Last November I asked Dr. Virginia Barry, a psychoanalyst who teaches at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, if she’d consent to be interviewed for this article on dreams. In her work Dr. Barry takes careful note of the physiologists who try to find a biological basis for dreaming, but her primary concern is the interpretation of dreams.

Though she is very busy with a full-time practice, her teaching, and her family, Dr. Barry agreed to talk with me. It sounds like fun, she said. She recommended some reading to me, including Freud’s On Dreams, the short version of his crucial Interpretation of Dreams. I assured her I had read On Dreams and was now plowing through the original.

That night I dreamed I was on a college campus having a good time. I suddenly observed a couple of classmates studying. Oh dear, I realized, I’ve not registered for classes. I rushed to the registrar, who in my dream I recognized as the registrar of the college I had actually attended many years before.

(The next morning I realized that the registrar was in fact Elizabeth Jacob, the intake worker at the Institute for Psychoanalysis who interviewed me when I went there in search of an analyst many years ago.)

When the registrar showed me the courses I would need to take, I was bewildered. It was all Greek to me, especially the course in “Vedula,” a subject I’d never heard of. (There is no such word, but it is close to Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy to which I was exposed recently without much enthusiasm. Knowing how things get distorted in dreams, I figured that was what Vedula referred to.) It was all too much for me. I fled the campus. End of dream.

When I awoke and recalled the dream, I laughed out loud. I had dreamed about my anxiety over setting out to write this article. It was, I decided, a simple dream of wish fulfillment, which Freud said all dreams are, though this one seemed to have nothing to do with Freud’s theory that dreams express our infantile sexual wishes. What happened, I figured, was that my unconscious had protested: “I don’t want to go back to school to study this arcane subject. I don’t want to read any psychiatric tomes. And I certainly don’t want to get involved with psychoanalysis again. I was through with that stuff years ago. Sure, dreams are fascinating riddles, but I don’t want to get that involved in the subject. Why did I ever commit myself to this article? I want to flee.”

So in my dream, I fled.

When Dr. Barry arrived at my house on Saturday morning, I told her about my dream. She is, by the way, a stylish, slender, dramatically handsome woman in her 40s who’d chosen black pants, a boxy black sweater, black boots, and long dangling silver earrings for this casual weekend visit. Two narrow swatches of gray on either side of the centered part in her very dark brown, straight hair added a dramatic, sophisticated look. She is, not unexpectedly, very soft-spoken and a little shy.

She said she had detected no feelings of anxiety during our phone conversation. Vedula might be a disguise for Virginia, her first name, she suggested, and perhaps I had been feeling anxious about interviewing a psychoanalyst. She added that it was much more likely that the dream drew on the day before than a day weeks ago when I encountered Vedanta philosophy. “Of course,” I responded. “I certainly did wonder how I would feel in this situation.”

Barry went on to say, “If we were to dig more deeply, we might find that the anxiety in this dream is more deep-seated than just about this one article.” Yes, I thought, and this is what made me anxious about talking to a psychoanalyst. I was perfectly content with what might be a superficial interpretation of my dream. It told me quite enough about what was going on in my head. Like most people, I’m content to let sleeping dogs lie.

But the riddle of dreams fascinated me. Why and how do dreams occur? How do they differ in individuals? What do they mean for our waking lives? Where do they fit into our personalities? It has always seemed to me that dreams are the most creative aspects of our lives. The literature on sleep observes that over a normal lifespan of 70 years we will sleep about 23 years and dream between 5 and 6 of them.

Since the beginning of history, the dream has been an image of writers and poets. Aristophanes wrote in The Birds, “Mankind, fleet of life, like tree leaves, weak creatures of clay, unsubstantial as shadows, wingless, ephemeral, wretched, mortal, and dreamlike.” In the Bible, God appears regularly in dreams to warn, to prophesy, to reward. One of the most famous biblical images finds Jacob dreaming of a ladder to heaven. “And behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

And through the ages philosophers have tried to explain and interpret dreams. Most of the ancients believed they were divinely inspired. The mother of the Roman emperor Augustus dreamed she would be impregnated by a deity transformed into a snake. Aristotle, differing from his peers, said that dreams were the continuation of thinking in sleep.

