Erotic Computing

EC 1.13 (8-31-94)

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D. [1]

What Lily of the Valley says in a dream
Herr K said with a jewelry box.
What one says with flowers
Papa said with pearls
What Dora did not say
the doctor said with smoke.
     --Hélène Cixous

It's a humid night in late August. Back here in Pennsylvania the cicada orchestra is at it again, arguing all night over who has the right to do what, and with what, and to whom ... Turns a psychologist's fancy naturally to thoughts of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Babbage of neural networking, who stands everready to turn us humans on to how one thing leads to another. So, playing the Freud geek, let me crib some thoughts from my Fall Psych syllabi and round out Volume One of my Websteriana (Web-sterics?) with some term-defining in anticipation of Volume Two.


The Father of Psychoanalysis wrote himself a new psychology in the last few years of the last century, and in the process anticipated a hot current debate in psychology over how childhood traumas shape adult personality and psychopathology. Long months of conversation with a number of patients about the background of their adult hysterical and obsessional illnesses suggested that each had suffered sexual abuse in childhood, and in 1896 Freud argued that this was the necessary process by which dispositions to neurosis were acquired. A year later, for reasons both personal (his father had died a year before, and he'd been trying to psychoanalyze himself, finding blurred memories of abuse like those of his patients pointing to Jacob Freud) and clinical Freud decided that the therapeutic conversation couldn't reliably distinguish between a real memory of an early trauma and a traumatic memory of a childhood fantasy (cf. Davis, 1990; Davis, 1994), and he refocussed his attention on the psychology of fantasy, Freudian slips, and dreaming. He's thus, for my money, the root author in the literature on hypertextuality -- since every word the patient speaks, and every thought the therapist has in response, stirs up resonances with other memories, other events involving other important figures in the life of each. Each psychoanalysis then threatens to become an open-ended autobiographical novel by the patient, with the analyst as manipulative, ego-involved literary agent; and Freud lamented that his cases read like literature.

In his most (in)famous case, Freud treated a teenage girl whose father had referred her in part because she was complaining about the seductive moves his mistress's husband was making on her. Freud relentlessly pursues "Dora"'s alleged interest in the harassing Mr. K. through her associations to two dreams and numerous accounts of her encounters with him; but he cannot quite stay in touch with the many clues (e.g., they all smelled of cigars) that his sexual interpretations make him an analogous figure for Dora, place him in apposition with both Mr. K. and Dora's father -- that he's ceased to be part of the solution for Dora and has become part of the problem.

The psychoanalytic term for all this referential slippage is "transference," and from the time of the Dora case (1900-1905) it becomes a central tenet of Freudian psychology. All crucial human relationships involve some emotional ambiguity and power differential, and these in turn give rise to distortions of behavior and memory. Each new relationship -- with a therapist, a boss, a teacher -- evokes all those that have preceded it; and the result is a cacophony of voices (those cicadas again) intruding and distorting our attempts to get clear about what's really going on right now, as leftover issues from our formative years get transferred to the current setting. Fully overcoming these transferential distortions is impossible, on my reading of Freud -- and studying them the most interesting and useful thing a personality psychologist can do. Hence the growth industry in using Freud himself as exemplary case-history, and his vast personal correspondence and the marginalia of his life as clinical material.

I ask myself what Freud scholarship would be like if the Master had had a Mac and Web access (multiply implausible, this, since he disliked the telephone and had strongly cathected his fountain-pen) and if -- breaking with his usual practice of destroying notes and drafts when a paper was published, he'd left some megabytes of email files, GIFs of his Egyptological collection, keyboard macros, and links to databases.

Next week: language acquisition.


Davis, D.A. (1990). Freud's unwritten case. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 7, 185-209.

 Davis, D.A. (1994). A Theory for the 90s: Freud's Seduction Theory in Historical Context. Psychoanalytic Review, 81(4), 627-640.

 Davis, D.A. (undated). "Dora": Teaching notes and excerpts.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

About the author ...

This column first appeared in Webster's Weekly: August 31, 1994.
Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.