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De Monchaux, C. (1964). Curiosity: By Herman Nunberg. (New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1961, pp. 88. $3.00.). Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 45:455.

(1964). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 45:455

Curiosity: By Herman Nunberg. (New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1961, pp. 88. $3.00.)

Review by:
Cecily De Monchaux

This is an expanded version of the Freud Anniversary Lecture delivered by Nunberg in New York in 1960. It is a beautiful and profound piece of work, as one might expect from the author of 'The Synthetic Function of the Ego'. Here again Nunberg reveals himself as one of the few psycho-analytic writers who have shared with Freud the rare quality of being able to integrate concept with content, theoretical argument with clinical exposition.

What is the psychology of asking a question? Can one ask a question before one can speak? Can one ask a question in a dream? To answer these 'meta-questions' Nunberg unfolds with precision, economy and a superb sense of timing, the analysis of a patient whose pathological curiosity drove him to compulsive questioning. 'Are there times when you tell a story and are there times when you are telling things which are not stories?' his patient asks, only to seek quick comfort in the safe but non-discriminating, self-given answer: 'Everything that you say is a story to a degree.' In this perversion of the secondary process of interrogation, the patient tries to reduce the gap between question and answer, between known and unknown, between self and other: he tries to approximate to the primary process, in which the question is the answer, the answer the question.

Nunberg shows in detail how the oral drives leave their impress on the ego's need to know, how these early roots of curiosity ramify through later stages of body and object relationships, and how they extend through the superego's 'watching and biting' of the ego. For the primitive ego—open-mouthed and wide-eyed in face of the unknown—has used its only means of removing danger from view: incorporative denial. In his self-defeating series of questions, Nunberg's patient was trying to fulfil his wish to discover and yet at the same time to remove from consciousness, from his internal world, that most puzzling, exciting and dangerous of all infantile unknowns: the primal scene.

This is a rich and complex essay in psycho-analytic ego psychology. Nunberg's clarity and freshness of thought are matched by his form of presentation, which sustains the reader's curiosity at that point of balance where he can enjoy both the hunger of his own questions and the nourishment of the author's answers.

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