Freud On How To Forget The Past

02/17/2015 09:21 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2015

The following is an excerpt from Freud: Great Thinkers on Modern Life, a new series published by The School of Life. In this particular chapter, author Bret Kahr uses Freud's writings to make a case for the value and effective methods of forgetting the past.

Between the ages of nine and seventeen, the young Sigismund Schlomo Freud attended the Leopoldstädter Communal-Real-und Obergymnasium school on Vienna’s Taborstraße. During this time he immersed himself fully in the traditional mid-nineteenth-century European curriculum, based on a study of the Classics, especially the language and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, starting with, among others, Homer, Livy, Ovid and Xenophon, and progressing to Cicero, Demosthenes, Horace, Sallust, Tacitus and Virgil. In order to pass the Matura examination -- the Viennese equivalent of our own Advanced Level General Certificate of Education, though rather more challenging -- Freud had to translate seminal texts from ancient Greek and Latin into German, including thirty-three lines of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. His arduous study, to which he devoted himself with a great zeal, kindled a love for history; and when, as a young physician, Freud began to earn a salary for his medical consulting work, he would, from time to time, spend him money acquiring, piece by piece, a very impressive collection of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan, Babylonian, Assyrian, Mycenaean, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Islamic, Umbrian, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican statuary and other artifacts, which he displayed through his apartment, especially in his office.

Any visitor to Freud’s consulting room, now carefully preserved in the Freud Museum in London, will be struck quite powerfully by his heaving and priceless collection of more than 2,000 antiquities, which included statuettes, heads and masks; urns, jars and lamps; amulets, talismans and gems – made variously of marble, terracotta, jade, stone, wood, bronze, metal and glass – and even a fragment of a sarcophagus lid. The objects literally fill the room to capacity with, for example, a first-or-second-century Roman bronze statuette of the Greek goddess Athena perched in the centre of Freud’s desk; a trio of painted wooden Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian mummy masks hanging from the bookshelves; and a cast-iron Ming Dynasty head of a bodhisattva, and attendant to the Buddha, nestled on a shelf behind the psychoanalytical couch.

Indeed, Freud confessed to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig that:

despite my much vaunted frugality I have sacrificed a great deal for my collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, have actually read more archaeology than psychology, and that before the war and after its end I felt compelled to spend every year at least several days or weeks in Rome. -The Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1960

"Freud compared the psychoanalyst to an archaeologist, excavating the ancient temples of the mind in search of long-forgotten buried treasure."
Freud cluttered his home with these ancient artefacts partly for the aesthetic pleasure but also in order to underscore the value of the faraway past, not only in the history of civilization but within the history of the individual patient as well. Freud compared the psychoanalyst to an archaeologist, excavating the ancient temples of the mind in search of long-forgotten buried treasure -- namely, valuable memories, senses, impressions and experiences, which had become lost in the mists of repression. As early as 1895, Freud wrote about his newly discovered psychoanalytical treatment method, based, in large measure, on his work with hysterical female patients; and in his description, he underscored a parallel between his own work and that of a digger:

This it came about that in this, the first full-length analysis of a hysteria undertaken by me, I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city. I would begin by getting the patient to tell me what was known to her and I would carefully note the points at which some train of thought remained obscure or some link in the causal chain seemed to be missing. And afterwards I would penetrate deeper layers of her memories at the points by carrying out an investigation under hypnosis or by the use of some similar techniques. The whole work was, of course, based on the expectation that it would be possible to establish a completely adequate set of determinants for the events concerned. -Studies on Hysteria, 1895

By unearthing the hidden past, often secreted intact beneath the rubble of the mind, Freud came to learn that the patient will experience relief and freedom from the ravages of infancy and childhood which remain both forgotten and yet still remembered at the same time, a paradox that the American psychoanalyst Alvin Frank has called "The Unrememberable and the Unforgettable."

Intrigued by Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological excavations of ancient Troy, and of Arthur Evans’s discoveries of the palace at Knossos on the island of Crete, Freud reveled in the study of antiquity and archaeology, and he often spoke to his parents about the importance of digging up the past -- slowly and gently, of course -- in order to retrieve the pathogenic memories of early childhood abuse in a safe manner. One of Freud’s male patients, for example, presented with a hysterical paralysis of his foot, for which no neurological explanation could be found. Amid the course of psychoanalytical treatment, Freud discovered that during the patient’s childhood, a grown woman had forced him to stimulate her genitals with his food, and this experience proved so traumatic that in later life the man unconsciously anaesthetized his own food in order to prevent any such reoccurrence, hence its hysterical paralysis.

