Sigmund Freud, upon publishing his seminal work The Interpretations of Dreams, postulated that dreams aim to fulfill two main functions. For one, they work to at preserve the individual in slumber. And secondly, dreams function as a means of ‘wish fulfillment’ in which we involuntarily attempt to solve conflicts of the Self.
Now, with the help of technology that peer deep into the mechanisms of our consciousness, Freud’s initial theories — that dreams function as a mental relaxer that allows us to sleep — has been largely put aside. It is now known that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreams can happen five to six times a night . Despite these findings however, dreams can still function as intermediaries between our subconscious and reality. This is perhaps best captured by the chilling story of the ‘Burning Child’ which can found in the aforementioned work by Freud, chapter 7.
“A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle” .
What do we make of this? The orthodox interpretation would theorize that the real, the external forces (i.e the bright light from the fire), became too great to ignore and awoke the father from his slumber. Remarkably, however, in this scenario the dream initially functioned as a way to preserve sleep; the father incorporated the burning light into his subconscious psyche. He prolonged his sleep, by absorbing his external environment, and thus crafted it delicately into the timetable of his dream — represented by the visual of the burning child and his subsequent dark question, “father, don’t you see that I am burning?” Such ways to prolong sleep are relatively ordinary to the average individual; when awoken by a ringing phone or an abrupt sound outside our window, we quickly wish to fall back into slumber, and our quick perception in our momentary awakening is likely to follow us. Likewise, we bring this external disturbance with us and make it one with our dreams. In lay terms, we incorporate the ringing phone or abrupt noise into our dream, and continue to sleep.
However, the story of the burning child is much more radical than Freud’s initial interpretation. Adherent of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay Freud Lives! gives us quite a different analysis.
Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality .
This, I feel, is precisely the essence of Freud’s dream scenario. The Real, the psychic dream reality (with a capital ‘r’), usually functions as an escape for the father and as a method to prolong sleep — but, in it, he finds something much more frightening than anything in the material. In it, he finds his son, burning, and the father begins to relive the dark tragedy he had experienced before with his son’s death. Thereby, he awakens to escape into the material reality, in a twist of irony, to run from the nightmare he was experiencing. I would go as far as making the claim that all nightmares, in general, function in such a fashion. Although dreams should function as a means of resolving mental disturbance, nightmares are a common deviation, when the Real becomes unbearably worse than reality. It is in this instance we awake, to escape such terror, to find condolence in reality. The climax of such terror, such as death or immense pain in the Real, results in our awakening, because, comparatively speaking, the dream realm has lost all its luster of escape and has become too frightening.
It in this stripe, we can interpret modern trauma. Trauma has two components: a horrifying external experience and its permanent effect on the Real. This dualism is required in order for real trauma, manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder, to become a psychic issue. An external horror, without effects on the psyche, alters little to noting (aside from perhaps bodily wounds) since it leaves no problematic vestiges on the human psychic condition. Likewise, the hallucinations and squeamish experiences in the Real are a result of the external trauma being relived in the individual’s psyche. This is the case with many suffers of wartime conflict; they experience nightmares since, once they enter the Real, they immediately want to exit it since they begin to relive the horror they witnessed in war. The root of this trauma is parallel to the father’s dream of the burning child — in both, the worst elements of their experiences are being relived, which then results in an inherent desire to escape into the material. Such is the denigrating aspect of trauma which can ultimately result in psychosis, where the individual becomes completely ingrained in the horrific Real and loses touch with the material (i.e he fully succumbs to his hallucinations). We must realize, then, that the issue is not that the horrifying experience occurred — the issue is that experience follows the individual into the psyche, into his involuntary thoughts, which haunts him beyond his volition. This is what separates real trauma from mere external experience.
The frightening aspect of all of this is that there are key events which precede any trauma, or any form of neurosis and psychosis. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, many events happen well in our crucial youth, and become grained in our consciousness, without our knowing. Manifested in fears and interpretation, they find their beginnings in key times of our development: specifically, early childhood. This is why Freud, and later Lacan, find sexuality to be the root of human development since it is the uniform building block from which human relations stem even in our early beginnings as children. Thereby, trauma requires an extra component before it can truly latch onto the victim and haunt him — it must relate to a fear placed in him prior. Perhaps this is what differentiates between suffers of trauma and those that lie unaffected by horrors; the solution can be found in their upbringing, in their relation to key developmental periods of their lives, and ultimately, to Freud, this finds its natural roots in sexuality.
– Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opium of the Masses where Zizek discusses psychoanalysis.