The Modern Dream-Vision: Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and Mailer's An American Dream

From Project Mailer
Written by
Andrew Gordon

“The aim which I have set before myself is to show that dreams are capable of being interpreted,” wrote Freud. If we choose to analyze the function of dreams in twentieth-century literature, in particular a novel such as Mailer’s, which is a dream-vision, then it seems to me that we can turn to no better guidebook than the monumental Interpretation of Dreams. As we are all aware, Freud was the first to demonstrate that dreams are not detached from the rest of our mental life, but are on the contrary psychical acts of the deepest significance, because they put us in contact with the shadow land of the unconscious, which he called “the true psychical reality.” “The respect paid to dreams in antiquity,” he wrote, “is based on correct psychological insight and is the homage page to the uncontrolled and indestructible forces of the human mind, to the ’daemonic’ power which produces the dream-wish and which we find at work in our unconscious.” Paradoxically, through the use of modern scientific method, scrupulous observation and rational analysis, Freud restored the ancient respect for the power of the primitive and magical modes of thought represented by dreams. Twentieth-century man began to conceive of his mental life as a vast iceberg, whose majesty is increased by the fact that nine-tenths of its bulk lies beneath the surface.

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.

To recapitulate: The Interpretation of Dreams asserts that dreams, as well as psychoneurotic symptoms, are to be regarded as “fulfillments of unconscious wishes.” “The majority of adult dreams deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes.” Dreams represent a return to the mental life of our earliest childhood; each dream expresses the fulfillment of a repressed or suppressed infantile wish. Like childish thought, dreams are completely egotistic; the dreamer is always the principle performer, even though he may sometimes appear in the guise of one or more of the characters.

The dream-wish is characteristically disguised through the operation of psychical censorship. The mind seizes upon trivial recollections of the day, and by the process of association of words and ideas, welds? weds? them with childish memories, to produce a string of vivid visual images. The series of symbols, along with the occasional speech fragments, is experienced like a living scene or situation. An idea is transformed into an intense hallucinatory experience, to which we temporarily attach total belief. The psychic censor, through displacement from the important to the trivial and condensation of entire trains of thought into a single symbol, produces such distortion of the original wish that the dreaming mind remains blissfully unaware that it is acting out prohibited desires, and thus remains asleep.

When we recount our dreams, they sound like absurd picture puzzles, utter nonsense and trivia which violates all our rules of logic and often all our standards of morality as well. In order to unscramble them, we must translate their manifest content into their latent meaning. We can explore the associations connected with the symbols, and note the emotions attached to the points of greatest intensity in the dream. Although a single dream may express multiple desires and be capable of multiple interpretations, at the bottom level one always finds “the fulfillment of a wish dating from earliest childhood.”

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posits a kinship between the mental processes which results in dreams and that which leads to the creation of art. “We are probably inclined greatly to overestimate the conscious character of intellectual and artistic production,” he states. “Just as all neurotic symptoms, and, for that matter, dreams, are capable of being over-interpreted and indeed need to be if they are to be fully understood, so all genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind, and are open to more than a single interpretation.”

Bearing Freud’s theory in mind, let us turn to Norman Mailer’s novel of 1965, An American Dream. A brief synopsis: Stephen Rojack, a in World War II with a suicidal assault with two Nazi machine-gun nests. The initiation ritual was not entirely successful; in fact, it unmanned Rojack. “Where many another athlete or young hero might have had a vast and continuing recreation with sex, I was lost in a private kaleidoscope of death.” He is obsessed with the eyes of the fourth German soldier, whom he missed with his rifle, and haunted by the full moon, which was shining on the night of the battle. After the war, he became a congressman, then “a professor of existential psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death are the roots of motivation,” the author of a popular book, The Psychology of the Hangman, a television celebrity, and suffered through a marriage with a very rich and bitchy heiress, Deborah Caughlin Mangaradidi Kelly. Now middle-aged in 1963, Rojack has separated from his wife and is deeply depressed. He hates Deborah yet he loves her, for he cannot give her up. “I did not know if I had the strength to stand alone.” The strength to stand had literally abandoned him: once again, he is psychically impotent. He feels suicidal, although he would prefer to feel murderous, for “Murder is never unsexual.”

