In several of his books, including Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and On Dreams, Freud combines the topics of forgetting a proper name and dream analysis, formulating a thesis that helps to clarify his theories on both. He describes in psychoanalytic terms the mechanisms behind forgetting of a proper name and how they relate to the methods used in dream analysis. By looking at the two topics from a joint perspective, we can gain a greater understanding of them and how they relate to other areas of psychoanalysis.
The tendency toward forgetting of a proper name is an important theme in Freud’s work. He explained the way in which forgetting something like a name was actually a substitute for forgetting something that, unconsciously, an individual does not wish to remember. He described the unconscious force that prompted this forgetfulness as a “counter-will”, or an unconscious desire parallel to an individual’s conscious desire. According to Freud, there is a connection between what one consciously forgets and what one unconsciously wants to forget. When a person has some unpleasant thought or issue that they wish to banish from their mind, the will to forget may “miss its target”, and the wish to forget may manifest itself in some other way. In this case the individual may forget something seemingly unconnected to the thought they wish to banish, such as a proper name. Freud gives some relevant examples of this phenomenon in Introductory Lectures:
“For instance, if we have temporarily forgotten a name, we are annoyed about it, do all we can to remember it and cannot leave the business alone. Why in such cases do we so extremely seldom succeed in directing our attention, as we are after all anxious to do, to the word which (as we say) is ‘on the tip of our tongue’ and which we recognize at once when we are told it? Or again: there are cases in which the parapraxes multiply, form chains, and replace one another…” (ILp 35-36)
It is in this line that understanding the preconscious becomes important. “Preconscious” describes a division of the mind that falls in between repression (unconscious) and recognition (conscious). Freud described thoughts in the preconscious as having crossed the threshold from the unconscious mind, but not yet having caught the eye of consciousness (IL p366). The preconscious is an important element in the dynamic between an individual’s conscious intention and their counter-will, because it falls somewhere in the middle and may be the most manifested part of the phenomenon. For instance, when a proper name is forgotten, this is a function of repression. The individual unconsciously wants to forget one thing, but the counter-will resists by forgetting another. It is when a name is “on the tip of the tongue” but still unclear that countless other irrelevant names will come to mind; these irrelevant names are the inhabitants of the preconscious.
The case detailed in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Freud discusses his own experience with the forgetting of a proper name, is a good example of a clear analysis of the mechanism Freud saw behind this phenomenon. He explains the situation, and will later go on to fully analyze its significance:
“ The name that I tried without success to recall in the example I chose for analysis in 1898 was that of the artist who painted the magnificent frescoes of the ‘Four Last Things’ in Orvieto Cathedral. Instead of the name I was looking for – Signorelli – the names of two other painters – Botticelli and Boltrafio – thrust themselves at me, though they were immediately and decisively rejected by my judgment as incorrect. When I learn the correct name from someone else, I recognized it at once and without hesitation (PEL p2).
When he tries to remember the forgotten name, and later remembers it and brings it back to his consciousness, he plunges into a maze of explanations of how and why the particular substitutions occurred. This is where I find Freud to be stretching the limits of reasonable deduction; it is my opinion that the chart he included in Psychopathology of Everyday Life is unconvincing at best. The chart, however, manages to lead him from the substituted name to the source of the repressed material. Whether the chart and its analysis was superfluous to this discovery or not is something of which I am not convinced. The way he uses the first few letters of his mixed up words to relate them to each other and tie everything together seemed too orderly and simplified to be the product of something as willful as the unconscious mind, but it did seem to work in validating his points on the issue.
Comparing and contrasting the phenomenon of forgetting proper names and all that it entails with the practice of dream-analysis is challenging and adds another dimension to our understanding of both. Though study of both is focused on a part of the mind other than the conscious thoughts, there is a distinction between the roles played by the unconscious and the preconscious in these phenomena. In dream analysis, the dream-thoughts are recognized as unconscious material, waiting in the unconscious mind to be revealed to the dreamer in sleep. Much of this material could not be recognized by the individual in any form other than a dream, either because it is repressed or it has not yet reached the conscious level of recognition. In forgetting of a proper name, however, the answer seems to be “on the tip of the tongue”, or just out of reach of the conscious mind. In this case both the material that is forgotten and the material that the memory substitutes is found in the preconscious mind, the state in between conscious and unconscious thought.
The significant tie between these two realms of thought can be found in hypnosis. In a hypnotic state induced by suggestion, and individual is made able to access both preconscious and unconscious thoughts, and to express them while not asleep. This is a valuable tool both for the psychoanalyst and for the patient; in a hypnotic state the patient has access to unconscious material that otherwise would be difficult to uncover and interpret.
Understanding of the areas of forgetting a proper name and the dream work is essential to understanding much of Freud’s work, and comparing and contrasting the two can help us gain an extra dimension of insight into both. The tremendous impact of Freud’s work, both culturally and clinically, is inescapable in American society. It is for this reason that it is so relevant for us to study it today.