From The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
If anyone should be inclined to overrate the state of our present knowledge of mental life, all that would be needed to force him to assume a modest attitude would be to remind him of the function of memory. No psychologic theory has yet been able to account for the connection between the fundamental phenomena of remembering and forgetting; indeed, even the complete analysis of that which one can actually observe has as yet scarcely been grasped. Today forgetting has perhaps grown more puzzling than remembering, especially since we have learned from the study of dreams and pathologic states that even what for a long time we believed forgotten may suddenly return to consciousness.
To be sure, we are in possession of some viewpoints which we hope will receive general recognition. Thus we assume that forgetting is a spontaneous process to which we may ascribe a certain temporal discharge. We emphasize the fact that, just as among the units of every impression or experience, in forgetting, too, a certain selection takes place among the existing impressions. We are acquainted with some of the conditions that underlie the tenaciousness of memory and the awakening of that which would otherwise remain forgotten. Nevertheless, we can observe in innumerable cases of daily life how unreliable and unsatisfactory our knowledge of the mechanism is. Thus we may listen to two persons exchanging reminiscences concerning the same outward impressions, say of a journey that they have taken together some time before. What remains most firmly in the memory of the one is often forgotten by the other, as if it had never occurred, even when there is not the slightest reason to assume that this impression is of greater psychic importance for the one than for the other. A great many of those factors which determine the selective power of memory are obviously still beyond our ken.
With the purpose of adding some small contribution to the knowledge of the conditions of forgetting, I was wont to subject to a psychologic analysis those cases in which forgetting concerned me personally. As a rule I took up only a certain group of those cases, namely, those in which the forgetting astonished me, because, in my opinion, I should have remembered the experience in question. I wish further to remark that I am generally not inclined to forgetfulness (of things experienced, not of things learned), and that for a short period of my youth I was able to perform extraordinary feats of memory. When I was a schoolboy it was quite natural for me to be able to repeat from memory the page of a book which I had read; and shortly before I entered the University I could write down practically verbatim the popular lectures on scientific subjects directly after hearing them. In the tension before the final medical examination I must have made use of the remnant of this ability, for in certain subjects I gave the examiners apparently automatic answers, which proved to be exact reproductions of the textbook, which I had skimmed through but once and then in greatest haste.
Since those days I have steadily lost control over my memory; of late, however, I became convinced that with the aid of a certain artifice I can recall far more than I would otherwise credit myself with remembering. For example, when, during my office hours, a patient states that I have seen him before and I cannot recall either the fact or the time, then I help myself by guessing—that is, I allow a number of years, beginning from the present time, to come to my mind quickly. Whenever this could be controlled by records of definite information from the patient, it was always shown that in over ten years
NOTE: [In the course of the conference the details of the previous first visit return to consciousness]
I have seldom missed it by more than six months. The same thing happens when I meet a casual acquaintance and, from politeness, inquire about his small child. When he tells of its progress I try to fancy how old the child now is. I control my estimate by the information given by the father, and at most I make a mistake of a month, and in older children of three months. I cannot state, however, what basis I have for this estimate. Of late I have grown so bold that I always offer my estimate spontaneously, and still run no risk of grieving the father by displaying my ignorance in regard to his offspring. Thus I extend my conscious memory by invoking my larger unconscious memory.
I shall report some striking examples of forgetting which for the most part I have observed in myself. I distinguish forgetting of impressions and experiences, that is, the forgetting of knowledge, from forgetting of resolutions, that is, the forgetting of omissions. The uniform result of the entire series of observations I can formulate as follows: The forgetting in all cases is proved to be founded on a motive of displeasure.
A. Forgetting of Impressions and Knowledge
(a) During the summer my wife once made me very angry, although the cause in itself was trifling. We sat in a restaurant opposite a gentleman from Vienna whom I knew, and who had cause to know me, and whose acquaintance I had reasons for not wishing to renew. My wife, who had heard nothing to the disrepute of the man opposite her, showed by her actions that she was listening to his conversation with his neighbors, for from time to time she asked me questions which took up the thread of their discussion. I became impatient and finally irritated. A few weeks later I complained to a relative about this behavior on the part of my wife, but I was not able to recall even a single word of the conversation of the gentleman in the case. As I am usually rather resentful and cannot forget a single incident of an episode that has annoyed me, my amnesia in this case was undoubtedly determined by respect for my wife.
A short time ago I had a similar experience. I wished to make merry with an intimate friend over a statement made by my wife only a few hours earlier, but I found myself hindered by the noteworthy fact that I had entirely forgotten the statement. I had first to beg my wife to recall it to me. It is easy to understand that my forgetting in this case may be analogous to the typical disturbance of judgment which dominates us when it concerns those nearest to us.
(b) To oblige a woman who was a stranger in Vienna I had undertaken to procure a small iron safe for the preservation of documents and money. When I offered my services, the image of an establishment in the heart of the city where I was sure I had seen such safes floated before me with extraordinary visual vividness. To be sure, I could not recall the name of the street, but I felt certain that I would discover the store in a walk through the city, for my memory told me that I had passed it countless times. To my chagrin I could not find this establishment with the safes, though I walked through the inner part of the city in every direction. I concluded that the only thing left to do was to search through a business directory, and if that failed, to try to identify the establishment in a second round of the city. It did not, however, require so much effort; among the addresses in the directory I found one which immediately presented itself as that which had been forgotten. It was true that I had passed the show window countless times, each time, however, when I had gone to visit the M. family, who have lived a great many years in this identical building. After this intimate friendship had turned to an absolute estrangement, I had taken care to avoid the neighborhood as well as the house, though without ever thinking of the reason for my action. In my walk through the city searching for the safe in the show window I had traversed every street in the neighborhood but the right one, and I had avoided this as if it were forbidden ground.
