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Freud's Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness describes Yanks' failure


Since he first discovered his own nakedness and sought to cover it up, man has been having that dream in which he is unclothed before a crowd -- in a classroom, church or office -- and unable to flee in shame.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud called this "The Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness," a universal nightmare that always ends in futility. "The essential point is that one has a painful feeling of shame, and is anxious to hide one's nakedness, usually by means of locomotion, but is absolutely unable to do so," wrote Freud. "I believe that the great majority of my readers will at some time have found themselves in this situation in a dream."

Among those least likely to suffer the Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness are our highest profile professional athletes, for whom nudity holds little embarrassment. On the contrary, these men are accustomed to delivering nightly disquisitions while standing at a locker in the altogether. The reporters listening to them are always fully clothed, reversing the advice usually given to public speakers: "Imagine your audience is naked."

Sportswriters are said to "cover" their subjects, and often wish they could do so for real, with blanket or bathrobe or barrel. But these comfortably naked athletes have their own Embarrassment-Dream, involving a different kind of (metaphorical) nudity. They are nightly exposed to crowds of real spectators -- 47,000 people at Yankee Stadium -- while fruitlessly longing for locomotion. Yankee stars Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher have lost the ability to hit a baseball this fall and as a result have been unable to circumambulate the base paths. As in Freud's dream, the harder they try to run, the more firmly rooted they become.

It's a dream from which they cannot wake, and that is not even the worst of it. As Freud described the classic Embarrassment-Dream: "The persons before whom one is ashamed are almost always strangers, whose faces remain indeterminate." In the dreams Freud studied, the onlookers "appear to be quite indifferent," resulting in a strange contrast between "The dreamer's embarrassment and the spectator's indifference."

In the case of the Yankees, however, the spectators are hardly indifferent, their faces anything but indeterminate. No, these spectators are a booing, venting, vein-bulging bunch, before whom the figleaf of a baseball bat gives little cover.

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Rosalind Russell, as a famous actress, should have known better than to say: "Success is a public affair, failure is a private funeral." For many of us that may be true, but certainly not for movie stars or Yankee third basemen. For them and anyone else in the public eye, failure is a state funeral, nationally televised, endlessly eulogized and even celebrated in many quarters.

This doesn't have to be a bad thing. The NFL referee Ed Hochuli recently told me that what he loved best about his job was "you're right or wrong in front of 50 million people." And while he may have distorted the size of the audience -- the last Super Bowl he worked had well more than 100 million viewers -- the fact remains: Sports are a Manichaestic world of right or wrong, good or evil, success or failure, black or white. It may be why we make our refs wear alternating stripes of those colors.

To fail in front of millions, as athletes are inclined to do, often induces a fight or flight response. "I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the Valley," a wise man once said. That man was Steve Jobs, who -- after being fired from Apple -- resisted his first instinct of rapid locomotion. Instead, Jobs -- in the unfamiliar role of Steve Jobless -- found himself suddenly liberated, free to build NeXT and Pixar. When NeXT was bought by his former company, Jobs was restored to Apple.

It was an apple offered to Eve that revealed mankind's nakedness. And there quickly followed for our species the first of many anxiety dreams involving public nudity. Yet no matter how many millions of times men and women have this dream, the dream never ends well.

Freud quotes another author, reflecting on The Odyssey: "If you have seen much and experienced much; if you have cares and sorrows, and are, perhaps, utterly wretched and forlorn, you will some night inevitably dream that you are approaching your home; you will see it shining and glittering in the loveliest colours; lovely and gracious figures will come to meet you; and then you will suddenly discover that you are ragged, naked, and covered with dust."

Like NFL referees, the Yankees are another all-or-nothing, right-or-wrong, black-or-white entity. Their uniforms are said to be navy blue and white, but they always look black and white in the mind's eye. Their recent public failings -- their chain-reaction collapse in the absence of their captain -- led my friend Franz Lidz to call them "Derek and the Dominoes."

Once that chain is set in motion, it is hard to reverse. And so A-Rod, in his waking dream, is unlikely to reach home, but instead will remain covered in dust, forlorn, home -- or home plate -- forever just out of reach. Or as Freud might say: Close, but no cigar.