Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Asplenium and the Lizards"

Asplenium and the Lizards,” a dream recounted by the nineteenth-century philosopher of psychology Joseph Delboeuf, is cited by Freud as a heroic feat of oneiric recall. The dream involves the Latin name of a fern:

He saw in a dream the courtyard of his own house covered with snow and found two small lizards half-frozen and buried under it. Being an animal-lover, he picked them up, warmed them and carried them back to the little hole in the masonry where they belonged. He further gave them a few leaves of a small fern which grew on the wall and of which, as he knew, they were very fond. In the dream he knew the name of the plant: Asplenium ruta muralis. [According to Freud, “its correct name is Asplenium ruta muraria, which had been slightly distorted in the dream.”]

The dream proceeded and, after a digression, came back to the lizards. Delboeuf then saw to his astonishment two new ones which were busy on the remains of the fern. He then looked round him and saw a fifth and then a sixth lizard making their way to the hole in the wall, until the whole roadway was filled with a procession of lizards, all moving in the same direction . . . and so on.
(SE IV, 12)

This Escherian sequence is about generation and animation, making more out of the same. Delboeuf is taken aback by the Latin name in the dream because “when he was awake, Delboeuf knew the Latin names of very few plants and an Asplenium was not among them.” “Sixteen years later,” Freud writes,

When the philosopher was on a visit to one of his friends, he saw a little album of pressed flowers of the sort that are sold to foreigners as mementos in some parts of Switzerland. A recollection began to dawn on him—he opened the herbarium, found the Asplenium of his dream and saw its Latin name written underneath it in his own handwriting. (SE IV, 12)

The incident combines sensory clarity, conceptual intelligibility, and a sense of the marvelous in a recovery of language. The herbarium highlights the objectlike quality of a name: the name identifies the sample plant and the plant exemplifies the name, the noun level with the thing. Although Freud stipulates that words that occur in dreams are memorial pictures of words, not working language, this picture of a word seems to go along with a feeling that in waking life does accompany working language.

The Asplenium dream, that is, engages a kind of circular satisfaction that accompanies language use and may itself be one of language’s main uses. In the dream the classic notion of thing as name and name as thing orchestrates a drama of understanding, of obscurity brought to light. What requires explanation is the dream’s ability to use a word that the dreamer doesn’t know he knows. This name, Asplenium, seems unusually memorable. Not only does it stick in a corner of the dreamer’s mind without his permission, until it reappears in the dream; he also remembers that reappearance sixteen years later. “Asplenium” is memorable because of its unaccountability; it had been a “mystery,” Freud writes, that remained unsolved. The story of finding the herbarium is presented as a solution to the mystery. It features the phenomenology of understanding, the “dawning” feeling. Yet Delboeuf’s understanding is never actually miraculous; it’s something he knew already, in “his own handwriting.” (This uploading of previously known blocs of information is what leads Freud to propose that language in dreams isn’t really thinking, moving forward.) It seems miraculous only insofar as he forgets what he knows; his having forgotten is what actually demands explanation and remains unexplained by the story. When Delboeuf finds the herbarium we are “driven to admit,” writes Freud, that “we knew and remembered something which was beyond the reach of our waking memory” (SE IV, 11). The moment is striking for its simultaneous climax and anticlimax: we begin with a sense of extra insight—which we might be tempted to attribute to superstition, or “overstanding”—and exchange it for a scientific explanation. Delboeuf remembered the name of the fern before he remembered that he had forgotten it: nothing has been gained for the mind’s capacity (no foreknowledge or visionary knowledge), yet every bit of wonder given up to the explanation is replenished by the wonder of re-experiencing what one already knows. This re-experience registers with all the impact of gain, but has the structure of trompe-l’oeil. This is also what Freud calls “cheap thrill”: civilization is a cheap thrill because it loves to “solve” problems it creates, as when one puts one's feet outside the coverlet on a cold night to enjoy the pleasure of pulling them back in again.

Freud’s point in retelling this dream is not to interpret it psychoanalytically but to characterize dream language: Asplenium, an artifact of linguistic memory stored as an image file, embodies the recycled character of language in dreams, which appears very insightful because it is very plagiaristic. If Freud wants to make this point aboutdream language, though, it’s hard to keep it from spreading to language per se at its most basic, its pairing of word and concept, which can seem to explain things simply by pairing them (“That fern is an Asplenium.” “So that’s what it is!”). How often is the feeling of mental discovery nothing more than this? And, turning it around again, maybe this nothing, this non-thought, is what thought is made of, and is really something. The temporary occlusion of familiarity when language appears in a dream is enough to activate a vivacity, an animation effect, that belongs all the time to language as such, as the other side of its standardization. “I know this word!” is most of the excitement—an excitement that all of us, at some early point of development, must have felt, and still can feel. Dream language recovers amazement at the thing here that really is amazing--that there is language at all.

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