The motive of displeasure which was at the bottom of my disorientation is thus comprehensible. But the mechanism of forgetting is no longer so simple as in the former example. Here my aversion naturally does not extend to the vendor of safes, but to another person, concerning whom I wish to know nothing, and later transfers itself from the latter to this incident where it brings about the forgetting. Similarly, in the case of Burckhard mentioned above, [in a preceding chapter, “Mistakes in Reading and Writing”] the grudge against the one brought about the error in writing the name of the other. The similarity of names which here established a connection between two essentially different streams of thought was accomplished in the showcase window instance by the contiguity of space and the inseparable environment. Moreover, this latter case was more closely knit together, for money played a great part in the causation of the estrangement from the family living in this house.
(c) The B. and R. Company requested me to pay a professional call on one of their officers. On my way to him I was engrossed in the thought that I must already have been in the building occupied by the firm. It seemed as if I used to see their signboard in a lower story while my professional visit was taking me to a higher story. I could not recall, however, which house it was nor when I had called there. Although the entire matter was indifferent and of no consequence, I nevertheless occupied myself with it, and at last learned in the usual roundabout way, by collecting the thoughts that occurred to me in this connection, that one story above the floor occupied by the firm B. and R. was the Pension Fischer, where I had frequently visited patients. Then I remembered the building which sheltered both the company and the pension.
I was still puzzled, however, as to the motive that entered into play in this forgetting. I found nothing disagreeable in my memory concerning the firm itself or the Pension Fischer, or the patients living there. I was also aware that it could not deal with anything very painful, otherwise I hardly would have been successful in tracing the thing forgotten in a roundabout way without resorting to external aid, as happened in the preceding example. Finally it occurred to me that a little before, while starting on my way to a new patient, a gentleman whom I had difficulty in recalling greeted me in the street. Some months previously I had seen this man in an apparently serious condition and had made the diagnosis of general paresis, but later I had learned of his recovery, consequently my judgment had been incorrect. Was it not possible that we had in this case a remission, which one usually finds in dementia paralytica? In that contingency my diagnosis would still be justified. The influence emanating from this meeting caused me to forget the neighborhood of the B. and R. Company, and my interest to discover the thing forgotten was transferred from this case of disputed diagnosis. But the associative connection in this loose inner relation was effected by means of a similarity of names: the man who recovered, contrary to expectation, was also an officer of a large company that recommends patients to me. And the physician with whom I had seen the supposed paretic bore the name of Fischer, the name of the pension in the house which I had forgotten.
(d) Mislaying a thing really has the same significance as forgetting where we have placed it. Like most people delving in pamphlets and books, I am well oriented about my desk, and can produce what I want with one lunge. What appears to others as disorder has become for me perfect order. Why, then, did I mislay a catalogue which was sent to me not long ago so that it could not be found? What is more, it had been my intention to order a book which I found announced therein, entitled Ueber die Sprache, because it was written by an author whose spirited, vivacious style I like, whose insight into psychology and whose knowledge of the cultural world I have learned to appreciate. I believe that was just why I mislaid the catalogue. It was my habit to lend the books of this author among my friends for their enlightenment, and a few days before, on returning one, somebody had said: “His style reminds me altogether of yours, and his way of thinking is identical.” The speaker did not know what he was stirring up with this remark. Years ago, when I was younger and in greater need of forming alliances, I was told practically the same thing by an older colleague, to whom I had recommended the writings of a familiar medical author. To put it in his words, “It is absolutely your style and manner.” I was so influenced by these remarks that I wrote a letter to this author with the object of bringing about a closer relation, but a rather cool answer put me back “in my place.” Perhaps still earlier discouraging experiences conceal themselves behind this last one, for I did not find the mislaid catalogue. Through this premonition I was actually prevented from ordering the advertised book, although the disappearance of the catalogue formed no real hindrance, as I remembered well both the name of the book and the author.
(e) Another case of mislaying merits our interest on account of the conditions under which the mislaid object was rediscovered. A younger man narrates as follows: “Several years ago there were some misunderstandings between me and my wife. I found her too cold, and though I fully appreciated her excellent qualities, we lived together without evincing any tenderness for each other. One day on her return from a walk she gave me a book which she had bought because she thought it would interest me. I thanked her for this mark of ‘attention,’ promised to read the book, put it away, and did not find it again. So months passed, during which I occasionally remembered the lost book, and also tried in vain to find it.
“About six months later my beloved mother, who was not living with us, became ill. My wife left home to nurse her mother-in-law. The patient’s condition became serious and gave my wife the opportunity to show the best side of herself. One evening I returned home full of enthusiasm over what my wife had accomplished, and felt very grateful to her. I stepped to my desk and, without definite intention but with the certainty of a somnambulist, I opened a certain drawer, and in the very top of it I found the long-missing, mislaid book.” The following example of “misplacing” belongs to a type well known to every psychoanalyst. I must add that the patient who experienced this misplacing has himself found the solution of it.
