Dr. Freud, "Herr Aliquis," and "Free Association"
Doug Davis

'Exoriar(e) ALIQUIS nostris ex ossibus ultor.'

(Virgil, Aneid, Book 4)

"May someone arise from my bones as an avenger." This example comprises Chapter Two ("The Forgetting of Foreign Words") of Freud's (1901) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud notes that ordinary words in one's own language are typically protected from forgetting, but that forgetting foreign words is the most common evidence of the mild psychopathology, the "functional disturbance," with which his book is concerned. He introduces the example as follows:

Last summer, while journeying on my vacation, I renewed the acquaintance of a young man of academic education, who, as I soon noticed, was conversant with some of my works. In our con- [p. 18] versation we drifted -- I no longer remember how -- to the social position of the race to which we both belonged. He, being ambitious, bemoaned the fact that his generation, as he expressed it, was destined to grow crippled, that it was prevented from developing its talents and from gratifying its desires. He concluded his passionately felt speech with the familiar verse from Virgil: Exoriare. . . in which the unhappy Dido leaves her vengeance upon Æneasto posterity. Instead of "concluded," I should have said "wished to conclude," for he could not bring the quotation to an end, and attempted to conceal the open gap in his memory by transposing the words: --
"Exoriar(e) ex nostris ossibus ultor!"
He finally became piqued and said: "Please don't make such a mocking face, as if you were gloating over my embarrassment, but help me. There is something missing in this verse. How does it read in its complete form?"
"With pleasure," I answered, and cited it correctly: --
"Exoriar(e) aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor!"
"It is too stupid to forget such a word," he said. "By the way, I understand you claim that forgetting is not without its reasons; I should be very curious to find out how I came to forget this indefinite pronoun 'aliquis.'"
[p. 19] I gladly accepted the challenge, as I hoped to get an addition to my collection, and said, "We can easily do this, but I must ask you to tell me frankly and without any criticism everything that occurs to your mind after you focus your attention, without any particular intention, on the forgotten word."[1]
"Very well, the ridiculous idea comes to me to divide the word in the following way: a and liquis."

Freud gives a seemingly verbatim account of the conversation by which he extracts associations from the "acquaintance of academic education" and finally gives the punch line: her periods have stopped. Freud summarizes the "aliquis" incident and its alleged unconscious train of thought as follows:

The speaker had been deploring the fact that the present generation of his people was deprived of its full rights; a new generation, he prophesied like Dido, would inflict vengeance on the oppressors. He had in this way expressed his wish for descendents. At this moment a contrary thought intruded. 'Have you really so keen a wish for descendents? That is not so. How embarrassed you would be if you were to get news just now that you were to expect descendents from the quarter you know of. No: no descendents -- however much we need them for vengeance.' This contradiction then asserts itself ... by setting up an external association between one of its ideational elements and an element in the wish that has been repudiated...
(Freud, 1901, p. 14)


The complete text of Virgil's Aeneid, from which this quote is taken, is of course on the Web. For now, let's settle for the following excerpt. I am persuaded by Carol Gilligan (1988) that, in taking the voice of Dido as she curses the departing Aeneas who has loved and left her (and resolves to kill herself), this male subject reveals the troubled gender politics with which we'll be concerned in this class. My own discussion of this famous Freudian slip in relation to Freud's early work is (among other places) in a 1990 draft paper titled Abortion and Its Discontents, in which I note the many instances in Freud's correspondence and early published writing in which themes of abortion and infanticide intrude upon a male speaker's thought.

By far the fullest treatment of this famous example and its implications for an understanding of Freud's life and work has been by Peter Swales (1982, 1998), whose 25 years of painstaking research have finally convinced this reader that, like Freud's 1899 "Screen Memories" paper, this seeming tour de force of psychoanalytic detective work is in fact a disguised bit of autobiography, implicating Freud himself in guilty rumination over the pregnancy of his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. Minna had moved into the Freud family apartment at 19 Bergasse in 1896, following the death of her fiancé. She lived with her sister and brother-in-law the rest of her life. Freud and Minna had traveled together alone in Switzerland and northwestern Italy at the end of Summer, 1898, and they did so again in 1900, after which Freud left Minna at a health spa where she spent weeks recovering from respiratory and other troubles. Swales has shown that Minna's subsequent symptoms fit those of a septic abortion, and that Freud would likely have read newspaper accounts mentioning many of the specifics of the associations allegedly produced by the "young man of academic background" to whom he attributes the aliquis slip.

Until Swales's work is fully published, this claim will remain the subject of intense debate among students of psychoanalysis and Freud biography. From the point of view of Freud's "topographic" conception of of the mind in the 1890s, what seemed to be plausible inferences about a companion's unconscious mental life is revealed to be a sample of the author's preconscious reverie -- a discourse more Proustian than Freudian (or Holmesian, cf. London's most famous consulting detective, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men).

See also a fascinating discussion of this example, and another comparison with Holmes, in
Holland, Norman N. (1985). The I. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. "The Aesthetics of I."


Freud, Sigmund. (1901). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE, 6 James Strachey, trans.) (Online copy of A.A. Brill tranlation).

Gilligan, Carol. (1988). Remapping the moral domain: New images of self in relationship. In Gilligan, Carol, Ward, Manie Victoria, & Taylor, Jill McLean. Mapping the moral domain: A contribution of women's thinking to psychological theory and education. Cambrisdge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Swales, Peter J. (1982). Freud, Minna Bernays, and the conquest of Rome. New light on the origins of psychoanalysis. New American Review, 1, 1-23.

Swales, Peter J. (1998). In statu nascendi: Freud, Minna Bernays, and the creation of Herr Aliquis. Unpublished draft.