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Primal fantasies

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The term "primal fantasies" connotes those fantasy formations (observation of sexual intercourse between the parents, seduction, castration) which are typical in character in that they transcend individual variations and which in Freud's hypothesis are part of a phylogenetic inheritance. Though evoked in "A Case of Paranoia" (1915f), the notion of primal fantasies was essentially bound up with Freud's reflections on the primal scene, as developed in connection with the "Wolf Man" case (1918b [1914]) and reviewed during the same period in the Introductory Lectures (1916-17a). The subject of primal fantasies brings up three issues: the idea of "typical" mental formations analogous to the sexual theories of childhood; an "origin" of such fantasies antedating the individual's direct experience (phylogenetic inheritance); and the matter of "origins" in a general sense (what Laplanche and Pontalis [1964] call "fantasies of origins"). If fantasies arose simply from the individual's particular experience, the work of analysis would be exceedingly complicated; it is precisely the recurrent structures of fantasy narratives and their association with specific psychopathological formations that makes them analyzable. Without going so far as to create a taxonomy, we may say that fantasies are central to complexes with a general character. In the case of the primal fantasies, however, Freud posited their universality inasmuch as they were characteristic of "all neurotics, and probably of all human beings" (1915f, p. 269). It was for this reason, he argued, that primal fantasies must perforce belong to a shared phylogenetic heritage. "It seems to me quite possible that all the things that are told to us to-day in analysis as phantasy . . . were once real occurrences in the primaeval times of the human family, and that children in their phantasies are simply filling in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth" (1916-17a. p. 371). What is meant, then, are inherited mnemic traces that the child calls up in order to account for the enigmas he or she encounters: the difference between the sexes, the nature of sexual relations, and so on. As Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis point out, Freud here found himself once again between the rock of actual events and the hard place of constitutional factors. Transmission may occur, however, via the unconscious of the parents (see "Identification Fantasies," Alain de Mijolla [1981]). Fantasies of this kind tend to echo myth or tragedy (Sophocles, Shakespeare), for the same questions addressed there about the origins of things invariably recur in them: "Fantasies of origins: the primal scene pictures the origin of the individual; fantasies of seduction, the origin and upsurge of sexuality; fantasies of castration, the origin of the difference between the sexes" (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1974, p. 19). The universality of primal fantasies is underscored by the anonymity of the persons involved (1919e), clearly marking such fantasies off from fantasies in which the subject plays a leading part, even from instances where analysis of a fantasy uncovers the presence of the fantasizing subject. This curious characteristic lends these fantasies a seeming incontestability suggesting that they indeed originate from a source other than the individual imagination. The notion of primal fantasy constitutes a link between the psychoanalysis of social groups and that of individuals, between prehistory and the history of particular subjects. Freud deployed the phylogenetic thesis as a counterargument to the Jungian idea of retrospective fantasies (zurückphantasieren), but in a sense he remained himself trapped by this antithesis. Indeed the psychoanalytical conception of the "primal," as later elaborated, notably by Melanie Klein, abandoned the argument from phylogenesis.


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1915f). A case of paranoia running counter to the psycho-analytic theory of the disease. SE, 14: 263-272.
  2. ——. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
  3. ——. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
  4. ——. (1919e). "A child is being beaten": A contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.