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But it is only a dream?

We are pleased to distribute the text of the intervention planned to open the XII Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis, that was to have taken place in Buenos Aires this year, on the theme “Dream. Its interpretation and use in Lacanian treatment.” Towards 2022 and the next Congress in Paris, let’s read it today! The Editorial Team.

The Interpretation of Dreams is a book which is a little older than one hundred and twenty years. It is also the name of a worksite opened by Freud, of an enterprise in which many rushed to participate. Initially, this book was also the only psychoanalytic manual open to contributions from everyone. At a certain point, Freud fixed the current state of the text and no longer wished to change it. Some problems that would be encountered later, notably regarding beyond the pleasure principle are no longer included; likewise, a chapter written by Otto Rank included in the volume for a while was deleted. In a letter to Samuel Jankélévitch in 1911, Freud considers that the work is not translatable into French.i

Dreamer and interpreter
Freud wondered if dreams could be communicated. In 1930 he wrote in a note to The Interpretation of Dreams: “that in scarcely any instance have I brought forward the complete interpretation of one of my own dreams, as it is known to me”.ii
It must be understood that what Freud feared was that the desire of the dreamer, of the subject Freud here, would be erased. He was even able to suggest to translators that they use their own dreams instead of hisiii, which for example Abraham A. Brill did, in the United States. This undoubtedly sheds light as to why Freud could say in the New Introductory Lectures of Psychoanalysis that, “dreams are not, in themselves social utterances, not a means of giving information. Nor, indeed, do we understand what the dreamer was trying to say to us, and he himself is equally in the dark”.iv
Silvia Baudini and Fabian Naparstek in their presentation of the XII Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis, emphasised that “Dreams are not transparent!” v If Freud made this remark, it is because that at a certain point, it had become a parlour game to talk about ones dreams and to interpret them. A new social bond had been found! Freud’s approach follows another path.
The method of interpreting Freud’s dreams involves free association, which allows access to the “latent dream thoughts “. The method of association presupposes “to concern ourselves as little as possible […] with the manifest dream”.vi According to Freud, the interpretation of the associations is only a prerequisite for the analyst’s interpretation, which formulates “what the patient has only touched on”. The formulations thus communicated to the patient supposes a work of construction by the analyst. Freud is not afraid to intervene: we “[…] fill in the hints, draw undeniable conclusions, and give explicit utterance to what the patient has only touched on in his associations”.vii Indeed, for him, what thus seems to be added to the dream by way of associations or by construction, by reading the symbols in particular, is part of the dream. The dream interprets, but it is also everything that will come to comment on it, to modulate it, to associate with it, to interpret it, that is also part of it – it belongs to the dream! We can see here that Freud is not a psychologist. Freud, with the Traumdeutung, is the dreamer and interpreter inseparably.

The hole that awakens
If the dream is not to be viewed as a communication, it is because it serves another purpose. Freud notes that if the dream serves the ego and the desire for sleep, it mainly satisfies a drive desire [un désir pulsionnel] in the form of a fulfilled hallucinated desire.viii This satisfaction of desire is experienced as present. And, for Freud this desire can be formulated in a sentence. Thus, the dream oscillates between images, figuration and therefore semblance, but also enunciation, language. Above all, it provides a real satisfaction.
At first Lacan wanted to reduce this satisfaction to an effect of grammar, to the verbal form of the accomplished in order, later, to recognise in the dream the presence of a plus-de-jouir. It is indeed the real drive, this jouissance itself that risks provoking the awakening of the dreamer. Lacan in 1975 tells us that what Freud designated by this real drive is above all a hole, in language, in the signifier, in the body, which is the origin of the subject.ix

Not wanting to wake up
How then to avoid waking up? By saying “But it’s only a dream!”
This raises the question of the dream within the dream. For Freud to describe the dream of the dream, in its very content, does not devalue it, but seeks to separate it from reality: “[…] if a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event – the strongest affirmation of it. The dream-work makes use of dreaming as a form of repudiation, and so confirms the discovery that dreams are wish-fulfilments”.x The dream within the dream is thus a trace of a refusal, which marks that it is indeed the fulfilment of desire and basically an index of the real drive. It’s only a dream marks for us the trace of the real of jouissance, in so far as the subject refuses it.
We find this theme a little further on in the text: but it’s only a dream aims at putting to sleep an instance of censorship that would like to interrupt the dream: “In my view the contemptuous critical judgement, ‘it’s only a dream’ appears in a dream when the censorship, which is never quite asleep, feels that it has been taken unawares by a dream which has already been allowed through.”xi The dream is devalued to allow it to continue without provoking an awakening.
Lacan starts from this point when he comments on the remark (of Nacht, in Psychoanalysis of Today). “A dream after all, is but a dream”, asking, “Does it mean nothing that Freud recognised desire in dreams?”xii This remark is equivalent in fact, to not wanting to wake up, not waking up to the encounter with Freud’s desire that is so present in what he transmits to us about the dream. For if Freud recognised a desire in the dream, it is the desire which manifests itself and that of the psychoanalyst in particular. Freud noticed that few people could decipher their dreams as he did.

