If You Will It, It Must Be a Dream

Great letter-writer that he was, the father of psychoanalysis corresponded with a number of colleagues in pre-state Israel. To one of them, Dr. Yochanan Lewinson, Freud wrote about his preoccupation with the supernatural and telepathy. His letter to Lewinson is published here, for the first time

Eran J. Rolnik
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Eran J. Rolnik

"Many thanks for your generous letter and your book, which I shall read with great interest. I do not know yet whether I shall be able to write about it. That is to say, whether I will feel that I have the necessary skills for the purpose."

Thus Theodor Herzl replied to a request in 1902 from Sigmund Freud that he kindly publish a review of "The Interpretation of Dreams" in his newspaper. Considering the enormous popularity Herzl enjoyed in the final years of his life, a favorable review by him could presumably have had a beneficial impact on the book's reception, at least in the author's hometown of Vienna.

Freud repeatedly complained that his dreams book, first published in 1899, was not being accorded the recognition that it deserved in medical circles. He could take comfort in the fact that, despite psychiatrists' chilly attitude toward his dream theory, "The Interpretation of Dreams" promptly broadened the interest in psychoanalysis beyond academic circles. Artists, literary scholars, folklorists, historians and even jurists - all came knocking on Freud's door seeking to participate in the frenzy of dream interpretation that had grabbed hold of the first generation of psychoanalysts.

Bible and kabbala scholars were among the first to respond to Freud's conclusions, and also to see in his theory a manifestation of his Jewishness. From the time that "The Interpretation of Dreams" appeared, the question of the "Jewish origins" of psychoanalysis was to adhere tenaciously to the coattails of Freud and his successors. Alter Druyanov, folklorist, historian and author of the Hebrew book "Sefer Habediha Vehahidud" ("Book of Jokes and Wit"), wrote to Freud to draw his attention to the affinity between his innovative theory on dreams and the interpretations of dreams in the Talmudic and kabbalistic literature. Freud was of a different opinion: "The remarks in the Talmud on the dream-problem have frequently been brought to my attention. It seems to me, however, that the similarities with the ancient Greek understanding of dreams are far more striking," he wrote back to Druyanov, thereby signaling clearly his preference for universality over the ethnic, Jewish particularity.

Similar to his contemporary Shaul Tchernichovsky, who in his poem "Before a Statue of Apollo" (published the same year as "The Interpretation of Dreams") expressed a wish to participate in the Greek cultural experience and not only in the Jewish one, Freud too went so far as classical Greece in his quest for the ancient layers of human culture, in general, and of infantile sexuality, in particular. Athens and Rome, not Jerusalem, were destined to feed Freud's spiritual and sensual world. It was to them he would make pilgrimages. His study and desk overflowed with hundreds of clay vessels, figurines and statues from ancient Greece, Rome and especially Egypt, on which he spent the better part of his money. He called them "My ancient and dirty gods."

In the late 1920s, the attempts to introduce Freud's theory to the intelligentsia in Palestine began to bear fruit. The experience of the psychoanalytic theory encountering the country's human landscape - the members of the Old Yishuv (the veteran Jewish community in Palestine), the Arab populace, and Jews arriving from various countries of origin - was reflected in the local interpretation given to psychoanalytic theory.

When languages collide

Immanuel Velikovsky was among the first German-speaking psychiatrists working in Palestine to share his clinical experiences with the international community of psychoanalysts. His conclusions regarding the connection between his patients' unconscious and the revival of the Hebrew language appeared in the journal Imago, which was edited by Freud, under the title: "Can a Newly Acquired Language Become the Speech of the Unconscious?"