This patient, whose psychoanalytic treatment had to be interrupted through the summer vacation when he was in a state of resistance and ill-health, put away his keys in the evening in their usual place, or so he thought. He then remembered that he wished to take some things from his desk, where he also had put the money which he needed on the journey. He was to depart the next day, which was the last day of treatment and the date when the doctor’s fee was due. But the keys had disappeared.
He began a thorough and systematic search through his small apartment. He became more and more excited over it, but his search was unsuccessful. As he recognized this “misplacement” as a symptomatic act—that is, as being intentional—he aroused his servant in order to continue his search with the help of an “unprejudiced” person. After another hour he gave up the search and feared that he had lost the keys. The next morning he ordered new keys from the desk factory, which were hurriedly made for him. Two acquaintances who had been with him in a cab even recalled hearing something fall to the ground as he stepped out of the cab, and he was therefore convinced that the keys had slipped from his pocket. They were found lying between a thick book and a thin pamphlet, the latter a work of one of my pupils, which he wished to take along as reading matter for his vacation; and they were so skillfully placed that no one would have supposed that they were there. He himself was unable to replace the keys in such a position as to render them invisible. The unconscious skill with which an object is misplaced on account of secret but strong motives reminds one of “somnambulistic sureness.” The motive was naturally ill-humor over the interruption of the treatment and the secret rage over the fact that he had to pay such a high fee when he felt so ill.
(g) Brill relates: [Brill, loc. cit., p. 197] “A man was urged by his wife to attend a social function in which he really took no interest. Yielding to his wife’s entreaties, he began to take his dress-suit from the trunk when he suddenly thought of shaving. After accomplishing this he returned to the trunk and found it locked. Despite a long, earnest search the key could not be found. A locksmith could not be found on Sunday evening, so that the couple had to send their regrets. On having the trunk opened the next morning the lost key was found within. The husband had absentmindedly dropped the key into the trunk and sprung the lock. He assured me that this was wholly unintentional and unconscious, but we know that he did not wish to go to this social affair. The mislaying of the key therefore lacked no motive.”
Ernest Jones noticed in himself that he was in the habit of mislaying his pipe whenever he suffered from the effects of over-smoking. The pipe was then found in some unusual place where it did not belong and which it normally did not occupy.
If one looks over the cases of mislaying it will be difficult to assume that mislaying is anything other than the result of an unconscious intention.
(h) In the summer of 1901 I once remarked to a friend with whom I was then actively engaged in exchanging ideas on scientific questions: “These neurotic problems can be solved only if we take the position of absolutely accepting an original bi-sexuality in every individual” To which he replied: “I told you that two and a half years ago while we were taking an evening walk in Br. At that time you wouldn’t listen to it.”
It is truly painful to be thus requested to renounce one’s originality. I could neither recall such a conversation nor my friend’s revelation. One of us must be mistaken; and according to the principle of the question cui prodest? I must be the one. Indeed, in the course of the following weeks everything came back to me just as my friend had recalled it. I myself remembered that at that time I gave the answer: “I have not yet got so far, and I do not care to discuss it.” But since this incident I have grown more tolerant when I miss any mention of my name in medical literature in connection with ideas for which I deserve credit.
It is scarcely accidental that the numerous examples of forgetting which have been collected without any selection should require for their solution the introduction of such painful themes as exposing of one’s wife; a friendship that has turned into the opposite; a mistake in medical diagnosis; enmity on account of similar pursuits, or the borrowing of somebody’s ideas. I am rather inclined to believe that every person who will undertake an inquiry into the motives underlying his forgetting will be able to fill up a similar sample card of vexatious circumstances. The tendency to forget the disagreeable seems to me to be quite general; the capacity for it is naturally differently developed in different persons. Certain denials which we encounter in medical practice can probably be ascribed to forgetting.
Note: [If we inquire of a person whether he suffered from luetic infection ten or fifteen years ago, we are only too apt to forget that psychically the patient has looked upon this disease in an entirely different manner than on, let us say, an acute attack of rheumatism. In the anamneses which parents give about their neurotic daughters, it is hardly possible to distinguish with any degree of certainty the portion forgotten from that hidden, for anything that stands in the way of the girl’s future marriage is systematically set aside by the parents, that is, it becomes repressed. A man who had recently lost his beloved wife from an affection of the lungs reported to me the following case of misleading the doctor, which can only be explained by the theory of such forgetting. “As my poor wife’s pleuritis had not disappeared after many weeks, Dr. P. was called in consultation. While taking the history he asked among others the customary questions whether there were any cases of lung trouble in my wife’s family. My wife denied any such cases, and even I myself could not remember any. While Dr. P. was taking leave the conversation accidentally turned to excursions, and my wife said: ‘Yes, even to Landgersdorf, where my poor brother lies buried, is a long journey.’ This brother died about fifteen years ago, after having suffered for years from tuberculosis. My wife was very fond of him, and often spoke about him. Indeed, I recall that when her malady was diagnosed as pleurisy she was very worried and sadly remarked: ‘My brother also died of lung trouble.’ But the memory was so very repressed that even after the above-cited conversation about the trip to L. she found no occasion to correct her information concerning the diseases in her family. I myself was struck by this forgetting at the very moment she began to talk about Landgersdorf.” A perfectly analogous experience is related by Ernest Jones in his work. A physician whose wife suffered from some obscure abdominal malady remarked to her: “It is comforting to think that there has been no tuberculosis in your family.” She turned to him very astonished and said, “Have you forgotten that my mother died of tuberculosis, and that my sister recovered from it only after having been given up by the doctors?”]
