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Steiner, G. (1976). A Note on Language and Psychoanalysis. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 3:253-258.

(1976). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 3:253-258

A Note on Language and Psychoanalysis

George Steiner

The raw material and instrumentality of Freudian analysis are semantic—a duality which poses serious epistemological dilemmas. In one respect, at least, Freud's lifelong hope of neurophysiological 'evidence' and confirmation, a hope unrealized, can be construed as a desire for escape from the hermeneutic circle of language seeking to deal systematically with language. But there was no escape. The original and classic psychoanalytic process cannot operate if the patient is mute or the analyst is deaf (a restriction both more comprehensive and more singular than might at first appear).

The semantic material used by Freud in his theoretic writings and praxis derived from written and from oral source—an obvious configuration which, however, becomes a 'three-body problem' (notoriously insoluble) due to the fact that Freud is himself a major writer with relations to the German language of a sort and complexity which distinguish the great stylist. The influence of this personal register on Freud's 'hearing' and 'reading' is a topic as yet unexplored. I will not be touching on it here, but it is present in my remarks by active implication.

The written material on which Freud principally draws is that of the Central European syllabus of high literacy as taught and categorized in the period c. 1870–1920. It includes and articulates an axiom of continuity from the Greek and Latin classics to the modern masters. It assigns a pivotal, numinous centrality to Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Shakespeare, Cervantes, a centrality compacted, as it were, in the genius, at once conservative and creatively syncretic, of Goethe (it is Goethe's Orphic fragments ber die Natur which convert Freud to his vocation).

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