Sebastiano Timpanaro’s piece on The Psychopathology of Everyday Life published in nlr 91 under the title ‘The Freudian Slip’ does not live up to the editorial promise of a ‘highly original stance’ on Freud. On the contrary, the article published amounts to a populist attack on psycho-analysis reminiscent of those made by positivists.
This is unfortunate since, whatever the role of philology as a discipline, the particular scholarship deployed by Timpanaro could have been used to strengthen Freud’s argument by making it more specific; in the very area, in other words, where Timpanaro criticizes it. Timpanaro claims that the Freudian explanation cannot show why aliquis was forgotten rather than some other word. Clearly, Freud was not concerned with this but with what the slip revealed. In any case, Timpanaro supplies half the argument by showing that aliquis is, as it were, the weak link in the sentence: aliquis is unusual in this context, a certain basic sense is left in the line without it. Freud has already provided the other half of the argument earlier in the book: ‘It is probable indeed that a suppressed element always strives to assert itself elsewhere, but is successful in this only when suitable conditions meet it half way.’ (Standard Edition, Vol. VI, p. 6).
The word aliquis can be definitively tied down, triangulated if you like, with a very modest extension of Freud’s own argument. The young man, Freud writes, had expressed a wish for descendants but ‘at this very moment a contrary thought intruded. “Have you really so keen a wish for descendants? That is not so. How embarrassed you would be if you were to get news just now that you were to expect descendants from the quarter you know of . . .”’ (op. cit., p. 14, our emphasis). In other words, ‘I want descendants but not this particular one’. Aliquis, the word in the line with the most personal and particular reference, corresponds to the repressed element in the young man’s thought ‘not this particular one’.
But why all the fuss about aliquis? Psychoanalysis has often been criticized in the name of an economy of argument made into a fetish by traditional scientists. Timpanaro’s argument bears a closer relation to the material than most arguments of this type. But his strength is also his weakness. He might lead us to concede aliquis to philology. He might lead us to concede that psychoanalytic explanation is redundant in connection with some verbal parapraxes, in which case we would be in agreement with Freud at the time of the Psychopathology (‘By the side of simple cases where proper names are forgotten there is a type of forgetting which is not motivated by repression.’ op. cit., p. 7, Freud’s emphasis). But Timpanaro’s argument vanishes when there are no philological peculiarities. A philologist might argue that any verbal slip is susceptible to philological explanation, but is left high and dry by non-verbal material. Freud’s theory treats equally of verbal slips and ‘bungled actions’ (op. cit., ch. VIII). So by following Timpanaro we gain economy on one level only to lose it on another.
Psychoanalysis must face criticism from outside, from Marxism (as sketched very broadly in some of Wilhelm Reich’s work from the late 1920s and early 1930s) and from other psychologies (phenomenological, interpersonal: this in opposition to the Lacanian position, see Althusser, ‘Freud and Lacan’). Criticism from these quarters can preserve the essential psychoanalytic insight while developing and purifying it. Such critics as Timpanaro by contrast, are purely destructive. What they mean to say is that there is no valid ‘psychoanalytic’ theory, but
Although it must take criticism from other psychologies, psychoanalysis is of all psychologies the most adequate to the immediately given complexity of human experience, the most subversive (‘opposed to psychological rumination’—Althusser) and the most materialist; the most useful way to approach the psychological area of Marxism.
In ‘The Freudian Slip’ Timpanaro’s populism is revealed in his references to Freud’s ‘intellectual fireworks’ and to his own account as having ‘nothing brilliant about it’. ‘Nor is it even particularly intelligent’, he adds to drive the point home. Such anti-intellectualism, expressed through heavy irony, and the implicit appeal to the reader’s untutored commonsense, are reactionary in this context. The reader is being invited to feel proud of himself for not understanding.