The Freud Museum


Archaeological Metaphor 3

"Thus it came about that in this, the first full-length analysis of a hysteria undertaken by me, I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city."
Preface to Studies on Hysteria, 1895.

In this quotation from one of his earliest works Freud employs the archaeological metaphor to describe his method of therapy. The quotation is not as easy to understand as it seems. The metaphor does not quite stand up, since the archaeologist is clearing away debris to reveal and conserve the hidden treasures beneath, whereas the 'pathogenic psychical material' Freud refers to is precisely what is buried, and which Freud is trying to destroy or make innocuous in some way.

This reflects an important ambiguity in the book itself. Freud says that the memories which disturb the patient are like 'foreign bodies' in the mind. But he is unclear in this early work whether the aim of therapy is to 'get rid of' the memories (so the patient can no longer remember), or to make the memories 'conscious' and connected to the rest of the patients thoughts and feelings.

This has resonances with everyday life: are we less frightened or apprehensive about things when we know what to anticipate, or is it really true that ignorance is bliss?

Teachers note:
Freud regarded psychoanalysis as a theory, a therapy, and an instrument of research. Although the 'pathogenic material' was debris as far as the therapy was concerned, for Freud's theories it was absolutely priceless. This suggests a potential conflict between the aims of theory and the aims of therapy.

Discussion topic:
What is the point of digging up the past?

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