Freud's Memory: Psychoanalysis, Mourning, and the Foreign Body (Book Review)

Author:  White, Rob 
Publisher:  Palgrave MacMillan
Reviewed By:  Ryan LaMothe, Volume XXIX, No. 4, Fall 2009, 35-36 

Freud is long dead, slowly succumbing to the deconstructive effects of entropy and time. Literature about Freud, however, is quite alive, though only some of it is enlivening and enlightening, which, of course, is a matter of judgment that begs explanation. Rob White’s book, Freud’s Memory, is one such addition to the vast corpus of scholarship on and about Freud. I found this densely and deftly argued book to be intriguing and enlightening because the author led me to consider new perspectives, novel interpretations, and captivating analyses about Freud’s theorizing.

This said, White’s book is not for those seeking clinical insights into Freud’s life, except perhaps by way of analogy. Instead, White seeks to deconstruct Freud’s texts. This deconstruction is analytic to the extent that White attempts to discern meaning or "countersense" that is not readily apparent, but it is not psychoanalytic in the sense of someone using psychoanalytic conceptual tools to derive insight into Freud’s psyche and early life. Indeed, White wishes to take a position outside of psychoanalytic language games in his deconstructive analysis of Freud’s arguments. More specifically, White argues that Freud’s use of figurative language "always seems to yield complexity rather than unitary explanation" (p. 2). This resulting complexity is seen in what other writers have noted as paradoxes or contradictions prevalent in Freud’s work. White, however, contends that these are not paradoxes at all, but rather Freud’s introduction of metaphors that, while reducing explanatory clarity, come with a countersense that puts into question Freud’s concepts and conclusions. What then are we to make of Freud’s apparent contradictions, his borrowing of metaphors that seemingly undermine or subvert his argument by introducing meaning that undercuts his theory? In general, the problems of pain and negativity evident in Freud’s work, White argues, "have more than incidental or illustrative significance for psychoanalytic theory: they amount to a kind of dispersed argument" (p. 10). The following chapters are aimed at reassembling this dispersed argument and describing the self-reflexive crisis evident in these texts.

In chapter 1, White explains that countersense "is a matter of images, concepts and expressions which convey an additional sense that may subvert the nominal argument being made" (p. 14). In moving toward identifying a countersense, White begins to lay out his method for reassembling Freud’s dispersed argument, providing several examples of Freud’s use of metaphors that dispel, in part, the cogency of his argument. White first takes note of Freud’s tendency "to dwell on morbid subjects, and to do so in autobiographical terms" (p. 13). Ghosts and evil spirits pepper Freud’s theorizing, which is especially intriguing when readers recognize Freud’s adoration of scientific rationalism and his antipathy to superstition and religion. The mix of language games is also manifested in Freud’s tendency to differentiate between psychoanalysis and medicine, though, at the same time, using physical metaphors, such as wound, in theorizing about the psyche. White identifies an apparent contradiction in what "begins to seem like a serial preoccupation on Freud’s part with ghosts with his scientific rationalism (p. 29)," as well as use of medical metaphors when this vocabulary contradicts Freud’s basic premises vis-à-vis psychoanalysis. The countersense is the apparent transgression between the past and the present whereby individuals are haunted in the present by the wounds of the past. White then moves on to note Freud’s ambivalence over modern technology, recognizing its disruptive, disfiguring, and destructive power. Freud uses a technological metaphor, telephone, which is juxtaposed with the metaphor of incomplete healing. White argues that this points to the notion of loneliness as physical damage and pain, which "is problematic in psychoanalytic sense" (p. 33). If I have understood White’s point, Freud’s use of metaphors, which undermine the clarity of his argument, reveal a reflexive crisis around transgression of the past in the present. Furthermore, this reflexive crisis is noted in the uncertainty of established or clear meaning, as well as transgression of integrity and identity of individual minds.