In the second century AD, a Greek soothsayer, Artemidorus Daldiamus, compiled four volumes of commentary on earlier writings that he called Interpretation of Dreams. He believed that dreams were to be understood by the words a knowledgeable interpreter, not the dreamer, associated with the dream (as a priest might interpret a vision), and that dreams held great meaning. (Freud later used the same technique of word association to interpret dreams, but now the interpreter became the dreamer, guided by Freud.)

Artemidorus tells of a dream of Alexander the Great. “When the latter held Tyros encompassed and in a state of siege, and was angry and depressed over the great waste of time, he dreamed he saw a Satyr dancing on his shield.” A dream interpreter who happened to be with Alexander at the time examined the dream and “induced the king to become more aggressive in the siege. And thus Alexander became the master of the city,” said Artemidorus.

In the l8th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant developed a theory of the nightmare. Kant believed that nightmares occurred because of a circulatory constriction. He asked, “Are not these monstrous dreams intended as a stimulus to rouse the sentient principle in us, that we might alter the position of the body, and by that means avoid the approaching danger?”

Kant wasn’t alone. Many early philosophers and physicians believed that dreams arose from physical discomforts or threats to the body. In the second century AD, Galen, called the father of experimental physiology, believed that nightmares resulted from gastric disturbances. Over the years, remedies for nightmares have included shaving the head, bleeding the ankle, wild carrots, Macedonian parsley, the black seeds of the male peony, and a variety of mild and not so mild herbal concoctions and drugs.

In his l931 book On the Nightmare, Ernest Jones, a colleague of Freud’s, listed and dismissed various physical causes once thought to be the source of nightmares: “The condition is due to a collection of lymph in the fourth ventricle of the brain . . . incongruous matter from the blood mixes with the nervous fluid in the cerebellum . . . an affection of the anterior column of the spinal marrow and the nerves arising therefrom . . . a distemper caused by undigested humours stopping the passage of animal spirits, so that the body cannot move . . . poisonous gases or miasmata . . . It occurs at certain phases of the moon.”

In the l9th century, some thinkers began to view dreams as what came to be called psychological. Friedrich Nietzsche said that in dreams “there persists a primordial part of humanity which we can no longer reach by a direct path. . . . In our sleep and in our dreams we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity.” Anticipating Freud, Nietzsche wrote, “To a certain extent the dream is a restorative for the brain, which during the day is called up to meet the severe demand for trained thought, made by the conditions of a higher civilization.”

To Freud, a dream was “the mark of the heart,” “the guardian of sleep,” a “psychic act full of import.” The dream, Freud said, “is not comparable to the irregular sounds of a musical instrument, which, instead of being played by the hand of the musician, is struck by some external force; the dream is not meaningless, not absurd, does not presuppose that one part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to wake. It is a perfectly valid psychic phenomenon, actually a wish fulfillment; it may be enrolled in the continuity of the intelligible psychic activities of the waking state; it is built up by a highly complicated intellectual activity.”

That “primordial part of humanity which we can no longer reach by a direct path” Freud identified as infantile sexuality. It was a hardly imaginable, in fact highly repugnant concept to Freud’s contemporaries (Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900), although he tried to make it clear that by sexuality he meant all the feelings that surround physical sex, such as love and tenderness. Freud came to believe, as a result of analyzing his own dreams and those of his patients, that “dreaming is a fragment of the superseded psychic life of the child.”

Freud said, “There is no theoretical necessity why this should be so; but to explain the fact, it may be pointed out that no other group of instincts has been submitted to such far-reaching suppression by the demands of cultural education, while at the same time the sexual instincts are also the ones which, in most people, find it easiest to escape from the control of the highest mental agencies. Since we have become acquainted with infantile sexuality, which is so unobtrusive in its manifestations and is always overlooked and misunderstood, we are justified in saying that almost every civilized man retains the infantile forms of sexual life in some respect or other. We can thus understand how it is that repressed infantile sexual wishes provide the most frequent and strongest motive for the construction of dreams.”

