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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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For psychoanalysis, memories are conscious representations of the past suspected of being, at least in part, illusory. The fact is that conscious memories or recollections may conceal unconscious ones, even if the ego accepts them at face value and finds comfort therein. In his early work Freud spoke of "unconscious memories," but he later replaced this term with "memory traces.

In Freud's initial work on the theory of neuroses (1894-96), "memories were pathogenic reminiscences of traumatic seduction; subsequently the memories of childhood were included in the category.

Freud contrasted the obsessive "memory image," or "mnemic image," with the supposedly genuine memory adequate to the affect experienced. Memories could be false, however, from their inception (Erinnerungsfälschung): one has only to think of the "first lie" of the hysterical proton-pseudos of Freud's "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), or of "screen memories" (1899a), behind which authentic memories lie.

Freud's notion of memories, even when he uses it in the context of the psychology of consciousness in normal states, is always related to his first theory of the neuroses caused by traumatic seduction. It is not by accident that Freud used two very similar words to designate two conceptually opposed concepts—conscious memory (Erinnerung) and the unconscious memory-trace (Erinerungsspur)—and the paradoxical expression "unconscious memory" can often be found in his writings. In the theory of the traumatic origins of hysteria, he constructs the notion of memory traces from that of unconscious memories: the conscious memory of the trauma has been refused, rejected, repressed, or split. It is no longer accessible to consciousness, at least not directly, and is now represented in altered form in the symptom, notably in the mnemic symbol. The unconscious memory strives to become conscious once more, for ontically it is conscious. The notion of unconscious memories prefigures that of the unconscious, as distinct from the idea of a provisional pathological repression, which is still tainted by the psychology of consciousness; likewise, unconscious memory traces or mnemic images are so intense and sensorially alive that they overflow into consciousness in a quasi-hallucinatory form nonetheless distinct from hallucination.

Memories are par excellence the memories of affects, "the persistent effect of an emotion experienced in the past" (1896a) in the "memory chain." In Freud's work there is much that belongs to the associative theory of memory. Memories, like the mnemic symbols, screen memories, and fantasies, form "memory chains." It was from this conception of memory that Freud developed the technique of free association, whence in turn he derived the notion of primary processes.

The archaeological metaphor accompanied the notion of memory throughout Freud's work, from 1896 ("The Aetiology of Hysteria"), where he writes of the explorer, whose "interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins" and who "may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. . . . If his work is crowned with success . . . [it may] yield undreamd-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the monuments were built" (p. 192), to Civilization and its Discontents (1930a [1929]), where he introduces a visitor who discovers beneath the city of Rome not an ancient Roman city but the ruins of reconstruction performed at the end of the ancient era on the site of primitive buildings that have disappeared, attempting to picture to himself what might produce the simultaneity of memories, here visual, of intertwined monuments from different eras.

What distinguishes between "true" and "false" memories is the affect, which is "always right" (1900a), and which can lead to the rediscovery, on the basis of the mnemic symbol of the original idea. In the Emma case (1950c [1895]), the phobic symptom and the belief that an ordinary event from adolescence could be its cause concealed what should have been a memory but had become a memory trace, namely the scene of childhood seduction. The transition from conscious memory to unconscious memory trace follows the topography of a psychic internalization of the event requiring a certain amount of time. Every memory is more or less a screen, always suspected by Freud of not faithfully conveying the impressions of the actual experiences of childhood.

In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910c), Freud states that memories include both historically constituted memory-traces of perceptions in childhood and pure fantasy elements. In Leonardo's memory a vulture opens the mouth of the child Leonardo with its tail, which Freud analyzes as the desire to have been engendered by a phallic mother. A memory then, appears to be a fantasy, but in fact the fantasy harbors real memories: the memory of having been passionately kissed by his mother during childhood, the memory of breastfeeding, the father's absence—all essential elements described by Freud as "real nothings," out of which Leonardo created his fantasy. Finally, what Leonardo remembers is not any specific event from childhood but elements from the psyche of the child he was, which constitutes the background of his adult psyche. Without realizing it Leonardo discovers on the lips of the Mona Lisa his mother's smile, of which he has no memory.

In psychoanalysis the concept of memory is part of the paradigm of the lost object. In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), Freud demonstrates how, in melancholia, the pathological memory fixes and fetishizes the idealized object, hated as much as loved, and how, in the work of mourning, all memories about the object are illuminated in their smallest detail, so that remembering may facilitate abreaction, followed by a withdrawal of cathexis.

Freud envisages a drive to remember (Impuls zur Erinnerung) whose motor is a wish for a kind of representation close to hallucination: where the "mnemic image," the sensory intensity of the "unconscious memory" becomes conscious in a hypnoid mode by virtue of the lifting of amnesia. This drive also strives to rediscover the strength of the impressions (Eindruck) imparted by previous experience (Erlebnis).

In Freud's original approach to therapy, centered on abreaction and remembering, memories were meant to confirm the accuracy of the interpretation. In "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g), Freud noted "the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out" (p. 150). "[T]he patient repeats insted of remembering" (p. 151). This leads to the possibility of a clinical approach based on working-through rather than remembering and abreaction, or, otherwise stated, a conception of remembering centered on constructions rather than memory. From this point of view a childhood memory is always a memory about childhood. The concept of memories belongs to the psychology of consciousness more than to the metapsychology of the unconscious, despite the obvious kinship between Erinnerung (memory) and Erinnerungsspur (unconscious mnemic trace) in Freud's work. An illusion of consciousness, memories support the defenses and idealizations of the ego.

No memory is exempt from the influence of fantasy, and no fantasy can do without ideational elements borrowed from a perceived reality. The notion of memory employed by Freud differed from that found in psychology and philosophy. Although in "Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses" (1896a) he tried to establish the ages of memories because it was the oldest events that were the most pathogenic, he wrote to Fliess on May 2, 1897 that it was not, strictly speaking, memories that the hysteric repressed but instinctual impulses associated with stimulating fragments of memories. What he refers to as memories derive from multiple sources and are the object of constant reworking. In discussing the memories and the childhood dreams of the "Wolf Man," Freud concluded that what was involved was a complex mixture of memories, fantasies, and day's residues (1918b [1914]). Psychoanalytic interpretation rediscovers—but more often reconstructs—childhood memories with the help of screen memories, fantasies, and dreams, whose day's residues, in combination with memory traces, give rise to visual representations that appear as memories. What is thus disinterred is the child's psyche. The frequently debated question is whether analysis constructs the mind as fiction or reconstructs the past facts to take into account the complexity and paradoxical nature of memories at once historical and subjectively constructed. The continuous rewriting of every subject's history by the subject himself defines memory as a temporary current version only. Freud played down the contrasts between memory and screen memory and memory and construction, emphasizing instead the complexity of psychic working-through, which mixes different types of mnemic representations as well as non-mnemic ones—including libidinal representations and unconscious and conscious thoughts. A memory is something other than a memory-trace, but there are points of contact between the two. Freud refuted the idealist psychology of consciousness but he also avoided falling prey to a metaphysics of an unconscious with no relationship to reality, perception, or memories.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1896a). Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 141-156.
  2. ——. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.
  3. ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.
  4. ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
  5. ——. (1914g). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
  6. ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.