Our conception of such forgetting confines the distinction between this and that behavior to purely psychologic relations, and permits us to see in both forms of reaction the expression of the same motive. Of the numerous examples of denials of unpleasant recollection which I have observed in kinsmen of patients, one remains in my memory as especially singular. A mother telling me of the childhood of her nervous son, now in his puberty, made the statement that, like his brothers and sisters, he was subject to bed-wetting throughout his childhood, a symptom which certainly has some significance in a history of a neurotic patient. Some weeks later, while seeking information regarding the treatment, I had occasion to call her attention to signs of a constitutional morbid predisposition in the young man, and at the same time referred to the bed-wetting recounted in the anamnesis. To my surprise she contested this fact concerning him, denying it as well for the other children, and asked me how I could possibly know this. Finally I let her know that she herself had told me a short time before what she had thus forgotten.
Note: [During the days when I was first writing these pages the following almost incredible case of forgetting happened to me. On the 1st of January I examined my notes so that I could send out my bills. In the month of June I came across the name M——l, and could not recall the person to whom it belonged. My surprise increased when I observed from my books that I treated the case in a sanatorium, and that for weeks I had called on the patient daily. A patient treated under such conditions is rarely forgotten by a physician in six months. I asked myself if it could have been a man—a paretic—a case without interest? Finally, the note about the fee received brought to my memory all the knowledge which strove to elude it. M——l was a fourteen-year-old girl, the most remarkable case of my latter years, a case which taught me a lesson I am not likely ever to forget, a case whose upshot gave me many painful hours. The child became afflicted with an unmistakable hysteria, which quickly and thoroughly improved under my care. After this improvement the child was taken away from me by the parents. She still complained of abdominal pains which had played the part in the hysterical symptoms. Two months later she died of sarcoma of the abdominal glands. The hysteria, to which she was greatly predisposed, took the tumor-formation as a provocative agent, and I, fascinated by the tumultuous but harmless manifestations of hysteria, perhaps overlooked the first sign of the insidious and incurable disease.]
One also finds abundant indications which show that even in healthy, not neurotic, persons resistances are found against the memory of disagreeable impressions and the idea of painful thoughts.
Note: [A. Pick (“Zur Psychologie des Vergessens bei Geistesund Nervenkranken,” Archiv. f. Kriminal-Anthropologie u. Kriminalistik, von H. Gross) has recently collected a number of authors who realize the value of the influence of the affective factors on memory, and who more or less clearly recognize that a defensive striving against pain can lead to forgetting. But none of us has been able to represent this phenomenon and its psychologic determination as exhaustively, and at the same time as effectively, as Nietzsche in one of his aphorisms (Jenseits von Gut und Bosen, ii., Haupstuck 68) : “‘I have done that,’ says my Memory. ‘I could not have done that,’ says my Pride, and remains inexorable. Finally, my Memory yields.”]
But the full significance of this fact can be estimated only when we enter into the psychology of neurotic persons. One is forced to make such elementary defensive striving against ideas which can awaken painful feelings, a striving which can be put side by side only with the flight-reflex in painful stimuli, as the main pillar of the mechanism which carries the hysterical symptoms. One need not offer any objection to the acceptance of such defensive tendency on the ground that we frequently find it impossible to rid ourselves of painful memories which cling to us, or to banish such painful emotions as remorse and reproaches of conscience. No one maintains that this defensive tendency invariably gains the upper hand, that in the play of psychic forces it may not strike against factors which stir up the contrary feeling for other purposes and bring it about in spite of it.
As the architectural principle of the psychic apparatus we may conjecture a certain stratification or structure of instances deposited in strata. And it is quite possible that this defensive tendency belongs to a lower psychic instance, and is inhibited by higher instances. At all events, it speaks for the existence and force of this defensive tendency, when we can trace it to processes such as those found in our examples of forgetting. We see then that something is forgotten for its own sake, and where this is not possible the defensive tendency misses the target and causes something else to be forgotten—something less significant, but which has fallen into associative connection with the disagreeable material.
The views here developed, namely, that painful memories merge into motivated forgetting with special ease, merits application in many spheres where as yet it has found no, or scarcely any, recognition. Thus it seems to me that it has not yet been strongly enough emphasized in the estimation of testimony taken in court, [Cf. Hans Gross, Kriminal Psychologie, 1898.] where the putting of a witness under oath obviously leads us to place too great a trust on the purifying influence of his psychic play of forces. It is universally admitted that in the origin of the traditions and folklore of a people care must be taken to eliminate from memory such a motive as would be painful to the national feeling. Perhaps on closer investigation it may be possible to form a perfect analogy between the manner of development of national traditions and infantile reminiscences of the individual. The great Darwin has formulated a “golden rule” for the scientific worker from his insight into this pain-motive of forgetting.