But of course the actual sexual wishes do not take the shape of physical exchanges in dreams. Freud added, “There is only one method by which a dream which expresses erotic wishes can succeed in appearing innocently nonsexual. . . . The material of the sexual ideas must not be represented as such, but must be replaced in the context of the dream by hints, allusions, and similar forms of indirect representations. . . . The modes of representation which fulfill these conditions are usually described as ‘symbols’ of the things they represent . . . There are some symbols which bear a single meaning almost universally: thus the . . . King and Queen stand for the parents, rooms represent women and their entrances and exits the openings of the body. The majority of dream symbols serve to represent persons, parts of the body and activities invested with erotic interest; in particular, the genitals are represented by a number of often very surprising symbols, and the greatest variety of objects are employed to denote them symbolically. Sharp weapons, long and stiff objects such as tree trunks and sticks, stand for the male genitals, while cupboards, boxes, carriages, or ovens may represent the uterus . . . a staircase or going upstairs [represents] sexual intercourse, a tie or cravat . . . the male organ, or wood . . . the female one. . . . Newly discovered objects (such as airships) are . . . at once adopted as universally available sexual symbols. . . . [These symbols] provoke unbelief until we can arrive at an understanding of the symbolic relation underlying them.

“Dream symbolism extends far beyond dreams: it is not peculiar to dreams, but exercises a dominating influence on representation in fairy tales, myths, legends, in jokes and folklore. It enables us to trace the intimate connections between dreams and those latter productions. We must not suppose that dream symbolism is a creation of the dream work; it is in all probability a characteristic of the unconscious thinking which provides the dream with [its] material.”

Dream symbolism was hardly new with Freud. In ancient times, the bird, the fish, the bull, the goat, the ram, the donkey, and the snake were all viewed as phallic or sexual symbols. And Artemidorus anticipated Freud by 800 years in viewing rooms seen in dreams as stand-ins for women’s bodies. However, in Victorian times the resistance to such knowledge was so great that it led the German translator of Artemidorus to delete his chapter on sexual symbolism.

To Freud, the dream revealed something about not only the individual but all humanity. Nietzsche had written: “The dream carries us back into earlier states of human culture, and affords us a means of understanding it better. The dream thought is so easy to us now, because we are so thoroughly trained to it through the interminable stages of evolution during which this phantastic and facile form of theorizing has prevailed.” Now Freud said: “Beyond the childhood of the individual we are . . . promised an insight into the phylogenetic childhood, into the evolution of the human race, of which the individual is only an abridged repetition influenced by the fortuitous circumstances of life. . . . We are encouraged to expect, from the analysis of dreams, a knowlege of psychical things in him that are innate.”

Carl Jung would expand this thesis to say that dreams incorporate all the sexual mythology of the human race, that there is in all of us a collective unconscious in which stirs the “primordial part of humanity.” Jung not only accepted Freud’s system of symbols but greatly expanded it: “When an idea [such as dream symbolism] is so old, and is so generally believed, it is probably true in some way, and indeed, as is mostly the case, is not literally true, but is psychologically true [Jung’s emphasis]. . . . From our experience, it is hardly conceivable that a God existing outside ourselves causes dreams, or that the dream, eo ipso, foresees the future prophetically. When we translate this into the psychologic, however, then the ancient theories sound more reconcilable, namely the dream arises from a part of the mind unknown to us, but none the less important, and is concerned with the desires for the approaching day.”

Jung saw dreams as compensation for or substitutes for reality. One dreams, Jung believed, usually in a highly disguised form, of one’s unfulfilled hopes to do something, be somewhere, have someone. But as often as not these wishes are in the unconscious, unknown to us in our waking lives. The core wish, in Jung’s view, is for independence, a wish that reveals the struggle in the psyche between the desire to retain the irresponsibility of childhood and the desire to assume the responsibilities appropriate to one’s age.

That both Jung and Freud saw the dream as a crucial experience in human life, a “psychic act full of import,” is surely more important than their differences.

Although over the years other areas of psychological theory have been massively revised, James L. Fossage could write in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, in 1983, “The theory of dreams has changed the least.”

But in recent years Virginia Barry and others have moved beyond Freud and Jung. Barry told me, “Freud believed that there were always infantile wishes that were trying to get out, trying to find gratification. His idea was that the dream was part of that process. At night, these infantile wishes that are putting a lot of pressure on the individual find a safe outlet in dreams.

