Reversal Into the Opposite

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The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite. It is a process that affects the fate of the instincts, notably in the transformation of love into hate, and was more clearly described in Freud's discussion of the notion of turning around. Freud first described this type of transformation with regard to dream images. Such reversals are used to create the disguises that enable the translation of latent thoughts into acceptable thoughts (which are thus able to cross the barrier of censorship). He gave numerous examples of this in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). This process can affect characteristics of objects or people; thus, a small object can appear to be very large in a dream; someone whose intelligence is envied appears stupid in the dream, and so forth. Often a reversal of actions into their opposite is involved: Climbing a staircase expresses the idea of descending or falling; the latent idea of a heavy burden is translated in the dream by the action of carrying a light woman, and so on. In the dream "Non vixit," the dreamer (Freud himself) with the intensity of his gaze melts a person whose blue eyes are growing paler: This expressed a reversal into its opposite of the fear that he had experienced, when he was young, under the gaze of Brücke's "terrible blue eyes" (1900a, p. 422). He gave a detailed analysis of a particularly interesting instance of reversal into the opposite in the case of the "Wolf Man" 's dream (related in "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" [1918b]), in which the scary immobility of the wolves was a reversal of a violent movement (that of his parents' coitus). Reversals of the dream protagonists' roles may occur, such as the hare chasing the hunter, or the dreamer punishing his father. Certain logical relationships can also be expressed in this way. Contradiction, for example, may lead in a dream to a condensation in which opposites are blended together in a depiction marked by a sense of absurdity. Temporal reversal of dream episodes is particularly interesting: "The outcome of the incident or the conclusion of a line of reasoning is the introduction to the dream, and the premises of the reasoning or the cause of the incident is found at the end." But reversal into the opposite does not only affect representations or relationships between representations, it can also apply to affects: "There is yet another way in which the dream-work can deal with affects in the dream-thoughts. . . . It can turn them into their opposite" (1900a, p. 471). Thus, a depressive feeling of self-devaluation can inspire a dream of brilliant success, or, on the contrary, a feeling of triumph may provoke a dream that recalls a humiliating failure. In the dream of the "uncle with the yellow beard," Freud's "warm dream feeling of affection [for his friend R.] in the dream" masked the wish that R. be a "simpleton" (p. 140-141)." R. was a possible rival for nomination to the title of professor. The analysis of such transformations is a valuable tool for understanding the dream-work. According to Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: "[R]eversal [Umkehrung], or turning a thing into its opposite [Verwandlung ins Gegenteil], is one of the means of representation most favoured by the dream-work and one which is capable of employment in the most diverse directions.... [R]eversal is of quite special use as a help to censorship" (p. 327). From this it can be deduced that in this function as a process or a subterfuge to circumvent censorship, reversal clearly comes into play beyond the realm of the dream-work. This is the case in many myths: for example, those in which birth (emergence from water) is represented either by rising from the waves (as in the birth of Venus) or, on the contrary, by an episode in which the hero enters the water (as in the story of Moses). This play of opposites is found in certain linguistic expressions that, according to context, can take on opposite meanings: Thus, the Latin word sacer means both "holy" and "damned"; the German Boden refers both to that which is highest and that which is lowest in a house, and so forth. According to Freud in "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words" (1910e), where he invoked the (now-contested) authority of the linguist Karl Abel, this phenomenon was frequent in "primitive languages" that were supposedly still poorly differentiated and thus often used condensations. In the eleventh lecture in the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-1917a [1915-1917]), Freud explicitly compared this play of opposites in language with its function in the dream-work. But this is not limited to the semantic level: Figures of speech can be subjected to such a mechanism, the most obvious case being that of negation, discussed in "Negation" (1925h), in which a thought is expressed in inverse form, accompanied by a projection that makes it possible to attribute it to someone else ("'You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother.' We emend this to: 'So it is his mother"' [1925h, 235].) Symptom formation often makes use of this mechanism. The hysteric who is simulating rape tears her dress with one hand and clutches it around her body with the other; the fantasy in which she holds her sexual partner against herself is translated into her hands clasped behind her back, and coitus itself is expressed via hyperextension in a circular arc ("Some General Remarks on Hysterical Attacks" (1909a[1908]), and so on. In such cases, what the hysteric acts out is an idea or image of an action—that is, a fantasy that corresponds to one of the received meanings of the idea. The same reversal of action is seen in dreams that center on a given idea or image. Reversal into the opposite, especially in the case of a reversal of affect, involves a process very similar to those referred to as turning [a]round. The terminology is not very clear: Freud himself, moreover, in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), used the term reversal to designate both processes, the turning around of activity into passivity and the reversal into opposite of the "contents" of the love/hate pair. However, it seems judicious to distinguish the two notions and to use the notion of turning around with reference (a) to expressions of drives as affects (love into hate, or the reverse); (b) to aims of drives (the active aim "turning around" into a passive aim); and (c) to the objects of drives. This also applies to the whole notion of the sadism/masochism pair. The notion of reversal into the opposite should be used, as is evident from the preceding, when formal aspects of transformations affecting representational contents are involved. Both notions, however, can be subsumed into the broader category of "pairs of opposites" frequently found in Freud's work, culminating in his second theory of the instincts with the oppositional pair Eros/the death instinct.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-625.
  2. ——. (1909a [1908]). Some general remarks on hysterical attacks. SE, 9: 227-234.
  3. ——. (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
  4. ——. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
  5. ——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.