Freud – The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

One of Freud’s most notable and earlier works, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life displays the author’s interpretation of human fallibilities through the eyes of his profession. His theories and insights into what unconsciously motivates us to forget names and memories, confuse words, lose objects and experience déjà vu are explained through a littering of colourful examples. These are often lifted from his own experiences, allowing the reader to understand not only the text but the author behind it, making this potentially arduous challenge for those with only a basic understanding of psychology like myself, digestible

A considerable amount of the book is donated to “forgetting” and all the manifestations it takes in the unconscious. Freud first addresses the very common situation people find themselves in of forgetting another’s name. He demonstrates through anecdotal evidence that this phenomenon occurs principally “when the name itself touches something unpleasant, or when it is brought into connection with other associations which are influenced by such effects”.[1] Following this statement he gives numerous cases of this theory’s successful application. He similarly tackles the forgetting of impressions and knowledge, which occurs when the memory is linked to displeasure that the unconscious has established. A link of displeasure is also cited for the cause of the “erroneously carried out action”, i.e. when we intend to do one thing but for a reason unbeknownst to ourselves we do it imperfectly to satisfy our unconscious desire.[2] Freud gives the example of a letter he had to send but didn’t want to. He first goes to post it, only realising he left it on his desk, then he posts it without an address and then without a stamp. His conscious intended to send the letter but Freud readily interprets his displeasure as the reason behind the continual mistakes in his attempts.[3]

Freud develops this idea of our counter-will in his writing of the misplacement of objects which are often things also connected to a disagreeable nature because ” we never lose what we really want”.[4] He also notices that the placement of objects can reveal the unconscious desires of an individual that they may not consciously perceive. Such a revelation to an individual, Freud biographically accounts, can come as a shock followed by denial. The author reveals an arrangement he had with a recent acquaintance to dine together wherein the man would introduce his partner to Freud. However when Freud arrived at the restaurant, the man had draped his coat over the third chair, indicating he did not  want to have his meal with the author. Upon revealing this intention, the man quickly dismissed it in a defensive tone that Freud purports is atypical. Such explanations expound Freud’s view that the id is more influential than the ego.

He also provides explanations for smaller details of speech and linguistics such as “neologisms”, the unnatural unison of two words. He gives the example of “The ape he is a funny sight, When in the apple he takes a bite”, which, when he tried to reproduce the couplet, came out as “The apel…”.[5] He provides several reasons for examples such as this that range from anticipation of a particular word to “we frequently interchange contrasting words; they are already associated in our speech consciousness; they lie very close together and are easily incorrectly evoked”.[6] Both explanations ring true in my own personal experience as my mother often mistakes my name with my father’s and our cat’s. It is easy to see that all three of us hold a similar point of affection in her unconscious and therefore are, on some level, interchangeable.

Freud also discusses the feeling of déjà vu almost everyone has experienced at some point in their lives. With reference to Dr. Ferenczi, he describes how “the inexplicable feeling of familiarity can be referred to unconscious fantasies of which we are unconsciously reminded in an actual situation”.[7] Such fantasies originate in both day and night dreams.[8]Thus the individual with the déjà vu experience will not, perhaps, consciously be aware of this link, often incorrectly diagnosing it as something supernatural. Fortunately Freud is on hand to ground these experiences in the rational; Francis Bacon, whom I recently reviewed, adds in his essay, “Of Prophecies”, that “men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss, as they do generally also of dreams”.[9] It is from this folly that people can be drawn in by astrology, palm readers, card interpreters and the like for we seek, and therefore cling to, the true, positive things they say about oneself. Often, however, these readings are universally applicable and vague that they rarely “miss”.

The text closes with a summary that encapsulates the essence of Freud’s analysis of why we act often in opposition to our conscious; “the ability to refer phenomena to unwelcome, repressed, psychic material, which, though pushed away from consciousness, is nevertheless not robbed of all capacity to express itself”.[10] Here, Freud reiterates the importance of the id on the ego and how the struggle is actually behind simple, everyday slips in speech and memory impeachment. As a novice in the study of psychology I puzzled over some sentences in this book and struggled with the precise language yet each theory was surrounded by real life instances that provides a most welcome understanding of what the author is getting at. For those more equipped to tackle this book I have no doubt it is a light and insightful read.

[1] Freud, S., The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (General Books, 2012) p. 11.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,  p. 48.

[5] Ibid., p. 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 64.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  Bacon, F., The Essays (Penguin Classics, 1985) ed. J. Pitcher, p. 171.

[10] Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, p. 67.


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