In a chapter from his forthcoming book, published in nlr 91, Sebastiano Timpanaro attacks the methods and conclusions of Freud’s chapter on ‘The Forgetting of Foreign Words’ from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. His attack depends on a number of serious misconceptions.
1. Freud’s example of forgetting is not simply an example of inadvertent ‘textual corruption’ in the broad sense used by Timpanaro. It involved ‘tip of the tongue’ forgetting—the subject knew he had forgotten a word, and was worried by this. He was unable to remember it, though he knew it well and recognized it immediately with relief when it was supplied by Freud.
2. Freud was quite willing to accept the availability of other types of explanation, such as Timpanaro’s. He lists some in the Introductory Lectures and comments: ‘Observe that we are not denying these factors. It is in general not such a common thing for psycho-analysis to deny something asserted by other people; as a rule it merely adds something new—though no doubt it occasionally happens that this thing that has hitherto been overlooked and is now brought up as a fresh addition is in fact the essence of the matter’. It is perfectly possible to accept the points made by Timpanaro and still conclude that Freud’s explanation is necessary. Syntactic irregularity and semantic redundancy are contributing factors which, as Freud put it, ‘favour slips of the tongue’. But though they tell us something about the conditions in which a slip may take place, they say nothing about the dynamic cause, the agency involved in a specific slip by a specific subject.
3. Timpanaro gives a number of hypothetical examples of how other words, in his view, might also have been forgotten, as well as aliquis. But, of course, Freud held that the wish associated with an underlying repression would seek expression whenever it could, taking advantage of every opportunity. If it was aliquis that was in fact forgotten, rather than ossibus or ultor, this may well have been because the path for the wish (or counter-wish) was smoothed by the factors outlined by Timpanaro. The underlying repression itself was identified through the empirical chain of associations which Freud elicited and which his interlocutor then corroborated.
4. The chain of associations, leading from aliquis to the subject’s wish that his Italian friend should not have missed her period, is not, as Timpanaro appears to think, a causal chain. Freud is quite clear on this point. He thought it was ‘highly improbable’ that such a chain of associations could be passable in either direction, from symptom to source and vice-versa. Free association provided Freud with a method of investigation, an interpretative technique. By attacking this technique, Timpanaro misses the main issue. He fails to grasp that to undermine the explanatory basis of Freud’s thought, it would be necessary to attack, not the status of free association, but that of the primary process, and therefore of the pleasure principle, the mechanisms of the dream-work, the place of the repressed and its return, etc. These are understood in Freud’s illustrative account of the aliquis incident, but fully theorized elsewhere, in The Interpretation of Dreams, the later Metapsychology and other writings.