"Historical reality" refers to the real facts and events of the past as they occurred historically, whether they were external or internal to the subject confronted by them. In general, historical reality stands opposed to wishful fantasies and to everything within the mind that may be said to answer to the pleasure/unpleasure principle and its principal mechanism: hallucinatory wish-fulfillment.
To better understand the relevance of historical reality to psychoanalysis, it is important to realize that the conflict between the two fundamental principles of the mental apparatus—the pleasure/unpleasure principle and the reality principle—also has an impact on the past and on the subject's ideas about the past.
On the one hand, history as retained in memory is capable of being reinterpreted and transformed on behalf of the pleasure/unpleasure principle by means of the individual's fantasies, wishes, and defenses. A fantasy that has been cathected and activated by hallucinatory wish-fulfillment behaves as an actual reality, interfering with the ego's ability to differentiate real events from imagined and hallucinated ones. This view supports the belief in memory's poor reliability when it comes to historical reality, since any memory is likely to have been reorganized on behalf of the plea-sure/unpleasure principle.
On the other hand, Freud—and many other psychoanalysts as well—was never able completely to overlook the impact of certain traumatic historical events in the etiology of mental suffering and symptomology. While history can be transformed for the sake of the libidinal economy of the subject, the repression of the historical reality would be incomplete, since it would leave traces as psychic events unfolded. The reality principle must also be capable of being applied to the past and of opposing the pleasure principle. In a way fantasies themselves might be said to indicate the existence of a kernel of historical reality.
Fantasy and historical reality are not strict opposites. Fantasies, as Freud wrote early in his career, are of "mixed blood"—intermediary formulations that fall somewhere between lived reality and the way in which the subject has given it meaning within his libidinal organization of the moment.
Thus in addition to representative forms of the "memory" of events and facts in the past, forms that are likely to be subjected to different kinds of "deferred" reinterpretations and wishes, there are ways of directly recording lived experience that bear witness to the impact of historical reality. The work of reconstructing historical reality is, therefore, potentially possible, and indeed one of the essential goals of psychoanalytic work (Freud, 1937d) is to extend the influence of the reality principle to the past and its representation.
Historical reality and mental reality are not, therefore, strictly at odds. The reality of experience marks history with an imprint that has significance within the current psychic organization, in particular during childhood, on the basis of infantile sexual theories and the narcissism of infantile animism. Debate continues to erupt, however, within psychoanalysis, over the disjunction between historical reality and mental reality, and this suggests the fragility of the synthesis mentioned above. It would seem that the question of the distribution of what is part of actual history—and therefore, "outside" the subject—and what is part of desire still needs to be re-examined, as if the boundary between inside and outside was fluid and admitted a degree of undecidability essential to mental functioning and internal conflict.
See also: Construction de l'espace analytique, La ; Event; Fantasy; History and psychoanalysis; Internal reality/external reality; Screen memory; Seduction scenes.
Freud, Sigmund. (1899a). Screen memories. SE, 3: 299-322.
——. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.
——. (1939a). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.
Roussillon, René. (1995) La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59.
Viderman, Serge. (1970) La Construction de l'espace analytique. Paris: Denoël.