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Time and Memory

By Rosine Jozef Perelberg

Time and space are central dimensions in psychoanalytic thinking, and are indissolubly linked to each other. Freud's work provides a framework for thinking about both. If one attempts to summarize some of the crucial ideas that psychoanalysis has contributed to the understanding of notion of the individual, one would include ideas on identifications with and separation from the primary objects; the role of memory, of dreams, and of repetitions; the role of mourning at the loss of the object, of the rhythm of presence and absence of the other for one's sense of equilibrium and well being; the relevance of the past to the present, the crucial importance of sexuality (especially infantile sexuality) and of the role of phantasy in psychic life; the retrospective importance of events like the temporal perspective of the narrator in Proust's masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. In contrast with the Proustian time, though, the Freudian past is never lost, but recovered and repeated in the present.

The fort-da game is the example that Freud gives us of the beginnings of the awareness of time. In observing the game played by his eighteen month old grandson, Freud noticed that as he threw the cotton reel he said fort (disappeared), and then pulled it back and said da (found). This is understood by Freud as the attempt to master the comings and goings of the mother. Recent discussions of this game have stressed how the child is indeed throwing the cotton reel inside the cot, and thus, perhaps, also exploring the nature of his own disappearance from the mind of the mother. Who is she with, when she is gone? The beginnings of the awareness of time, linked to the comings and goings of the mother, are liked to the awareness of the existence of the father. In the space that is thus constructed it is also the beginnings of the Oedipal situation that are being created too. Time, space, phantasy, and sexuality are indissolubly linked. Freud was to carry this discovery through to his understanding of dreams:
“A dream might be described as a substitute for an infantile scene modified by being transferred onto a recent experience. The infantile scene is unable to bring about its own revival and has to be content with returning as a dream” (SE V, p. 546).

Some authors have suggested that the body of the dream is in itself indissolubly linked to the body of the mother, and the wish to return to it. This is what the character Aurealiano Buendia explains, at the end of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's seminal novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: "We are fighting this war so that a man can sleep with his mother". The process of writing the novel implies the recreation of a lost world, which is perhaps at the basis of any process of creation. However, psychoanalysis has also discovered that one can only create what one has renounced.

Two temporal axes permeate Freud's work: the genetic, that articulates development with the biological dimension of the individual's life, on the one hand, and the structural, present in Freud's various models of the mind, on the other. They are associated with spatial configurations - unconscious, preconscious and conscious in the topographical model of the mind, and the id, ego and superego, in the structural model.

The various chapters of this book explore how the psychoanalytic notions of time find expression in clinical practice, and shed light on historical events or literary creations. The perception that patients in the analytic setting reproduce in the relationship with their analyst their internal experiences of time is discussed by James Rose, David Bell, Paul Williams and Catalina Bronstein. In the first chapter André Green traces with his usual scholarship the development of Freud's notions of temporality, that leads him to the discovery of time that is truly psychoanalytical, in contrast to linear and conventional, chronological sequence. Kohon points out that every subject, as well as every nation, revises past events at a later date; this revision is what creates a historical past, imparting meaning to those events. Occurrences in the (mythical or historical) past, which could not be incorporated in a meaningful context at the time (thus, they were traumatic), are revised so as to give significance to them a posteriori in the present.

Together, all these chapters highlight the profound contribution that psychoanalytic perceptions of time can bring to understanding the history of the individual, of historical events, and of works of literature. In this they follow Freud's path, in his vision of the live interaction that takes place between memory and phantasy, and that finds its ultimate shape in his work on constructions, be it of an individual piece of history, or in the history of a people (as he does, for example, in Moses and Monotheism). Some common themes emerge, such as the notion that the realisation of the passage of time is an achievement in the process of development that requires a capacity to both recognise the other, and be able to separate from the primary objects. The contributors convincingly point out the connections between different types of psychopathology and distortions of time, and how these are reproduced in the transference to the analyst in an analysis.

Perelberg, R. J. (2003) "The oracles in dreams: the past and the future in the present" in Perelberg, R. J. (Ed) Dreaming and Thinking London: Karnac 

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