In chapter 2 White describes, explains, and discusses Freud’s theorizing whereby he uses the now discredited Lamarkian theory of inherited memory. While analytic commentators often argue that Freud’s use of inherited memory is a not very important exception to psychoanalytic theories, White neither wishes to edit this theory out or simply bypass it as outdated. Instead, he takes Freud’s use of this theory as another illustration of Freud’s tendency to undermine his aim of a unified theory by introducing and holding onto a clearly controversial notion of inherited memory traces. More particularly, White posits that the notion of countersense is "useful . . . here because it allows for a countervailing sense that is at once transgressive of and intimately belonging to a more conventional idea. The countersense here is the dispossession of experience, the marring of personal identity" (p. 62). That is, the individual mind is "preoccupied by the memory of incidents that are beyond the frame of its own experience so that thinking can no longer travel back to the identity of personal experience" (p. 63). The individual’s mind is, in other words, painfully intruded upon by others’ memories. The burden of the ancient past and its inherited memories haunts the individual. White concludes that minds conceptualized as "overburdened and deformed by the past" resemble "the very theorizing in which they are imagined" (p. 65).

In the third chapter, White turns to Freud’s use of inherited memory in Moses and Monotheism. Freud’s hypothesis of a real event "allows [him] to argue that both culture and individual minds are always in a pained retrospective attitude—guilty, remorseful, confused. However absurd or groundless the hypothesis may seem it is the conceptual anchor of a retrospective theory of subjectivity that, at whatever cost to identity, is constituted in a crisis of retrospection" (p. 71). The crisis and suffering or ordeal of the individual is remembering what s/he has not experienced. This crisis of retrospection is noted in Freud’s theorizing itself wherein his "retrospective search for origins and meanings" leads him to discover "anguish: terror, grief, remorse, helplessness" (p. 74). White shifts to Derrida’s view of mourning and his characterization of Freud’s theory of grieving. He concludes that Freud’s tendency toward a tenacious retrospection, typified by inconclusive endings and unresolved explanations, points to "mourning that has not managed to terminate" (p. 91), revealing a melancholy embedded in and shaping his theorizing.

Continuing to examine Freud’s theorizing, in chapter 4, White addresses Freud’s proclivity to theorize topologically, which he categorizes in terms of three concepts, namely, subdivided identity, boundary, and breach. We are all familiar with Freud’s notions of id, ego, and superego—three aspects of a subdivided identity. These concepts accompany metaphors that depict boundaries, such as frontier, territory, political geography, etc. Boundaries, which exist between aspects of the mind, are permeable—"they may be breached and breaching is agonizing" (p.1 11). White argues out that "much of the force of Freud’s writing derives from an attempt to reaffirm identity and coherence in spite of disfigurement, disruption or distress that is repeatedly found to throw these ideas into crisis" (p. 115). He carries this further, contending that Freud’s use of the notion of inherited memory and telepathy highlights a "radically non-private subjectivity" that is susceptible to intrusion, breach, and loss. Put differently, Freud’s use of "frontier" metaphors, as well as psycho-Lamarckian-based notion of telepathy points to his "own troubled theorizing" where the theory is breached and undermined.

White, in this last chapter, seeks to show that the problem of Psycho-Lamarckism’s noncommunicated, transgenerational memory continues to be evident in Freud’s final revision of psychoanalysis, which provides "an unmistakable emphasis on agonized and ‘haunted’ subjectivity, on selves in which a foreign body is lodged" (p. 122). In Freud’s The Ego and the Id we read, "In the id, which is capable of being inherited, are harbored residues of the existences of countless egos; and, when the ego forms its super-ego out of the id, it may perhaps only be reviving shapes of former egos and be bringing them to resurrection." White, as he does in other chapters, moves easily through the Freudian corpus, demonstrating Freud’s use of the metaphor "foreign body," which suggests the countersense of the presence of an agonized non-identity in the midst of one’s psyche. It is this non-named entity that plagues the psyche, yet, for White, this is yet another revelation of a crisis of theorizing wherein Freud’s "explanatory ambition . . . is shadowed by ideas of impediment, transgression, injury; the way concepts of identity are ruined; the way the promise of meaning in the past becomes a sadness of loss" (p. 145).

This brief excursus cannot do justice to the depth and intricacy of his argument, his grasp of Freud’s writings, or his use of literary and philosophical allusions. My hope is only that I have faithfully portrayed some of the key features of White’s book. While I recognize that this book may not appeal to clinicians seeking insight into Freud or their patients, it does provide an intriguing, novel, and compelling argument regarding the crisis evident in Freud’s theorizing.

Reviewer Note

Ryan LaMothe


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to Henry Seiden, Publications Committee chair.