Errors of memoryby@sigmundfreud
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Errors of memory

by Sigmund Freud12mFebruary 26th, 2023
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Errors of memory are distinguished from forgetting and false recollections through one feature only, namely, that the error (false recollection) is not recognized as such but finds credence. However, the use of the expression “error” seems to depend on still another condition. We speak of “erring” instead of “falsely recollecting” where the character of the objective reality is emphasized in the psychic material to be reproduced—that is, where something other than a fact of my own psychic life is to be remembered, or rather something that may be confirmed or refuted through the memory of others. The reverse of the error in memory in this sense is formed by ignorance.
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Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. ERRORS


Errors of memory are distinguished from forgetting and false recollections through one feature only, namely, that the error (false recollection) is not recognized as such but finds credence. However, the use of the expression “error” seems to depend on still another condition. We speak of “erring” instead of “falsely recollecting” where the character of the objective reality is emphasized in the psychic material to be reproduced—that is, where something other than a fact of my own psychic life is to be remembered, or rather something that may be confirmed or refuted through the memory of others. The reverse of the error in memory in this sense is formed by ignorance.

In my book The Interpretation of Dreams,[61] I was responsible for a series of errors in historical, and above all, in material facts, which I was astonished to discover after the appearance[Pg 250] of the book. On closer examination I found that they did not originate from my ignorance, but could be traced to errors of memory explainable by means of analysis.

(a) On page 361 I indicated as Schiller’s birthplace the city of Marburg, a name which recurs in Styria. The error is found in the analysis of a dream during a night journey from which I was awakened by the conductor calling out the name of the station Marburg. In the contents of the dream inquiry is made concerning a book by Schiller. But Schiller was not born in the university town of Marburg but in the Swabian city Marbach. I maintain that I always knew this.

(b) On page 165 Hannibal’s father is called Hasdrubal. This error was particularly annoying to me, but it was most corroborative of my conception of such errors. Few readers of the book are better posted on the history of the Barkides than the author who wrote this error and overlooked it in three proofs. The name of Hannibal’s father was Hamilcar BarkasHasdrubal was the name of Hannibal’s brother as well as that of his brother-in-law and predecessor in command.

(c) On pages 217 and 492 I assert that Zeus emasculates his father Kronos, and hurls him from the throne. This horror I have erroneously advanced by a generation; according to[Pg 251] Greek mythology it was Kronos who committed this on his father Uranos.[62]

How is it to be explained that my memory furnished me with false material on these points, while it usually places the most remote and unusual material at my disposal, as the readers of my books can verify? And, what is more, in three carefully executed proof-readings I passed over these errors as if struck blind.

Goethe said of Lichtenberg: “Where he cracks a joke, there lies a concealed problem.” Similarly we can affirm of these passages cited from my book: back of every error is a repression. More accurately stated: the error conceals a falsehood, a disfigurement which is ultimately based on repressed material. In the analysis of the dreams there reported, I was compelled by the very nature of the theme to which the dream thoughts related, on the one hand, to break off the analysis in some places before it had reached its completion, and on the other hand, to remove an indiscreet detail through a slight disfigurement of its outline. I could not act differently, and had no other choice if I was at all to offer examples and illustrations. My constrained position was necessarily brought about by the peculiarity of dreams, which give expression to[Pg 252] repressed thoughts, or to material which is incapable of becoming conscious. In spite of this it is said that enough material remained to offend the more sensitive souls. The disfigurement or concealment of the continuing thoughts known to me could not be accomplished without leaving some trace. What I wished to repress has often against my will obtruded itself on what I have taken up, and evinced itself in the matter as an unnoticeable error. Indeed, each of the three examples given is based on the same theme: the errors are the results of repressed thoughts which occupy themselves with my deceased father.

(ad a) Whoever reads through the dream analysed on page 361 will find some parts unveiled; in some parts he will be able to divine through allusions that I have broken off the thoughts which would have contained an unfavourable criticism of my father. In the continuation of this line of thoughts and memories there lies an annoying tale, in which books and a business friend of my father, named Marburg, play a part; it is the same name the calling out of which in the southern railway-station had aroused me from sleep. I wished to suppress this Mr. Marburg in the analysis from myself and my readers: he avenged himself by intruding where he did not belong, and changed the name of Schiller’s birthplace from Marbach to Marburg.

