In search of lost time

The concept of Nachträglichkeit is probably one of the most misunderstood of a long list of Freud’s misunderstood concepts, not helped by Strachey’s mistranslation of the German word as ‘deferred action’.  At the same time I would argue that it is probably one of Freud’s most radical ideas, and perhaps should be added to Lacan’s list of fundamental concepts.  What’s particularly important about Nachträglichkeit is that belies the commonly held notion that psychoanalysis is based on some form of ‘linear determinism’, in which the subject’s history is determined by childhood experiences, and that psychopathology is rooted in childhood trauma. What Nachträglichkeit introduces is the idea that there is a retroactive transcribing of the original experience as traumatic at a later date in the subject’s history.

As Laplanche and Pontalis point out, not all (childhood) experiences are subject to this retroactive revision, but only those that have failed to be incorporated into a meaningful context for the subject. These are often connected to the subject’s sexual experiences and the whole question of the subject’s sexuality.1

However, it is the idea of retroactive trauma that is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend (and contentious) aspect of Nachträglichkeit . This is the idea that a child’s original experiences are not registered as ‘traumatic’ at all; only later on when a similar experience occurs is the original experience transcribed as being traumatic. This immediately raises the question regarding the status of trauma: is it, in fact, something ‘primordial’, ‘in the Real’; or is it in fact a symbolic, retroactive construction?

Although Freud never devoted a whole paper to the idea of Nachträglichkeit it does crop up throughout his work.  It gets an early mention in his Project for a Scientific Psychology.2  Freud cites the case of ‘Emma’,  a young woman seen by him, who was unable to go into a shop alone. Freud linked this to a memory she produced in analysis of going into a shop at twelve years old (Freud notes this was shortly after puberty) and was confronted by two shop assistants who were laughing together. At this point she ran out in fright. She then associated this incident with another memory when she was eight when she went into a shop to buy some sweets and the shopkeeper grabbed her genitals through her clothes. In spite of this experience, she went back a second time but stayed away thereafter.

Freud argued the laughter of the shop assistants provided the associative link with the original incident, which reminded her of the grin of the shop keeper as he assaulted her:

The course of events can now be reconstructed as follows. In the shop the two assistants were laughing; this laughing aroused (unconsciously) the memory of the shopkeeper. Indeed, the situation had yet another similarity [to the earlier one]: she was once again in a shop alone. Together with the shopkeeper she remembered his grabbing through her clothes; but since then she had reached puberty. The memory aroused what it was certainly not able to at the time, a sexual release, which was transformed into anxiety. With this anxiety, she was afraid that the shop-assistants might repeat the assault, and she ran away.3

And in his letter 52 to Fliess Freud writes:

As you know, I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory-traces being subjected from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances-to a re-transcription. Thus what is essentially new about my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is laid down in various species of indications. I postulated a similar kind of re-arrangement some time ago (Aphasia) for the paths leading from the periphery [of the body to the cortex]. I cannot say how many of these registrations there are: at least three, probably more.4.

However, it is perhaps in his commentary on the ‘Wolf Man’ case that Freud gives the most elaborate (and contentious) clinical example of Nachträglichkeit .5

Referring to his patient’s famous ‘wolf dream’, which occurred when he was four years old, Freud writes:

At the age of one and a half the child receives an impression to which he is unable to react adequately (his parents copulating); he is only able to understand it and to be moved by it when the impression is revived in him at the age of four; and only twenty years later, during the analysis, is he able to grasp with his conscious mental processes what was then going on in him. The patient justifiably disregards the three periods of time, and puts his present ego into the situation which is so long past. And in this we follow him, since with correct self-observation and interpretation the effect must be the same as though the distance between the second and third periods of time could be neglected. Moreover, we have no other means of describing the events of the second period.6

The key point here is that it reinforces the idea that Nachträglichkeit is not a ‘delayed’ reaction to an earlier traumatic event (which is implied by Strachey’s mistranslation). In fact, the trauma does not even exist at the earlier point in time. Instead, it is only through a process of re-transcription that the trauma becomes constructed retroactively. With regards to the Wolf Man’s dream at age four, which forms the cornerstone of Freud’s analysis of the case, this is not technically a ‘re-transcription’, but neither is it a ‘memory’, in the strict sense of the word, of a previous trauma (the Wolf Man witnessing his parents copulating when he was an infant). Instead, the dream appears to be representation of the Wolf Man’s anxiety. It was only twenty years or so later that he was able to ‘re-transcribe’ such anxiety, to assimilate it into his subjectivity (with more than a little help from Freud).

