(This is a continuation of last week’s post.)
The Freudian idea of dreams, in a nutshell:
The essence of the dream is wish-fulfillment. As transient dwellers in a world not exactly designed for our individual satisfactions, each of us is bound to harbor a host of intense and vital wishes, most of them doomed to frustration. But in the world of dreams, all things are possible.
Not all things are permitted, however. Even in the depths of our unconscious, we know that certain wishes are simply not acceptable. Freud’s acquaintance “Frau B.,” who appears in last week’s post, knows that her yen for “Dr. K.”–while her old husband is dying, yet!–is wrong and shameful in a proper Viennese wife. A 9-year-old boy, brought up to be obedient, knows he really shouldn’t have an itch to tear his mean old Daddy into pieces.
Yet we all do have such wishes. And in our dreams they come true. How do we disguise that from ourselves?
Enter the dream-work to the rescue.
The function of the dream-work is to create, through a wondrous web of symbols and allusions–the key to their meaning possessed only by the dreamer–a string of images that express the fundamental dream-thoughts in such a way that most of the time even the dreamer can’t recognize them for what they are. The result is an incoherent jumble; and the dream-work, as a finishing touch to its masterpiece, performs a secondary revision which gives this mess the illusion of narrative logic.
Yes, I know. Freud is about as fashionable these days as muttonchop whiskers. His terminology sounds as quaint as the “Sacre bleu!” and “Ach du lieber!” and “Yumpin’ Yimini!” of the “Blackhawk” crew. But it’s as true now as it was a hundred years ago: you can’t read him without sooner or later seeing yourself reflected in his mirror, and that which you’d never understood about yourself becoming immediately and compellingly intelligible.
I don’t claim this guarantees the truth of his ideas. I do say it demands for them the respectful attention of any open, inquiring mind.
I was in my 30s when I read The Interpretation of Dreams, and the premonitory-dream essay tacked on at the end of the English translation. I already knew things about my 9-year-old self that I hadn’t known, at least consciously, when I was that age. I knew, for example, that I’d been a very angry little boy. I knew that I hadn’t felt my anger, not because it wasn’t a part of me, but because it had been drummed into me that this was an emotion you just weren’t supposed to feel–especially not toward your parents. I knew that I’d been programmed to be, in “Blackhawk’s” words, a thinking machine without emotions–or with only the acceptable and proper emotions, which amounted to the same thing.
You can imagine why Freud’s essay was for me the proverbial flash of illumination. For the first time, I understood what my “Blackhawk” dream had been about: the “thinking machine’s” revenge on the man who’d made him as he was. I understood why, when I opened the July 1956 “Blackhawk” comic and saw its opening full-page panel, I was seized by the conviction I’d already seen this in my dreams.
The truth was, I had. The truth was, the comic book artist had done my dream-work for me, providing me with the perfect symbolic disguise for my forbidden dream-wish. This was now, in retrospective memory, the dream I had dreamed, expressing my wicked, murderous desire far better than whatever images I’d originally come up with. Which now could be totally forgotten.
And thus a prophetic dream was created.
But enough about me. What about Mark Twain? (Or Samuel Clemens, I should call him in this context.) What about his prophetic dream of 1858, of Henry Clemens in a metal coffin, a bouquet of roses upon his chest?
What do we know about Twain/Clemens’ feelings for brother Henry? A great deal, it turns out.
“He is ‘Sid’ in ‘Tom Sawyer'” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1, p. 350).
If Twain hadn’t said another word, we’d know from this one sentence how he felt toward his brother. For if you recall your Tom Sawyer, you’ll know that Tom’s brother Sid comes across as a smarmy little creep, a goody-goody snitch whose delight it is to get Tom in trouble with Aunt Polly.
In his more rational moments, Twain recognized that his malicious caricature of his brother bore only a passing resemblance to the real Henry Clemens. “I never knew Henry to do a vicious thing toward me, or toward any one else. … Henry was a very much finer and better boy than ever Sid was” (Autobiography, p. 350). “He never did harm to anybody, he never offended anybody. … He had an overflowing abundance of goodness” (p. 458). Which realization can’t possibly have lessened brother Sam’s resentment and dislike. Surely it made them all the more fierce. How can you admit to hating a kind and decent child without feeling yourself an utter bloody-minded fool? And then guess who gets blamed for that?
Twain tells of an incident that supposedly took place one summer afternoon when he was 11 or 12, and an apprentice printer in the office of the Hannibal Courier. It’s plain that his recollection is considerably interlarded with fantasy, but that doesn’t matter. What counts is not what really happened, but how Twain remembered it.
He’d been confined to the office as punishment for something or other, and was there alone, his sole comfort the eating of a large watermelon. “There remained then the shell, the hollow shell. It was big enough to do duty as a cradle. I didn’t want to waste it, and I couldn’t think of anything to do with it which could afford entertainment. I was sitting at the open window which looked out upon the sidewalk of the main street three stories below, when it occurred to me to drop it on somebody’s head.”
That “somebody” turned out to be Henry.
“I poised the watermelon, calculated my distance and let it go, hollow side down. The accuracy of that gunnery was beyond admiration … and it was lovely to see those two bodies gradually closing in on each other … that shell smashed down right on the top of his head and drove him into the earth up to the chin. The chunks of that broken melon flew in every direction like a spray, and they broke third story windows all around. They had to get a jack such as they hoist buildings with to pull him out” (pp. 458-459).
What the missile did to Henry’s head, Twain doesn’t tell us. Nor does he show, anywhere in his account, the smallest trace of remorse or compassion. Just self-congratulation at the cleverness of his prank, and at his skill in carrying it out. Plus the preposterous fantasy that Henry was pounded, Rumpelstiltskin fashion, up to his chin into the ground.
How many hundreds of deaths, grisly and grotesque, must Henry Clemens have endured in his brother’s dreams! Until reality at last cooperated, and the exploding boiler of the steamboat Pennsylvania did what Sam’s watermelon shell couldn’t quite manage–send the detested Henry on a final, agonizingly painful exit from this world.
Is it any wonder that one of those dreams came close enough to what actually happened, that the sight of Henry lying in his coffin could serve retrospectively as garb for his brother’s murderous dream-wish? That the details of that grim scene should be projected back into the dream? And the conviction born in Sam Clemens’ guilty heart that he’d seen it already, dreamed it all, even before it happened?
At some level, Twain must have known what his dream was about. He can’t have been proud.
So he suppressed the dream from Life on the Mississippi. He made sure never to publish it, until his mother–and Henry’s–was dead. And in his recollection of the dream’s aftermath, he couldn’t bring himself go into the dead-room for fear of having to face her.
How lucky I was, that my dream came true only on the page of a comic book.
by David Halperin
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