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A secret is a form of hidden knowledge. The word is etymologically related to excrement and seduction. Secret and excrement are both derived from the Latin verb cernere (crevi, cretum) which means: 1) to sift, to separate, to sort; 2) to discern or distinguish an object from a distance. The prefix "ex" relates to the idea of evacuation by sifting (excrement), the prefix "se" to the idea of separation, setting aside, and preserving (secretion, secret). The secret has a positive, necessary side and a negative, destructive side. Freud referred to it periodically throughout his work, but gave it a central place that anticipated his later research in "The Uncanny" (1919h). In 1892 the term appeared in his writings with an anal connotation whenever it brought to mind "foul words, those secrets we all know, knowledge of which we force ourselves to hide from others" ("A Case of Successful Treatment by Hypnotism" (1892-93a)). The secret was then associated with unhealthy obsessions in the neuro-psychoses of defense (1894a). In 1900, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud interpreted dreams of exhibitionism as a desire to "keep a secret." In his discussion of Dora's secret, masturbation, Freud wrote, "He who has eyes to see and ears to hear knows that mortals cannot keep any secret" (1905e [1901]). In 1906, in "Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of Facts in Legal Proceedings," (1906c), Freud distinguished the criminal's conscious secret from the unconscious secret of the hysteric. In "Infantile Sexual Theories" (1908c), he demonstrated the importance of the parents' lying and secrecy regarding the question of the child's origins, which allows the infant to access the secret in turn. "Children, once they have been deceived (the stork theory) . . . begin to suspect that there is something hidden that grownups keep for themselves and for this reason they surround their later research in secrecy." The parents' secret is an enigmatic message triggering the birth of thinking in the infant. In 1919, in his article "The Uncanny" (1919h), Freud gave considerable space to secrets and their transmission. He discussed the various meanings of the secret and its connections with the familiar, meetings, love affairs, sin, intimate organs, commodes, and oubliettes. He also quotes Friedrich Schelling, who writes: "'We call unheimlich anything that must remain secret and which becomes manifest.' Heimlich also designates a 'place without a ghost.'" Freud goes on to study the theme of the double, and its analysis strangely anticipates the ideas of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok on the phantom, the crypt, and the intrapsychic cave, and all the later work on the transmission of the secret across generations: "Doubling of the ego, splitting of the ego, substitution of the ego—the constant return of the similar, repetition of the same traits, characteristics, criminal acts, even the same names in several successive generations." Abraham and Torok make an analogy between the work of the phantom and the work of the death drive, both working in silence without being mediated in words. In their article, "De la topic réalitaire: Notations sur une métapsychologie du secret," they define the phantom as "a formation of the unconscious that is unique in never having been conscious. It is a result of the transition, whose method remains to be determined, from the parents' unconscious to the child's unconscious." They add that the phantom is the "work in the unconscious of another's inadmissible secret." The phantoms that haunt the living are "the holes left in us by the secrets of others." For these authors the phantom is associated with a preservative repression that fixes, immobilizes, and "the present past forms a block of buried reality, incapable of coming back to life without crumbling into dust." After 1970 research on the role of the secret and non-symbolization in alienating transgenerational transmission increased. Clinical work increasingly helped illuminate concepts such as non-transmission, the transmission of the inert (with Micheline Enriquez and the heritage of psychosis), the leaping of generations and alienating unconscious identification (Alain de Mijolla, Haydée Faimberg), and failed blocked mourning (Jean Cournut). Incorporation, encryption, psychic fossilization, and unfulfilled mourning are reflections of the work of the negative that is active in the transmission of secrets across several generations. The work of Daniel Stern on affective tuning may, perhaps, serve as an explanatory link to account for this intergenerational psychic transmission, which continues to remain enigmatic. Systemic family therapy is also relevant to secrets and their relation to family myths. The oedipal myth is already a history of a family secret. In families it is guilt that creates secrets and all the pathogenic rules that follow from them. Many American family therapists have shown that family secrets (divorce, suicide, madness, incest) can mask an implicit narcissistic wound, a devaluation of self image and family image leading to abnormal behavior in a descendant. We must not forget that our psychic life can only develop against a background that remains silent, secret—the secret Self of which Winnicott speaks. And along with negative and positive secrets, living transmissions exist alongside deadly transmissions of the secret.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1919h). The "uncanny." SE, 17: 217-256.