[Pg 253]

(ad b) The error Hasdrubal in place of Hamilcar, the name of the brother instead of that of the father, originated from an association which dealt with the Hannibal fantasies of my college years and my dissatisfaction with the conduct of my father towards the “enemies of our people.” I could have continued and recounted how my attitude toward my father was changed by a visit to England, where I made the acquaintance of my half-brother, by a previous marriage of my father. My brother’s oldest son was my age exactly. Thus the age relations were no hindrance to a fantasy which may be stated thus: how much pleasanter it would be had I been born the son of my brother instead of the son of my father! This suppressed fantasy then falsified the text of my book at the point where I broke off the analysis, by forcing me to put the name of the brother for that of the father.

(ad c) The influence of the memory of this same brother is responsible for my having advanced by a generation the mythological horror of the Greek deities. One of the admonitions of my brother has lingered long in my memory. “Do not forget one thing concerning your conduct in life,” he said: “you belong not to the second but really to the third generation of your father.” Our father had remarried at an advanced age, and was therefore an old man to his children by the second marriage. I commit[Pg 254] the error mentioned where I discuss the piety between parents and children.

Several times friends and patients have called my attention to the fact that in reporting their dreams or alluding to them in dream analyses, I have related inaccurately the circumstances experienced by us in common. These are also historic errors. On re-examining such individual cases I have found that my recollection of the facts was unreliable only where I had purposely disfigured or concealed something in the analysis. Here again we have an unobserved error as a substitute for an intentional concealment or repression.

From these errors, which originate from repression, we must sharply distinguish those which are based on actual ignorance. Thus, for example, it was ignorance when on my excursion to Wachau I believed that I had passed the resting-place of the revolutionary leader Fischof. Only the name is common to both places. Fischof’s Emmersdorf is located in Kärnthen. But I did not know any better.

Here is another embarrassing but instructive error, an example of temporary ignorance if you like. One day a patient reminded me to give him the two books on Venice which I had promised him, as he wished to use them in planning his Easter tour. I answered that I had them ready and went into the library to[Pg 255] fetch them, though the truth of the matter was that I had forgotten to look them up, since I did not quite approve of my patient’s journey, looking upon it as an unnecessary interruption to the treatment, and as a material loss to the physician. Thereupon I made a quick survey of the library for the books.

One was Venedig als Kunststätte, and besides this I imagined I had an historic work of a similar order. Certainly there was Die Mediceer (The Medicis); I took them and brought them in to him, then, embarrassed, I confessed my error. Of course I really knew that the Medicis had nothing to do with Venice, but for a short time it did not appear to me at all incorrect. Now I was compelled to practise justice; as I had so frequently interpreted my patient’s symptomatic actions I could save my prestige only by being honest and admitting to him the secret motives of my averseness to his trip.

It may cause general astonishment to learn how much stronger is the impulse to tell the truth than is usually supposed. Perhaps it is a result of my occupation with psychoanalysis that I can scarcely lie any more. As often as I attempt a distortion I succumb to an error or some other faulty act, which betrays my dishonesty, as was manifest in this and in the preceding examples.

[Pg 256]

Of all faulty actions the mechanism of the error seems to be the most superficial. That is, the occurrence of the error invariably indicates that the mental activity concerned had to struggle with some disturbing influence, although the nature of the error need not be determined by the quality of the disturbing idea, which may have remained obscure. It is not out of place to add that the same state of affairs may be assumed in many simple cases of lapses in speaking and writing. Every time we commit a lapse in speaking or writing we may conclude that through mental processes there has come a disturbance which is beyond our intention. It may be conceded, however, that lapses in speaking and writing often follow the laws of similarity and convenience, or the tendency to acceleration, without allowing the disturbing element to leave a trace of its own character in the error resulting from the lapses in speaking or writing. It is the responsiveness of the linguistic material which at first makes possible the determination of the error, but it also limits the same.

In order not to confine myself exclusively to personal errors I will relate a few examples which could just as well have been ranged under “Lapses in Speech” or under “Erroneously Carried-out Actions,” but as all these forms of faulty action have the same value they may as well be reported here.

[Pg 257]

(a) I forbade a patient to speak on the telephone to his lady-love, with whom he himself was willing to break off all relations, as each conversation only renewed the struggling against it. He was to write her his final decision, although there were some difficulties in the way of delivering the letter to her. He visited me at one o’clock to tell me that he had found a way of avoiding these difficulties, and among other things he asked me whether he might refer to me in my professional capacity.

