Primal scene

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The 'primal scene' is a scene of sexual intercourse between the parents and observed (or fantasized) by a child, who usually interprets it as an act of violent aggression on the part of the father. The memory of the primal scene feeds into most fantasies, and especially those of neurotics, the classic case history being that of Freud's 'Wolf Man' patient.[1] The scene leads to the sexual arousal of the child, but at the same tim induces castration anxiety and thus lays the foundation for the Oedipus complex.

According to Klein, the child fantasizes that its parents are locked together in permanent intercourse; they merge to form the combined parent figure, and torment and destroy one another in the act of copulation. The combined parent figure is one of the most terrifying fantasies of childhood.

Whether or not the primal scene is an actual memory or a real event or a fantasy elaborated on the basis of fragmentary observations and suppositions is a question that is not really resolved by Freud.

The expression "primal scene" refers to the sight of sexual relations between the parents, as observed, constructed, and/or fantasized by the child and interpreted by the child as a scene of violence. The scene is not understood by the child, remaining enigmatic but at same time provoking sexual excitement.

The term appeared for the first time in Freud's work apropos of the "Wolf Man" case (1918b [1914]), but the notion of a sexual memory experienced too early to have been translated into verbal images, and thus liable to return in the form of conversion symptoms or obsessions, was part of his thinking as early as 1896, as witness his letter of May 30 of that year to Wilhelm Fliess, where he evokes a "surplus of sexuality" that "impedes translation" (1950a, pp. 229-230). Here we are already close to the model of the trauma and its "deferred" effect. The following year, in his letter to Fliess of May 2, Freud gave the approximate age when in his estimation children were liable to "hear things" that they would understand only "subsequently" as six or seven months (SE 1, p. 247). The subject of the child's witnessing parental coitus came up as well, albeit in an older child, with the case of "Katharina," in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), and Freud evoked it yet again in The Interpretation of Dreams, with the fantasy of the young man who dreamed of watching his parents copulating during his life in the womb (1900a [addition of 1909], pp. 399-400).

Freud persistently strove to decide whether the primal scene was a fantasy or something actually witnessed; above all, he placed increasing emphasis on the child's own fantasy interpretation of the scene as violence visited upon the mother by the father. He went so far, in "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c, p. 221), as to find a measure of justification for this interpretation, suggesting that, though the child may exaggerate, the perception of a real repugnance towards sexual intercourse on the part of a mother fearful of another pregnancy may be quite accurate. In the case of "Little Hans," however, the violence was explained in terms of a prohibition: Hans deemed it analogous to "smashing a window-pane or forcing a way into an enclosed space" (1909b, p. 41).

The fantasy of the primal scene, like the sexual theories of children, is typical in character: it may be encountered in all neurotics, if not in every human being (Freud, 1915f), and it belongs in the category of "primal" fantasies. It appears, however, not to have the same force for all individuals. The case history of the Wolf Man gave Freud the opportunity not only to pursue the issue of the reality of the primal scene, but also to propose the idea that it lay at the root of childhood (and later adult) neurosis: the sexual development of the child was "positively splintered up by it" (1918b [1914), pp. 43-44). Freud later would later assign a central place to the primal scene in his analysis of Marie Bonaparte, although in her case the scene took place between her nanny and a groom (Bonaparte, 1950-53).

Looked upon as an actual event rather than as a pure fantasy reconstructed in a retrospective way (as with Jung's zurückphantasieren), the primal scene had a much more marked traumatic impact, and this led Freud to insist on the "reality" of such scenes, thus returning to the debate over event-driven (or "historical") reality versus psychic reality. Beyond the issue of the scene itself, however, it was the whole subject of fantasy that was thus raised (in Chapter 5 of the Wolf Man case-history [1918b, pp. 48-60]), discussed in terms that would be picked up by Freud again later in "Constructions in Analysis" (1937d).

It was not merely, in Freud's view, that the technique of psychoanalysis demanded that fantasies be treated as realities so as to give their evocation all the force it needed, but also that many "real" scenes were not accessible by way of recollection, but solely by way of dreams. Whether a scene was constructed out of elements observed elsewhere and in a different context (for example, animal coitus transposed to the parents); reconstituted on the basis of clues (such as bloodstained sheets); or indeed observed directly, but at an age when the child still had not the corresponding verbal images at its disposal; did not fundamentally alter the basic facts of the matter: "I intend on this occasion," wrote Freud, "to close the discussion of the reality of the primal scene with a non liquet" (1918b, p. 60).

Melanie Klein's view of the primal scene differed from Freud's, for where Freud saw an enigmatic perception of violence, she saw the child's projective fantasies. Klein describes the primal scene in a way closely resembling Freud's definition of the sexual theories of childhood. These wishes of the infant abound in hostile and destructive tendencies, but the mother is pictured therein as just as dangerous for the father as the father is for her. The sexual relationship between the parents, fantasized as continuous, is also the basis of the "combined-parent figure."

The primal scene is inseparable from the sexual theories of childhood that it serves to create. This disturbing representation, which at once acknowledges and denies the familiar quality of the parents, excludes the child even as it concerns them, as witness the libidinal excitement the child feels in response. The particularity of the primal scene lies in the fact that the subject experiences in a simultaneous and contradictory way the emergence of the unknown within a familiar world, to which they are bound by vital needs, by expectations of pleasure, and by the self-image that it reflects back to them. The lack of common measure between the child's emotional and psychosexual experience and the words that could give an account of the primal scene creates a gulf that the sexual theories of childhood attempt to bridge. A sadistic reading of the scene combines the child's curiosity about both the origin and the end of life in a representation in which death and life are indeed fused.

See Also


  1. 1918
  1. Bonaparte, Marie. (1950-53). Five copy-books. Translated by Nancy Procter-Gregg. London: Imago.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338]]
  • [[Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
  1. ——. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.
  2. ——. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.
  3. ——. (1915f). A case of paranoia running counter to the psycho-analytic theory of the disease. SE, 14: 261-272.
  4. ——. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
  5. ——. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.
  6. ——. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
  7. Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.
  8. Klein, Melanie. (1961). Narrative of a child analysis. The conduct of the psychoanalysis of children as seen in the treatment of a ten-year-old boy. New York: Basic Books.
  9. Laplanche, Jean. (1989). New foundations for psychoanalysis (David Macey, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.