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Psychiatrist Ruhs: "Dreams have something to do with desires"

The elevator stops on the top floor of a Wilhelminian-style building in Vienna's 1st district. The door to August Ruhs' practice is open, the waiting room is orphaned. No sign of the psychiatrist. After walking up and down for a minute or two, you decide to knock on a closed door. A few moments later, the professor allows entry into his study and asks to be seated. No, not on the couch against the wall. What a pity. The conversation can begin.

DEFAULT: I once dreamed that a pickle was growing out of my thumb, which was surgically removed, but kept growing back. How would you interpret that as an analyst?

Ruhs: Not at all in a hurry. In the psychoanalytic dream interpretation I do not use symbol interpretations. I am waiting for associations that are connected with the dream and that must come from the dreamer. I need more context.

DEFAULT: I'll ask you again later. There is a website called If you enter a term in a search field, the page spits out an interpretation. I tried "white cat", whereupon I read that a tender love for another person was budding. So you don't think so?

Ruhs: No, such things are overcome by psychoanalytic dream interpretation. Up until the teachings of Sigmund Freud, there was a tendency to fix symbols on one meaning. But even with this method it was clear that a symbol can mean something completely different for one person than it does for another. A dream is always built into a context that also affects the life story of the dreaming. The associations are important.

DEFAULT: How would you explain Freud's dream interpretation in psychoanalysis to a layperson in a few words?

Ruhs: The dream is an event that I have the impression of experiencing something in it. The whole thing is clear and precise in front of me. Even so, I do not experience this perception in the same way that I would experience it during the day. The perception in the dream is mostly characterized by the fact that it is removed from life. It seems strange, nonsensical and contradictory to me. So what's the point of the dream? I can grasp that by questioning what comes to my mind when the dream comes about.

DEFAULT: To put it succinctly: Where is the origin of dreams?

Ruhs: Dreams have something to do with desires. That is why it is also called dream vacation, dream woman or dream car, etc. When I put a dream into a larger context and think about it, then it turns out that the dream is ultimately a wish fulfillment, which is not immediately recognized as such.

DEFAULT: Why not?

Ruhs: There are wishes that one should not or should not have. It can also be that you do not allow yourself to do so. These can be bad or aggressive desires, etc. In sleep consciousness, the function of conscience is somewhat diminished, and it is easier for the desire to express itself. In the process, omissions occur, scenes that are rearranged. For example, one sees a burning house, in reality it is about an inflammation in the body etc. Such changes lead to the fact that the wish that is in the dream is not immediately recognized.

DEFAULT: And then people like you help?

Ruhs: The associations help here. Either one is prepared to look at them oneself despite all the mechanisms of repression, or one goes into psychoanalysis.

DEFAULT: Do you recommend everyone to grapple with their dreams, even if they are not lying down on your couch?

Ruhs: Well, dreams are worth looking at when they are filled with discomfort or fear in order to get rid of something that has to do with fear, shame, or guilt. One can only be amazed at how ingeniously one can keep repressed excitement away. If you like to deal with yourself, with a little imagination you can figure out one thing or the other. It is important to note that the dreamer in the dream can also be represented in the dream by the other participants.

DEFAULT: So it gets even more complicated.

Ruhs: It is about different instances, for example the id, the ego and the superego.

DEFAULT: And what are the three of them doing that long dream?

Ruhs: Let's say that it dreams that I am walking around the street naked. The superego then says: "You don't do that!". The ego tries to mediate so that the wish of the id can reach dream consciousness, and the super-ego says: "Okay" - but only on the condition that the dreamer does not experience this for himself.

DEFAULT: Rather?

Ruhs: He dreams that someone else is crossing the street naked. That would be an example of a defense process in the dream event.

DEFAULT: There are dreams that you remember for years, others are forgotten when you wake up. Why is that?

Ruhs: Basically there is a tendency to forget dreams because they are products of the undoing of repression. In the dream this becomes a kind of distorted representation in which there is always frowned upon material.

DEFAULT: What do you mean frowned upon?

Ruhs: Let me explain it this way: The dream is the continuation of a thought that is only marginally noticed during the day - something that is more likely to be suppressed and reappears in the dream in this distorted representation; something that is pushed aside due to its uncomfortable content. This is called the day's remainder.

DEFAULT: What could such a thought be?

Ruhs: Let's say you meet someone you know who wants to meet you for dinner. You don't really feel like it, but out of politeness you accept anyway. So you don't like doing this, but then you suppress this thought.

DEFAULT: And how can it come back in a dream?

Ruhs: You might dream that you are sitting on the train and a conductor asks you where you want to go. Your answer is "Hungary". There is nothing more you can remember the next day. When analyzing the dream it could come out that the word "reluctant" was transformed into "Hungary" by the dream work. You didn't dare to tell your friend that you didn't want to come. But since you are embarrassed, put it aside and just remember the train to Hungary.

