‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’

One of the lesser known things about the Real, and its manifestation through trauma, is its appearance in dreams. Of course, Freud himself did not have a concept of the Real, and neither did he have the concepts of Symbolic and Imaginary. Thus it was for Lacan to formalise what was already implicit but not articulated in Freud. And although dreams do not feature that often in Lacan’s work, there is one in particular, recounted by Freud in his magnum opus Die Traumdeutung1 that is particularly pertinent in relation to the Real and trauma. This is the dream of ‘The Burning Child’, which was told to Freud by one of his patients:

A father had been watching beside his child’s sick-bed for days and nights on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the door open so that he could see from his bedroom into the room in which his child’s body was laid out, with tall candles standing round it. An old man had been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body murmuring prayers. After a few hours’ sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’ He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it and found that the old watchman had dropped off to sleep and that the wrappings and one of the arms of his beloved child’s dead body had been burned by a lighted candle that had fallen on them.2

Freud argues that, in line with his theory that dreams are wish fulfilments, the purpose of the dream was to prolong the sleep of the father for a few moments more because in it his dead child was still alive:

The dead child behaved in the dream like a living one: he himself warned his father, came to his bed, and caught him by the arm, just as he had probably done on the occasion from the memory of which the first part of the child’s words in the dream were derived. For the sake of the fulfilment of this wish the father prolonged his sleep by one moment. The dream was preferred to a waking reflection because it was able to show the child as once more alive. If the father had woken up first and then made the inference that led him to go into the next room, he would, as it were, have shortened his child’s life by that moment of time.3

Lacan, however, notes that the dream itself contains another, more terrifying Real, which is what wakes the father. And this is not simply that the dream is ‘telling’ the father to wake up because of the events in the adjoining room. Rather, it’s the reproach of the son to his father:

Is there not more reality in this message than in the noise by which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the room next door. Is not the missed reality that caused the death of the child expressed in these words? Freud himself does not tell us that we must recognize in this sentence what perpetuates for the father those words forever separated from the dead child that were said to him, perhaps, Freud supposes, because of the fever—but who knows, perhaps these words perpetuate the remorse felt by the father that the man he has put at his son’s bedside to watch over him may not be up to his task: die Besorgnis dass dergreise Wdchter seiner Aufgabe nichtgewachsen sein dürfte, he may not be up to his job, in fact, he has gone to sleep.4

In Freud’s account of the dream there is an implication that the child had died of fever, which is what Lacan is hinting at in this quote. So perhaps the child is reproaching his father for not having done something sooner to prevent his death. And there is also the possible reproach that the father had entrusted the task of looking over his son’s body to someone who was not up to the job.

As Žižek points out:

The subject does not awake himself when the external irritation becomes too strong; the logic of his awakening is quite different. First he constructs a dream, a story which enables him to prolong his sleep, to avoid awakening into reality. But the thing he encounters in the dream , the reality of his desire, the Lacanian Real – in our case, the reality of the child’s reproach to his father , ‘Can’t you see that I am burning?’, implying the father’s fundamental guilt – is more terrifying than so-called external reality itself, and that is why he awakes: to escape the Real of his desire, which announces itself in the terrifying dream.5

As Žižek goes on to argue, essentially the father awakens so he can carry on ‘dreaming’, in the sense that by returning to ‘external reality’ he can escape from something even more horrifying. Of course, this is not how we normally think about dreams, and especially about Freud’s idea which sees dreams as wish fulfilments. Freud spends a lot of time and effort in Die Traumdeutung justifying this theory, particularly when it comes to dreams which appear to suggest the opposite. Of course, neither Lacan or Žižek are suggesting that the father’s desire was recognise his own guilt with regards to his son’s death. What’s at stake here is the Real of such a desire, which is something quite different.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Freud is correct in assuming that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong the ‘life’ of his son; in other words, in the dream his son appears by his father’s bedside very much alive. But then his whispers in his father’s ear: ‘Vater, siehst du denn nicht, daß ich verbrenne?‘6 This is the Real of the father’s desire; this is what lies behind his desperate wish that his son be alive, if only for a few moments longer. Interestingly, it’s the words that betray the Real of the dream rather than the image; in other words, what we do not have here (as far as we can tell from Freud’s account of the dream) is a ghostly visitation, a spectral appearance of the son. Rather, it’s those fatal words that reveal the awful truth to the father and triggers his awakening.  And perhaps this just reinforces the fact that the Real is an effect, a function, of language, rather than some imaginary ‘outside’ of language.

And what is this truth? Not, as far as we can tell, that the boy is actually conveying to his father that, next door, his dead body is being consumed by the flames. If this were the case then it would be more likely that an image of a burning child would have constituted the dream. It would also suggest some very strange and supernatural process was in play, in the sense that the dead child was actually able to communicate, through the dream, with his father. Leaving aside this possibility, fascinating as it is, the Real truth, the Real trauma, contained in those words is that his son is already dead from the burning fever which perhaps the father could have done something to prevent.  And is there also something of a burning resentment in those whispered words…?

Freud’s term for this Real of the dream is its navel (sometimes also described as its kernel):

There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unravelled and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown…The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought. It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium.7

This ‘tangle of dream thoughts’, this ‘meshwork’, constitutes a point of singularity for the dream; or as Eyers likes to put it, “a point defined by the signifier-in-isolation”.8 Using an analogy from physics, this is the point, within the centre of a black hole, where space-time completely folds in on itself. And like their physical counterpart, these semiotic black holes are completely opaque and have other rather unusual characteristics, such as the slowing down of time as one approaches their event horizon. This particular characteristic, I would argue, gives rise to what we might define as trauma time, time that is essentially frozen and dislocated from historical time. This is something I have already explored in my post on time and the Holocaust.9

And perhaps this is yet another example of the many paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of Freud’s work, which in turn reflect the paradoxical and contradictory nature of psychical reality itself. For Freud, dreams were essentially wish fulfilments, and yet at their centre sits a trauma, a ‘black hole’ around which orbits the subject’s desire, and which Freud recognised as the dream’s navel. But this ‘black hole’ is not ‘empty’; rather it is the raw stuff of the (semiotic) universe itself.   Relating this back to the dream of the burning child, we could say the dream is a Symbolic construction (the desire for the child to live just a bit longer…) that revolves around a Real core or point of singularity, which is not a lack (the child gone, lost) but a Real presence: a dead child who reproaches his father.

  1. The Interpretation of Dreams []
  2. Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part), in: The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, Vol V, pp. 339–627 (p. 509 []
  3. ibid p.510 []
  4. Lacan, J. (1979) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin, p.58 []
  5. Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, p.45 []
  6. ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’ This is Strachey’s translation. Lacan and Žižek translate this as, ‘Father, can’t you see that I am burning?’ []
  7. Freud, S. (1900) ‘The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part)’, in: The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press,Vol V, pp. 339–627 (p.525), my italics. []
  8. Eyers, T. (2012) Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 48 []
  9. http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/touching-the-real-2/time-history-and-the-holocaust/ []