James Frosch, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. His below remarks originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
The unsophisticated waking judgement of someone who has just woken from sleep assumes that his dreams, even if they did not themselves come from another world, had at all events carried him off into another world.
I have a recurrent fantasy. I’m asleep. I wake up in a fearful sweat. I nudge my wife and say, “I had this horrible nightmare! I dreamt that Donald Trump was President!” She would say, “Go back to sleep, it’s just a dream.” Relieved and reassured about the difference between waking reality and dream reality, I would fall back asleep. The only problem is, Donald Trump is President in waking reality and we are living in a dream world, a world governed by the rules of the dream. Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote about differences between the logic of waking reality, which he called secondary process, and the a-logic of the dream, which he called primary process. In the dream, logical contradictions coexist and there are no constraints of linear time, individual identity (people can be themselves but also other people at the same time), or evidence-based truth. Lewis Carroll also knew something about the dream world. As Alice discovered in the world of her Wonderland, up is down and down is up. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards […] Off with their heads,” says the Queen of Hearts, who perhaps was Donald Trump in one of his former reincarnations. To illustrate dream logic, Freud retells the joke about the man who borrowed a teapot from his neighbor. When the neighbor later sees it on his doorstep, the teapot has a crack in it. He confronts the borrower, who denies everything. He says, “First of all, I never borrowed the teapot. Second, it had that crack when I borrowed it. And finally, I returned it in perfect condition.” Sounds like a tweet from you know who.
It’s one thing to have a troubling dream, where the usual rules of law and logic don’t apply. It’s another to be living in a dream-like reality. As Kafka taught us, it’s one thing to dream one is a cockroach (I’ve had those dreams) but quite another to wake up and discover that one is a cockroach (hasn’t happened to me yet, but the way things are going, it might!). There are conditions of living where waking life starts to resemble a dream, and these situations are usually frightening states of free-fall in which one cannot have a sense of security, predictability, or consensual truth. We are sadly familiar with these horrible traumatic situations. Brutal wars, holocausts, and Orwellian dictatorships which have the means to dictate truth, provide ongoing examples of such realities.
The dream state resembles a psychotic state, in which the usual function of reality testing is set aside. States of psychosis are generally terrifying states of vulnerability to those in the midst of them. Do not be misled by the occasional aggressiveness and paranoia of the person in the grip of a psychotic state. However manifestly threatening, he or she is feeling terrified and unable to count on anything. Physical objects might start moving on their own, or transform into human form, and other human beings are not to be trusted because they might be possessed, as in a horror film. Someone or something else might possess one’s self, in which case, one would lose his or her sense of identity. Above all, bonds of trust between human beings, which are the foundation for a sense of security and reality, cannot be counted on.
It is not as if there are no disputes in the world of secondary process about what is real and what isn’t. The perception of reality is endlessly subjective. But, optimally, these disputes are not settled by who has the most power, but rather by complex internal and external negotiations in the context of good faith relationships, which include not only relationships with loved ones, but also relationships with fellow members of one’s society and with one’s government. Reality testing is what mental health practitioners call the internal negotiations within an individual. The external negotiations on a societal level are known as the rule of law, where the truth is determined through consensus and evidential procedure, and not, for example, through trial by ordeal or by who has the most power, as in Game of Thrones. When these conventions, based on secondary process, break down, no one is safe. I watched our President say in a news conference, “I know Matthew Whitaker.” At a subsequent news conference, he said, “I don’t know Mathew Whitaker.” He never borrowed the teapot and the teapot had a crack in it when he borrowed it. Up is down.
Thankfully, we do wake up from dreams, and even nightmarish psychotic states can pass, with or without professional help. Hopefully, we will awake from the nightmare of Donald Trump and his notions of reality. But if we do, unlike in the case of the dream, it will be through our own efforts to restore the rules and conventions of waking life. Even as he seems increasingly encircled, Trump and his minions remain a threat to our sense of reality. As the Framers of our Constitution understood, unchecked power in anybody tends toward abuse sooner or later. We cannot count only on Robert Mueller. We all have to wake up ourselves and each other.
Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. IV, pp ix-627). London: Hogarth Press.
James Frosch, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. He has served on the Editorial Boards of JAPA and IJP. He has published papers and given presentations on the psychodynamics and treatment of Narcissism, on Psychoanalytic Pluralism and the analyst’s narcissism.
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