As Künstlicher reminds us, a psycho-neurosis is based on a failed re-transcription.7 What’s even more interesting about the Wolf Man case in this context is that he is now regarded as having a psychotic structure rather than a neurotic one, as Freud assumed.. This shows that Nachträglichkeit can operate ‘across’ the different clinical structures.

Perhaps the strangest (and most controversial) aspect of Nachträglichkeit is the idea that somehow time is being reversed; in other words, the later event (for example Emma’s encounter with the laughing shop assistants) ‘causes’ the original trauma (her being molested by the shop keeper at age eight). Thomä and Cheshire are particularly critical of this notion and argue that Nachträglichkeit does not imply the idea of ‘retro-causality’.8

However, I would argue that this is to confuse two different types of temporality: physical and psychical. No-one is suggesting there is a physical reversal of time in this context, fascinating as this might be. Rather, we are talking about a subjective temporality and a subjective causality. In the case of Emma, it is not that the actual event of her being molested by the shop keeper took place after the incident with the laughing shop assistants. Rather, this latter event, recalled in analysis, created an unconscious association with the earlier event.

However, the trauma of the original event is only constructed at the time of the second event. Furthermore, this trauma can only be articulated at an even later stage, for example during an analysis. And this is the really peculiar aspect of Nachträglichkeit: that trauma itself is constructed retroactively. And let us be clear what this means: it is not that the subject ‘remembers’ the earlier traumatic event at a later date; rather, the trauma itself is only constituted at this later date. This is not to suggest for one moment that something didn’t actually happen at that earlier date. It is simply that this ‘something’ was not registered as ‘traumatic’.

Bistoen et al elaborate this aspect of Nachträglichkeit in some detail in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).9 In the following quote, ‘non-Criterion A event’ refers to the DSM classification for PTSD, and ‘T1’ and ‘T2) refers to two different points in time:

Although the principle of Nachträglichkeit indeed posits that trauma is constituted in two events, in our view it is not entirely correct to say that the non-Criterion A event at T2 triggers or revives an earlier (latent) trauma that has already been suffered. The event at T2 does not revive dormant old wounds. Rather, it is essential to Nachträglichkeit that the wound is only afflicted at T2 and not at T1. That is to say, the wounding has not already occurred and somehow been isolated from the rest of the psychic life, as the notion of “latent psycho- pathology” would suggest. It is only at T2 that the original event is rendered traumatic, wounding the subject for the very first time. Thus, we agree that in some instances traumatic reactions following non-Criterion A events are due to an association with an older event. However, the notion of Nachträglichkeit suggests that in these cases the non- Criterion A event elicits the formation of a traumatic memory, rather than the reviving of an old wound that was already constituted.10

This contradicts the commonly held notion that there is an ‘original’ trauma which then triggers a set of symptoms, for example those characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This ‘original’ experience may be in early childhood or may be later in life. However, Nachträglichkeit totally belies this idea.

Bistoen et al cite the example of a young woman who had been raped (as an adult) but who did not in the aftermath of this experience exhibit any pathological symptoms. It was only when she heard that the same man had both raped and murdered another woman a few months later that she developed the symptoms of PTSD.  As Bistoen et al note, this puts a slightly different perspective on Nachträglichkeit to the one originally held by Freud, who argued that the phenomena tended to occur in puberty, and ‘triggered’ a memory from an infantile experience. In this case the woman was already an adult when the ‘original’ experience occurred. Bistoen et al argue that the woman may have been able to assimilate the attack on her, but the second attack (on another woman) which had resulted in murder, could have put her original attempts at interpretation, of trying to ‘make sense’ of that experience, into question.

As a number of writers have pointed out, it was Lacan who drew attention to the importance of Nachträglichkeit after a long period in which the concept had lain relatively dormant, and he makes a number of references to it in the Écrits.

