Since the author of The Freudian Slipfootnote1 must be already well known to readers of the New Left Review, and has indeed recently contributed an article on the pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi to it, there is no need for me to introduce Sebastiano Timpanaro to them, as I would have if I were writing for one of the bourgeois literary weeklies.footnote1 For two reasons, however, it is necessary for me to explain in some detail what his book is about before in any sense criticizing it, and to draw particular attention to the fact that its author’s academic speciality is Latin and Greek textual criticism; these two reasons being that his book is dauntingly erudite and that he attaches great importance to considerations which would never occur to anyone who was not a textual critic and are likely to seem pedantic to those readers who have not had personal experience of reading the proofs and uncorrected scripts of their own or other people’s books.

In writing The Freudian Slip Timpanaro has, if I understand him rightly, had two aims, one specific and one general. The first is to demonstrate that Freud’s theory that slips of the tongue and pen, failures in remembering, bungled actions and ‘parapraxes’ generally are due to interference by repressed, unconscious thoughts, does not stand up to textual criticism of the work The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in which Freud originally formulated it. The second is to discuss whether Freudian psychoanalysis is a science, whether it can be reconciled with Marxism, and, in particular, with his own specific brand of Marxism, Leopardian Marxism, which is optimistic in so far as it believes that there could, and indeed one day will, be a society in which repression and oppression no longer occur, and pessimistic in so far as it believes that anxiety arising from ‘biological frailty’ will always be part of the human condition.

Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life first appeared in 1901 as a two-instalment article in a learned journal. It was published as a book in 1904 and then went through 10 editions in the next 20 years, during the course of which it grew from 92 to 310 pages. This expansion was almost entirely due to the addition of further illustrations, most of which were provided by Freud’s friends and disciples and many of which are patently autobiographical. As a result, the version we now have largely consists of anecdotes about slips of the tongue, mistakes, and failures of memory committed by Freud and his circle, embedded in which are a few pages of psychological theorizing.

Although it has been one of the best selling and most translated of Freud’s works, it has also been one of the least criticized. Timpanaro attributes this to the ‘conspiracy of silence’ with which, allegedly, the academic world originally greeted Freud’s writings, but I suspect that the explanation really lies in something elusive and ambiguous about the book itself. The general idea that slips and stupid mistakes may on occasion be psychologically motivated is so plausible as hardly to seem worth questioning, while it is hard to put one’s finger on why most of the examples Freud gives are so unconvincing. The field has, as a result, been left open to Timpanaro to use his professional critical tools to demonstrate, first that Freud was really arguing that all slips are motivated, and secondly exactly why the examples are not as convincing as Freud himself seems to have thought they were.

Timpanaro’s argument is fourfold. First, as he demonstrates at length, the majority of the slips cited by Freud can be explained in the same way as can the errors made by compositors, proof readers, and transcribers of manuscripts. Most are the result of what he calls ‘banalization’, that process by which a familiar word is spoken, read or transcribed in preference to an unfamiliar one; that process by which, for instance, my own surname tends to be re-endowed with the ‘e’ after ‘Ry’ that it no doubt once had, even by people who know me quite well—though one old man who habitually does so wishes, I am sure, to remind me that his father knew Gissing, the author of the novel, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. Others are due to lapses of attention which may cause one either to repeat a word, phrase or syllable which one has already uttered or written or to leap ahead of oneself, omitting the intervening words. Writers, particularly transcribers, make these errors continually, and in Timpanaro’s view it is absurd to assume that they always have psychological causes; it is sufficient to assume an ultimately neurophysiological tendency to subsume the unfamiliar under the familiar, to perseverate, and to anticipate oneself, particularly when engaged in boring activities.

Secondly, Freud fails to reveal or inquire into the wider social context in which a slip takes place. For instance, when Freud describes how a chance acquaintance, ‘a young man of academic background’, left out a word from a line of Virgil he was quoting, he omits to mention—and perhaps even did not know—that the line in question is grammatically most peculiar and the version the young man gave conforms better with Latin grammar as taught in schools than does the correct original—and also makes the point he was making as well as the line actually written by Virgil does. Nor does Freud inquire as to whether the young man would have made the same mistake if he had had occasion to quote the line a month, a year, five years earlier. However, undeterred by such scholarly niceties, Freud asks the young man to associate to the missing word and soon establishes that he is worried about his mistress’s missed period, an anxiety which Freud then asserts is the cause of the young man’s lapse of memory. The reader will now appreciate what I meant when I said earlier that Timpanaro is dauntingly erudite, but the point he is making is that Freud does not provide the kind of background information which would enable one to decide whether the slips he quotes are interferences by repressed thoughts or merely banalizations. The young man’s misquotation of Virgil could well have been analogous to that which makes even quite well educated Englishmen think that Coleridge wrote ‘Water, Water, everywhere, but not (or never) a drop to drink’, when in fact he wrote ‘Nor any drop to drink.

Thirdly, many of Freud’s examples of slips are not slips at all but gaffes, faux pas, occasions on which the writer or speaker said something that he was in fact thinking but wished, for reasons of tact, decorum or moral cowardice, not to utter. In such cases the mistake is not due to interference by an unconscious idea but to a conflict between two fully conscious wishes, one to be discreetly hypocritical, the other to be truthful. An example is that of the baptized Jew who, while in the company of a gentile lady who was expressing anti-semitic opinions, called his sons Juden (Jews) when he ‘meant’ to say Jungen (youngsters). As the reporter and in all probability perpetrator of this ‘slip’, the analyst Viktor Tausk, says: ‘I ought to have made a bold declaration of the facts in order to set my sons the example of “having the courage of one’s convictions”, but I was afraid of the unpleasant exchanges that usually follow an avowal of this sort.’