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Sigmund Freud

This chapter in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life concerns the maddening event of forgetting a name or sequence of words (in one’s own language). The gist of his argument is some-things, some people are painful to us and so a ‘physic power deprives me of access” to information sought.

He “proves” this point by a number of case studies: examples where someone forgets a name or sequence of words (such as a line from a poem). When the breakdown happens he uses something such as free-association to draw down on the cause (“In many of these examples all the subtleties of psychoanalytic technique have been employed to explain why a name was forgotten.”)

Thus, a person forgets a particular name or phrase : the then runs associations (say) until he draws a connection between some unpleasant thing (the woman I want to marry will soon be grey; the man I forgot caused me embarrassment, et cetera)  the name (or phrase) forgotten.  The connection between the unpleasantness and the forgotten word may be either direct or “by what may seem a tortuous route”. [For example, it may not be that the person named is the source of pain but rather that “some similarity of sound suggests another name which we do have good reason to forget.”]

This mechanism is particularly effective if the pain is especially personal and sensitive.  “A wish to avoid arousing unpleasant feelings through the agency of memory is a very strong motive for such disturbances.”

This mechanism presumes “a constant stream of self-referentiality’ going through my mind. I am not usually aware of it, but it betrays itself when I forget names in this way.”

The theory makes some sense on its: Of course one would desire to forget painful things. We have the experience of shying away from things which remind of us particularly painful events: one might avoid a particular person or place because the sight (or sound or smell) provokes an unpleasant feeling.

Freud presents a number of “proofs” (there are 19 number examples in this chapter, not all of which are from Freud’s personal observation).

But is any of this true? Is there really a mechanism which censurers painful names and words by association? Do I really carrying a constant chain of references (X links to A links to Z links to Y, et cetera)? Wouldn’t painful things be more easily remembered, as being more sensitive? Would the suppression be “unconscious” (by some unobservable — except in effect — mechanism) – our wouldn’t be rather, I don’t want to talk about that?

The whole mechanism hinges upon two thesis: (1) a constant chain of reference; and (2) a self-censuring mechanism seeking to block this unconscious chain of reference from conscious observation.

Freud’s theory here is marvelous, because it cannot really be observed. The mechanism is all unconscious. It can only be inferred by this glitches (lost words) and dug-up psychoanalytic technique (such as free association). It can be asserted, but not really proved.