Velikovsky claimed in the article that for a person with a limited command of Hebrew, the symbolic meanings of the language are dictated by the sound of words and not by their literal meaning. Thus, the Hebrew puns that appear in a dream of a patient who speaks Russian, Arabic or Yiddish are actually sounds associated with both of the languages he speaks: A Yiddish-speaking patient may dream, for example, of "mice" on the evening before a lottery drawing. The Yiddish word for mice is "maislech," whereas in Hebrew the word "mazlekh" (your luck) expresses the patient's wish that the winning lottery ticket be hers. Another patient dreams that "mice are rummaging in his body," that is, that his conscience is bothering him. Mice, Velikovsky points out, are rodents, and the Russian equivalent for pangs of conscience is "the gnawing of conscience," and in the unconscious language of symbols these would present as the image of a mouse gnawing at the dreamer's body.

Another case of a dream being solved by Velikovsky purely through lexicography involved a married man who was suffering from impotence, and who stayed in Tel Aviv for a few weeks on his own to undergo psychotherapy. In his dream, a man approaches him with a request to buy lime from him. What do you need lime for, the dreamer wonders in the dream, after all, in the place where you come from, your home, there is a pit full of lime. On hearing the dream, Velikovsky swiftly asked the patient whether he had recently given a gift to a woman in order to secure her favors. The patient appeared embarrassed. Until now he had always been faithful to his wife, who remained at the family farm up north. And now, during his sojourn in the city, he had met a lady whom he tried to attain by means of a gift. He quieted his conscience by telling himself that he must verify the results of the therapy (the return of sexual potency). However the lady did not accede to his wooing.

Velikovsky explained to the patient how the dream had encoded the entire story: "Sit" means "lady" in Arabic, and in the dream he wants to buy "sid" (the Hebrew word for "lime"), in other words, a woman, and he answers himself, in the voice of his conscience, you have lime at home.Another of Velikovsky's patients was waging legal battles with his Arab neighbors over the question of ownership of a plot of land. One night he dreamt about mice that fall into a pail and are trying to get out by jumping through a hole in the lid. He is worried lest they escape, and covers the hole with a paving tile.

This dream is a masterpiece of wordplay in Hebrew and Arabic: The akhbar ("mouse" in Hebrew) is khbar (a "litigant" in Arabic), a standard motif in the dreams of Arabic speakers who are engaged in legal disputes; and indeed the Arabs had tried to "jump" on his lands in Hor al-Wasa ("hor" means hole in Hebrew) and seize them, so it was appropriate "lehapil otam bapah" (a Hebrew expression meaning "set them up," or "make them fall into a trap," but literally to "make them fall into a tin [pail]"). And just recently, the patient had thought of a way he might be able to convince the authorities that the disputed land in fact belonged to him. His plan was to "pave" the path leading to the place - to Hor al-Wasa - and thereby strengthen his ownership claim.

Velikovsky summed up his contribution to dream interpretation in Palestine thus: It "is probably connected with the manner of thinking of the Jewish race; the tendency to comparisons and jokes is also derived from the same source."

The Freud collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., contains letters that were sent to Freud from Palestine in the 1920s and '30s. Whether they were from colleagues, admirers or just eccentrics, Freud used to reply without delay to the dozens of letters that arrived for him daily. Legend has it that he would treat the time devoted to letter writing as a time of rest, and that even late in life he would write 10 or so letters in an hour. The letters were clearly written in a hurry, without excessive thought devoted to penmanship or precise wording.

It is in his correspondence with those who were not among his disciples that Freud generally comes across as a curious and generous interlocutor, whose fame had not gone to his head. He does not make do with pleasantries, but rather treats even the unfounded assumptions of laymen seriously, and makes use of them to clarify his ideas. Demonstrations of chilling directness, of sarcasm, and outright aggression can also be found in abundance in the corpus of Freudian correspondence, which is estimated to contain some 20,000 letters.

A letter to a reader in Israel

Dr. Yochanan Lewinson, a dentist who immigrated from Berlin to Palestine in 1933, where he joined Kibbutz Givat Brenner, wanted to thank Freud, first and foremost. Thanks to psychoanalysis, he reveals in his letter, he was able to make a number of fateful life decisions and give up an academic career in Germany in favor of life in a cooperative community in the Land of Israel.