The dream work
In the Écrits Lacan argues, but it’s only a dream, is a remark of the subject, where it meets a desire which is not subject.xiii It is therefore not the subject who accomplishes the dream work, but the dream itself. Its first work is that of distortion – such is Lacan’s translation of Freud’s Enstellung. If things are like this, displaced but above all distorted, it is because no signifier can agree with a signified, there is a sliding of one over the other. There is a sliding because in the dream the links between the signifier to the signified are undone. The dream shows us lalangue at work. In other words, the dream uses an aspect of language, that is to say this sliding of signifier over the signified. To show what? A real that escapes and, in fact, attacks the links of signification!
What is really at stake in the dream is not representable because it touches on the real. The Enstellung is, for Freud, nothing other than the trace of this real, after which, his desire as an analyst leads him. Lacan also translated Enstellung as ex-sistence. What exists in the dream? First of all it is the drives. And if the drives ex-sist, according to Lacan’s word, it is because they are, par excellence, also what is displaced. They are not in the place they should be. Lacan has tied the impossible to write, and to know, with this real drive: “This is what Freud means when he speaks about the navel of the dream. […] So, it designates an analogy, entirely analogous to what you have just designated there as the real drive”.xiv Lacan uses the same term for desire in the dream and for the drives: Enstellung, displacement and ex-sistence. What is out of place and cannot be, is the sexual.
For Freud, the essence of the dream is not in the latent thoughts brought to light by free association. The essence is the dream work. It is a question of knowing what is the mechanism that allows us to pass from the manifest dream to the latent thoughts, that is to say, this work that presupposes the effect of the censorship that is always at work. If there was no censorship why speak then of desire, repression, latency? If Freud is more interested in the work of the dream it is because he finds there the trace that shows, a distortion. The distortion sexuality introduces is what makes him certain, and it is also what he will seek elsewhere in his Moses. He will look for the trace of an altered history, a crime, a substitution. For Freud, it is also the trace of a murder. From Totem and Taboo to Moses by way of Oedipus, ex-sistence is tied to the impossible figure of the dead father of jouissance.
Freud’s contemporaries were seduced by the interpretations provided by free association, by the latent, much less by the sexual. Adler wanted the fulfilment of desire to feed the tendency to be reassured. Jung, for his part, wanted to replace Freud’s dreams with the dreams of patients in the Traumdeutung. They dreamed of a quiet dream! This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Freud decided to write in the preface to the second edition: “It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death – that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss of a man’s life”.xv Freud follows the path indicated by his desire. This desire passes through the work of the dream, as the very trace of the repression of sexuality.

A sexuated want-to-be
Lacan intervenes by introducing a new term to grasp this question of desire in the dream. This term is that of demand. This obscure demand is at the heart of the dream, at the very underside [en deça] of what desire is, close to the drive. As Lacan emphasises later, before wanting to tell us something, there is, in the dream a it wants: “when we interpret a dream, what guides us, is certainly not what it means nor is it what it means to say but what, in saying, wants?”xvi
In fact, this obscure, almost real demand, which when explicit becomes transitive, is also what must be overcome to hollow out a beyond, a void, which ex-sists. It is desire that ex-sists to the demand [à la demande]. It is in this way that, if the dream also requires its interpretation, it is not really given satisfaction, so that what is satisfied in the dream comes to light and that the unconscious is interpreted [s’interprète].
It would take time for Lacan to realise that the void, in the dream, is occupied by the object cause of desire. There is demand in Freud’s Wunsch, but as Lacan pointed out in 1977: “The dream differs, [différeud], differentiating in a way that is certainly not obvious, and quite enigmatic – it is enough to see the trouble that Freud takes –what must be called a demand and a desire. The dream demands things, but here again, the German language does not serve Freud, because he finds no other way of designating it than to call it a wish, Wunsch which basically between demand and desire.”xvii
For Lacan, in this lack, in this void beyond, it is a question of being, not of having. Desire is not in the field of having, it touches being. What is desire is not the subject, but presence of the want-to-be [manque-à-être] in the dream. Only, it is a sexuated want-to-be [un manque-à-être sexué], of a sexuated one that speaks. The dreamer is a parlêtre. Sex, in the dream as elsewhere, is a saying [un dire]. Lacan is the only one to grasp that the saying of Freud is: There is no sexual relation. And so, to this end, there is the dream.