On the night of a full moon, obeying a command he imagines comes from Luna, “that platinum lady with her silver light,” he attempts to jump to his death from the balcony of a friend’s apartment. When he cannot do it, he is sickened with himself and fears he has just “caught” cancer. Immediately, he receives another “message” to run downstairs and leave place (as Freud tells us, staircases and running on stairs in dreams “almost inevitably stands for copulation”). He goes directly to his wife’s apartment, where, during the course of a violent quarrel, he strangles her to death (she has attempted to “mangle” his “root”). The strangulation is described in terms which simultaneously suggest orgasm and excretion, and also hark back to the murder of the Nazis: “I was trying to stop, but pulse packed behind pulse in a pressure up to thunderhead; some blackbiled lust, some desire to go ahead not unlike the instant one comes in a woman against her cry that she is without protection came bursting with rage out of me... and ‘crack’ I choked her harder, and ‘crack’ I choked her again, and ‘crack’ I gave her payment — never halt now — and ‘crack’ the door flew open and the wire tore in her throat, and I was through the door, hatred passing from me in wave after wave, illness as well, rot and pestilence, nausea, a bleak string of salts.” And thus the first chapter both literally and figuratively reaches a climax.

The opening chapter focuses on four intense events: Rojack’s seduction of Deborah, his murder of the Nazis, his attempted suicide, and his murder of Deborah. Freud advises us that if elements are placed close together in a dream, there must be some “especially intimate connection between what corresponds to them among the dream-thoughts.” Rojack had been unable to shoot all four Nazis, and now the four “cracks” as he murders Deborah seem to fulfill that desire. He had been unable to jump to his death and feared he had caught cancer as a consequence: later he drops Deborah’s body out the window, and tells the police she had leaped because she feared she had cancer. “Deborah had a sense of something bad inside herself,” he tells them. “She felt haunted by demons.” The description just as well fits Rojack himself.

All the events in the first chapter are also linked together by the recurring symbol of the moon, “that platinum lady with her silver light,” the seductive and lethal lady with whom Rojack is carrying on a romance. After the death of Deborah, this moon-lady is incarnated in the blonde songstress Cherry, with whom Rojack falls in love. Cherry is characterized by the “silvery cunning in her features,” the “silvery cut of her features,” and her “elusive silvery air.” As with the moon-lady, Rojack must risk danger and court death to win her.

In the course of the rest of the novel, Rojack’s potency and luck are miraculously restored. He manages to best every man that he meets and make love to every woman. In the twenty-four hours following his murder of Deborah, he repeated rapes his German maid, Ruta, whom he calls “a Nazi,” impregnates Cherry, has verbal duels with her Mafia and prizefighter boyfriends, beats up her black lover, Shago, outwits the police and is cleared of the charge of homicide, and finally bests his fearful father-in-law, the multi-millionaire Kelly, by daring to walk a narrow parapet thirty-six stories above the street. Shago and Cherry are mysteriously killed (Rojack blames himself; he had not been “brave enough”), and Rojack wins $24,000 in Las Vegas, enough to clear the debts left by Deborah and give him a fresh start in life. Every man respects him, every woman loves him, he wins a fortune, and he gets away with murder. Talk about your wish-fulfillments!

The first reviewers of the novel were understandable appalled. The plot was incredible, the characters unbelievable, and the style farfetched. The novel seemed to violate all the rules of realism, common sense, morality, and decency. Who could live in one day through all the sex and violence that Rojack does? How can we sympathize with a man who murders his wife, feels no remorse, and gets away with it? The verdict against Mailer was almost unanimous. “An American Dream is a dreadful novel, perhaps the worst I have read since the beginning of this column,” wrote Stanley Edgar Hyman. “An American Dream is a very dirty book, dirty and extremely ugly,” decided Elizabeth Hardwick. “Mailer has repressed in this novel his common sense as well as the moral side of his nature,” declared Philip Rahv.

