Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Last year some time (2011), I read the first chapter of Timpanaro's The Freudian Slip (another tr. available here).  At the end of the chapter, I let out a roar of spontaneous laughter, because of the sheer absurdity and over-learnedness of Timpanaro's writing.  Let me explain.

Timpanaro is examining the opening episode of Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  In that justly-famous work, Freud narrates a meeting in which a young jewish man fumes about anti-semitism in Austria, ending with a citation from Virgil (Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (Aeneid, IV 625)) that he gets slightly wrong.  In a virtuoso display of cleverness and psychological interpretation, Freud shows that the error, or slip, was not as random as it seemed, and that all sorts of things about the young man's suppressed hopes and fears can be deduced by careful thought about these errors.  Freud's account is hugely entertaining, real Sherlock Holmes stuff.

What Timpanaro does, at  e n o r m o u s  length, and with staggering erudition, is to argue that the young man's error can be explained by the mechanism of banalization, just like some of the slips of scribes copying manuscripts.  Timpanaro's display of erudition is truly gob-smacking.  (And I use this crude characterisation as a deliberate counterpoint.)

But what is Timpanaro saying, finally?

Timpanaro is saying what Freud himself is thought to have said so very much better: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Timpanaro's display of intellectual fireworks is not just hors de nécessité
in my view.  It is otiose.  The cigar comment makes exactly the same point.  It makes it concisely, clearly, and with humour to boot.

Furthermore, the whole point of Freud's Psychopathology and the Virgil misquotation story is that things one might think are banal may, through analysis, be shown not to be banal at all.  For Timpanaro to say "yes, yes, it's banal" is to miss the most essential point of what Freud is saying.  Whether or not this particular episode was banal or not, Timpanaro is being obtuse in asserting that it was.

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