Screen Memories

(Freud, 1899)
Doug Davis1

This small and ambivalently treated paper is, I believe, a pivot around which we can spin much of the Freud story. It was written -- or at least finished -- in the first months of 1899. Freud tells Fliess on May 25 that the paper was on that date sent to the journal, and that his pleasure in it as it was being written bodes ill for it. Strachey notes that the concept of "screen memories,"2 used here for the first time by Freud, was closely releted to several contemporary ones:

problems concerning the operation of memory and its distortions, the importance and raison d'etre of phantasies, the amnesia covering our early years, and, behind all this, infantile sexuality (1899, [SE3], p. 301).

As other instances of Freud's "approaches to the present discussion," Strachey offers "Draft M" (May 25, 1897) and Letter 66 to Fliess (July 7, 1897). Strachey acknowledges that the subject of the analysis presented in this paper is Freud himself, and suggests that "the intrinsic interest of this paper has been rather undeservedly overshadowed by [this] extraneous fact" (p. 302). He then goes on to make what seems to me a revealing observation about the type of "screen memory" presented here:

It is a curious thing that the type of screen memory mainly considered in the present paper -- one in which an early memory is used as a screen for a later event -- almost disappears from later literature. What has since come to be regarded as the regular type -- one in which an early event is screened by a later memory -- is only barely alluded to here, though it was already the one almost exclusively dealt with by Freud only two years later [in Ch 4 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud, 1901].

I suggest that we thus have two reasons for finding what Freud does in this paper both suspect as a factual account and revealing as autobiographical reconstruction: he has taken credit for therapeutic perspicacity regarding what is really a piece of self-analysis; and he offers an interpretation that points us toward a second, "infantile," personal meaning hidden behind the adolescent ones he adduces for the memory. A third indication of the ambivalence evoked in Freud by this fragment and its analysis is its fate among his accumulating publications, as it is referenced in the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (p. 173), dropped for the second, and unmentioned in the first (1906) collection of Freud's 1893-1906 Sammlung Kleiner Schriften (Grinstein, 1980, p. 57). Here's how Freud talks about the origin and the uncanny significance of screen memories:

The assertion that a psychical intensity can be displaced from one presentation (which is then abandoned) on to another (which thenceforward plays the psychological part of the former one) is as bewildering to us as certain features of Greek mythology -- as, for instance, when the gods are said to clothe someone with beauty as though it were with a veil, whereas we think only of a face transfigured by a change of expression.

Further investigation of these childhood memories has taught me that they can originate in other ways as well and that an unsuspected wealth of meaning lies concealed behind their apparent innocence. But on this point I shall not content myself with a mere assertion but shall give a detailed report of one particular instance which seems to me the most instructive out of a considerable number of similar ones. Its value is certainly increased by the fact that it relates to someone who is not at all or only slightly neurotic (Freud, 1899, pp. 308-309).

The memory and analysis

(Standard Edition, vol. 3, pp. 309-320):

The subject of this observation is a man of university education, aged thirty-eight. Though his own profession lies in a very different field, he has taken an interest in psychological questions ever since I was able to relieve him of a slight phobia by means of psycho-analysis (p. 309).

I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown; in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers -- evidently common dandelions. At the top end of the meadow there is a cottage, and in front of the cottage door two women are chatting busily, a peasant woman with a handkerchief on her head and a children's nurse. Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the two others are my boy cousin, who is a year older than me, and his sister, who is almost exactly the same age as I am. We are picking the yellow flowers and each of us is holding a bunch of flowers we have already picked. The little girl has the best bunch; and as though by mutual agreement, we -- the two boys -- fall on her and snatch away her flowers. She runs up the meadow in tears and as a consolation the peasant-woman gives her a big piece of black bread. Hardly have we seen this than we throw the flowers away, hurry to the cottage, and ask to be given some bread too. And we are in fact given some; the peasant-woman cuts the loaf with a long knife. In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious -- and at that point the scene breaks off. ...
(p. 311)

