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 protection against forgetfulness, since first names tend to be forgotten as easily as surnames; the examples of the note are then incorporated into a later chapter, and the note disappears in the 1907 edition leaving the first lines of the chapter without qualification. The aliquis example is, therefore, the illustration of a process of forgetting which has already been assigned a determining factor, distinct from that of psychic motivation, before analysis into the possibility of such motivation begins. The point is crucial, because it belongs to the central concept of overdetermination in Freud’s work, a concept which radically undermines the pertinence of the first section of Timpanaro’s chapter. Briefly, overdetermination refers to the multiple determining factors which can be seen to inform a single psychic act. In Chapter VI of The Interpretation of Dreams it relates to the multiple connections which lead from the dream-thoughts to the dream-contents in that each element of the manifest dream is informed by a number of unconscious dream-thoughts, and each unconscious dream-thought is represented several times over in the separate elements of the manifest dream. It has a further significance within the polemic in which Freud engages against proponents of alternative dream theories who seek to place physical or conscious psychic stimuli at the source of the dream process. Freud makes two points in relation to these alternative stimuli, both of which are relevant to Timpanaro’s paper. Firstly, in relation to sensory stimuli, we can legitimately ask, if such stimuli are the sole instigators of the dream process, why they do not consistently and invariably produce a corresponding dream formation. Secondly, the presence of identifiable conscious preoccupations (day-residues) in the dream-thoughts, far from contradicting a theory of unconscious motivation, is in fact essential to that theory since it is the day-residue which provides the unconscious thought with the possibility of evading censorship and achieving representation in the manifest dream.

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 meet it half way. At other times, the suppression succeeds without any functional disturbance, or, as we can justly say, without any symptom’ (ibid., p. 6). In both The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud devotes considerable space and time to an examination of the relationship between unconscious motivation and those motivations belonging to the pre-conscious which can be seen to obey consistent laws of operation. Chapter V of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life starts with a discussion of the phonetic laws formulated by Meringer and Mayer (Slips in Speaking and Reading, 1895) for different forms of word disturbance (transpositions, pre- and post-assonances, contaminations, substitutions); Freud concludes: ‘these laws represent no more than the pre-formed mechanism which a more remote psychical motive makes use of for its convenience . . .’ (ibid., p. 81).

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).

A number of remarks can therefore be made straight away on Timpanaro’s second point regarding the looseness of Freud’s procedure, or variety of methods of association set up between the repressed thought and forgotten word. His allowance: ‘Now we are not concerned to deny, in the abstract, the possibility of all these forms of association (except in one case: the excessive ease with which translation from one’s mother tongue into other languages is employed)’ (Timpanaro, art. cit., p. 53), fails to take account of two factors. Firstly, that the ease of translation from mother tongue is not employed by the subject but demonstrated by him, in which case we can ask for whom is such ease considered to be excessive? Secondly, and more important, the method of free association comes as the response to those processes which have been discovered to rule unconscious thought-contents (‘of a kind that is scorned by our normal thinking . . .’); it therefore demands that associations be produced by the subject in complete and necessary disregard for any laws which may or may not underpin their relations. Freud’s repeated emphasis on the artificiality of such associations is nothing other than the indication of the inadequacy of normal or coherent linguistic relationsfootnote4 to describe the properties of unconscious thought processes.

Furthermore, this ‘artificiality’ by no means undermines the necessaryfootnote5 relation which may be said to hold between the repressed thought and the disturbed word or sentence. In the case of the aliquis example, Freud explicitly states that unconscious opposition arose to the topic hit on in the whole quotation (the desire for descendants: ‘Let someone arise from my bones as an Avenger’) rather than to any one of the words it contains; the example is therefore described as ‘disturbance as a result of internal contradiction’; this internal contradiction then asserts itself: ‘by setting up an external association between one of its ideational elements and an element in the wish that has been repudiated; this time, indeed, it does so in a most arbitrary fashion by making use of a roundabout associative path which has every appearance of artificiality’ (ibid., p. 14).