The fault of the masked dreamer
Lacan points out “that the dream, Freud tells us, is in essentially egoistical, that in everything the dream presents to us, we have to recognise the instance of the Ich, under a mask. But as well as it is in so far as it is not articulated as Ich, it masks itself, it is present”.xviii And it is precisely for this reason that this absent “I” [je] is represented in the dream by a crowd, that of all the little others who populate the dream and who are also the dreamer, but never “I”. The desiring one is thus condemned to be dispersed and to appear under a social mask.
Borges says: “masks have always scared me “xix – he has that in common with my little girl. As a child, one is afraid of what is behind the mask of the adult Other. As an adult, one may, like Borges, think of tearing off the mask: “I’m afraid to tear off this mask because I am afraid to see my true face, which I imagine to be atrocious. Underneath, there may be leprosy, evil, or something more terrifying than anything I can imagine”. The awakening will always be an attempt to extract the subject from this dreaming and dreaming crowd so that I find myself in the awakening. But I do not want to know what is behind the crowd and its masks. It is a false awakening. Today we are advised to stay masked!
Lacan notes therefore that the desire to sleep is complicit in the desire to dream by avoiding the reality one encounters in awakening. But it is complicit up to a certain point. It does not want desiring to be unveiled, namely the little a, the subject, as it – not I [je] but it [il] – is an object a. The crowd also serves this concealment of our being of a.
This is what the dream of the butterfly says: “Once, Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi, Suddenly, he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.xx Thus, in the same chapter “On Unification” Tchouang-Tseu can say: “While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. […] And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman. How dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming too.”
For Lacan, Tchouang Tseu is indeed a butterfly, whose wings are studded with eyespots, a butterfly which is a gaze. But, deep down, wasn’t Lacan’s dream to “realise” to make present this object of the dream that is elusive upon awakening, an object that limits itself to knowledge, to the semblances of the world, an object of a dream or the dream of an object?
The dream work does not stop there, not at distortion, not at the object, It is as if it is not sufficient that things are distorted. Secondary elaboration is needed. There are holes in the dream. Well, secondary elaboration is going to fill them. It makes the dream understandable, that is to say communicable and therefore common. There is thus a function that aims to construct a façade to the dream, to make it socialised, communicable, presentable and coherent. This façade is often borrowed from fantasy, from daydreaming, according to Freud, or from reverie which he classifies it on the side of the imaginary.xxi These fantasies are always, according to Freud, built on memories of childhood “as do some of the Baroque palaces of Rome to the ancient ruins whose pavements and columns have provided the material for the more recent structures.” xxii
The dream also allows for the appearance, in passing, of elements directly indexing jouissance. This is what Freud described by the term Überdeutlich, generally translated as “ultra clear”.
The Uber is in fact at work at every stage. The dream makes it that the unrepresentable is translated by the representable. For example, certain elements of the dream come to represent others by transference. Transference is above all a means of the dream – it is the Übertragung. Therefore, the Dora case is both an analysis of a dream and of transference. Moreover, the patient’s conviction must pass through a higher level, that of Überzeugung. This is provided by the analyst’s construction when it is communicated to the patient. This conviction is also what the repetitive character of the dream brings. For Lacan what awakens is not reality but missed reality. And what is missing is the reality of the cause itself, which escapes. For Freud, in the dream of the burning child, it is the father who misses the reality of his son. The father’s fault is grasped in the sleep of another, an old man, who makes the missing reality. In the dream, look for the fault!

In the void of missed reality
It is in this void of missed reality in the dream that psychical reality comes to be lodged. Lacan tells us not to interpret the father. But isn’t this Freud’s fault in this dream, in his desire connected to the question of the father? Freud, the father of analysts as well, becomes the one who provide us with little reality. For Freud, this lack of the father’s reality creates a place, a beach. In this place a desire and another reality, that of the unconscious can be lodged. Here it is, a novelty that gives the world of reality a new sense on the question of realism.
Instead of what is missing comes repetition. Lacan in Seminar XI, speaks about the dream of the burning child as an homage to the missed reality: “reality that can no longer produce itself except by repeating itself endlessly, in some never attained awakening”. xxiii

What of us is the most real
For Lacan, Freud’s dream indicates an awakening towards the real, a real that goes beyond the question of the father. The absence of awakening to the reality of the unconscious, the awakening that has become impossible, becomes more real than that which the reality of the movement of the world provides us. It is more than an awakening. It is more for Lacan, than the reality that the Freudian father brings, that which passes through castration. It is also more than what the “reality” of science promises us. For Lacan, reality in the dream is a means that, by its very lack, provides us with access to something else, to what is at stake in the real of the unconscious.
And notice that repetition has the burden of this new reality. The repetition of the traumatic dream restores to the subject the imprint of a reality that is impossible to grasp, that of the traumatic event itself, which has now become a “psychic reality”. It is where awakening is impossible that it provides us, in its impossibility, the awakening to that something of us which is most real.