“That’s not the only way we conceive dreaming today. It was a very original theory, but it doesn’t process many other ways in which dreams operate. Freud’s greatest contribution was the idea of a dynamic unconscious, by which he meant that much of what motivates a person’s actions and life is outside his consciousness. But he saw the unconscious as a seething, disorganized, tempestuous process that never changed, that your ego was always trying to squelch. That idea has changed a lot. Some of us now believe that these unconscious processes are much more directed to maintaining the integrity of the self. In this sense, the unconscious is not static. It is always developing.

“Dreams can be wish fulfillments relating to infantile sexuality, but more often they are active participants in one’s struggle to maintain psychological equilibrium. Where we part company with Freud’s original ideas,” Barry said, “is in the theory of motivation. Freud believed that we are driven by libido, whereas many of us today talk about the dream’s attempts to regulate and organize the experience of our waking selves, including our unconscious reactions to our past histories and our present dilemmas. Dreams give expression to the innate reactions such as fear, anger, joy, surprise, and so on, to our feelings such as sadness or fatigue, to our need to make sense of the world, our need to survive.”

The psychologist Erik Erikson said in a trailblazing 1954 article in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association: “Dreams . . . not only fulfill naked wishes of sexual license, of unlimited dominance and of unrestricted destructiveness; where they work, they also lift the dreamer’s isolation, appease his conscience, and preserve his identity, each in specific and instructive ways.”

Barry explained, “The brain categorizes our experience and our feelings in order to cope with the inner and outer world. We categorize by how things look, smell, taste, sound, and how they make us feel. Of course, it’s all happening at once–sort of parallel processing. Sometimes when you tap into one aspect of an experience, you can conjure up the rest of it. You might say that mental health is defined by the creativity with which we create new categories by which we define our lives. That’s what poetry is all about–metaphor. In poetry, the sound of a word may elicit certain responses that go beyond the lexigraphical meaning. Or a metaphor will allow a much broader experience to be expressed. That’s essentially the way our brains work to make sense of the world and our experiences. That motivation is broader than sexual drive, although sensual-sexual experiences are among the categories we create.”

Dreaming, Barry continued, is the process that helps us to integrate and regulate the emotional responses of our waking lives. “At night,” she explained, “when you no longer have to deal with the world, you process the experiences of the day that have been threatening to your equilibrium or have stirred up conflicts that have not been resolved and continue to upset your equilibrium. The dream tries to express it and integrate it.” In a sense, Barry agrees with Aristotle that dreams are a continuation of thinking during sleep, although “dreams are a special, creative kind of thinking not normally found in people while they are awake. Artists, however, often have access to this kind of thinking while they are awake.”

James Fossage wrote in 1983, “[In dreams] the processing of information is not as limited by the rules of logic and social acceptability which constrain the output of our waking state. Within an information-processing paradigm, dreaming is viewed as a creative act in which problem solving is facilitated by the availability of psychological elements and a greater flexibility and means of combining these elements.”

Barry provided the example of a man whose family suppressed all expressions of anger. But “anger is a natural feeling, one we are born with,” she said, “and it must be somehow expressed. So let’s say that man is waiting for a subway train. He’s late. He’s eager to get home. The train comes, but the door closes before he can get on. He feels somehow amiss, but even before he can feel it, he has suppressed his anger. That state he is in, in which he is near to feeling anger, threatens his equilibrium. He is nervous and overwrought. So in his dreams that night he somehow expresses that anger. This is, of course, a very simple example and things are rarely that simple, but it can serve to illustrate.

“Freud said that the dream expressed the infantile wish,” Barry went on. “I believe, with lots of others, that the dream can express wishes that are unacceptable to the waking self, be it that they cause guilt, anxiety, or other negatively toned feelings. It may be an infantile wish, but it is also likely to be one of many different wishes that we can’t permit ourselves to express in our waking life.”

Barry described a dream in which a woman saw herself in front of a seemingly impregnable wall. “Somehow–dreams often present impossible, absurd, or illogical phenomena–she passed through the wall, but felt fearful that she wouldn’t be able to return to the other side. On investigation, to the woman’s surprise, her associations led her to recognize her anxiety about an impending confrontation with a friend. She would have to tell her off but had no idea of what she might say or how she would handle it, and had unconsciously feared that the confrontation would lead to the end of the friendship. This dream, in disguised form, represented her wish to have her dilemma solved, to have the encounter over with. The dream metaphorically gave visual form to the emotional encounter.”

