Sunday, December 11, 2005


Sigmund Freud's 1899 paper on "Screen Memories" is one of his first treatises on memory and repression, appearing a year before the landmark The Interpretation of Dreams. The centerpiece of this paper is a self-analysis (lightly veiled) in which Freud describes one of his own childhood memories. His memory has a dreamlike quality, but it is also decidedly cinematic. In this sense, we can consider the "screen" here as analogous to the silver screen on which the cinematic apparatus projects its idealized fictions of the past, substituting (as we will see) for a real, traumatic memory that the projected sequence invokes but forecloses. Here is Freud's screen memory:
I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown; in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers -- evidently common dandelions. At the top end of the meadow there is a cottage, and in front of the cottage door [. . .] a peasant woman with a handkerchief on her head and a children's nurse. Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the two others are my boy cousin [. . .] and his sister [. . .]. We are picking the yellow flowers and each of us is holding a bunch of flowers we have already picked. The little girl has the best bunch; and as though by mutual agreement, we--the two boys--fall on her and snatch away her flowers. She runs up the meadow in tears and as a consolation the peasant-woman gives her a big piece of black bread. Hardly have we seen this than we throw the flowers away, hurry to the cottage, and ask to be given some bread too. [. . .] the peasant-woman cuts the loaf with a long knife. In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious--and at that point the scene breaks off.
Freud terms this a "scene," and it can immediately be imagined as a film sequence: the establishing shot of the meadow, a thick green spotted with vibrant yellow; the medium shot of the children playing; perhaps a close up of the young girl's bunch of flowers; the sudden attack by the two boys and then perhaps a pan as the girl runs up the meadow to the cottage; cut to the boys throwing away their flowers and following the girl; maybe another medium shot of the peasant woman cutting the bread; a close-up of the boy's face as he bites into the food; and then the final dissolve.

Viewed as a film scene, two aspects of this "clip" are striking. First, that there is no sound: this is a silent movie in which the action is played out visually, melodramatically. Indeed, unlike much of Freud's later analysis of dreamwork, the emphasis here is not on the linguistic, on signification or even symbolism. Rather, and this is the second striking aspect of the scene, Freud focuses on taste (the bread that "tastes quite delicious") and on color. This is a memory in primary Technicolor. It is a sequence realized in vivid hues--the green of the meadow, the yellow flowers, and then finally the black bread--and these colors are key to the memory's interpretation.

The memory, Freud concludes, is a false one, a fictional recollection. Its meaning, moreover, is to be found not in Freud's infantile past, but in events that took place some fifteen years later than the date to which the memory ostensibly refers. The protective screen (in the sense now of guard or overlay) is not interposed between the person remembering and the true trauma that inspires it, but projected back, to a remote past, apparently interrupting the infantile amnesia that characterizes our first few years. In short, the desires that the memory encodes are doubly displaced, temporally (from the near past to the distant past) as well as psychically (from one object to another). Here is part of Freud's reconstruction of the semantic web that has led to, or rather, been both occluded and invoked by, his duplicitous memory:
When I was seventeen and at my secondary school, I returned for the first time to my birthplace for the holidays, to stay with a family who had been our friends ever since that remote date. ... I was seventeen, and in the family where I was staying there was a daughter of fifteen, with whom I immediately fell in love. It was my first calf-love, and sufficiently intense, but I kept it completely secret. After a few days the girl went off to her school (from which she too was home for the holidays) and it was this separation after such a short acquaintance that brought my longings to a really high pitch. I passed many hours in solitary walks through the lovely woods that I had found once more and spent my time building castles in the air. These, strangely enough, were not concerned with the future but sought to improve the past. If only the smash had not occurred! If only I had stopped at home and grown up as the young men in the house, the brothers of my love! [. . .] A strange thing. For when I see her now from time to time--she happens to have married someone here--she is quite exceptionally indifferent to me. Yet I can remember quite well for what a long time afterwards I was affected by the yellow color of the dress she was wearing when we first met, whenever I saw the same color anywhere else.
So it is the color yellow that marks the continuity between Freud's adolescent infatuation and his later reconstructed memory of an infantile color scene. The yellow marks the libidinal intensity of Freud's "calf-love" and also provokes an attempt to recreate the past: its displacement onto a primordial screen memory marks Freud's "building castles in the air" whereby it is not a utopian future that is imagined, but an alternative past. Rewriting a possible history, Freud's imagination infuses his false memory with the intensity of an affective hue borrowed from a more recent trauma.

The screen memory, for Freud, is untrue: invented, fictional. But like all fictions, it indicates a larger truth, and that truth is revealed not through symbolism but in the resonance established in the saturated intensity of yellow upon green, then dispersed by the election instead to discard the seductive yellow and seek nourishment in the deep black of the peasant bread. Encoded in this scene is also, therefore, the rejection of the fantasy that it conjures up. The memory emplots its own counter-narrative or critique, whereby Freud (to anticipate concepts that he will only develop later) chooses the earthy black and white of the reality principle over the seductive pleasure principle of the screened vignette. And indeed, this screen memory also anticipates the direction of the theory of psychoanalysis itself, in which Freud gradually drops the concept of the cinematic screen memory, with both its immersion in a reconstructed affective past and its link to a real trauma, in favor of an increasingly linguistic paradigm keyed into universal archetypes. The concept of the "screen memory" appears only in the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, and is dropped in the second. And when the first volume of Freud's collected essays are published in 1906, the "Screen Memories" paper is omitted. It is as though Freud himself wanted to forget, to feign ignorance of, this early stage of his theorization.

But it seems worth resurrecting or recollecting this early Freud, both in itself for what it offers screen studies, broadly conceived, and as a revealing symptom of the repressions and blindspots of what psychoanalysis would later become. This is a Freud of affective resonances, immanence, and psychic materialism, rather than the Freud that Lacan would summon up for film studies, the Freud of distanciation, spectatorship, and the rigid demarcation between symbolic, imaginary, and real.

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