Note: [Darwin on forgetting. In Darwin’s autobiography one finds the following passage that does equal credit to his scientific honesty and his psychologic acumen: “I had during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought, came across me which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones” (quoted by Jones, loc. cit., p. 38).]
Almost exactly as in the forgetting of names, faulty recollections can also appear in the forgetting of impressions, and when finding credence they may be designated as delusions of memory. The memory disturbance in pathologic cases (in paranoia it actually plays the role of a constituting factor in the formation of delusions) has brought to light an extensive literature in which there is no reference whatever to its being motivated. As this theme also belongs to the psychology of the neuroses it goes beyond our present treatment. Instead, I will give from my own experience a curious example of memory disturbance showing clearly enough its determination through unconscious repressed material and its connection with this material.
While writing the latter chapters of my volume on the interpretation of dreams, I happened to be in a summer resort without access to libraries and reference books, so that I was compelled to introduce into the manuscript all kinds of references and citations from memory. These I naturally reserved for future correction. In the chapter on daydreams I thought of the distinguished figure of the poor bookkeeper in Alphonse Daudet’s Nabab, through whom the author probably described his own day-dreams. I imagined that I distinctly remembered one fantasy of this man, whom I called Mr. Jocelyn, which he hatched while walking the streets of Paris, and I began to reproduce it from memory. This fantasy described how Mr. Jocelyn boldly hurled himself at a runaway horse and brought it to a standstill; how the carriage door opened and a great personage stepped from the coupe, pressed Mr. Jocelyn’s hand and said: “You are my savior—I owe my life to you! What can I do for you?”
I assured myself that casual inaccuracies in the rendition of this fantasy could readily be corrected at home on consulting the book. But when I perused Nabab in order to compare it with my manuscript, I found to my very great shame and consternation that there was nothing to suggest such a dream by Mr. Jocelyn; indeed, the poor book-keeper did not even bear this name—he was called Mr. Joyeuse.
This second error then furnished the key for the solution of the first mistake, the faulty reminiscence. Joyeux, of which Joyeuse is the feminine form, was the only possible word which would translate my own name Freud into French. Whence, therefore, came this falsely remembered fantasy which I had attributed to Daudet? It could only be a product of my own, a daydream which I myself had spun, and which did not become conscious, or which was once conscious and had since been absolutely forgotten. Perhaps I invented it myself in Paris, where frequently enough I walked the streets alone, and full of longing for a helper and protector, until Charcot took me into his circle. I had often met the author of Nabab in Charcot’s house. But the provoking part of it all is the fact that there is scarcely anything to which I am so hostile as the thought of being someone’s protégé. What we see of this sort of thing in our country spoils all desire for it, and my character is little suited to the role of a protected child. I have always entertained an immense desire to “be the strong man myself.” And it had to happen that I should be reminded of such a, to be sure, never fulfilled, day-dream! Besides, this incident is a good example of how the restraint relation to one’s ego, which breaks forth triumphantly in paranoia, disturbs and entangles us in the objective grasp of things.
Another case of faulty recollection which can be satisfactorily explained resembles the fausse reconnaissance to be discussed later. I related to one of my patients, an ambitious and very capable man, that a young student had recently gained admittance into the circle of my pupils by means of an interesting work, Der Künstler, Versuch einer Sexualpsychologie. When, a year and a quarter later, this work lay before me in print, my patient maintained that he remembered with certainty having read somewhere, perhaps in a bookseller’s advertisement, the announcement of the same book even before I first mentioned it to him. He remembered that this announcement came to his mind at that time, and he ascertained besides that the author had changed the title, that it no longer read “Versuch” but “Ansätze zu einer Sexualpsychologie.”
Careful inquiry of the author and comparison of all dates showed conclusively that my patient was trying to recall the impossible. No notice of this work had appeared anywhere before its publication, certainly not a year and a quarter before it went to print. However, I neglected to seek a solution for this false recollection until the same man brought about an equally valuable renewal of it. He thought that he had recently noticed a work on “agoraphobia” in the show window of a bookshop, and as he was now looking for it in all available catalogues I was able to explain to him why his effort must remain fruitless. The work on agoraphobia existed only in his fantasy as an unconscious resolution to write such a book himself. His ambition to emulate that young man, and through such a scientific work to become one of my pupils, had led him to the first as well as to the second false recollection. He also recalled later that the bookseller’s announcement which had occasioned his false reminiscence dealt with a work entitled Genesis, Das Gesetz der Zeugung (“Genesis, The Law of Generation”). But the change in the title as mentioned by him was really instigated by me; I recalled that I myself have perpetrated the same inaccuracy in the repetition of the title by saying “Ansätze” in place of “Versuch.”
B. Forgetting of Intentions
No other group of phenomena is better qualified to demonstrate the thesis that lack of attention does not in itself suffice to explain faulty acts as the forgetting of intentions. An intention is an impulse for an action which has already found approbation, but whose execution is postponed for a suitable occasion. Now, in the interval thus created sufficient change may take place in the motive to prevent the intention from coming to execution. It is not, however, forgotten, it is simply revised and omitted.