Barry said this woman told her that “as she became aware of how anxious she was about this encounter, and was able to tie the anxiety to painful confrontations from her childhood, she felt much better about the encounter, as if she could now go through with it. This dream enabled her to anticipate this encounter with reasonable confidence because it helped her to integrate it into the rest of her emotional life and understand the formidable anxiety as the legacy of her past and not the current danger that she had thought it was.”

Barry offered this dream as an example of a dream’s power to foresee. “Dreams give visual form to ideas which have not been accessible to consciousness and therefore seem to predict the future when, in fact, these ideas have been taking shape in our hidden selves without our awareness. In that woman’s dream about penetrating that wall, she was, in effect, predicting that she would solve her dilemma.”

The night I finished writing the first section of this article, I dreamed I was in a Model T Ford with my first lover. He had returned to me because (in my dream) his wife was deathly ill–beyond hope. We were driving along a road and came to a railroad track. A huge black locomotive, vintage l900, was coming down the track toward us. My friend drove out into the path of the train. In the next episode we were in a motel room. Our clothes were tattered and torn. Our bodies were badly bruised, but we had survived the collision.

“Oh Christ,” I said to myself, “another anxiety dream about this article! A lot more complex and disguised than the first, but clearly of the same order.” In the dream, I decided, Virginia Barry, disguised as a man, had come to me from her sick patients, who were disguised as the man’s sick wife. We were going along this road, putting this article together in which we were taking on that huge locomotive of a figure, Sigmund Freud. The collision left us battered and torn. One doesn’t take on Freud easily. At least, I don’t. But we survived and would go on.

When I told Dr. Barry about this dream at our next meeting, she laughed. “I can just hear the dogmatists saying, ‘Doesn’t she know that’s an obvious sexual dream?’ A dogmatist might impose on this dream an oedipal interpretation in which you won the conflict with your mother for your father’s affection that occurred when you were a small child and was repressed, but has come forth again in this dream. Your mother is very ill–dead–and your father has left her for you. The locomotive symbolizes a powerful sexual experience. You had a helluva time with your father but you emerged all right together. That would be an arbitrary interpretation that didn’t take into account the individual who made the dream. Dreams must always be interpreted within the context of a person’s life. We have to look at this dream and ask why you had it at this time.”

Barry said she thought my own interpretation was on the mark, but that the dream might also express some more personal conflict, perhaps a relationship with a man. I told her that I’d assumed dreams had but one theme.

No, said Barry. One dream might meld several matters. It’s a process, noted and called condensation by Freud, in which one person or place or event, which perhaps has bedeviled us for years, is replaced by another in the dream, sometimes because the original is too painful to face directly. Barry offered the simple illustration of a person who carries around in his head an image of a highly critical parent and in whose dream the harsh critic is a boss. Or just as likely, the parent and boss condense into someone entirely new.

Barry also wondered if I had not had this dream expressly to provide material for the article. She referred to Erik Erikson’s reanalysis of Freud’s “Irma” dream–which Freud had interpreted as a fulfillment of several of his wishes, including the wish to be relieved of responsibility for having failed his patient Irma. Fifty years after Freud’s exhaustive analysis of “Irma” in Interpretation of Dreams, Erikson transformed Freud’s theories about it, introducing new ideas that set the stage for Barry and her colleagues.

Erikson suggested that Freud had been cogitating over the dreams of his patients for some time without being able to make much sense of them. Then he had his own dream. Working it over and over, Freud created the basis for his dream theory. To Erikson, much of what happened in the “Irma” dream related to Freud’s attempts to solve the problems he was working on, and to his concerns about his career. He had had that dream precisely in order to analyze it, to gain material with which to further his work, Erikson said.

I thought it exceedingly generous of Barry to put me in Freud’s company, but the suggestion that I had had this dream for the purposes of the article did seem apt. After all, a dream had provided me with a wonderful example to start out with. Now I had dreamed another dream about the article. More ammunition!

