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Reminiscences are special forms of memory that rise up from the past, confused, vague, involuntary, distorted, or rendered unrecognizable by unconscious mental activity. They also entail a relaxation of the psychic apparatus such that the subject does not necessarily recognize these "rememberings" as belonging to his own past.

The concept entered into the field of psychopathology in Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer's "Preliminary Communication" (1893a). The phrase "der Hysterische leidet grösstenteils an Reminiszenzen " ("the hysteric suffers for the most part from reminiscences") represents both a break with earlier psychopathology and an introductory maxim for psychoanalysis. This phrase, linking hysteria and reminiscence, introduced a new field of exploration by showing that hysteria consists in alterations of remembering, that is, the concrete affect of the past that will be lastingly expressed in symptoms.

The concept of reminiscence, like its use in psychoanalysis, turned out to be both incontrovertible and difficult to identify. This difficulty has to do with the variety of the relationships between patients and analysts and their own pasts, their histories, and conceptions of reality, as well as the appearance, from 1896 until now, of new concepts and ideas. Given growing experience with therapy and theoretical research, these factors require continued attention to terminological accuracy. In 1996, following the refocusing of interest an reminiscence, the notion seemed to be more difficult and problematic to identify because of its increasingly generalized nature.

Initially the use of the term reminiscence referred to both the nature of the psychogenesis of hysteria and the effectiveness of cathartic therapy. Freud and Breuer associated hysterical symptoms with old psychic traumas whose memory had remained unconsciousin a space that had been split off from consciousness; in their attempt to transform these pathogenic reminiscences into true memories, the therapists showed they were capable of suppressing both the symptoms and healing the splitting from consciousness that had produced them. This, together with the notion of pathogenic psychic trauma, prefigured the notion of the unconscious.

The different attempts to model the psychic apparatus (homeostatic models, memory models, linguistic models) were so many constructions needed to articulate different realities: infantile reality and its effects, sexuality, dreams, the container and content of psychoanalytic therapy. Reminiscences, which are inherent in all the analysand's material, appear as the veiled echo of a reality that is itself problematic. The products of constructions and interpretations, these are situated between a so-called "mystic writing pad" or primal writing surface, and the decentering of a subject who reappropriates their own history.

The clearest manifestation of reminiscences, which extends beyond the Freudian context of 1893, is found in the psychotraumatic syndromes or "traumatic neuroses." Here the patient suffers from an implacable repetition of the traumatizing situation in dreams and in the production of flashbacks, which are either reproduced with cinematic accuracy or distinctly transposed. This pathology, which is fairly common and sometimes appears during the analysis of a "classic" neurosis, closely resembles Freud and Breuer's 1893 discovery: the metaphor of the internal foreign body and the irruption of mnemonic material that does not consist of memories but of images of an almost persecutory past. It is extremely difficult to transform these reminiscences into memories. Freud and Breuer themselves noted that the psychic trauma did not only involve Jean Martin Charcot's traumatic hysteria, but the traumatic neuroses more generally. In the early twenty-first century, the concept of reminiscence can provide psychoanalysis with an opportunity to return to the investigation of "psychic trauma" with greater accuracy.

Claude Barrois

See also: Amnesia; Cathartic method; Cinema and psychoanalysis; Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Forgetting; Hysteria; Lie; Memory; Neurotica ; Psychic reality; Remembering; Repression, lifting of; Seduction; Scenes of seduction; Studies on Hysteria ; Symbolic, the (Lacan).


Barrois, Claude. (1988). Les Névroses traumatiques. Paris: Dunod.

Dayan, Maurice. (1995). Inconscient et Réalité. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1925a [1924]). A note upon the "mystic writing pad." SE, 19: 225-232.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1893a). On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomina: Preliminary communication. SE, 2: 1-17.

Laplanche, Jean. (1981). Problématiques IV, L'Inconscient et le Ça. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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