The Penguin Freud Reader

In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it.

Perhaps, Freud says, he was just registering the difference between knowing about something and seeing it with one’s own eyes, but he thinks ‘that would be a strange way of dressing up an uninteresting commonplace,’ and quickly moves on to develop an argument suggesting that his reaction was a disguised expression of a continuing disbelief not in the Acropolis, but in his own chances of getting there. But why didn’t he say just that? Why was his disbelief ‘doubly displaced’, as he puts it, shifted into the past and ‘away from my relation to the Acropolis to the Acropolis’ very existence’? He didn’t actually doubt the existence of the Acropolis in the past and he couldn’t doubt it in the present, since he was there; but his unmistakable feeling was that ‘there was something dubious and unreal about the situation.’

Freud doesn’t profess fully to understand this or the many similar occasions of what he calls ‘estrangement’, but he sees that his mind was falsifying both past and present: that is, telling him fables about them, in order to signal and avoid an unwelcome thought. He settles on what may seem a rather narrow and self-regarding interpretation of what he calls his ‘disturbance of memory’. His doubt about getting to Athens, he says, ‘had to do with the strictures and poverty of our living conditions in my youth’. He didn’t think he would ‘come so far’, and the story is now fully metaphorical, and all about making it.

Freud’s arrival at the Acropolis is a measure of his professional and financial success, and his reaction is veiled and tilted towards the past because ‘there must be a feeling of guilt associated with the satisfaction of having come such a long way.’ ‘It seems as though the essential aspect of success lies in getting further than one’s father, as though wishing to outdo one’s father were forbidden.’ This is a general proposition, but there is also the particular case. Freud père was not an educated man, and ‘Athens would not have meant much to him.’ The son’s pleasure at getting there is complicated by ‘an impulse of piety’: he has not only outdone his father but abandoned his world. [read more]

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