The dream is a blunder
What happens when we dream? Borges, who asks the question, evokes Shakespeare and suggests that, in the dream, it may be “that we are someone, someone who is what Shakespeare called “‘the thing I am’, perhaps we are ourselves, or the Divinity”.xxiv
Lacan tells us in the Preface to the English-Language Edition of Seminar XI, that the unconscious dreams of the truth. One could think that it dreams of truth because it is Freudian, because of its transference to Freud. This truth, for Lacan, is part of the mirage, of the dream, “from which only lies can be expected”.xxv That of the symptom, for example, proton pseudos said Freud. The dream is not the symptom. Lacan, in Seminar II tells us that they only have grammar in common. He adds: “They are as different as an epic poem is from a work on thermodynamics.”xxvi What distinguishes them is the duration, the time: “a symptom is always inserted in a global economic state of the subject, whereas the dream is a state localised in time, in extremely particular conditions. The dream is only a part of the subject’s activity, whereas the symptom is spread over several fields”. In fact, the symptom is the permanence of a mode of enjoyment, it is the choice of a partner, it is the real when it is impossible to bear, it is what weaves an existence, it is an art. Let us note that dream and symptom are a part of writing – even if the dream is on the side of literature, more of a transference poem, and the symptom, on the side of the matheme. At the end of the treatment, this distinction fades away a little. The dream takes the turn of the symptom, it gets into tune with it. The dream is an instance that one dreams will last forever. And in this case it is, as Lacan points out, the dream of an awakening: “The absence of time is something we dream about, it is what we call eternity, and this dream consists in imagining that we wake up.” xxvii
Our symptom, with Lacan, is the real. Is a dream only a dream then? Can the real of the dream, this hole that we want to plug with the tapestry of our fantasies, also come to displace the symptom? Freud showed us a royal road with the dream, no doubt because it is also a piece of the real of the one blunder. The dream is a blunder because, without a true awakening, it misses as well. It misses reality. It misses the awakening. A dream is a piece of chance that beckons to us, with what is missing and succeeds in making us touch a piece of the real.
What makes us say that it is only a dream is also that we would like to weave our dreams into a destiny. But each dream, taken seriously, punctures any idea of this destiny. So, they do not bind us, but give us a way out. To say it’s only a dream is the blunder to not wake up. Probably because the dream “is a work of fiction”.xxviii Dreams are not unrelated to our fantasies. This is its strength, its poetry and its weakness with regard to the real. Lacan made this a litmus test for analysts: has your symptom brought you out of the mirage of the real, has your unconscious begun to dream of the real rather than the true? Can you show us this?
What do we need to wake up today?
But, you may ask, what do we need to wake up? Our times show that if we sleep collectively we will soon put an end to human dreams and end up killing the planet. The human symptom is pollution: the presence of man is identified by waste. This is not new.
What also kills the planet is the scientistic nightmare, which can be seductive, because it makes believe that it will rid us of the real, to put into place the verified that excludes the real. Scientism is a discourse that enjoins us not to take our dreams seriously, thus banishing Freud. This discourse has not grasped that there are reals: there is the real of science, of art and literature and of psychoanalysis, that is, of the sinthome. The symptom shows us “the artifice of the channels where jouissance comes to cause what is read as the world”.xxix Freud’s quest to assert psychic reality continues in what is shown today, Jacques-Alain Miller tell us: “The body event that is jouissance appears as the true cause of the psychic reality”.xxx
Taking the measure of this threefold knot of the real would perhaps allow us to avoid throwing back into the sea and beyond our borders, all the dreamers, all those who want a better life. Psychoanalysis, with dreams, shows us holes, gaps where the possible can be lodged. As J.-A. Miller points out, Lacan, starting from being, was able to grasp what makes a hole [ce qui fait trou] in the dream. Joyce also led us there in his own way, since Finnegans Wake is also a dream that turns around the hole, a hole that lies in a loop of lalangue. Contemporary fantasies – of which science constitutes the bulk of the troops, when it is scientistic- are there to plug the holes that literature, which requires the dream, and psychoanalysis after it, continue to dig. Scientistic fantasies promise us trans-humanism, which poorly conceals the fact that it is always a transsexualism that is really more pansexual than Freud and aims to ensure a plus-de-jouir that already veils for us the loss of the jouissance that it would take.
The work of the dream is to keep the hole open, to keep the trace of the Ent-stellung, that is to say the ex-sistence of a there is [il y a]. It is to maintain nothing less than the distorted trace of human ex-sistence, of its original exile; an ex-sistence that is not human without dreams, without the unconscious.
At the end of the twentieth century, we thought we were out of subordination, or even subjection to the father, to the law. We then avoided the father, believing we were escaping the worst. But if we no longer dream together then we will be in worse than subjection, in silent allegiance to scientism, to liberal capitalism, to “illiberal democracies”, to health bureaucracies. We will camp in this false brotherhood of the same that excludes all others, all dreams and dreamers.
Democracy is the condition of psychoanalysis, but the unconscious and its dreamers is the condition of democracy.

i. The original French version of this text was published in Lacan Quotidian, no. 896. Available here:

ii. Cf. letter cited by Marinelli L. & Mayer A., Rêver avec Freud, L’histoire collective de l’interpretation du reve, Aubier, 2009, p. 179-180.

iii. Freud S., “The method of interpreting dreams” in J. Strachey, trans., The Interpretation of dreams, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V, Vintage, London, 2001, fn 2, p. 105.

iv. Cf. Bernays E., Correspondance avec Freud, trans. S. Aumercier, Le Coq-héron, no 194, September 2008, p. 86. Available at :

v. Freud, S., “Lecture XXIX Revision of Dream-theory”, in J. Strachey trans., New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XXII., Vintage Press, London, 2001, p. 9.

vi. Baudini S. & Naparstek F., Dream Its interpretation and use in Lacanian treatment. Presentation of the XII WAP congress. Aavailable online at:

vii. Freud S., New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, op. cit., p. 10.

viii. Ibid, p.12.

ix. Cf. ibid., p. 19.

x. Cf. Lacan J., “L’ombilic du rêve est un trou. Jacques Lacan répond à une question de Marcel Ritter,” La Cause du désir, n° 102, June 2019, p. 35-36.

xi. Freud, S., The Interpretation of dreams, op.cit., p.338.

xii. Ibid., p.489.

xiii. Lacan J., “The direction of the treatment and principles of its power”, in J.-A. Miller, ed., Écrits, The first Complete Edition in English, B. Fink, trans., Norton and Co., New York: London, 2006, p. 318.

xiv. Cf. ibid., p. 525.

xv. Lacan J., “L’ombilic du rêve est un trou… “, op. cit., p. 37.

xvi. Freud, S. The Interpretation of dreams, op.cit., p. xxvi.

xvii. Lacan J., Le Séminaire, livre XVI, D’un Autre à l’autre, text established by J.-A. Miller, Paris, Seuil, coll. Champ Freudien, 2006, p. 198.

xviii. Lacan J., “Ouverture de la Section clinique”, Ornicar ?, n° 9, April 1977, p. 10.

xix. Lacan J., Seminar XIV, The Logic of the fantasy, lesson of 18 January, 1967. Unpublished.

xx. Borges J. L., Conférences, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Folio essais, 1985, p. 43 & 44.

xxi. Tchouang-Tseu, Le Rêve du papillon, Paris, Albin Michel, 1994, p. 34 & 33. English translation from Watson, B., Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (3rd ed.), New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Available at

xxii. Cf. Freud S., The Interpretation of dreams, op. cit., p. 491.

xxiii. Ibid., p.492.

xxiv. “Preface to the English-Language Edition of Seminar XI”, in J.-A. Miller, ed.,The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, A. Sheridan, trans. Norton and Co., New York: London, 1991, p.58.

xxv. Borges J. L., op. cit., p. 38.

xxvi. Lacan J., “Preface to the English-Language Edition of Seminar XI”, op.cit., p. viii.

xxvii. Lacan J., The Seminar, book II, in J.-A. Miller, ed., The ego in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, S. Tomaselli, trans., Norton & Co., New York: London, 1988, p.122.

xxviii. Lacan J., Une pratique de bavardage, text established by J.-A. Miller, Ornicar ?, n° 19, January, 1979, p. 5.

xxix. Borges J. L., op. cit., p. 36.

xxx. Lacan J., “Postface to Seminar XI“ , Autres écrits, op. cit., p. 507.

xxxi. Miller J.-A., Desire is being . Available at:

Translated by Joanne Conway
Reviewed by Bogdan Wolf