Barry also wondered if the locomotive represented a sense of great power and pleasure that I might have felt the day before. Did you have such feelings? she asked. Indeed I did; I had just finished the first section of the article. I didn’t feel quite as powerful as a speeding locomotive, but dreams tend to exaggerate.

I asked Barry why dreams so often come in disguise. Freud said disguises are necessary because dreams so often return us to the forbidden. Dreams, said Barry, “are about the things we don’t want to think about, perhaps can’t bear to think about.” I could not have consciously admitted that I was shrinking from doing this article. The man who could only express anger in his dreams would not have welcomed anger in undisguised form. A symbolic expression of his wrath would protect him from further disturbance of his equilibrium. A dream is, in Freud’s words, “a guardian of sleep.”

One of Barry’s patients dreamed that she was in a room with a woman who asked her to kill her. She did. She woke up distraught and frightened. When analyzed, the dream turned out to dramatize the woman’s fear that she would “kill” Barry by unloading on her all her problems. She was filled with guilt over some not quite conscious feeling that she was endangering her analyst.

Barry said that disguises can also make the process of organization and integration more efficient. She returned to my locomotive dream to illustrate. “Since dreams usually have a variety of feelings in them besides those associated with the main theme, let us assume here that working with me has evoked feelings that go back to working with your analyst, exploring new material and that sort of thing, just as you’re doing with me now. But your experience with psychoanalysts is all with men. Your making me a man made the visual image of an analyst much clearer. It was not so much that it was me you were working with as it was that you were working with an analyst. So, in the dream the analyst becomes a man. It puts it in the realm of your past experience. You had one category of experience during the day, of writing this article but not fully understanding your feelings about it. At night, you search out another category, that of your own analysis, and integrate the two to come up with a figure you are familiar with but which fits into your current situation and therefore helps you to integrate the whole experience of writing the article.”

That most of us believe dreams can serve the purpose of ordering our psychological lives is evidenced by the common expression, “I’ll sleep on it.” And, indeed, we sometimes awaken so eager to get on with the day it’s as if we have undergone some process of rejuvenation. We might even find ourselves with the solution to a problem that has been plaguing us. Probably the most extraordinary example of this is the experience of Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, a 19th-century chemist. He dreamed of snakes intertwined in a circle and awoke visualizing the atomic structure that came to be known as the benzene ring.

The clarity we attribute to a good night’s sleep might more accurately be credited to a good night’s dreams. Dreams can solve problems, Barry said, because we bring to them aspects of our beings that we are cut off from in our waking lives. “We have to be logically organized during our waking hours and we are much more focused outwardly than inwardly. Unless you’re an artist, you don’t have as much access to the other modes of thought that are available to you. But they are available in dreams and contribute to that problem solving.”

James Fossage pointed out that “the facts [are] well established in the sleep laboratory that sleep and dream deprivation produce psychological disturbances and disorganization and that sleep and dreaming are rehabilitative.”

But some dreams seem less than helpful. These are the dreams that Shakespeare referred to in Richard III:

So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams,

That, as I am a Christian faithful man,

I would not spend another such a night,

Though ’twere to buy a world of happy days.

(Yet observe how Shakespeare recognized the positive power even of nightmares.)

These, said Barry, are anxiety dreams, called nightmares at their most extreme, sometimes creating anxiety so intense that we awake to escape it. More often, Barry said, we sleep through such dreams, fearful as they are, but may awake feeling fitful, depressed, dismayed.

A friend arrived at my house early one morning to talk about a project. As he came up the stairs, he groaned and said, “I’m dead tired. I fought the wars all night.” He didn’t recall the dream, but he knew that he had felt restless, angry, even violent. My friend had had a very unpleasant encounter at work the afternoon before. On his way home he tried to make sense of it, and in the process wondered if he should make some fundamental changes in his life. But he was 60 years old!

When he got home, he talked it over with his wife. She said, “Go for it.” He laughed. It suddenly seemed so simple. He would go into the office in the morning and make some announcements. He would go for it. Yet that night he fought the wars.

