‘Freudian Slips and Slips of the Freudians’
A dispute between Marxists
40 years on
Sebastiano Timpanaro’s book The Freudian Slip (1974), criticisms by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (November/December 1975), and Timpanaro's response (January/February 1976)
Inner Circle Seminar No. 221
Sunday 24 January 2016
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The notion of a ‘Freudian slip’ is part of our language. How do we know when to take seriously a slip of the tongue, pen, keyboard, or memory, and whether our feeling for what such slips may mean has any phenomenological validity? Is Freud’s method in his renowned ‘aliquis’ analysis to be our guide, as he urged? Daseinsanalysts and existential therapists have neglected these fundamental phenomena. They have not followed through the implications of Heidegger’s sayings, ‘Die Sprache spricht’ (‘Language speaks’) and ‘Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins’ (‘Language is the house of Being’). These may sound like rather vague, poetic formulations, but we shall try to show in this seminar that they may be taken as the starting-point for introducing some clarity into this discourse.
The background of the seminar is as follows. New Left Review No. 91 (May–June 1975) contained ‘The Freudian Slip’, a translation of part of the Italian Marxist philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro’s book The Freudian Slip (1974). Timpanaro (1923-2000) examines Freud’s famous ‘aliquis’ analysis in Chapter 2 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). Freud claims that on a holiday trip he fell into conversation with a young Jewish man who, indignantly denouncing the oppression of the Jews in
Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor.
The young man garbles the line. He asks Freud what he has forgotten; and Freud supplies the missing word: ‘aliquis’ (‘someone’) The young man then, according to Freud, asks Freud to help him discover why he has forgotten the word ‘aliquis’. Freud, in what appears (and has seriously been argued to be) a remarkable imitation of Sherlock Holmes, guides the young man towards the discovery that his supposedly free associations (nudged by Freud’s heavy hints and prompts) lead inexorably to his supposedly repressed memory that he is afraid he may have impregnated a woman.
This is the ‘aliquis’ analysis. Freud presents it as a paradigm for ‘name forgetting’ – although this is itself one of Freud’s own Freudian slips, as ‘aliquis’ is not a name.
But Timpanaro argues that there is a simpler explanation. He points out that the Virgil line has a structure unique in classic Latin literature. Nowhere else is an injunction, an imperative, addressed in this manner to ‘someone’, ‘aliquis’. It is normal for memory of poetry to be eroded by ‘banalisation’: unusual poetic expressions are replaced by more commonplace prosaic ones. The line as the young man misremembers it still makes perfect sense though it is less poetically, less powerfully, expressed. It just omits the word ‘aliquis’. This is, Timpanaro says, a ‘pedestrian (but true) explanation for an incomplete quotation’. It requires no supplementing by Freud’s more complex account. By the principle of Occam’s Razor, this simpler hypothesis should be preferred.
New Left Review No. 94 (November–December 1975) contained no fewer than four responses to Timpanaro by six authors, among them Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. All six defended Freud’s analysis of the slip and insisted that Timpanaro had not understood it.
New Left Review No. 95 (January–February 1976) contained Timpanaro’s reply to these criticisms: ‘Freudian Slips and Slips of the Freudians’. He began:
‘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.’
This may seem a rather recondite and parochial affair, but the issues at stake in this impassioned debate are of fundamental importance to the project of a ‘psychoanalytical’ or ‘daseinsanalytical’ thinking that is reasonable, not arbitrary and violent; these issues have by no means yet been clarified, let alone settled. We shall examine each argument in detail, and try to reach a balanced evaluation.
(Unfortunately, Sebastiano Timpanaro is dead, and neither Professor Mitchell nor Professor Rose could participate today.)
A few years after this debate in New Left Review, Peter Swales proposed, on the basis of textual analysis and historical data, that there was no ‘young man’, and so no conversation in which ‘he’ forgot ‘aliquis’; rather, it was Freud himself who feared having impregnated a woman – specifically, his sister-in-law Minna Bernays. This hypothesis was strengthened by the subsequent researches of Anthony Stadlen, Richard Skues, and Franz Maciejewski. All four researchers have presented their findings in previous Inner Circle Seminars.
It may be argued that the dispute between Timpanaro and his critics is, prima facie, independent of the dispute about whether the ‘young man’ existed. But may the two disputes not be logically or empirically connected? If there were no ‘young man’, then what would be the status of the ‘aliquis’ analysis as a ‘paradigm’? If, for example, Freud misrepresented a private forgetting of his own as a memory-slip of another person in conversation with him, would this not be seriously misleading, scientifically and phenomenologically – not merely a question of disguising the identity of the person making the slip – especially as Freud wrote that he valued this example precisely because his source was someone ‘other’ than himself? The late Director of the Freud Archives, Kurt Eissler, wrote that for Freud to have misreported in such a way would indeed have been ‘indecent’, the act of a ‘liar’ – implying that a man of Freud’s integrity could not have done so! But, as open-minded scholars, we cannot rule out a priori either this possibility or even the possibility that the slip itself was simply invented by Freud, using both real and fictional data from his life, to illustrate his theory. Yet, on another occasion, this same Kurt Eissler argued that, even if this slip and its ‘analysis’, together with all Freud’s other examples of slips and dreams and their analyses, were wholly invented, this would not alter in any way their validity as paradigms, which had been demonstrated thousands upon thousands of times in psychoanalytic practice!
We shall try, in this seminar, to eschew such ideological polemic and take the debate to a more serious, existential-phenomenological level. Your contribution is warmly invited.
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 or: +44 (0) 7809 433 250