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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Psychopathology of Everyday Life. 1914.

II. Forgetting of Foreign Words

THE ORDINARY vocabulary of our own language seems to be protected against forgetting within the limits of normal function, but it is quite different with words from a foreign language. The tendency to forget such words extends to all parts of speech. In fact, depending on our own general state and the degree of fatigue, the first manifestation of functional disturbance evinces itself in the irregularity of our control over foreign vocabulary. In a series of cases this forgetting follows the same mechanism as the one revealed in the example Signorelli. As a demonstration of this I shall report a single analysis, characterized, however, by valuable features, concerning the forgetting of a word, not a noun, from a Latin quotation. Before proceeding, allow me to give a full and clear account of this little episode.

Last summer, while journeying on my vacation, I renewed the acquaintance of a young man of academic education, who, as I soon noticed, was conversant with some of my works. In our conversation we drifted—I no longer remember how—to the social position of the race to which we both belonged. He, being ambitious, bemoaned the fact that his generation, as he expressed it, was destined to grow crippled, that it was prevented from developing its talents and from gratifying its desires. He concluded his passionately felt speech with the familiar verse from Virgil: Exoriare … in which the unhappy Dido leaves her vengeance upon Æneas to posterity. Instead of “concluded,” I should have said “wished to conclude,” for he could not bring the quotation to an end, and attempted to conceal the open gap in his memory by transposing the words:—

  • “Exoriar(e) ex nostris ossibus ultor!”
  • He finally became piqued and said: “Please don’t make such a mocking face, as if you were gloating over my embarrassment, but help me. There is something missing in this verse. How does it read in its complete form?”

    “With pleasure,” I answered, and cited it correctly:—

  • “Exoriar(e) aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor!”
  • “It is too stupid to forget such a word,” he said. “By the way, I understand you claim that forgetting is not without its reasons; I should be very curious to find out how I came to forget this indefinite pronoun ‘aliquis.’”

    I gladly accepted the challenge, as I hoped to get an addition to my collection, and said, “We can easily do this, but I must ask you to tell me frankly and without any criticism everything that occurs to your mind after you focus your attention, without any particular intention, on the forgotten word.”

    “Very well, the ridiculous idea comes to me to divide the word in the following way: a and liquis.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “What else does that recall to you?”

    “The thought goes on to reliques—liquidation—liquidity—fluid.”

    “Does that mean anything to you now?”

    “No, not by a long shot.”

    “Just go ahead.”

    “I now think,” he said, laughing sarcastically, “of Simon of Trent, whose relics I saw two years ago in a church in Trent. I think of the old accusation which has been brought against the Jews again, and of the work of Kleinpaul, who sees in these supposed sacrifices reincarnations or revivals, so to speak, of the Saviour.”

    “This stream of thoughts has some connection with the theme which we discussed before the Latin word escaped you.”

    “You are right. I now think of an article in an Italian journal which I have recently read. I believe it was entitled: ‘What St. Augustine said Concerning Women.’ What can you do with this?”

    I waited.

    “Now I think of something which surely has no connection with the theme.”

    “Oh, please abstain from all criticism, and——”

    “Oh, I know! I recall a handsome old gentleman whom I met on my journey last week. He was really an original type. He looked like a big bird of prey. His name, if you care to know, is Benedict.”

    “Well, at least you give a grouping of saints and Church fathers: St. Simon, St. Augustine, and St. Benedict. I believe that there was a Church father named Origines. Three of these, moreover, are Christian names, like Paul in the name Kleinpaul.”

    “Now I think of St. Januarius and his blood miracle—I find that the thoughts are running mechanically.”

    “Just stop a moment; both St. Januarius and St. Augustine have something to do with the calendar. Will you recall to me the blood miracle?”

    “Don’t you know about it? The blood of St. Januarius is preserved in a phial in a church in Naples, and on a certain holiday a miracle takes place causing it to liquefy. The people think a great deal of this miracle, and become very excited if the liquefying process is retarded, as happened once during the French occupation. The General in command—or Garibaldi, if I am not mistaken—then took the priest aside, and with a very significant gesture pointed out to him the soldiers arrayed without, and expressed his hope that the miracle would soon take place. And it actually took place….”

