Sebastiano Timpanaro’s refutation of the Freudian method (nlr 91, pp. 43–56) seems to base its case on three main arguments: a) that laws of philology relating to syntax, translatability and semantic content are fully adequate to explain the omission of the word aliquis from the Latin quotation Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (Aeneid IV, 625); b) that Freud draws on the varying criteria of phonic, semantic and factual similarity in the setting up of the associative paths between the forgotten word and the suppressed thought which it conceals; c) that associative paths can retrospectively be constructed from this thought to all the other words in the sentence which were not forgotten; and that the combination of the above factors prove the unscientificity of the Freudian procedure. The question as to whether or not psycho-analysis can claim the status of a science will not be discussed here (a claim amply represented in the essay by Althusser published in your journal, Freud and Lacan, nlr 55, May/June 1969)footnote1, but a number of points need to be made in relation to Timpanaro’s separate arguments.footnote2
It is unfortunate that Timpanaro omitted to mention that the chapter devoted to analysis of the aliquis example is entitled ‘The Forgetting of Foreign Words,’ and starts: ‘The current vocabulary of our own language, when it is confined to the range of normal usage, seems to be protected against being forgotten. With the vocabulary of a foreign language it is notoriously otherwise’ (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Standard Edition VI, p. 86). The point is then referred to a footnote in which Freud questions whether frequency of usage is protec
Freud takes up this point in the opening chapter of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; writing on alternative psychological explanations for slips of the tongue, he says: ‘These dispositions are indispensable to our case as well, in order to make it possible for the repressed element to get hold of the missing name by association and draw it with itself into repression. In the case of another name with more favourable conditions for reproduction this perhaps would not happen’ (ibid., p. 6). The question to be asked is not, therefore, can the forgetting of the name or word be explained by causes other than repression, since it undoubtedly can, but what are the exact relations pertaining between those causes and the factor of repression itself. Nor does Freud assume the existence of unconscious motivation for all verbal parapraxes, but is concerned to demonstrate the means whereby such a motivation achieves expression, when it can be seen to existfootnote3; he continues: ‘It is probable indeed that a suppressed element always strives to assert itself elsewhere, but is successful in this only when suitable conditions
What is important, therefore, is not that all verbal parapraxes are unconsciously motivated, nor that all such parapraxes can be explained by alternative linguistic or psychological mechanisms, but the relationship of mutual reinforcement or exploitation that holds between the two. All Timpanaro’s remarks on philology are the perfect illustrations of the variety of such forms of exploitation available to a repressed thought which is seeking representation: ‘In the case of verbal parapraxes, detailed investigations by philosophers and philologists have endeavoured to determine what are the structural and functional relations that put themselves at the service of such an [unconscious] intention’ (ibid., p. 270); Timpanaro’s case rests on the same proposition as that of the plaintiff who reported to the police: ‘I was in such and such a street, where loneliness and darkness took away my watch and purse’ (ibid., p. 21), to which Freud adds the corrective which can provide the only starting-point of meaningful enquiry: ‘favoured by the loneliness of the place and under the shield of darkness, unknown malefactors robbed me of my valuables’ (ibid., p. 21).
A problem emerges from these remarks, which is that they assume a relationship of exploitation between an unconscious thought on the one hand and a pre-conscious mechanism on the other. The concepts can be realigned, since if the relationship between the repressed thought and e.g. the day-residue is a relationship between thought-contents, the distinction between unconscious and pre-conscious is also a distinction between modes of operation, that is between the primary and secondary processes; it is this opposition which constitutes the second glaring conceptual omission of Timpanaro’s text. Writing on the mobility of ideational intensities that underlies the condensation and displacement characteristic of the primary processes, Freud says: ‘The ideas which transfer their intensities to each other stand in the loosest mutual relations. They are linked by associations of a kind that are scorned by our normal thinking . . .’ (The Interpretation of Dreams, s.e.v. p. 596).