The error that these original reviewers was to ignore the broad hint offered in the title and consider only the manifest content of the tale, which, like that of any dream, is a string of palpable absurdities. Mailer’s novel possesses all the characteristics of a dream: its actions are bizarre and intensely compressed, and progresses through symbols and the magical process of association rather than rational connections; and, although it defies logic, it impresses us with its hallucinatory intensity and believability as we experience it. It seems to abandon all the inhibitions of morality and conscience, so that the hero may break every taboo, and freely engage in rape and murder. What is worse, we do tend to side with Rojack, for lack of anyone better in this diabolical novel. Deborah is portrayed as such a castrating witch that we feel no pity at her death. Moreover, Rojack’s magical beliefs in conspiracy and the power of coincidence, demons and portents and omens are totally borne out of the events of the novel. Magic does rule in this dream-world: either we accept that as proved, or else Rojack is entirely insane, which would invalidate the whole novel. Reality in this work, as in any fiction, is a relative matter, and depends upon the premises which the writer establishes and maintains throughout the tale.

Like any dream, the action of An American Dream is a fit of unreason which takes place at night and concludes in the morning when the dreamer snaps out of it and returns to the everyday world from the place of magic and demons. “But in the morning, I was something like sane again,” Rojack tells us in the last sentence of the novel.

Mailer’s novel also resembles a dream in being totally egotistic: the narrator and several of the other characters both look like and talk like the author. In particular, Rojack is a thinly disguised projection of Mailer: both are Harvard graduates; veterans of combat in World War II; excessively bright and ambitious; authors of popular books featuring wild theories about death, dread, and magic; and television celebrities. Mailer wants to be President and ran for Mayor of New York; Rojack was a Congressman. Rojack attempts suicide and kills his wife; Mailer once stabbed his wife with a penknife and was admitted to a mental institution, where he was diagnosed as having “homicidal and suicidal tendencies.”

Finally, all the actions of his novel, like that of a dream, can be taken as the disguised fulfillment of infantile erotic wishes. Obviously, the hero’s psychic impotence, his anxiety about sex, and confusion of sex with murder, and his struggle against his wife and father-in-law, who had been carrying on an incestuous affair, represents the acting out of some kind of Oedipal wish. “If anyone dreams... that his father or mother or sister or brother has died, I should never use that dream as evidence that he wishes for that person’s death at that present time,” writes Freud, but merely that “this death has been wished for at some time or other during the dreamer’s childhood.” Rojack’s sexual anxiety and confusion of sex and murder can be similarly explained as having their roots in childhood. “It is a matter of daily experience that sexual intercourse between adults strikes any child who may observe it as something uncanny and that it arouses anxiety in them.”

Why did Mailer choose to present his novel in the form of a dream, with all the attendant risk that the reader might reject it as a mere fantasy or wish-fulfillment on the part of the author? By the time of An American Dream, Mailer had abandoned the tradition of realism, which had brought him his first success in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead. He was more interesting in penetrating into the psychic reality of America, what he called in The Presidential Papers “the subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.” And so he wrote a dream-vision, with just enough realistic New York City background sketched in to give it credibility as a portrait of the contemporary scene, but deliberately distorted the action by filtering it through the mind of Rojack, who has been pushed to the edge of psychosis. The strategy is somewhat similar to that of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the difference that Kesey’s narrator, the Indian Chief Broom, begins as a psychotic and gradually grows more sane, whereas Rojack’s perceptions are equally distorted throughout. Nevertheless, in both novels the combination of both recognizable details and poetic distortion creates a dreamlike effect.

If Mailer’s purpose in American Dream is to represent the repressed dream life of the nation by depicting the extreme psychological states of his hero, nevertheless, in the process of attempting to give form the American fantasy life he is inevitably drawing on his own fantasies. The characters may be taken from American myth and pop culture — Rojack, the man who has made it; Shago, the black stud; Roberts, the tough but sentimental Irish cop; Kelly, the tycoon who sold his soul to the Devil; Deborah, the evil dark lady; and Cherry, the blond dancehall girl with the heart of gold — but the story is all Mailer’s. Ultimately, this dream will be of interest to us where Mailer’s underlying fantasies intersect with our own, and if his style is persuasive enough to work its spell, so that we may join him in his dream. Surely we have all had dreams of sex and violence as elaborate as Mailer’s, but few of us would be able to recreate them with his hallucinatory intensity.