We are naturally not in the habit of explaining the forgetting of intentions which we daily experience in every possible situation as being due to a recent change in the adjustment of motives. We generally leave it unexplained, or we seek a psychologic explanation in the assumption that at the time of execution the required attention for the action, which was an indispensable condition for the occurrence of the intention, and was then at the disposal of the same action, no longer exists. Observation of our normal behavior towards intentions urges us to reject this tentative explanation as arbitrary. If I resolve in the morning to carry out a certain intention in the evening, I may be reminded of it several times in the course of the day, but it is not at all necessary that it should become conscious throughout the day. As the time for its execution approaches it suddenly occurs to me and induces me to make the necessary preparation for the intended action. If I go walking and take a letter with me to be posted, it is not at all necessary that I, as a normal not nervous individual, should carry it in my hand and continually look for a letterbox. As a matter of fact I am accustomed to put it in my pocket and give my thoughts free rein on my way, feeling confident that the first letterbox will attract my attention and cause me to put my hand in my pocket and draw out the letter.
This normal behavior in a formed intention corresponds perfectly with the experimentally produced conduct of persons who are under a so-called “post-hypnotic suggestion” to perform something after a certain time. [Cf. Bernheim, Neue Studien über Hypnotismus, Suggestion und Psychotherapie, 1892.] We are accustomed to describe the phenomenon in the following manner: the suggested intention slumbers in the person concerned until the time for its execution approaches. Then it awakes and excites the action.
In two positions of life even the layman is cognizant of the fact that forgetting referring to intended purposes can in no wise claim consideration as an elementary phenomenon no further reducible, but realizes that it ultimately depends on unadmitted motives. I refer to affairs of love and military service. A lover who is late at the appointed place will vainly tell his sweetheart that unfortunately he has entirely forgotten their rendezvous. She will not hesitate to answer him: “A year ago you would not have forgotten. Evidently you no longer care for me.” Even if he should grasp the above cited psychologic explanation, and should wish to excuse his forgetting on the plea of important business, he would only elicit the answer from the woman, who has become as keen-sighted as the physician in the psychoanalytic treatment, “How remarkable that such business disturbances did not occur before!” Of course the woman does not wish to deny the possibility of forgetting; but she believes, and not without reason, that practically the same inference of a certain unwillingness may be drawn from the unintentional forgetting is from a conscious subterfuge.
Similarly, in military service no distinction is recognized between an omission resulting from forgetting and one in consequence of intentional neglect. And rightly so. The soldier dares forget nothing that military service demands of him. If he forgets in spite of this, even when he is acquainted with the demands, then it is due to the fact that the motives which urge the fulfillment of the military exactions are opposed by contrary motives. Thus the one year’s volunteer
Note: [Young men of education who can pass the examination and pay for their maintenance serve one instead of two years’ compulsory service.]
who at inspection pleads forgetting as an excuse for not having polished his buttons is sure to be punished. But this punishment is small in comparison to the one he courts if he admits to his superiors that the motive for his negligence is because “this miserable menial service is altogether disgusting to me.” Owing to this saving of punishment for economic reasons, as it were, he makes use of forgetting as an excuse, or it comes about as a compromise.
The service of women (as well as the military service of the State) demands that nothing relating to that service be subject to forgetting. Thus it but suggests that forgetting is permissible in unimportant matters, but in weighty matters its occurrence is an indication that one wishes to treat weighty matters as unimportant: that is, that their importance is disputed.
Note: [In Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, Caesar’s indifference to Cleopatra is depicted by his being vexed on leaving Egypt at having forgotten to do something. He finally recollected what he had forgotten—to take leave of Cleopatra—this, to be sure, is in full accord with historical truth. How little Caesar thought of the little Egyptian princess! Cited from Jones, loc. cit., p. 50.]
The view-point of psychic validity is in fact not to be contested here. No person forgets to carry out actions that seem important to himself without exposing himself to the suspicion of being a sufferer from mental weakness. Our investigations therefore can extend only to the forgetting of more or less secondary intentions, for no intention do we deem absolutely indifferent, otherwise it would certainly never have been formed.
As in the preceding functional disturbances, I have collected the cases of neglect through forgetting which I have observed in myself, and endeavored to explain them. I have found that they could invariably be traced to some interference of unknown and unadmitted motives—or, as may be said, they were due to a counter-will. In a number of these cases I found myself in a position similar to that of being in some distasteful service: I was under a constraint to which I had not entirely resigned myself, so that I showed my protest in the form of forgetting. This accounts for the fact that I am particularly prone to forget to send congratulations on such occasions as birthdays, jubilees, wedding celebrations, and promotions to higher rank. I continually make new resolutions, but I am more than ever convinced that I shall not succeed. I am now on the point of giving it up altogether, and to admit consciously the striving motives. In a period of transition, I told a friend who asked me to send a congratulatory telegram for him, at a certain time when I was to send one myself, that I would probably forget both. It was not surprising that the prophecy came true. It is undoubtedly due to painful experiences in life that I am unable to manifest sympathy where this manifestation must necessarily appear exaggerated, for the small amount of my feeling does not admit the corresponding expression. Since I have learned that I often mistook the pretended sympathy of others for real, I am in rebellion against the conventions of expressing sympathy, the social expediency of which I naturally acknowledge. Condolences in cases of death are excepted from this double treatment; once I determine to send them I do not neglect them. Where my emotional participation has nothing more to do with social duty, its expression is never inhibited by forgetting.