Lewinson dealt with three main professional issues in the letter he sent Freud on August 5, 1936, that refer to the first chapters in the series "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis," which Freud had published three years earlier. The first issue pertains to the status of night terror - a sleep disorder in which a person quickly awakens from sleep in a terrified state - in basic psychoanalytic dream theory.

These dreams, which rob the slumber of those who are suffering with traumatic neurosis (or in current psychiatric jargon, "post-traumatic stress disorder"), ostensibly contradict the fundamental formula of "dream interpretation," according to which the primary motive for dreaming is to fulfill unconscious wishes. Despite the difficulty one may have in identifying any pleasurable wish in night terrors, Lewinson, like Freud, was hoping to find a place for the phenomenon within the conceptual framework of the standard historic dream theory, and pointed to the mental function that these painful experiences could serve in those who suffer from traumatic neurosis. These dreams, he contends, reconstruct the traumatic experience so as to allow the mental mechanism to release the emotional excess that is one of the hallmarks of the traumatizing situation.

The second issue Lewinson discussed in his letter to Freud related to another chapter in the "New Introductory Lectures." Under the heading "Dreams and Occultism," Freud discusses, among other things, the phenomenon of telepathy. During the bloody events of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, Lewinson had reached the conclusion that a handful of Arab villagers in Palestine were blessed with telepathic powers: "I have no doubt that the only method of transmitting information that was available to the Arabs was by means of thought transference. There is evidence that certain people among them broadcast the messages while others receive them ... I can imagine that these phenomena might constitute an especially fruitful field of research for the psychoanalyst, but he must be familiar with the language and culture of the Arab population in question."

Lewinson ended his letter to Freud on a personal note. As someone who had himself known periods of deep depression and of extremely high spirits, he permitted himself to disagree with things written by Freud in the chapter "Dissection of the Psychical Personality." While Freud left open the question of what causes the cyclical nature of moods, Lewinson was positive that manic-depressive illness was a constitutional disturbance with a hereditary basis. As evidence of this, he noted that many on his father's side of the family suffered from a similar mental disturbance.In the first part of his response letter to Lewinson, Freud states that the concept of dreaming in psychoanalysis should be expanded to include additional functions besides wish fulfillment. According to his thinking, early signs of which are evident in the letter, psychoanalysis is capable of restoring the ability to dream even to those who have lost it and are presently "beyond the pleasure principle."

Freud's interest in telepathy should not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of mental health care. The field has been involved since its earliest days in the removal and redrawing of the boundaries between myth and logos, and between faith and science.

Moreover, psychoanalytic listening to free association is based on the notion that one person's unconscious could receive another person's unconscious while bypassing awareness.

Visit to a mind reader

Freud did not hide his attraction to "superstitions" and to "supernatural" phenomena of various sorts. This tendency was shared by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and the Hungarian Sandor Ferenczi, who on one occasion informed Freud that he intended to show up in Vienna and introduce himself as the "court astrologer of the psychoanalysts."

Ferenczi also accompanied Freud on a visit to a mind reader in Berlin, and both were profoundly impressed by her telepathic abilities, which Freud attributed to the human ability to transfer thoughts. Freud had no doubt that at the bottom of the phenomenon termed "supernatural" lay physical-energetic processes that science had as yet no way to measure.

As early as 1910, in the third edition of "The Interpretation of Dreams," he decided to add to the already-thick book a discussion on "prophetic dreams" and "telepathic dreams," something he had refrained from incorporating into the first edition. Wilhelm Stekel, founder of the Central Psychoanalytic Bureau for Collecting Dreams (an international committee founded in 1910 whose aim was to establish a collection of dreams to shed light on cogent examples on hitherto unknown dream symbols), went even further, devoting an entire monograph to the study of telepathic dreams.

