“The scene appears to me fairly indifferent and I cannot understand why it should have become fixed in my memory. Let me describe it to you. 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… 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.” (Freud, Screen Memories [S], 1899)
In Screen Memories, Freud analyses a vivid, recurring, and unexplained memory set in a field of dandelions. The essay is a wonderful place to enter a lineage that includes Proust’s madeleine, notions of involuntary memory, autobiographical memory, and the constitution of the self. The latter topics continue to exercise memory research, while Freud and Proust act as psychoanalytic and poetic precursors to today’s neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists.
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The essay is set out as a concise but probing discussion between analyst and analysand. However, this is Freud the storyteller, brilliant writer, and conversationalist — in this instance, with himself. Freud scholars largely agree that although some of the details may be disputed, the essay was nonetheless written in what we might term ‘thinly disguised’ mode. In other words, the ‘dandelion scene’ described in the memory is autobiographical; it is Freud’s own childhood memory.
Here is how Freud (doctor) introduces Freud (patient): “The subject of this observation is a man of university education, aged thirty-eight. Though his own profession lies in a very different field, he has taken an interest in psychological questions ever since I was able to relieve him of a slight phobia by means of psychoanalysis. Last year he drew my attention to his childhood memories, which had already played some part in his analysis.” [S]
The dialogue Freud has with his constructed patient is creative and searching, even if frustrating in one or two places (as is Freud, after feminism). Yet the ingenious device allows for a sophisticated exchange in which the psychoanalytic detective partnership (of Freud & Freud) ‘uncovers’ and delineates the meaning of the dandelion memory, the reasons for its persistence and heightened colour/detail, and most importantly, a preliminary definition of ‘screen memory’.
“Recollection of this kind, whose value lies in the fact that it represents in the memory impressions and thoughts of a later date whose content is connected with its own by symbolic or similar links, may appropriately be called a screen memory.” It “owes its value as a memory not to its own content but to the relation existing between that content and some other, that has been suppressed.” [S]
More simply put, a screen memory is a vivid and persistent recollection, yet seemingly insignificant in its content, that ‘screens’ or ‘conceals’ more significant memories. The memories concealed may have to do with experiences that are disturbing in nature. Or they may have to do with repressed phantasies, lost desires. The screen memory acts as a cover; it overlays other memories or life events, thereby shielding us from more challenging psychic material. Therefore, and just as Freud (analysand) presents his dandelion scene, a screen memory is often apparently unimportant, which makes its persistence something of a mystery to the rememberer. S/he may wonder why such an outwardly insignificant memory is so vivid and enduring/recurring.
But as Freud would later write (underscoring his interest in screen memories): “Not only some but all of what is essential in childhood has been retained in these [screen] memories… They represent the forgotten years of childhood as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts.” (Freud, Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through [RRW] 1914.)
Of course, at the same time they represent a “failure of remembering; what should be correctly reproduced by the memory fails to appear, and instead something else comes as a substitute.” (Freud, “Childhood and Concealing Memories” [CCM] in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901).
In the dandelion memory, the details concerning the wildflowers, the colour yellow, and the act of throwing away the flowers for a piece of bread are key components of the remembered scene. But, and as Freud (analyst) points out, it is equally important to ascertain whether the memory had occurred throughout childhood or at some later time. In answer to this question, his patient replies that he is certain the memory never occurred to him in his earlier years. He proceeds to identify two intertwined ‘moments’, the first when he was seventeen, the second three years later. The moments relate to late adolescent sexual phantasies concerning a girl in a yellow dress in the first case, and in the second, to a period during which he felt pressure from his father to abandon his impoverished student life for marriage and a reliable career that would ‘put bread on the table.’
Importantly, Freud determines that the memory, despite acting as a cover for these two moments, is (at least to some extent or in some form) genuine, telling his patient: “you selected it from innumerable others of a similar or another kind because, on account of its content (which in itself was indifferent) it was well adapted to represent two phantasies which were important enough to you… In any case, you will cease to feel any surprise that this scene should so often recur to your mind. It can no longer be regarded as an innocent one since, as we have discovered, it is calculated to illustrate the most momentous turning-points in your life, the influence of the two most powerful motive forces — hunger and love.” [S]
To leave the field of dandelions, it is, as ever, Freud’s larger conclusions that prove most compelling. For example, in his later return to screen memories (Childhood and Concealing Memories), Freud suggests that the “childhood reminiscences of individuals altogether advance to the signification of concealing [screen] memories…the so-called earliest childhood recollections are not true memory traces but later elaborations of the same, elaborations which might have been subjected to the influences of many later psychic forces.” (CCM, 1901).
We have all played the game of ‘what is your earliest memory’. It’s fascinating to see how each of us responds to that question and a source of repeated frustration to bump up against an ‘amnesia’ that is written into the human condition. Here, Freud is taking note of what he called “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory for the first years of our lives,” a failure he would relate to repression occurring during the child’s psychosexual development. But the concept has been much researched and reworked since Freud so that now, under the term “childhood amnesia,” it is viewed as a cognitive phenomenon best understood as having to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories.
The point is that (especially) after Freud, our broader understanding of the workings of memory was forever destabilized, and we cannot maintain a naïve faith in its accuracy, as understandable as such faith is to the human condition. If memory is always at least in part, a search for self, then its unreliability can leave us feeling unmoored, all at sea. The only way to proceed is to grab hold of that problem as a lifeboat, find beauty and wonder in our constant re-writing of ourselves, and in the constancy of the mystery that we are. Surely it is our capacity to do so that has made Freud’s closing passage in Screen Memories the one that is now most widely cited:
“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” [S]
Martin Conway has noted Freud’s insight that “some childhood ‘memories’ were more fantasy than memory, more like the vainglorious stories of the foundation of Rome rather than accurate memories of difficult and powerless times…” (“Memory and Desire — Reading Freud,” The Psychologist, 2006). Conway’s comment reminds me of a dear friend who, upon entering therapy, stubbornly said, “I am not going to be told that I had an unhappy childhood!” I can’t know what she might say about this question today, but I do believe that she was, in her nature, an emotive person moved to think about herself historically, that she eventually found joy and pain in the process, and that these proved helpful going forward in life.
Indeed, Sergio Benvenuto (psychoanalyst and philosopher) has reminded us that psychoanalysis might be seen as a “kind of historiography… based on historical reconstructions.” In this, he further asserts that he, like Popper and Lacan, does not consider psychoanalysis to be a science. I would add that we can look now to neuroscience for additional, and equally helpful explanations of human memory. But Freud gives us something persistently valuable. A description of ourselves as remembering beings. An invitation to read the effects of our past on our present, but equally (and here the concept of screen memories is productive), the effects of our ever-changing present(s) on the past. (See also “A little piece about the land of after” - my short piece about Freud’s related notion of Nachträglichkeit.)
Here then, is another gift Freud gives us. Tantalizing uncertainty about ourselves that keeps us alive and wondering. If Freud’s ideas – in this case about memory - continue to speak to our culture, it is not because they are proven but rather because, as Benvenuto goes on to claim, they are “like the Castle of the Pyrenees, we can feel comfortable inside it even though we know it’s hanging in the void.” (Language and Psychoanalysis, 2018)
Now, for a walk in the dandelions and wildflowers of spring.
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A nice piece, Amy. Yesterday I was writing about memories triggered by seemingly random connections (in my case, a certain type of cake, and a pat of butter). A fascinating area to dig into. Your piece is a great pointer to all the questions we might be asking ourselves if we weren't so busy. Slowing is a rewarding action! x
Much to ponder here that I hadn’t considered before