The dream of the burning child is found in the seventh chapter of "The Interpretation of Dreams." Freud introduces it as a model dream, told to him by a woman patient, who had herself heard it in a lecture on dreams. Freud narrates the dream as follows:Emma Wilson, "Cinema's Missing Children"A father had been watching beside his child's sick-bed for days and night 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 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 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. (Freud 1985a: 652)Freud invites us to wonder why the dream occurred, in circumstances in which the most rapid awakening was called for. The first answer he provides, in line with one of the general theses of "The Interpretation of Dreams," was that the dream contained the fulfillment of a wish to deny the child's death. He writes: 'For the sake of the fulfillment 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 once more alive' (1985a: 653).
Lacan returns to the dream of the burning child in his Seminar 11, with a reading which departs radically from Freud's interpretation. Lacan questions: "What is it that wakes the sleeper? Is it not, in the dream, another reality?" (1994:58). Lacan finds in the dream, a horrifying encounter with the Real:For it is not that, in the dream, [the father] persuades himself that the son is still alive. But the terrible vision of the dead son taking the father by the arm designates a beyond that makes itself heard in the dream. Desire manifests itself in the dream by the loss expressed in an image at the most cruel point of the object. It is only in the dream that this truly unique encounter can occur. (1959:59)Slavoj Zizek, glossing Lacan, explains his reading:First [the subject] constructs a dream, a story which enables him to prolong his sleep, to avoid awakening into reality. But the thing that 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 that the so-called external reality itself, and that is why he awakens: to escape the Real of his desire, which announces itself in the terrifying dream. He escapes into so-called reality to be able to continue to sleep, to maintain his blindness, to elude awakening into the real of his desire. (1989: 45)For Zizek, the encounter with the Real is bound up with an (excessive) realisation of parental guilt. This is the horror encountered in the dream from which the father escapes in waking.
Cathy Caruth makes a further important reading of the dream. She argues that for Lacan: 'It is the dream itself... that wakes the sleeper, and it is in this paradoxical awakening - an awakening not to, but against, the very wishes of consciousness - that the dreamer confronts the reality of a death from which he cannot turn away' (1996: 99). She continues: 'For if the dreamer's awakening can be seen as a response to the words, to the address of the child, within the dream, then awakening represents a paradox about the necessity and impossibility of confronting death. Waking up in order to see, the father discovers that he has once again seen too late to prevent the burning' (1996: 100). Caruth's thinking on traumatic response is governed, however, by a profound concern for the possibility of survival. For Caruth: 'It is precisely the dead child, the child in its irreducible inaccessibility and otherness, who says to the father: wake up, leave me, survive; survive to tell the story of my burning' (1996: 105). The imperative to survive in order to testify is Caruth's supplement to the narrative. Her prose testifies to her sense of the dream, and its address to the father, as imperative. Lacan's observation, 'for no one can say what the death of a child is, except the father qua father' (1994: 59), is glossed by Caruth as: 'The father must receive the dead child's words' (1996: 106). Her move into a reading of the dream which privileges the imperative of a speaking that awakens others is, though ethically motivated, open to question.
Caruth's reading is at odds with Zizek's. This she acknowledges in a footnote, where she writes: 'Slavoj Zizek suggests that the awakening in Lacan's reading of the dream is the precise reversal of the usual understanding of a dream as a fiction and of awakening as reality: he argues that the awakening of the father in Lacan's reading is an "escape" from the real into 'ideology' (1996: 142). Disagreeing with Zizek, she speaks of 'the difficulty of accepting that awakening to a child's dead corpse, could ever be understood as an escape' (ibid.). For me, the brilliance of Zizek's reading is that it hazards an interpretation of the (missed) encounter with the Real: at its heart, Zizek suggests, is the father's impossible, tortured guilt in response to the child's suffering and death. This is what is worse than awakening to the knowledge of the child's death.
The dream of the burning child, and its interpretations, anticipate on several levels the concerns of this study. In the first place the manifest content of the dream of the burning child predetermines its relevance to a study of the ways of contending with the loss of children. More than the commentators above, I am interested in the dream literally because it is about the death of a child, about hesitance in facing and accepting death, about parental responsibility and guilt, and the impossibility of representation of such experience.
To me, this "imperative of a speaking that awakens others" is the death drive or lamella. I've heard tales of survivors of mass killings and brutal rapes in which the only thing that kept the victim going was the thought of testifying as to the attrocities experienced. And then the disappointment once their actual stories were told... the let-down... and the depression which subsequently would set-in when "nothing was done" to rectify the injustices experienced. A 'ghost' was born.