The Dream Underlying All Dreams

Some people see Christopher Bollas as one of the two most important living theoreticians in the world of psychoanalysis, the other being Thomas Ogden. While Ogden is the good soldier, systematic and conservative, Bolas is a comet - and during the past two decades he has carried the banner of the "return" to Sigmund Freud.

Bollas speaks of the unconscious as a kind of wisdom imprinted in the human race, which leads us in everything, and manifests itself in every encounter between humans, especially between therapist and patient in psychoanalysis.

In his most recent book, "The Evocative Object World" (2009), Bollas returns to Freud's basic contention that every dream has at its base an unconscious wish. Bollas argues that Freud was incorrect in attributing excessive weight to the mental content of the dream, and in so doing, thereby missed a greater truth. The dream, according to Bollas, is not the expression of a wish but rather the fulfillment of one, the wish of the unconscious to be dreamt. Bollas says dreams are an expression of a primary need to work through the unconscious aspects of our lives and to enable access to another kind of wisdom, dream wisdom, which is also the wisdom of the unconscious that accompanies our lives.

Christopher Bollas was born in California in the mid-1940s to a father of French origins, and grew up in an agricultural town on the coast. In his youth he spent a lot of time at the beach with friends, and during school vacations he sometimes worked as a lifeguard's helper.

A childhood memory he described in an interview he gave in 1995 exemplifies the influence of the unconscious on our lives. One day when he was about 11, as he was swimming in the Pacific Ocean, he suddenly saw a gray California whale swimming in his direction. This encounter left a strong impression on him, and a deep affection for whales, which he felt had been merciful toward him. Bollas has often presented this memory as an example of the way experiences reverberate in our unconscious and affect our future actions: When he was studying for his doctorate in literature, the main topic with which he engaged was the work of Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick." He became aware of this connection only years after finishing his dissertation.

In the 1960s, Bollas studied history at the University of California, Berkeley, and focused on the village life in 17th-century New England. His desire to understand the Puritan soul eventually led to a more general interest in and concentrated study of psychoanalysis. This interest increased in the wake of a period of personal distress and led him to undergo analysis for the first time.

When he chose to continue to a doctorate in literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he also arranged to have a kind of special niche created for him in the psychiatry department, by which he was able to go on to develop his clinical skills alongside his literary studies.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Bollas chose to focus on psychoanalysis, and in 1973 left for the United Kingdom to begin his training. In London he worked at the Tavistock Clinic, where all the leading British analysts were concentrated at the time. It is customary to include Bollas in the "independent group" in British psychology, who stressed creativity and playfulness in the self's search for truth, a group founded by Winnicott.

After completing his training in London, Bollas developed fruitful working relationships with the psychoanalytic societies of Sweden and France. In recent years, he has been living on an isolated ranch in North Dakota, near the Canadian border, an area covered with snow six months of the year. He does not accept new patients and treats his long-standing ones in conversations on Skype. He frequently travels abroad to lecture, instruct and write. During the coming year a Christopher Bollas reader will be published both in English and in Hebrew.

Revealing 1,000 words

"I think analysts have less time for the dream particularly as decoded by Freud. As you know, for the most part Freud regarded the dream as a rebus, a picture that would reveal 1,000 words. To deconstruct a dream according to Freud's technique takes a lot of time," writes Bollas in an e-mail interview with Haaretz.

"Contemporary analysts tend toward the object relational interpretation of dreams, which really is to work with the manifest content (the theater of the dream) as a portrayal of conflict. I think this is also, now, how dreams are regarded in culture at large, and very few people actually know how Freud worked with dreams."

In "The Freudian Moment," you write of the unique way in which Freud realized something that was important for all people. What is that?

Bollas: "Since the beginning of our species, we have been dreaming. As importantly, we have needed to tell our dreams to others, sometimes to very important people: to religious functionaries delegated to interpret the dreams, or to shamans and so forth. Freud understood this ancient need and he created psychoanalysis as the formal space in which a phylogenetic (the evolutionary logic and development of the species) need could be realized.

Freud understood intuitively - and this was ironically enough achieved in his self-analysis, with no one there to interpret him other than himself! - that our dreams needed to be spoken to the other. Psychoanalysis formalized that need, made it into an everyday event, and something [that was] looked forward to unconsciously by the species was realized."

So psychoanalysis is the realization of a phylogenetic longing?

"Yes. And this is why many people have felt it has been so necessary to be in analysis because to be there is to realize a human need that Freud sensed."