Cases in which we forget to carry out actions which we have promised to do as a favor for others can similarly be explained as antagonism to conventional duty and as an unfavorable inward opinion. Here it regularly proves correct, inasmuch as the only person appealed to believes in the excusing power of forgetfulness, while the one requesting the favor has no doubt about the right answer: he has no interest in this matter, otherwise he would not have forgotten it.
There are some who are noted as generally forgetful, and we excuse their lapses in the same manner as we excuse those who are short-sighted when they do not greet us in the street.
Note: [Women, with their fine understanding of unconscious mental processes, are, as a rule, more apt to take offence when we do not recognize them in the street, and hence do not greet them, than to accept the most obvious explanation, namely, that the dilatory one is short-sighted or so engrossed in thought that he did not see them. They conclude that they surely would have been noticed if they had been considered of any consequence.]
Such persons forget all small promises which they have made; they leave unexecuted all orders which they have received; they prove themselves unreliable in little things; and at the same time demand that we shall not take these slight offences amiss—that is, they do not want us to attribute these failings to personal characteristics but to refer them to an organic peculiarity.
Note: [Dr. Ferenczi reports that he was a distracted person himself, and was considered peculiar by his friends on account of the frequency and strangeness of his failing. But the signs of this inattention have almost all disappeared since he began to practice psychoanalysis with patients, and was forced to turn his attention to the analysis of his own ego. He believes that one renounces these failings when one learns to extend by so much one’s own responsibilities. He therefore justly maintains that distractedness is a state which depends on unconscious complexes, and is curable by psychoanalysis. One day he was reproaching himself for having committed a technical error in the psychoanalysis of a patient, and on this day all his former distractions reappeared. He stumbled while walking in the street (a representation of that faux pas in the treatment), he forgot his pocket-book at home, he was a penny short in his car fare, he did not properly button his clothes, etc.]
I am not one of these people myself, and have had no opportunity to analyze the actions of such a person in order to discover from the selection of forgetting the motive underlying the same. I cannot forego, however, the conjecture per analogiam, that here the motive is an unusual large amount of unavowed disregard for others which exploits the constitutional factor for its purpose.
Note: [E. Jones remarks regarding this: “Often the resistance is of a general order. Thus a busy man forgets to mail a letter entrusted to him—to his slight annoyance—by his wife, just as he may ‘forget’ to carry out her shopping orders.”]
In other cases the motives for forgetting are less easy to discover, and when found excite greater astonishment. Thus, in former years I observed that of a great number of professional calls I only forgot those that I was to make on patients whom I treated gratis or on colleagues. The mortification caused by this discovery led me to the habit of noting every morning the calls of the day in a form of resolution. I do not know if other physicians have come to the same practice by a similar road. Thus we get an idea of what causes the so-called neurasthenic to make a memorandum of the communications he wishes to make to the doctor. He apparently lacks confidence in the reproductive capacity of his memory. This is true, but the scene usually proceeds in this manner. The patient has recounted his various complaints and inquiries at considerable length. After he has finished he pauses for a moment, then he pulls out the memorandum, and says apologetically, “I have made some notes because I cannot remember anything.” As a rule he finds nothing new on the memorandum. He repeats each point and answers it himself: “Yes, I have already asked about that.” By means of the memorandum he probably only demonstrates one of his symptoms, the frequency with which his resolutions are disturbed through the interference of obscure motives.
I am touching, moreover, on an affliction to which even most of my healthy acquaintances are subject, when I admit that especially in former years I had the habit of easily forgetting for a long time to return borrowed books, also that it very often happened that I deferred payments through forgetfulness. One morning not long ago I left the tobacco-shop where I make my daily purchase of cigars without paying. It was a most harmless omission, as I am known there and could therefore expect to be reminded of my debt the next morning. But this slight neglect, the attempt to contract a debt, was surely not unconnected with reflections concerning the budget with which I had occupied myself throughout the preceding day. Even among the so-called respectable people one can readily demonstrate a double behavior when it concerns the theme of money and possession. The primitive greed of the suckling which wishes to seize every object (in order to put it in its mouth) has generally been only imperfectly subdued through culture and training.
Note: [For the sake of the unity of the theme I may here digress from the accepted classification, and add that the human memory evinces a particular partiality in regard to money matters. False reminiscences of having already paid something are often very obstinate, as I know from personal experience. When free sway is given to avaricious intent outside of the serious interests of life, when it is indulged in the spirit of fun, as in card playing, we then find that the most honorable men show an inclination to errors, mistakes in memory and accounts, and without realizing how, they even find themselves involved in small frauds. Such liberties depend in no small part also on the psychically refreshing character of the play. The saying that in play we can learn a person’s character may be admitted if we can add “the repressed character.” If waiters ever make unintentional mistakes they are apparently due to the same mechanism. Among merchants we can frequently observe a certain delay in the paying out of sums of money, in payments of bills and the like, which brings the owner no profit and can be only understood psychologically as the expression of a counter-will against giving out money. Brill sums it up with epigrammatic keenness: “We are more apt to mislay letters containing bills than checks.” (Brill, Psychoanalysis: Its Theories and Practical Application, p. 197).]
