Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Pictures of Women"

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud cites at some length the disturbing "Staircase Dream" experienced by one of Otto Rank's patients. In the dream, hyper-intelligible words and self-indexing figures enhance the intensity of a dream experience while literally suspending its ramifications. The dreamer reports that, in the act of sexually assaulting a little girl "on the middle of the staircase . . . (as it were in the air),"

I saw hanging above me to my left (also as it were in the air) two small paintings--landscapes representing a house surrounded by trees. At the bottom of the smaller of these, instead of the painter's signature, I saw my own first name, as though it were intended as a birthday present for me. Then I saw a label in front of the two pictures, which said that cheaper pictures were also to be had.

The emphasis on pictures and labels downplays the dream's violent events, as Freud suggests the idea "it's only a dream" also does:

When the thought "this is only a dream" occurs during a dream, it has the same purpose in view as when the words are pronounced on the stage by la belle Helene in Offenbach's comic opera of that name: it is aimed at reducing the importance of what has just been experienced and at making it possible to tolerate what is to follow.

"It was not a real copulation," Rank's dreamer remarks, "I was only rubbing my genitals against her external genitals." If this sounds technical, so is the circumstance that the actors, like the paintings, are "as it were in the air." Is it Rank or Freud or Strachey who twice conveys the "as it were" suspension by parentheses ( )? The dream wants to stress that it's only a picture of a copulation, signed by the dreamer as painter of the dream. But the picturelike quality also heightens the distinctness of the images in the dream. The dreamer's name, or signature, is a detail inscribed on a small space, the smaller of the two paintings. Along with the name and label, the clearest element of the dream is the close-up image of the girl, whose genitals the dreamer sees "extremely distinctly, as well as her head," unlike his own image, which he sees "very indistinctly" at the end of the dream. This picture of a sexual act excites a real emission. Earlier that night, the dreamer had looked at pictures in a bookshop and "went up close to one small picture which had particularly pleased him, to look at the artist's name--but it was quite unknown to him." Rank comments that "the two pictures . . . apart from their real meaning, also figured in a symbolic sense as 'Weibsbilder'"--"literally 'pictures of women,'" Strachey explains in a note, "a common German idiom for 'women'" (!). The lower edge of the picture where one may sign one's name is thus the lower part of a "picture of a woman," a woman's genitalia, on which it seems one has license to put one's name because it is even in waking life like an image, like a dream.

Image: Balthus, Golden Days,1933

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