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Fenichel, O. (1943). Time and the Unconscious: Marie Bonaparte. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 427–468.. Psychoanal Q., 12:434-435.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: Time and the Unconscious: Marie Bonaparte. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 427–468.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:434-435

Time and the Unconscious: Marie Bonaparte. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 427–468.

Otto Fenichel

Man is probably the only being who, in his experience of time, knows about his imminent death. This knowledge is in full contradiction of the 'timelessness' of the unconscious which cannot conceive of the idea of being dead. Marie

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Bonaparte tries to investigate the conflicts between the conscious knowledge of time and death on the one hand, and the unconscious timelessness on the other. The child, who is relatively more directed by his unconscious, feels time in quite another way than the adult; time for him is an unlimited process. Dreams, daydreams, being in love, states of intoxication, and mystical ecstasies bring back the childish type of time perception. All these states have one thing in common: 'their effect, or rather their essential nature, is to unlock the floodgates of the unconscious, which in normal and so-called reasonable people remain more or less safely closed under the conditions of waking life.' Wherever the unconscious reigns, man becomes 'timeless' again.

Marie Bonaparte discusses what this timelessness actually consists of; certainly not of an absolute inability of the unconscious to be influenced by time. Freud himself who at first believed in such an inability, later said that the unconscious also changes in time, though very slowly. Timelessness really means 'that the unconscious fails to perceive time, that it receives absolutely no impression of it whatsoever'. The ability to measure time during sleep (waking up at the hour one has resolved to) is not an achievement of the unconscious but of a preconscious part of the personality which had not participated in the person's sleep. The derivatives of the unconscious know time to a certain degree but the unconscious itself does not.

Conflicts between the knowledge of time and unconscious timelessness make their appearance in compulsion neuroses and psychoses in various forms. Under normal conditions conflicts of this kind can be observed in the general (magic) valuation of medicine, in the multiple manifestations of the longing for immortality, in religions and in philosophies.

Marie Bonaparte stresses Kant's thesis of the apriority of time. The reviewer, who once had tried to show that the so-called 'timelessness' of the unconscious is not incompatible with the thesis of the apriority of time,1 was especially interested in the following sentences: 'In a conversation which I had with him after he had read this paper, Freud confirmed that his views were potentially in agreement with those of Kant. The sense we have of the passing of time, he observed, originates in our inner perception of the passing of our own life. When consciousness awakens within us we perceive this internal flow and then project it into the outside world.'

The analytical finding that an exaggerated fear of death and longing for immortality are usually rooted in unconscious murderous impulses is not mentioned by Bonaparte.


1 Fenichel, Otto: Psychoanalyse und Metaphysik. Imago, IX, 1923.

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Article Citation

Fenichel, O. (1943). Time and the Unconscious. Psychoanal. Q., 12:434-435

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