Freud used the metaphor of archaeology to describe his form of therapy.

In Studies on Hysteria, he writes:

“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.”

The quotation is not as easy to understand as it seems. The metaphor does not quite stand up: the archaeologist is trying clearing away debris to reveal and conserve the hidden treasures beneath, whereas the ‘pathogenic psychical material’ Freud refers to is precisely what is buried.

Not only this, but Freud wasn’t trying to conserve what he and his patients unearthed, but to destroy it or make it somehow harmless.

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?

Why dig up the past?

Anyone who goes into psychoanalysis or psychotherapy must face this question: how will revisiting unpleasant memories help? Won’t it make us feel worse?

This was a question for Ernst Lanzer (the ‘Rat Man’), one of Freud’s patients, as he began to recall the painful memories at the root of his sense of guilt.

I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antiquities standing about in my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation: the destruction of Pompeii was only beginning now that it had been dug up.