And Bistoen et al argue that Lacan’s ideas regarding the signifier are especially instructive in terms of developing a deeper understanding of the mechanism of Nachträglichkeit. They argue that there is an ‘original’ distressing event which cannot be fully understood at the time of its occurrence because the subject is unable to symbolise it. However, the event leaves behind a ‘mnemic trace’ which is engraved in memory by a single signifier, which both signals and covers up the senseless of the experience.  Commenting on Freud’s ‘Emma’ case, they write:

This single signifier, which is metonymically chosen by the subject, hems in or borders the hole of the nonsensical experience. In Emma’s case, this could be the linguistic element “clothing” or the visual trace of the shopkeeper’s grin, something that simultaneously points to and obscures the original mystifying scene. It is crucial to grasp that this single signifier or representation remains “mute,” as it does not become associated with other elements that would confer meaning upon it.11

The key point here is that it is only when this single signifier can form part of a signifying chain that it can allow the subject to confer meaning and ‘sense’ on their experiences. This happens at the time of the ‘second’ event where the subject realises, for the first time, the full meaning of the ‘original’ experience, and at this point becomes traumatised by it. As Bistoen et al put it:

….more essentially: through this understanding, it is as if the potentially traumatic aspects of the scene that were not experienced at T1 are now fully experienced at T2. The subject, through T2, receives access to the traumatic truth of the T1 event for the very first time. The T1 experience starts to be lived as a new subjective event. Therefore, at T2, both T1 and T2 happen simultaneously. Only through the association with a second event at T2 can the subject draw a conclusion as to the signification-value of the first scene, and only then can this scene produce a traumatic impact. Precisely at that moment, the moment of realization, the memory of T1 becomes traumatic. 12

Perhaps one the critical things about Nachträglichkeit is that it highlights the subjective nature of time and temporality for human beings. This is not to say that there is not an objective time, the time of the physicists and mathematicians perhaps, but this is not the time that is at stake here

Interestingly enough, this brings us back to St Augustine and his notion of the ‘past’ as memory and the ‘future’ as anticipation. It also raises a more interesting question: to what extent does the anticipation get ‘transposed’ to memory? In other words, where exactly do the origins of the trauma that is constructed in the process of Nachträglichkeit come from? This might seem a strange question, as the crux of the argument so far regarding Nachträglichkeit appear to be that such origins lie in the past. However, this is something of a misnomer to the extent that the trauma itself originates in the present. The critical point about Nachträglichkeit is that it relies on a temporal ‘looping back’ from a future (subjective) time to a previous one. According to Bistoen et al’s argument, this looping back effectively ‘pulls’ the isolated signifier, the memory trace from the previous time, into the signifying chain at which point the significance of the ‘original’ event becomes clear – and is experienced as a trauma.

And this raises an even more peculiar and radical possibility regarding Nachträglichkeit, which is that rather than originating from the past, the trauma emerges from the future….…..

  1. Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.B. 1973. The Language of Psycho-Analysis: Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. The International Psycho-Analytical Library pp. 111-113 []
  2. Freud, S. 1950. Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950 [1895]). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume I ( 1886-1899): Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts, pp.281–397. []
  3. ibid p.353-4, italics in original []
  4. Freud, S. 1896. Extracts from the Fliess Papers: Letter 52 In: The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp. 233–4, italics in original []
  5. Freud, S. 1918. From the History of an Infantile Neurosis In: J. Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp. 3–123. []
  6. ibid p.45 []
  7. Künstlicher, R. 1994. ‘Nachträglichkeit’: The intermediary of an unassimilated impression and experience. Scand. Psychoanal. Rev. 17,pp.101–118 []
  8. Thomä, H. and Cheshire, N. 1991. Freud’s Nachträglichkeit and Strachey’s ‘Deferred Action’: Trauma, Constructions and the Direction of Causality. Int. R. Psycho-Anal. 18,pp.407–427. []
  9. Bistoen, G., Vanheule, S. and Craps, S. 2014. Nachträglichkeit: A Freudian perspective on delayed traumatic reactions. Theory and Psychology.,pp.1–20. []
  10. bid, p. 9, italics in original []
  11. ibid p.9 []
  12. ibid, p.10, italics in original []