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Dany Nobus – Beyond the Rebus Principle – Psychoanalysis and Chinese Dream Interpretation


THE LETTER 22 (Summer 2001) pages 9-29


Dream interpretation constitutes a central axis of psychoanalytic treatment. According to Freud, analysts need to approach the manifest dream content as a form of pictographic writing, similar to a rebus, and should not be misled by the visual image of the representation. Freud also links the dream script to ancient forms of expression and even singles out Chinese as the writing system that comes closest to the composition of the dream text. Drawing on Freud’s own comparison and the linguistic features of Chinese characters, this paper investigates whether Freud’s portrayal of the manifest dream content maintains its validity beyond the boundaries of Western alphabetic writing systems. Given the peculiarities of ancient Chinese dream interpretation, as exemplified in the Yu-sia-tsi, and the majority of semantic-phonetic symbols in contemporary Chinese, I argue that Chinese dreams are likely to contain ideograms instead of actual rebuses, and that these ideograms will exploit phonological rather than semantic connections. The composition of a Chinese dream is, therefore, radically different from that of a Western dream, and dream interpretation should proceed along the opposite path as that advocated by Freud: from phonology to logography and from sound to signification.

Beyond the Rebus Principle – Psychoanalysis and Chinese Dream Interpretation

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