Whereas Jung and Ferenczi were interested in making the field of supernatural phenomena psychoanalytic territory, Ernest Jones and Max Eitingon did their best to restrain Freud on this point. At times they appeared to succeed in this endeavor. However, experiments in telepathy and mind reading that he undertook with his daughter Anna and with Ferenczi led Freud to conclude that "diplomatic considerations had to be relinquished," and to devote a separate discussion to the problem of telepathy. "The thought of that sour apple [occultism] makes me shudder, but there is no way of avoiding biting into it," he wrote to Eitingon. He informed Jones as well, this time unequivocally, that he did not intend to allow public opinion, or scolding by his students, to dictate to him the directions that psychoanalytic research ought to take: "When anyone adduces my fall into sin, just answer him calmly that conversion to telepathy is my private affair like my Jewishness, my passion for smoking and many other things."

Freud returned to this old love and published two articles, "Dreams and Telepathy" (1922) and "Psychoanalysis and Telepathy" (1934), which left no room for doubting his intention to include telepathy in the field of analytic study, and his readiness to go on being tossed between doubt and conviction, as befits a psychoanalyst, regarding phenomena that common sense insists on placing in the field of the occult and the supernatural.

In the letter to Lewinson, Freud declared that his observations of dogs are what helped to convince him of telepathy's existence. The dogs, permanent fixtures in Freud's study for years, receive frequent mention in his letters. In other letters he notes with admiration the sensitivity of Jo-Fi, the leonine chow chow that accompanied him for seven years, to his mood shifts. The American poet Hilda Doolittle, who underwent analysis with Freud in 1933-34, griped in her analysis diary that Freud at times gave more attention to Jo-Fi than to her.

Readers of the letter to Lewinson received will notice that Freud addresses two topics, dreams and telepathy, but chooses to ignore the third, more personal matter that Lewinson laid out before him. A hint of irony slips into the sentence with which the psychologist concludes his letter to the kibbutz member: "On this matter you evidently know more than I."

Sigmund Freud's letter to Yochanan Lewinson of Kibbutz Givat Brenner:

Prof. Dr. Freud Vienna IX Berggasse 19 August 18, 1936

Dear Doctor, I willingly reply to your letter, since it is a pleasure for me to discuss with a reader of such understanding.

As to your first comment: I agree with you completely. These anxiety dreams are attempts to cope by means of abreaction. I am aware of this, and I have certainly expressed my opinion on this matter somewhere. I no longer know why I avoided mentioning this fact in the chapter "Revision of the Theory of Dreams." However, we must not forget that the basic definition of "dreaming," in its Aristotelian interpretation, is any spiritual activity that occurs during sleep, and therefore we ought to agree to include in dreaming also goals that do not serve wish fulfillment. It can therefore be said of this coping that it is "beyond the pleasure principle," and that it also influences the choice of dreaming materials. In the nature of things the dream will repeat the disturbing traumatic content for the purpose of turning it into wish fulfillment, however in the absence of analytic help this attempt will usually fail.

As for the second matter: Your enlightening words deserve my gratitude! You have surely noticed that when it comes to matters of telepathy I have been guided by the intention to keep to a minimum the admission that it exists. Here is how things stand: I believe in telepathy but I do not do so willingly. I have not yet managed to overcome completely my distaste for what is termed the occult, and therefore I continue to demand further evidence of its existence, and indeed you indicate possible ways of obtaining such evidence. Ever since I learned to observe my dear chow chow dog's behavior in certain situations, my disbelief in telepathy has softened somewhat.

As for the third matter: I shall say nothing about this. On this matter you evidently know more than I.

Respectfully and faithfully, Yours, Freud

Eran J. Rolnik is a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and historian. Parts of this article are excerpted from his book "Freud in Zion: History of Psychoanalysis in Jewish Palestine/Israel 1918-1948" (in Hebrew), Am Oved Publishers, 2007.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott