The subject of psychoanalytic symbolism is vast and, contrary to popular ideas, not all psychoanalytic symbols are necessarily sexual. According to Freud, dream-symbols refer to ‘the human body as a whole, parents, children, brothers and sisters, birth, death, nakedness’. Sex, however, is of cardinal importance to psychoanalysts, and sexual symbolism (especially the symbolism of the male genitalia) has preoccupied a large number of practitioners.
As defined by Freud, a symbol is sensorial and concrete in itself, although the idea(s) it represents may be relatively abstract and complex. A symbol has multiple meanings and some resemblance to what it is supposed to represent, which in most cases is an unacknowledged idea or one the individual is not conscious of. Symbols appear in thought most readily when the individual is tired, experiencing neurotic problems, or dreaming. Dreams, Freud believed, represented the royal road to the unconscious, and ‘symbolism’, he asserted, ‘is perhaps the most remarkable chapter of the theory of dreams.’ It is in the interpretation of dreams that psychoanalytic symbolism has been most prominent, most colourful, and, for the hostile or the flippant, most risible. ‘The range of things which are given symbolic representation in dreams’, Freud pointed out, ‘is not wide … but the symbols for them are extremely numerous.’ The most apparently diverse dream-imagery, therefore, often turned out to indicate the same thing.
In recent years, psychoanalysis has been described as phallocentric and there is much evidence for this in Freud's discussion of dream-representations of the penis, which he described, seemingly without a trace of irony, as ‘the more striking and for both sexes the more interesting component of the genitals.’ The most basic phallic symbols in dreams were those resembling the organ in shape: sticks, umbrellas, posts, trees. Another kind of phallic symbol was provided by objects that could penetrate or injure: knives, daggers, or spears. Firearms belonged to both sets because of their shape and because they could injure. Other symbols of the phallus were provided by ‘objects from which water flows’ (taps, fountains, watering-cans) or by ‘objects which are capable of being lengthened’, which Freud exemplified with hanging lamps and extensible pencils.
Yet other symbols that the penis could be represented by were ‘balloons, flying-machines and most recently by Zeppelin airships’ because they all shared the ‘remarkable characteristic of the male organ … to rise up in defiance of the laws of gravity’. The same symbolic relation was expressed when the individual dreamt of flying: here, the phallus was treated ‘as the essence of the dreamer's whole person’ and the individual became one giant, flying, erection. Why, then, did women have dreams of flying? ‘Remember’, Freud urged, ‘that our dreams aim at being the fulfilments of wishes and that the wish to be a man is found so frequently, consciously or unconsciously, in women. Nor will anyone with a knowledge of anatomy be bewildered by the fact that it is possible for women to realize this wish through the same sensations as men. Women possess as part of their genitals a small organ similar to the male one; and this small organ, the clitoris, actually plays the same part in childhood and during the years before sexual intercourse as the large organ in men.’
Symbols that were, according to Freud, unquestionably phallic but could not be easily classified into a group were hats, overcoats, neckties (‘which hang down and are not worn by women’), cloaks, reptiles, fishes, ‘and above all the famous symbol of the snake’. Woods and bushes, predictably enough, symbolized pubic hair in both sexes.
For comparative purposes, it might be appropriate here to briefly list the symbolic representations of the female genitalia. ‘The complicated topography of the female genital parts’, observed Freud, ‘makes one understand how it is that they are often represented as landscapes, with rocks, woods and water, while the imposing mechanism of the male sexual apparatus explains why all kinds of complicated machinery which is hard to describe serve as symbols for it.’ The female genitals could also be represented by ‘all such objects as share their characteristic of enclosing a hollow space which can take something into itself’. Pits, cavities, vessels, bottles, boxes, jewel-cases, trunks, pockets, ships, cupboards, rooms, and, by slight extension, churches and chapels all fell under this category. (Keys opening locked rooms, however, were definitely male.) Among animals, ‘snails and mussels at least are undeniably female symbols’ and among bodily parts the mouth represented the genital orifice. The breasts were commonly symbolized in dreams and ‘these like the larger hemispheres of the female body, are represented by apples, peaches and fruit in general’. Flowers, however, always indicated the female genitals and often the idea of virginity; so did gardens. Sometimes in dreams, female symbols could represent the male genitals and vice versa; only the most clearly differentiated symbols (weapons, pockets, or trunks) were used constantly without any ambiguity. Sexual intercourse itself was not very prominent in the symbolic world, being represented by images of rhythmic activity (such as dancing or riding), violent experiences (being run over), being threatened with weapons, or climbing ladders or stairs.
What was the epistemic basis of these interpretations? The patient, after all, usually had no idea about the symbolic dimensions of his dreams and one could suspect that the analyst was dreaming up the interpretations.
Characteristically refusing to restrict himself to lofty medical or psychological discourse, Freud declared that the meanings of dream-symbols were far from imaginary: similar but far more easily understood symbols were found in fairy-tales, myths, jokes, idioms, sayings, songs, and folklore. ‘If we go into these sources in detail, we shall find so many parallels to dream-symbolism that we cannot fail to be convinced of our interpretations.’ There is certainly a grain of truth in this claim and, whatever one might think of the truth of psychoanalytic doctrine, one would probably acknowledge that the folklore of most cultures as well as their popular discourses were often crowded with genital symbolism. Such symbols are continually added to the cultural repertoire and used in ever more imaginative or ludicrous ways. Some of the more modern instances have been influenced, explicitly or unwittingly by psychoanalysis. Although Freud was none too pleased with the French Surrealists' interest in psychoanalysis in the 1920s, quite a large proportion of Surrealist imagery — one thinks, for instance, of the phallic neckties of Breton, the noses of Dali, and the bones of Tanguy — derived from Freudian symbolism. In a broader cultural sense, Freudian symbolism and, in particular, interpretations of phallic imagery, have become pervasive in fiction, the arts, and the media to the point of banality. ‘Sometimes’, Freud is supposed to have warned, ‘a cigar is only a cigar!’ The attribution of that story is dubious; its moral is not.
Freud, S. (1900/1953). The interpretation of dreams. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Vols 4, 5 (ed. J. Strachey et al.). Hogarth Press, London.
Freud, S. (1915–16/1961) Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. In Standard Edition, Vol. 15, (ed. J. Strachey et al.). Hogorth Press, London.
See also clitoris; dreaming; penis.