What is the nature or origin of the drive to share your dreams with others? How do you understand this drive and its origins?

"My speculation is that in the beginning of the species, the dream was understood as an essential form of perception and that it was vital to survival to tell the dream in order to engage in certain actions to preserve the self and others. Such an action might be a religious one, a change in hunting plans, a move to avoid weather, and so on and so forth. Although the purpose of telling the dreams may have changed, the need to tell them remains, and psychoanalysis is the first formal development of a psychology built around the telling of the dream."

In what way, if at all, do you think that dreams in our time retained their prophetic value?

"To the extent that dreams are forms of unconscious perception, then almost certainly they contain intuitions about the future based upon the self's perceptions during the day."

Making the unconscious conscious

You focus a lot in your work - in "Being A Character" and "Cracking Up" - on the creativity of dreams. In "The Mystery of Things," you argue that the real work of analysis is like the dream work, as if the aim of analysis is less to make unconscious things conscious and more to expand the unconscious mind.

"I think the understanding of the meaning of a dream, symptom, character problem, or relational difficulty is important. But we are fundamentally unconscious beings. And although psychoanalysis has found a way to make some of our unconscious issues conscious, it has done more than that: It has developed a way to expand our unconscious abilities. A feature of the realization of the phylogenetic search we have discussed is the epiphanic effect on the analysand's unconscious of the fulfillment of this dream - the dream underlying all dreams - that there would be an actual human other wishing to hear them, interested in them, not in order to transform them into meaning, but almost like a musical action, to hear them out of an immanent unconscious appreciation of the dream world which we all share."

How does being listened to expand one's unconscious, and can we train ourselves to dream "more"?

"Think of it this way. If you talk to someone and never get a reply, then after a while you will lose the wish to talk and even the material that one could bring to discourse. But if talking is of interest to the other, then this not only satisfies the wish to speak but is also read by the self's unconscious as a route for expression of unconscious interests."

It seems that you point to the existence of a collective world of dreams. Does this collective have generational or familial characteristics?

"I am not sure I know what you mean by a collective world of dreams. Certainly, as dreams are our most valued objectifications of unconscious perception, then almost certainly they contain perceptions communicated from prior generations, sustained in cultural objects."

You have given a lecture on "The Wisdom of the Dream," which we understand will be in The Christopher Bollas Reader to be published in 2011. What is the "wisdom of the dream"?

"Any dream is a collector of the day's meaningful events and that which they evoke. A dream is the most sophisticated form of thought we have and yet it comes to us like an oracle: in the night, by surprise ... In the dream is profound knowledge of the meaning of that day and the days that preceded it. Each dream weaves a tapestry throughout our lives. As psychoanalysis makes it possible to listen to the dream, to communicate to the patient that we are present to receive these communications, consciousness turns to the dream as the fount of a certain form of wisdom. Freud took that relation for granted. In the 21st century when we, the imperialists of consciousness, have banished interest in the unconscious back into the pre-Freudian era, I think it is time to return to Freud in order to go forward."

You have linked this to survival, is that right?

"I think if we do not reconnect with our unconscious - both individually and socially - we are unlikely to survive. So this is not a past time, not even an individual need or accomplishment to have an analysis. It is necessary to the survival of the human race."

So dreams are not, after all, split off from reality?

"No, listening to them, supporting the cultural necessity of psychoanalysis, now is a question of survival."

How does a society reconnect to the unconscious? And why is that a matter of survival? What is the threat we all face? Is it due to aggression? To a danger facing creativity or actual survival?

"By returning to Freud's theory of free association, we then reconnect ourselves with unconscious thinking. Psychoanalysis will then cease to be so mysterious and its practical (practice) dimensions will be more available and easily used. Freud's concept of the logic of sequence is of great value in fathoming unconscious lines of thought that are of value both in greater understanding of unconscious issues and in our communication of unconscious lines of thought to others. Even though language will always be used as a sign system, even though we will always speak in cliches, and even though language will always be a speech-act - Freud's method allows us to discover how even so we can still learn from the other's free associations what their wishes, needs, fears and so forth really are. It is not only a matter of conveying information, but of establishing deep relatedness. It is one reason, for example, why those who have been enemies for a long time - and let us think here of Israel and Palestine - could only resolve their issues if leaders of both factions spent many days or indeed weeks at a retreat actually talking together. Much more could be said about this, but then we move to another topic.