If I had to give as concise and accurate a definition as possible of the typical ‘Western Marxist’, I would say: ‘Someone who is firmly convinced that Freud is always right’. No, ‘Freud’ is not a slip of the pen for ‘Marx’. I really mean Freud. Where Marx, and even more where Engels or Lenin, is concerned, the typical Western Marxist has a host of reservations. Some of these are correct (since, obviously, the founders of Marxism were not infallible, they were keenly aware that they had left many problems unresolved, and they were not in a position to foresee many new phenomena which only appeared after they were dead); others are due to ‘revisionism’ in the negative sense of the word, in other words to the influence of bourgeois ideology. Where Freud is concerned, however, there are far fewer reservations, indeed often none at all. If anyone dares to question the peaceful coexistence of Marxism and psychoanalysis, or indeed their perfect compatibility, he may expect nothing but outraged reactions, charges of ‘serious misconceptions’ and vulgar positivism, and so on and so forth. There are still one or two Marxists in the West who, though they recognize Freud’s greatness and reject the stupid, slanderous Stalinist attacks on psychoanalysis, are not Freudians. But there are certainly not many of us. So I am not surprised that the publication in nlr 91 of two chapters from my Il lapsus freudiano footnote1 has provoked a veritable hail of rejoinders (see nlr 94), expressing not merely disagreement but indignation at the appearance in a serious Marxist journal of such an illogical, ill-informed and reactionary text. At all events, I far prefer the lively polemical frankness of these English comrades to the ‘diplomatic’ silence with which, barring a few exceptions, the Italian left press has greeted my work.

However, I must point out that my critics, so quick to accuse me of misunderstanding and irresponsibility in my objections to Freud’s interpretation of one slip, have themselves been somewhat hasty in their readiness to judge a book of twelve chapters (and a substantial postscript) on the basis of a reading of just two of those chapters (and even they slightly abridged). It may well be, upon reflection, that the publication of those two chapters on their own was unwise. But the premise upon which, to a greater or lesser degree, all my critics have based themselves is certainly an arbitrary one: namely, that certain of Freud’s key concepts, not mentioned in the two chapters in question, have been ignored by me in the book as a whole.

For example, almost all my assailants feel obliged to inform me that Freud accepted linguistic explanations of slips, indeed considered that a linguistic similarity (or even, though less necessarily, similarity of meaning) was almost always needed for a slip to occur, but held that such similarities were not true ‘causes’ of slips, just ‘favourable circumstances’ (Begünstigungen). Well, if I had really ignored the distinction between ‘cause’ (the re-emergence of repressed psychic elements) and Begünstigung, then truly my book would not merit discussion and should be thrown away without wasting any more time over it. But in fact a whole chapter (chapter eight) is devoted precisely to considering this distinction. In it I try to show that in the great majority of cases the so-called Begünstigungen are true causes, entirely adequate to explain slips and lapses of memory.

I cannot, for obvious reasons of space, repeat my arguments here. I can only ask my critics to wait for the English edition of my book. Then we can renew our discussion: they will in all probability remain unconvinced, but at least they will have more material to counter and perhaps even refute my arguments. Nevertheless, I would like to take up at once a number of specific points about the interpretation of slips.

In the first place, it seems to me that Jacqueline Rose is not quite right when she seeks to apply the concept of ‘overdetermination’ to the relationship which Freud establishes between the true causes of slips and the Begünstigungen. I am well aware that the meaning of the term ‘overdetermination’ was already somewhat fluid in Freud’s own work, and that Lacan—as so often—has helped to increase the confusion. But it is certainly no accident that neither in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, nor in the part of the Introductory Lectures devoted to the same subject, does Freud—so far as I am aware—use this term. Rose herself only quotes passages from The Interpretation of Dreams in this connection. In reality, for Freud, phonic (or even semantic) similarities between the word which we would expect to hear in a given context and the word spoken by the person making the slip are not ‘contributory causes’ but, precisely, simply ‘favourable circumstances’—as it were, openings through which the repressed psychic material resurfaces (to some extent forced to adapt itself to the shape of these openings, but without their exercising any active force). This is shown unambiguously by the famous comparison quoted later by Rose herself: to attribute a slip to purely linguistic causes, says Freud, would be as absurd as if, after being robbed, I reported at the police station that in a certain street ‘loneliness and darkness took away my watch and purse’. It is clear that loneliness and darkness can in no sense be considered as causes, even of a contributory and secondary kind, of the robbery, but merely as favourable conditions (in themselves inactive) of which the robber took advantage.

Why did Freud reduce to the status of mere Begünstigungen what were, in my view, true causes (and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, sole causes) of slips and lapses of memory? The principal reason, of course, lies in the Freudian concept of the unconscious and, more precisely, in what in my book I have termed ‘the personalization of the unconscious’ (chapter eleven). But there are two further related reasons of not negligible importance.

First, Freud’s only source for ‘linguistic’ explanations of slips and lapses of memory (apart from a few intelligent but extremely cursory passages in Wundt) was the book by Meringer and Meyer which he often quoted. This is useful as an anthology of material, but very defective as far as the explanations and types of examples it gives is concerned. The authors tend to reduce the majority of linguistic slips to phonetic phenomena (transposition of contiguous sounds, etc.) and offer simplistic physio-pathological explanations for the latter. By contrast, I give appropriate weight also to lexical, syntactic and conceptual phenomena, and provide explanations which, though certainly open to question, are less naïve. I accord particular importance to the phenomenon (well-known in textual criticism, but equally applicable in explaining slips and lapses of memory) of trivialization or banalization (in German Trivialisierung, in Italian banalizzazione; it was rendered in the nlr translation by the too generic ‘corruption’). Why do we tend to replace unfamiliar words or syntactic constructions by others more familiar to us? Because each of us has his or her own linguistic-cultural patrimony, a habitual speech and a stock of words/concepts, and tends to assimilate to this patrimony words, syntactic constructions, designations for objects and sequences of sounds which we do not know or do not often have occasion to use. This explanation (which I have had to summarize too briefly here) is, in my opinion, a true explanation: what are involved are phenomena which can, very broadly speaking, be accounted for by the tendency to follow the path of least resistance. The assimilation to which I have referred is in most cases an unconscious process, even if it does not involve that particular type of unconscious process upon which Freud too exclusively concentrated. It is, at all events, a process, not a static Begünstigung in the sense referred to above.