    “Well, what else comes to your mind? Why do you hesitate?”

    “Something really occurred to me … but it is too intimate a matter to impart … besides, I see no connection and no necessity for telling it.”

    “I will take care of the connection. Of course I cannot compel you to reveal what is disagreeable to you, but then you should not have demanded that I tell you why you forgot the word ‘aliquis.’”

    “Really? Do you think so? Well, I suddenly thought of a woman from whom I could easily get a message that would be very annoying to us both.”

    “That she missed her courses?”

    “How could you guess such a thing?”

    “That was not very difficult. You prepared me for it long enough. Just think of the saints of the calendar, the liquefying of the blood on a certain day, the excitement if the event does not take place, and the distinct threat that the miracle must take place…. Indeed, you have elaborated the miracle of St. Januarius into a clever allusion to the courses of the woman.”

    “It was surely without my knowledge. And do you really believe that my inability to reproduce the word ‘aliquis’ was due to this anxious expectation?”

    “That appears to me absolutely certain. Don’t you recall dividing it into a-liquis and the associations: reliques, liquidation, fluid? Shall I also add to this connection the fact that St. Simon, to whom you got by way of the reliques, was sacrificed as a child?”

    “Please stop. I hope you do not take these thoughts—if I really entertained them—seriously. I will, however, confess to you that the lady is Italian, and that I visited Naples in her company. But may not all this be coincidental?”

    “I must leave to your own judgment whether you can explain all these connections through the assumption of coincidence. I will tell you, however, that every similar case that you analyze will lead you to just such remarkable ‘coincidences!’”

    I have more than one reason for valuing this little analysis, for which I am indebted to my traveling companion. First, because in this case I was able to make use of a source which is otherwise inaccessible to me. Most of the examples of psychic disturbances of daily life that I have here compiled I was obliged to take from observation of myself. I endeavoured to evade the far richer material furnished me by my neurotic patients, because I had to preclude the objection that the phenomena in question were only the result and manifestation of the neurosis. It was therefore of special value for my purpose to have a stranger free from a neurosis offer himself as a subject for such examination. This analysis is also important in other respects, inasmuch as it elucidates a case of word-forgetting without substitutive recollection, and thus confirms the principle formulated above, namely, that the appearance or nonappearance of incorrect substitutive recollections does not constitute an essential distinction.

    But the principal value of the example aliquis lies in another of its distinctions from the case Signorelli. In the latter example the reproduction of the name becomes disturbed through the after-effects of a stream of thought which began shortly before and was interrupted, but whose content had no distinct relation to the new theme which contained the name Signorelli. Between the repression and the theme of the forgotten name there existed only the relation of temporal contiguity, which reached the other in order that the two should be able to form a connection through an outer association. On the other hand, in the example aliquis one can note no trace of such an independent repressed theme which could occupy conscious thought immediately before and then re-echo as a disturbance. The disturbance of the reproduction proceeded here from the inner part of the theme touched upon, and was brought about by the fact that unconsciously a contradiction arose against the wish-idea represented in the quotation.

    The origin must be construed in the following manner: The speaker deplored the fact that the present generation of his people was being deprived of its rights, and like Dido he presaged that a new generation would take upon itself vengeance against the oppressors. He therefore expressed the wish for posterity. In this moment he was interrupted by the contradictory thought: “Do you really wish so much for posterity? That is not true. Just think in what a predicament you would be if you should now receive the information that you must expect posterity from the quarter you have in mind! No, you want no posterity—as much as you need it for your vengeance.” This contradiction asserts itself, just as in the example Signorelli, by forming an outer association between one of his ideation elements and an element of the repressed wish, but here it is brought about in a most strained manner through what seems an artificial detour of associations. Another important agreement with the example Signorelli results from the fact that the contradiction originates from repressed sources and emanates from thoughts which would cause a deviation of attention.

    So much for the diversity and the inner relationship of both paradigms of the forgetting of names. We have learned to know a second mechanism of forgetting, namely, the disturbance of thought through an inner contradiction emanating from the repression. In the course of this discussion we shall repeatedly meet with this process, which seems to me to be the more easily understood.