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In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b), Freud discussed forgetting under the rubric of psychosis. The typical example is awareness of having forgotten a proper noun (a name, for example). Like amnesia (where one is unaware that one has forgotten), forgetting is the result of repression. The forgotten name inhabits the preconscious and quickly returns to consciousness. It is attracted by an unconscious mental complex that primarily operates by displacement.

The concept of forgetting in general is present in Freud's earliest works on the theory of neuroses (1894a, 1895b, 1896a). But in "The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness" (1898b) and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud considered forgetting, like slips of the tongue, to be a parapraxis symptomatic of ongoing repression. To demonstrate the existence of the unconscious, Freud uses the example of forgetting because it was one way of talking about repression before 1900. Forgetting appears in his first theory of neuroses, which explains hysteria as a traumatic infantile sexual seduction that has to be rejected and repressed because the child finds it unacceptable.

Forgetting is associated with a painful sense of awareness (the "name on the tip of the tongue"), while repression is most often unconscious. Forgetting is associated with the psychology of consciousness and the preconscious, while repression is associated with the metapsychology of the unconscious, like memory traces. As a form of parapraxis, forgetting combines partial failure with partial success and must be distinguished from the customary psychological form of forgetting, a successful act of repression.

The dreamer who has forgotten his dream tries to reconstruct it, but in doing so, constructs it anew: "It is indeed possible that while trying to retell it, we fill in the blanks created by forgetting using new material arbitrarily chosen" (Freud, 1900a). We cannot completely remember what is forgotten, and so we prefer to construct likely hypotheses, capable of introducing conviction about what was forgotten (Freud, 1937d).

The person who has forgotten a name, by concentrating on it, only reinforces the ongoing repression. To remember, Freud tells us, we need to abandon the willful attempt to control what initially appears to be a cognitive disturbance, a shortcoming, and give in to the associations that come to mind.

Freud provides an autobiographical example: Forgetting the name of the painter Signorelli during a conversation, he seeks memories, ideas, and words similar to the name. These bring to his mind other paintings with the sensory acuity typical of a screen memory (an early memory used as a screen for a later event), along with the names of other Italian painters (Botticelli, Boltraffio). The value that Freud attributed to the forgotten name had been transferred to neighboring elements, through displacement, as is the case with a mnemonic symbol, which is also a form of metonymy. "Botticelli" is a metonym of Signorelli, "Botticelli" and "Boltraffio" are metonyms of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Freud was visiting when he forgot Signorelli's name and which is related to the castration complex involved in this forgetting, since Freud attributes to the Turks in Bosnia-Herzegovina a strong attraction to sexuality and a considerable castration anxiety. "Boltraffio" was a metonym of Trafoi, an Italian city where Freud learned of the suicide of one of his patients, which triggered his thoughts on "death and sexuality." The sentence "Herr, was ist da zu sagen? (Sir, what is there to say)" reported to Freud by his interlocutor as reflecting the Turks' attitude toward the inevitability of death, evoked their attitude toward sexuality ("You know very well, Lord, if that fails, then life has no value"), the source of psychic conflict and repression behind his act of forgetting. The representation of death Freud associated with that of castration (the Turkish sentences imply that a life without sexuality is worth no more than death). Moreover, Herr, pre-sent in Herzegovina, refers to Signor (Lord), to the father figure, and to Herz, the heart, an organ likely to grow sick and cause death. Forgetting the name of Signorelli is thus associated with an oedipal dimension that Freud had discovered through his self-analysis: his repression of sexuality, his attraction for his mother, his rivalry with his father, and his ambivalent identification with his father caught up in a desire for parricide and a fear of losing his father.

Freud analyzed two levels at the same time, the psychology of consciousness and the preconscious and the metapsychology of the unconscious. He thus provided an example of the psychoanalytic method, although repression is not associated with the name "Signorelli" so much as the unconscious complex he represents. The names substituted for the forgotten name are composed of verbal memory traces and other proper nouns. They are substituted for the forgotten name through a process that acts on the phonemic material of words (the signifier) through association, metonymy, homology, as well as translation from one language to another, metaphor, and polysemy (Herr has multiple meanings, as does Herz). In the process of forgetting the name, displacement is metonymy, and condensation is metaphor.

Forgetting, like remembering, belongs more to the phenomenology of consciousness than to the metapsychology of the unconscious. As a specific form of parapraxis, it also signifies repression according to popular convention. Because it occurs in the preconscious and is attracted by the unconscious, forgetting and the rediscovery of the forgotten are similar to what occurs when the subject clearly formulates for himself something he had always known. There have been few developments in psychoanalysis concerning the pre-conscious ego. As a result, it is easier to formulate psychoanalytic approaches that emphasize the cognitive causality of forgetting. Amnesia; Cryptomnesia; Déjà-vu; Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva"; Formations of the unconscious; Memory; Moses and Monotheism; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Slips of the tongue; "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through"; Reminiscence; Repression; Psychopathology of Everyday Life The.


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
  • ——. (1895b). On the grounds for detaching a particular syndrome from neurasthenia under the description "anxiety neurosis." SE, 3: 85-115.
  • ——. (1896a). Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 141-156.
  • ——. (1898b). The psychical mechanism of forgetfulness. SE, 3: 287-297.
  • ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.
  • ——. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
  • ——. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE,23:255-269.