“It all seems fairly obvious,” said Barry. “For a man of 60, making any drastic changes in his life would probably alter many of his conceptions of himself, his role in the world, and perhaps his future. It seemed the night before when he’d made his decision that he could just do these things, but it seems obvious to me that just contemplating such changes put him at war with his unconscious. But like some wars actually do solve problems, the war he fought that night did help him to resolve his conflicts, because he came to you the next day to announce he was going to do the things he had planned the night before. So you can see that even a nightmarish night of dreams can be problem solving.”

This friend of mine, like most of us, couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed. “This process that occurs in dreams is a psychobiological function that occurs whether one remembers one’s dreams or not,” Barry told me.

More than anything else, dreams resemble films, usually abstract films of the Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger variety or films like Last Year at Marienbad. One question about dreams that has always puzzled me is why they are always visual, why they so much resemble silent films. Conversation in dreams is usually very brief and truncated. I put the question to Barry. She stared off into space a moment and then said, “Well, it probably has something to do with the way the brain processes it, the use of the visual-perceptive parts of the brain, but the truth is, there is no definitive answer yet. On the other hand, a picture is worth a thousand words, and for a psychoanalyst this is the crucial matter.”

Barry went on to say, “Not everything we are is verbal. A lot of the way we experience the world is in a nonverbal way, a physical way. We smell, taste, feel, see. And everything we encounter is experienced on all those different levels, in addition to the emotional level. All of those experiences take place in different parts of the brain and then they are integrated, in ways we don’t fully understand. But one of those systems can dominate at any one point or another, and for dreams the visual dominates, though people can wake up with a taste or a smell from a dream, too. However, the visual image is most common. That probably has to do with vision being so crucial to our survival.

“You might say dreams have to do with our survival instincts. At night, we are trying to process the information learned during the day, in the interests of survival. Some animal studies indicate that dreams in animals are related to survival, like exploratory behavior in rats. It is believed that evolution has created this process of dealing with the issues of the day at night so that we have some long-term memory of what happened.”

Barry offered another reason why dreams may be visual. She referred to psychologist Daniel Stern’s observation of the price a child pays on reaching the verbal stage. “Once you use a word to define an experience,” Barry said, “you lose so much, because a word has a very narrow reference while a visual image has much broader references. Once you have language–and it’s wonderful to be able to communicate with people so much more effectively–you lose a lot of experience. Dreams give it back to you and restore that preverbal access to experience.”

Barry recalled a patient who told her she remembered learning to read in kindergarten and having the feeling “‘that I’ll never be able to not read again.’ Once you cross that line, you can’t go back, except in poetry, which kind of bridges the gap and allows you to expand on words, and in dreams, of course.”

Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory is a recollection of reading that the invention of the film began with a dream. Milos Stehlik, executive director of Facets Multimedia, has a similar recollection, although he has no idea what or whom he was reading. He reminded me that the early German expressionist and French surrealist films were avowedly based on dreams. “Expressionism in Germany and surrealism in France were the first to be specifically concerned with dreams and psychoanalysis and with the idea that film could tap into the unconscious,” he said.

Stehlik quoted film historian Lotte Eisner as observing in The Haunted Screen that film can capture the “romantic anguish, dream states, and those hazy imaginings which shade so easily into the depths of that fragment of space–outside of–time” and also the “precise image of the schizoid nature of all dreams.” Certainly such early films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Last Laugh can claim these accomplishments, as can, for instance, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. They were designed to look like dreams and to stimulate the viewer to make associations beyond the film itself.

In the recent novel Murther and Walking Spirits, Robertson Davies’s protagonist talks about the work of his favorite film directors: “When I went into a movie house to see something made by one of these great men, I felt that the half-darkness, the tunnel-like auditorium, spoke of that world of phantasmagoric and dream grotto of which I was aware as a part of my own life, which I could touch only in dreams or waking reverie. But film could open the door to it, for me; film therefore had a place in my life that I had never tried to define, for fear that too much definition might injure the dream.”

“In a darkened movie house,” Barry told me, “you are forced to watch the film in a certain way, in a way that the director almost demands of you. He controls the feelings you have by manipulating the way in which the scenes are presented to you. One watches one’s dreams in a very similar way, but this time it is the unconscious that is the director.”