At two o’clock while he was engaged in composing the letter of refusal, he interrupted himself suddenly, and said to his mother, “Well, I have forgotten to ask the Professor whether I may use his name in the letter.” He hurried to the telephone, got the connection, and asked the question, “May I speak to the Professor after his dinner?” In answer he got an astonished “Adolf, have you gone crazy!” The answering voice was the very voice which at my command he had listened to for the last time. He had simply “made a mistake,” and in place of the physician’s number had called up that of his beloved.

(b) During a summer vacation a schoolteacher, a poor but excellent young man, courted the daughter of a summer resident, until the girl fell passionately in love with him, and even prevailed upon her family to countenance the matrimonial[Pg 258] alliance in spite of the difference in position and race. One day, however, the teacher wrote his brother a letter in which he said: “Pretty, the lass is not at all, but she is very amiable, and so far so good. But whether I can make up my mind to marry a Jewess I cannot yet tell.” This letter got into the hands of the fiancée, who put an end to the engagement, while at the same time his brother was wondering at the protestations of love directed to him. My informer assured me that this was really an error and not a cunning trick.

I am familiar with another case in which a woman who was dissatisfied with her old physician, and still did not openly wish to discharge him, accomplished this purpose through the interchange of letters. Here, at least, I can assert confidently that it was error and not conscious cunning that made use of this familiar comedy-motive.

(c) Brill[63] tells of a woman who, inquiring about a mutual friend, erroneously called her by her maiden name. Her attention having been directed to this error, she had to admit that she disliked her friend’s husband and had never been satisfied with her marriage.

Maeder[64] relates a good example of how a reluctantly repressed wish can be satisfied by[Pg 259] means of an “error.” A colleague wanted to enjoy his day of leave of absence absolutely undisturbed, but he also felt that he ought to go to Lucerne to pay a call which he did not anticipate with any pleasure. After long reflection, however, he concluded to go. For pastime on the train he read the daily newspapers. He journeyed from Zurich to Arth Goldau, where he changed trains for Lucerne, all the time engrossed in reading. Presently the conductor informed him that he was in the wrong train—that is, he had got into the one which was returning from Goldau to Zurich, whereas his ticket was for Lucerne.

A very similar trick was played by me quite recently. I had promised my oldest brother to pay him a long-due visit at a sea-shore in England; as the time was short I felt obliged to travel by the shortest route and without interruption. I begged for a day’s sojourn in Holland, but he thought that I could stop there on my return trip. Accordingly I journeyed from Munich through Cologne to Rotterdam—Hook of Holland—where I was to take the steamer at midnight to Harwich. In Cologne I had to change cars; I left my train to go into the Rotterdam express, but it was not to be found. I asked various railway employees, was sent from one platform to another, got into an exaggerated state of despair, and could easily[Pg 260] reckon that during this fruitless search I had probably missed my connection.

After this was corroborated, I pondered whether or not I should spend the night in Cologne. This was favoured by a feeling of piety, for according to an old family tradition, my ancestors were once expelled from this city during a persecution of the Jews. But eventually I came to another decision; I took a later train to Rotterdam, where I arrived late at night and was thus compelled to spend a day in Holland. This brought me the fulfilment of a long-fostered wish—the sight of the beautiful Rembrandt paintings at The Hague and in the Royal Museum at Amsterdam. Not before the next forenoon, while collecting my impressions during the railway journey in England, did I definitely remember that only a few steps from the place where I got off at the railroad station in Cologne, indeed, on the same platform, I had seen a large sign, “Rotterdam—Hook of Holland.” There stood the train in which I should have continued my journey.

If one does not wish to assume that, contrary to my brother’s orders, I had really resolved to admire the Rembrandt pictures on my way to him, then the fact that despite clear directions I hurried away and looked for another train must be designated as an incomprehensible “blinding.” Everything else—my well-acted[Pg 261] perplexity, the emergence of the pious intention to spend the night in Cologne—was only a contrivance to hide my resolution until it had been fully accomplished.

One may possibly be disinclined to consider the class of errors which I have here explained as very numerous or particularly significant. But I leave it to your consideration whether there is no ground for extending the same points of view also to the more important errors of judgment, as evinced by people in life and science. Only for the most select and most balanced minds does it seem possible to guard the perceived picture of external reality against the distortion to which it is otherwise subjected in its transit through the psychic individuality of the one perceiving it.

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