In the devastated aftermath of World War I, Freud was brought up short by the so-called war neuroses. Soldiers came back from the front traumatized: their minds would be flooded with horrific memories of war, they would wake up night after night terrified by dreams of the same atrocity. Such patients present a dramatically different profile from a person suffering neurotic conflicts.11 In particular, their terrifying dreams cannot reasonably be interpreted as the disguised gratification of a wish. Nor can one understand their tortured daily lives as the outcome of a conflict between the pleasure and reality principles. These people were being overwhelmed by trauma over and over again. There is no way one could understand that as a neurotic turning away from reality. On the basis of one symptom – traumatic dreams – Freud is

willing to make a fundamental revision in psychoanalytic theory. ‘Dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses,’ Freud says, ‘have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident, a situation from which he wakes up in another fright (Schreck). This astonishes people far too little.’12 What ought to astonish us? The German word Schreck is somewhat misleadingly translated as fright, for Freud’s point is not that the person is frightened in his dreams over and over again. Freud distinguishes Schreck from fear and anxiety.13 Fear and anxiety are states of fearful preparedness for danger: anxiety is a generalized preparedness; fear is directed toward a specific threatening worldly object. Schreck, by contrast, is what happens when one is unexpectedly overwhelmed by dread. Freud emphasizes the factor of surprise. The normal defenses against danger do not have time to operate, and one is overwhelmed by dread. It is one thing for this to happen on the battlefield; it is quite

another for it to happen night after night in dreams. What is the mind doing? It looks like the mind is inflicting the same traumatic damage on itself, over and over again. What could the function of such dreams be, given that they are not wish-fulfillments? At this point, Freud makes a remarkable theoretical leap: he

argues that traumatic dreams are not simply dreams; they also contain active disruptions of the dream-process.14 What is most

astonishing about the dreams of the traumatic neuroses, then, is not that people repeatedly dream about frightful scenes; it is that they repeatedly wake up overwhelmed by dread. In the so-called traumatic dream, the mind seems actively to disrupt the dream-process, and traumatize the person all over again. In such a traumatic repetition, Freud tells us,

the pleasure principle is for the moment put out of action. There is no longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being flooded with large amounts of stimulus, and another problem arises instead – the problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in.15