The interesting thing is that Mailer hardly attempts to disguise the fantasy meaning of his tale; on the contrary, he seems eager to spell it out to us. There is the hero who is a comrade in arms with every male in the novel, yet at the same time is involved in a deadly contest against all of them for sex and power, a struggle which has blatantly homo-erotic overtones (in his fight with Shago, he grabs him from behind and wrestles him down the stairs noting “his smell of full nearness as if we’d been in bed for an hour”); there is Deborah, the “Great Bitch” who dominates and humiliates and cuckolds him, and once even tries literally to “mangle” his “root” (her middle name, “Mangaravidi,” suggests both “mangle” and the Italian for “to eat life.” “Deborah” suggests “devourer.” “Caughlin,” “coffin,” and “Kelly,” “kill”); and there is the powerful and fearful father-in-law Barney Oswald Kelly (”Barney,” the nickname of Mailer’s own father, and “Oswald” the name of the killer of Kennedy), who has been the first to possess every woman with whom the hero makes love, both Ruta and Cherry, and has even committed the ultimate crime of incest with Deborah, his own daughter. The Oedipal conflict is rendered unmistakable and obvious, and the novel is filled with stock sexual symbols, such as snakes and umbrellas and wild beasts, caves and portals. To drive the point home, there is the title, which openly announces that the novel is a dream. One is reminded of the phenomenon of the sleeping man who tells himself “this is only a dream,” as if to reassure himself and ward off threatening material.

Thus the apparent psychoanalytical candor and conscious control of the fantasies in An American Dream may only be a defense against the latent content. In fact, we find out that Rojack casts out the threatening Oedipal desires upon the father and mother figures, Deborah and Kelly. He has only committed murder, but Kelly is worse because he has committed incest. “Yes, I killed her,” Rojack admits to Kelly, “but I didn’t seduce her when she was fifteen, and never leave her alone, and never end the affair.” Of course, this does not explain Rojack’s own ambiguous feelings towards his stepdaughter, Deirdre, whom he is afraid to see because he loves her too much. Perhaps Kelly, in addition to being a father figure, is another projection of the novelist’s ego, who acts out the desires which Rojack is too fearful to indulge.

Furthermore, one questions the degree of Mailer’s conscious control over this dream because of the lack of distance between the author and the narrator. Rojack talks too much like Norman Mailer, and shares his peculiar phobias about madness, the moon, and cancer, all of which one may see explicated at great length in Mailer’s nonfiction. One also notes that most of the anxiety in this nightmare is connected to magical rather than real causes. The hero has committed murder, but displays only a perfunctory concern with being caught or going to prison. Instead, the things he fears most, aside from his wife and father-in-law, are the moon, falling from a height, and getting cancer. Most of the action of the novel could be consider counter-phobic rather than rationally productive: again and again, Rojack places himself in precisely those situations which are calculated to elicit the greatest amount of anxiety in him. He even says to himself, “That which you fear most is what you must do,” a slogan to which the reader suspects Mailer himself subscribes. This is the logic of the type of disorder clinically known as compulsion neurosis. Such a hypothesis would go far toward explaining the alien voices giving him commands which Rojack hears inside his head.

Freud explains that even anxiety dreams can be wish-fulfilling, for they may satisfy masochistic desires. That would probably be the point where Mailer and Freud would part company.

Any close examination of An American Dream will induce us a healthy respect for the workings of the unconscious, what Freud called “the uncontrollable and indestructible forces in the human mind.” This is what Mailer’s dream is all about: an attempt to release to the surface that “’daemonic’ power” that lies within each of us. We read the novel, not because of any moral message, but because of the attraction of its fantasies and what they may teach us about ourselves and our common dreams. A novelist does not necessarily have to understand what makes himself tick, but he must have an intuitive understanding of basic human psychology, and the power to touch us and make us participate in his dreams. He induces in us that “willing suspension of disbelief,” that state of controlled daydreaming which is the experience of fiction.

Paradoxically, despite the apparently psychoanalytical candor of the surface of An American Dream, I suspect that the force of the novel derives from precisely those things which Mailer refuses to admit. Those unadmitted desires surge all the more powerfully for the fact of being repressed. If the novel succeeds, it is not because Mailer is like Freud, or really understands or recognizes the unconscious roots of his anxieties, but because he endows his fears with enough creative intensity, with a sufficient charge to make us believe and participate in them. Walk that parapet in fear and trembling along with Rojack, and you too will be a believer.