If one wanted to choose a date that marks the beginning of psychoanalysis it could be 24 July 1895. On this date Sigmund Freud had a dream that provided the material for his first elaborate dream analysis and he wondered if one day there will be a marble plaque fixed to the house saying, “Here was unveiled to Dr Sigm. Freud the secret of the dream on 24 July 1895.” In 1977, on Freud’s 121st birthday, this plaque was installed.
The secret that dreams revealed to Freud was that a large part of our mental life is governed by unconscious processes that, alongside our conscious wishes, motives, and thoughts determine our behaviour, feelings and thinking, and that can find articulation in symptoms. Freud went so far as to propose that the major and normal field of our mental life is unconscious, while consciousness covers only a section of it. With these discoveries he believed to have delivered the 3rd blow to mankind, after Copernicus and Darwin: Like their revolutionary discoveries the idea of the central function of the unconscious in the human mind called for a revision of how we see ourselves, questioning the notion of the special status of homo sapiens and instigating a process of de-centering. The unconscious became the fundamental concept of psychoanalysis, the “true psychical reality”.
Based on his work with patients who suffered from symptoms that could not be traced back to organic causes, and on the analysis of his own dreams, Freud developed concepts and techniques to unravel the unconscious processes that become manifest in normal phenomena, such as dreams, slips of the tongue and bungled actions, as well as in symptoms that are considered abnormal and cause suffering. His aim was foremost to decipher the symptoms and to learn in this way what is unconsciously troubling the patient, rather than simply to remove the symptom before it had yielded its secret.
He learned that at the root of symptoms lie unconscious conflicts between incompatible ideas, usually involving a sexual wish in the widest sense of the word, and the rejection of this wish, which leads to its repression. Repression does not, however, result in the disappearance of the wish; rather, the wish will strive to find some fulfilment by reappearing in disguise and finding a substitute form of satisfaction, which at the same satisfies the resistance against its fulfilment, for instance by evoking guilt, anxiety or some other form of suffering. The symptom is the result of this compromise.
With this understanding Freud had established the three key factors that form the basic structure of neurosis: Conflict – repression – symptom.
The most important conceptual tools he introduced to expand his understanding of neurosis and its treatment, include, apart from the concept of the unconscious, the concepts of: repression, that keeps problematic ideas outside the realm of consciousness; resistance, that hampers the process of deciphering symptoms and other formations of the unconscious; the drive, that provides psychical energy and pushes towards its discharge; and the Oedipus Complex, through which the child resolves the conflict between its loving, hostile, and jealous feelings towards the parents and that determines what direction its sexual development will take.
In terms of psychoanalytic technique Freud introduced the method of ‘free association’ to access unconscious material, and the use of ‘transference’ and ‘interpretation’ to decipher this material.
Many of his fundamental theoretical constructs and psychoanalytic techniques are already outlined in his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/01). Until the end of his life he considered this book his most important work, although he kept developing and revising his understanding, raising questions and pointing out problems that remained unresolved and awaited further research.
This is where Lacan took up the challenge. Lacan did not simply follow on from Freud, but developed his own conceptual framework to take Freud’s ideas beyond the limits he had faced.