannot follow Freud’s analysis of the appendicitis and immaculate conception that he argues follows from the encyclopedia scene, I want to pause and reflect on the end of the footnote that details the “supplementary interpretations” Freud adds to the reading of this dream (95, fn. 20). As he notes, “Behind the almost limitless series of displacements which were thus brought to light, it was possible to divine the operation of a single simple factor—Dora’s deep-rooted homosexual love for Frau K.” (96, fn. 20). In addition, in the “Postscript” towards the end of the case history where he mentions the deadlock and utter “perplexity” which he at times faces during the analysis, Freud will admit that he “ought to have guessed the main source of her knowledge of sexual matters could have been no one but Frau K.” (110, fn. 2).

How are we to reconcile these two statements in light of Freud’s understanding of hysterical identification as we detailed above? Perhaps it should be remembered what Žižek argues above: Frau K. functions as the organizer of Dora desire rather than its object. Or rather, there is an oscillation that does not exclude the two, because if we remember what Freud argues about the role of identification, hysterics play out all the roles involved in the drama. This makes more sense when we consider that Freud reads in the second dream both Dora’s death and her father’s death notified from the position of the mother in the typographical guise of Frau K. In other words, the question “if you like?” can be read as a non-exclusive choice between the identification with Frau K.’s desire and that of her father’s desire, along with the different organizations that they can provide. While this may be an almost impossible choice to continually sustain in the waking world, the dream ignores this impossibility and posits their fundamental co-originality. Ultimately this way of keeping these positions of identification and desire together allows us to remain faithful to Freud’s understanding—which he struggles to develop and maintain—that hysterical phantasy and identification are essentially bisexual. Remaining faithful to the theoretical understanding of this bisexual impulse is the veritable way for grasping how Dora could finally love or read as she pleased.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology.  Verso: London, 1989, p. 187.

[2] The genesis of this essay is particularly indebted to Neil Hertz’s essay, “Dora’s Secrets, Freud’s Techniques” Diacritics 13.1 (Spring: 1983), specifically his insistence on highlighting Freud’s distinctions between oral and written sources of knowledge.

[3] As Freud writes about the Dora case, “I wish to give an example in the following pages of the only practical application of which the art of interpreting dreams seems to admit”, Dora, ibid., p. 8.

[4] As Freud will write shortly after this statement, “I may venture to remark, however, that all such collections of the strange and wonderful phenomena of hysteria have but slightly advanced our knowledge of a disease which still remains as great a puzzle as ever”, ibid., p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 11.

[6] As Freud himself will argue later, this also serves as a prophylactic for analysis to insure that no new symptoms or grounds for hysteria are presented to the patient: “There is never any danger of corrupting an inexperienced girl. For where there is no knowledge of sexual processes even in the unconscious, no hysterical symptom will arise; and where hysteria is found there can no longer be any question of ‘innocence of mind’ in the sense in which parents and educators use the phrase”, Dora, ibid., p. 42.

[7] Freud will foreshadow his reading of the second dream later—before the analysis of either dream—by writing: “Frau K., therefore, had betrayed her and calumniated her; for it had only been with her that she had read Mantegazza and discussed forbidden topics…This mortification touched her, perhaps, more nearly and had a greater pathogenic effect than the other one, which she tried to use as a screen for it,—the fact that she had been sacrificed by her father. Did not the obstinacy with which she retained the particular amnesia concerning the sources of her forbidden knowledge point directly to the great emotional importance for her of the accusation against her upon that score, and consequently to her betrayal by her friend?” (55).

[8] Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A.A. Brill. Barnes and Noble: New York, 2005, p.134-35.

[9] The most important of these addenda is the one in which we find Dora “reading a big book that lay on [her] writing-table”, Dora, ibid., p. 86, fn. 4.

[10] This seems more compelling due to the fact that Dora finds herself alone at the end of the dream—although, with the logic of hysteria that we laid out above, her being alone does not necessarily entail that she is not personally enacting the drama of a crowd herself.

[11] It seems odd that Dora at her age would still have this fear of reading around her parents; furthermore, it is a question of how present her parents would have been, considering that her father was continually off at some resort with Frau K. and her mother was continually cleaning. This would seem to indicate that she would already have the calmness of mind to read as she pleased. Nevertheless, the question of the relative strength of the super-ego or instead the position from which we observe ourselves (Lacanian symbolic identification / Name-of-the-father) can easily be said to be argued without the presence of the father, and so it is a matter of wondering whether or not this question would necessarily be resolved after the father’s death. In short, this would also be a way of interrogating the logic of the revenant and the (un)dead father in the Interpretation of Dreams, because it would appear that the unconscious does not recognize death or negation in this kind of way. Therefore, could we venture that her wish for her father’s death in the dream is a counter-wish, insofar as it is an actual desire for him to live—‘to come’ home (or perhaps die to Frau K.), as long as it is submitted to the initial question ‘if you would like?’, which should be read as a command or a command to respond to the counter-question—what is it that Dora would like? In other words, it is a counter-wish that her father should finally live by respecting her own wishes, which is to give up his relationship with Frau K., who in her mind has usurped her position and for whom she has been substituted (particularly in the somewhat ironic role of ‘caregiver’).

This entry was written by Taylor Adkins and published on Friday, March 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “To Read or Love as She Pleased: Dream-Reading ‘Dora’ through Dora’s Reading-Dream

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Alan Roland (2011) | Lacques Jacan

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