"Freud believed that the scarabs and beads and bots and flasks which filled his office conveyed precious information about the past."
Freud believed that the scarabs and beads and bots and flasks which filled his office conveyed precious information about the past in exactly the same way in which the patient’s free associations, generated while lying on the couch, could inform the psychotherapist or psychoanalyst about the origins and meanings of the patient’s symptoms, character structure, inhibitions and dreams. Freud’s patient the "Wolf Man" (thus named because of a seminal lupine dream) recalled Freud pontificating that the psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest most valuable treasures. Indeed, Freud argued vehemently that one can never forget one’s past, and that like archaeological ruins, some relics of our ancient personal history will remain forever in our mind:

Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-trace -- that is, its annihilation -- we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish -- that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (then, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light. Let us try to grasp what this assumption involved by taking an analogy from another field. We will choose as an example the history of the Eternal City. Historians tell us that the oldest Rome was the Roma Quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, a federation of the settlements on the different hills; after that came the city bounded by the Servian wall; and still later, after all the transformations during the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the Emperor Aurelian surrounded with its walls. We will not follow the changes which the city went through any further, but we will ask ourselves how much a visitor, whom we will suppose to be equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge, may still find left of these early stages in the Rome of to-day. Except for a few gaps, he will still see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. In some places he will be able to find sections of the Servian wall where they have been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough -- more than present-day archaeology does -- he may be able to trace out the plan of the city the whole course of that wall and the outline of the Roma Quadrata. Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient area he will find nothing, or only scanty remains, for they exist no longer. The best information about Rome in the republican era would only enable him at the most to point out the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. Their place is now taken by ruins, but not by ruins of themselves but rather later restorations made after fires or destruction. It is hardly necessary to remark that all these remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis which has grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings. This is the manner in which the past is preserved. -Civilization and its Discontents, 1930

Freud also realized that each of us might have several layers of our mind on display at the same time. For instance, every grown-up has the capacity to be both extremely mature at work, but also quite childlike back at home with their partner. Similarly, if one visits the Forum Romanum in Italy, one readily observes that several different chapters of ancient civilization appear before us simultaneously. Freud expanded the analogy between the map of ancient Rome and the map of the human mind:

Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past -- an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beautiful statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand -- without the Palazzo have to be removed -- the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terracotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position to call up the one view or the other. -Civilization and its Discontents, 1930

Shortly before his death, Freud provided us with his most explicit analogy yet of the psychoanalyst as an archaeologist of the mind:

His work of construction, or, if it is preferred, of reconstruction, resembles to a great extent an archaeologist’s excavation of some dwelling-place that has been destroyed and buried or of some ancient edifice. The two processes are in fact identical, except that the analyst works under better conditions and has more material at his command to assist him, since what he is dealing with is not something destroyed but something that it still alive -- and perhaps for another reason as well. But just as the archaeologist builds up the walls of the building from the foundations that have remained standing, determines the number and position of the columns from the depressions in the floor and reconstructs the mural decorations and paintings from the remains found in the debris, so does the analyst proceed when he draws inferences from the fragments of memories, from the associations and from the behaviour of the subject of the analysis. Both of them have an undisputed right to reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains. Both of them, moreover, are subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error. One of the most ticklish problems that confronts the archaeologist is notoriously the determination of the relative age of his finds; and if an object makes its appearance in some particular level, it often remains to be decided whether it belongs to that level owing to some subsequent disturbance. It is easy to imagine the corresponding doubts that arise in the case of analytic constructions. -"Construction in Analysis", 1937

As a psychotherapist, I spend a great deal of my working life helping patients to think about their childhood and its impact. Many people suffer from parental bereavements, painful punishments, crushing humiliations and other adverse experiences, and may, also, have enjoyed tender affection from mother or father, or the joys of happy play with siblings and friends. Some of us revisit childhood in our mind, celebrating the healthy peaks, crying about the debilitating troughs. But other people tend to place a repressive blanket over childhood, pretending that toxic events never happened. I find that such people often suffer from great anger, resentment and rage in adult life, still nursing early wounds which have never healed. Freud has helped us to recognize the importance of childhood and of its excavation.
Freud reveled in the Latin aphorism Saxa loquuntur, "the stones speak" ("The Aetiology of Hysteria," 1986), a phrase that he may well have noticed while walking through the Sigismundtor or Sigmund’s door, an eighteenth-century tunnel in Salzburg which, as it happens, bears his forename. By relishing the archaeological excavation of the mind, and my resurrecting repressed memories, Freud taught us a vital life lesson, namely, that we cannot, and must not, forget the past. It impacts upon us whether we with it to or not; and thus we have an obligation to explore our childhood in the hope of putting our ghosts in the nursery to rest.

Also on HuffPost:

9 Teen Novels As Good As They Are Popular
Suggest a correction