I fear that in all the examples thus far given I have grown quite commonplace. But it can be only a pleasure to me if I happen upon familiar matters which everyone understands, for my main object is to collect everyday material and utilize it scientifically. I cannot conceive why wisdom, which is, so to speak, the sediment of everyday experiences, should be denied admission among the acquisitions of knowledge. For it is not the diversity of objects but the stricter method of verification and the striving for far-reaching connections which make up the essential character of scientific work.
We have invariably found that intentions of some importance are forgotten when obscure motives arise to disturb them. In still less important intentions we find a second mechanism of forgetting. Here a counter-will becomes transferred to the resolution from something else after an external association has been formed between the latter and the content of the resolution. The following example reported by Brill illustrates this: “A patient found that she had suddenly became very negligent in her correspondence. She was naturally punctual and took pleasure in letter-writing, but for the last few weeks she simply could not bring herself to write a letter without exerting the greatest amount of effort. The explanation was quite simple. Some weeks before she had received an important letter calling for a categorical answer. She was undecided what to say, and therefore did not answer it at all. This indecision in the form of inhibition was unconsciously transferred to other letters and caused the inhibition against letter-writing in general.”
Direct counter-will and more remote motivation are found together in the following example of delaying: I had written a short treatise on the dream for the series Grenzfragen des Nerven- und Seelenlebens, in which I gave an abstract of my book, The Interpretation of Dreams. [Translated by A. A. Brill.] Bergmann, the publisher, had sent me the proof sheets and asked for a speedy return of the same as he wished to issue the pamphlet before Christmas. I corrected the sheets the same night, and placed them on my desk in order to take them to the post office the next morning. In the morning I forgot all about it, and only thought of it in the afternoon at the sight of the paper cover on my desk. In the same way I forgot the proofs that evening and the following morning, and until the afternoon of the second day, when I quickly took them to a letterbox, wondering what might be the basis of this procrastination. Obviously I did not want to send them off, although I could find no explanation for such an attitude.
After posting the letter I entered the shop of my Vienna publisher, who put out my Interpretation of Dreams. I left a few orders; then, as if impelled by a sudden thought, said, “You undoubtedly know that I have written the ‘Dream’ book a second time?” “Ah!” he exclaimed, “then I must ask you to—” “Calm yourself,” I interposed; “it is only a short treatise for the Löwenfeld-Kurella collection.” But still he was not satisfied; he feared that the abstract would hurt the sale of the book. I disagreed with him, and finally asked: “If I had come to you before, would you have objected to the publication?” “No; under no circumstances,” he answered.
Personally I believe I acted within my full rights and did nothing contrary to the general practice; still it seems certain to me that a thought similar to that entertained by the publisher was the motive for my procrastination in dispatching the proof sheets.
This reflection leads back to a former occasion when another publisher raised some difficulties because I was obliged to take out several pages of the text from an earlier work on cerebral infantile paralysis, and put them unchanged into a work on the same theme in Nothnagel’s handbook. There again the reproach received no recognition; that time also I had loyally informed my first publisher (the same who published The Interpretation of Dreams) of my intention.
However, if this series of recollections is followed back still farther it brings to light a still earlier occasion relating to a translation from the French, in which I really violated the property rights that should be considered in a publication. I had added notes to the text without asking the author’s permission, and some years later I had cause to think that the author was dissatisfied with this arbitrary action.
There is a proverb which indicates the popular knowledge that the forgetting of intentions is not accidental. It says: “What one forgets once he will often forget again.”
Indeed, we sometimes cannot help feeling that no matter what may be said about forgetting and faulty actions, the whole subject is already known to everybody as something self-evident. It is strange enough that it is still necessary to push before consciousness such well-known facts. How often I have heard people remark: “Please do not ask me to do this, I shall surely forget it.” The coming true of this prophecy later is surely nothing mysterious in itself. He who speaks thus perceives the inner resolution not to carry out the request, and only hesitates to acknowledge it to himself.
Much light is thrown, moreover, on the forgetting of resolutions through something which could be designated as “forming false resolutions.” I had once promised a young author to write a review of his short work, but on account of inner resistances, not unknown to me, I promised him that it would be done the same evening. I really had serious intentions of doing so, but I had forgotten that I had set aside that evening for the preparation of an expert testimony that could not be deferred. After I thus recognized my resolution as false, I gave up the struggle against my resistances and refused the author’s request.
Freud, Sigmund. “Forgetting of impressions and resolutions.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Nov 2006. 28 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/freud/forgetting_of_impressions_and_resolutions/>.
Nothing presents itself to us wherein there is not some difference, how little soever; and that, either by the sight or touch, there is always some choice that, though it be imperceptibly, tempts and attracts us.
To close tedious deliberations with hasty resolves, and after long consultations with reason to refer the question to caprice, is by no means peculiar to the essayist.
For whereas the remoteness of memory is unalterable and eternal, the remoteness of our art-perceptions is apt to be momentary, and in part at least a matter of our own choice.
It is the brightness, not the darkness, that we see when we look back. The sunshine casts no shadows on the past
The art of will-making chiefly consists in baffling the importunity of expectation. I do not so much find fault with this when it is done as a punishment and oblique satire on servility and selfishness.