DEFAULT: This means that what does not get along well with my consciousness is more likely to be suppressed and forgotten when I wake up.

Ruhs: In short: yes. These dreams show me something that I really don't want to know about. One could go on and say: The unconscious is something that a person does not want to know about, but is still interested in it. Because it's about the puzzling, the sensual and often also about the emotional.

DEFAULT: Quite a few people keep telling about the dream that they have to take the mathematics Matura again.

Ruhs: These so-called Matura dreams often relate to exam situations that you have mostly mastered anyway. You wake up after such a dream and think: "Oh wow, thank God I made it anyway."

DEFAULT: But why do you keep dreaming about it?

Ruhs: One would have to look at the context. It may be that you cheated on the exam in question and there is still a remnant of guilty conscience. So the success wasn't entirely deserved. So if, for example, someone does something on any day that is not quite right - that doesn't have to be a bad thing - it could lead to such a high school graduation dream. We call something like this association complex.

DEFAULT: And that means in this case?

Ruhs: First, I can push the story back in time. And secondly, I can free myself from the incident by knowing that "I passed the exam anyway".

DEFAULT: Is it true that dreams last a lot shorter than we perceive them to be?

Ruhs: That's true. The temporality of dream and waking consciousness drifts apart. But even when we are awake we experience different periods of time, otherwise there would not be the statement "Now the time has passed quickly".

DEFAULT: Or the impression that the outward journey took longer than the return journey, even though you covered both routes in the same time.

Ruhs: Exactly. In the dream this is accentuated even more. Take the following dream: you are walking through a beautiful landscape, you pass a church and you hear the bell of the church. At the same moment you wake up because the alarm goes off. That means, in the short time in which the alarm clock starts to ring, you are dreaming a whole sequence, which at the same time only lasts a fraction of a second. You are also doing this because you want to extend the time.

DEFAULT: Because I want to sleep longer?

Ruhs: Generally, yes. Freud recognized that it is a task of the dream to watch out for sleep. The dream helps me not to wake up. This can be useful, but it can also have negative consequences.

DEFAULT: For example?

Ruhs: A well-known example is that you dream that you have a physical need, for example you feel the urge to urinate. In a dream you go to a toilet. The next moment you wake up, but it's too late, the bed is wet. That is, the dream tried to settle the matter for you so that you can go back to sleep.

DEFAULT: You still can't think of anything about my cucumber dream?

Ruhs: Well (laughs) A knee-jerk assumption would be a castration dream. But that would be a symbol interpretation that doesn't have to be right. I would have to find some hidden meaning. It can correspond to a good as well as a bad wish.

DEFAULT: I am relieved.

Ruhs: I don't know what you associate with the term cucumber.

DEFAULT: I can't stand cucumbers. Whereby we land on the subject of nightmares. When is a dream considered a nightmare?

Ruhs: Nightmares are dreams that are associated with such strong negative feelings that one wakes up through them and remains under the impression of this affect for a long time. This can be traced back, for example, to the fact that the origin lies in a traumatic experience that has not yet been integrated into the soul as a closed and accepted thing. It stays like a foreign body and pops up again and again. It is connected with a feeling of topicality.

DEFAULT: For example with war neuroses.

Ruhs: Exactly. In this regard, memories and dreams haunt people for decades, and often until they die.

DEFAULT: How does the unconscious determine when such nightmares appear?

Ruhs: Through associative elements that in some way affect this complex associated with the trauma.

DEFAULT: For example?

Ruhs: Someone walks on the street and sees a piece of clothing on a passer-by whose color irritates him, for example a strange red that gives rise to an uncomfortable feeling. Because of this color association, the person affected may remember an accident in which he was scared to death. This then possibly leads to a "repetition" in the dream.

DEFAULT: There are dream researchers who recommend writing down dream actions and rewriting them to get rid of recurring nightmares. What do you make of it?

Ruhs: This is definitely recommended, as is diary. It is said, "write something of your soul". It is about transforming an emotional content in small portions into something good. For example, a negatively charged instinctual desire is converted into an action that is no longer questionable or maybe even brings something positive. The impulse to murder could lead a person to become a crime novelist. It could also be sadistic impulses that turn someone into a surgeon. Or criminal impulses that lead to someone becoming minister of justice. We need these forms of transformation so that we can endure life better. Language is responsible for this, as it tries to make something incomprehensible understandable.

DEFAULT: What was the last thing you dreamed of?

Ruhs: That I took the train to Hungary. No, kidding aside: You don't want to spread your inner workings in the newspaper. There would be a point at which the dreams would better escape consciousness. (Michael Hausenblas, RONDO Exclusive, November 13th, 2020)

August Ruhs was born in Graz in 1946. He is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, group psychoanalyst and psychodramatist, teaches at the University of Vienna, the Medical University of Vienna, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Academy and in the Vienna Working Group for Psychoanalysis.

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