Do dreams follow the logic of film? I asked Barry. “That depends on how you look at it,” she said. “If you take a person who is at the end of an analysis and has been analyzing his dreams for a long time, his dreams will probably be very clear, very logical, very organized, as opposed to early in the analysis when they are much less clear and logical. But the bigger question is, what kind of logic are you talking about? You can take a series of dreams in one night and see that the person, with each dream, is struggling with the same question, each time in a different way. There is a logic in that, too, but not necessarily one you’d recognize.”

The logic of dreams can be recognized, said Barry, once meaning is teased out of what may appear to be random, disorganized images. When what Freud called the latent content–the unconscious thoughts and feelings–is disentangled from the manifest content–what appears in the dream–a logical picture can emerge.

As if to contradict everything I’ve said so far about disguise and dissimulation, I had another dream the night after my second conversation with Barry in which all the characters were quite real and the action seemed hardly disguised at all. Here were Dr. Barry and Dr. Freud, with me somewhere on the sidelines. But I only remember fragments. There was no beginning, no middle, and no end, but there was a plot of sorts: clearly occurring was a battle of wits between the two main characters. It was as if Freud had come back to life to defend his position that dreams are wish fulfillments of infantile sexual desires against this upstart who insists that dreams are vehicles for psychological integration.

At one point, Barry was hit on the head with an orange. (I had eaten an orange just before going to sleep.) There was a cupboard (A woman’s body? Mine? Or was I hiding in the cupboard from the melee?) and the two were offering me their dreams as evidence that they were right about their own theories. (Freud’s dream analysis was based mostly on his own dreams. Barry had said, “Perhaps I’ll have a dream of my own for this story,” but her unconscious never obliged us.)

Throughout the dream, it seemed, my unconscious prodded me to wake up and write it down. But I wanted to stay asleep and go on dreaming. I might have been enjoying the battle. When I finally awoke, the dream felt like a continuation of the locomotive dream, but here the two protagonists had shed their disguises and come out swinging.

When I began to word associate, however, I realized that this dream might not have been about the article at all. The word “fight” returned me to the fierce verbal battles between my father and mother that had haunted my childhood. Could Freud and Barry be stand-ins for my battling parents?

Barry had asked me, “Didn’t you accept the classical interpretation of dreams when you were younger, in your own analysis?” I’d said I hadn’t. I remembered my resistance to the whole of Freudian psychology. It hadn’t, I told her, meant much to what I was struggling with in my own life. I had had a long battle of wits with my analyst and with friends over Freud’s ideas, during which I quoted others with opposing views–Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Carl Jung. Now Barry suggested that this last dream of mine might also relate to that old battle, which I’d long forgotten.

“Perhaps,” she suggested, “one of your motives for writing the article goes back to those early arguments you had.” Perhaps, she suggested, I now had the opportunity to vindicate myself, to set the record straight. After all, the ideas I was arguing for all those years ago were very much like those described by Barry and the authorities she’d sent me to read.

In l950, the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, one of my idols of the period, wrote, “[Dreams] represent attempts to solve our conflicts, either in a neurotic or healthy way. . . . In them, constructive forces can be at work, even at a time when they are hardly visible otherwise. . . . There are dreams which reveal a deep well of sadness; of nostalgia; of longing; dreams in which he is struggling to come alive; dreams in which he realizes that he is imprisoned and wants to get out; dreams in which he tenderly cultivates a growing plant or in which he discovers a room in his house of which he did not know before.”

The idea that I might have been motivated to write this article by a wish to vindicate myself in an old intellectual argument was entirely unknown to my conscious self. I’d never consciously use journalism to refight an old battle, but perhaps my unconscious goes by different rules. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d caught myself responding to what I’d thought were long-dead attitudes or feelings. In any case–whether I was conscious of it or not–the fact is that’s exactly what I’ve done.

So the disguises and the themes in this one slightly muddled, very brief dream that I could hardly remember turned out to be multiple. Not only were my mother and father fighting, with Freud and Barry taking their roles, but I was observing a battle of wits between Barry and Freud. And here was another symbol, I decided. Barry was probably standing in for me.

Even my very bold unconscious wouldn’t pit me directly against that intellectual locomotive, Freud. I might argue with friends, even with my analyst, about Freud’s ideas. But take him on directly? Not on your life. Only with someone fronting for me. Thank you, Dr. Barry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.