'[I]t seems to me almost a certainty that this childhood memory never occurred to me at all in my earlier years. But I can also recall the occasion which led to my recovering this and many other recollections of my earliest childhood. When I was seventeen and at my secondary school, I returned for the first time to my birthplace for the holidays, to stay with a family who had been our friends ever since that remote date. ... I was seventeen, and in the family where I was staying there was a daughter of fifteen [sic], with whom I immediately fell in love. It was my first calf-love, and sufficiently intense, but I kept it completely secret. After a few days the girl went off to her school (from which she too was home for the holidays) and it was this separation after such a short acquaintance that brought my longings to a really high pitch. I passed many hours in solitary walks through the lovely woods that I had found once more and spent my time building castles in the air. These, strangely enough, were not concerned with the future but sought to improve the past. If only the smash had not occurred! If only I had stopped at home and grown up as the young men in the house, the brothers of my love! And then if only I had followed my father's profession and if I had finally married her-for I should have known her intimately all those years! I had not the slightest doubt, of course, that in the circumstances created by my imagination I should have loved her just as passionately as I really seemed to then. A strange thing. For when I see her now from time to time-she happens to have married someone here-she is quite exceptionally indifferent to me. Yet I can remember quite well for what a long time afterwards I was affected by the yellow color of the dress she was wearing when we first met, whenever I saw the same color anywhere else.'

. . .

I now come to a second occasion which stirred up in me the impressions of my childhood and which dates from a time not far distant from the first. I was seventeen [sic] when I revisited my birthplace. Three year later during my holidays I visited my uncle and met once again the children who had been my first playmates, the same two cousins, the boy a year older than I am and the girl the same age as myself, who appear in the childhood scene with the dandelions. This family had left my birthplace at the same time as we did and had become prosperous in a far-distant city.'

And did you once more fall in love -- with your cousin this time -- and indulge in a new set of phantasies?

'No, this time things turned out differently. By then I was at the University and I was a slave to my books. I had nothing left over for my cousin. So far as I know I had no similar phantasies on that occasion. But I believe that my father and my uncle had concocted a plan by which I was to exchange the abstruse subject of my studies for one of more practical value, settle down, after my studies were completed, in the place where my uncle lived, and marry my cousin [i.e., Pauline]. No doubt they saw how absorbed I was in my own intentions and the plan was dropped; but I fancy I must certainly have been aware of its existence. It was not until later, when I was a newly-fledged man of science and hard pressed by the exigencies of life and when I had to wait so long before finding a post here, that I must sometimes have reflected that my father had meant well in planning this marriege for me, to make good the loss in which the original catastrophe had involved my whole existence.' (pp. 312-314)

At a later point the "patient" comments:

If that is so, I have lost all faith in the dandelion scene. This is how I look at it: On the two occasions in question, and with the support of very comprehensible realistic motives, the thought occurred to me: "If you had married this or that girl, your life would have become much pleasanter." The sensual current in my mind took hold of the thought which is contained in the protasis and repeated it in images of a kind capable of giving that same sensual current satisfaction. This second version of the thought remained unconscious on account of its incompatibility with the dominent sexual disposition; but this very fact of its remaining unconscious enabled it to persist in my mind long after changes in the real situation had quite got rid of the conscious version. ... [T]he clause that had remained unconscious sought to transform itself into a childhood scene which, on account of its innocence, would be able to become conscious. With this end in view it had to undergo a fresh transformation, or rather two fresh transformations. One of these removed the objectionable element from the protasis by expressing it figuratively; the second forced the apodosis into a shape capable of visual representation -- using for the purpose the intermediary ideas of "bread" and "bread-and-butter occupations" (pp. 317-318).

Food for thought

What are we to make of the immediately following transition. on which Freud the narrator/analyst insists, from 'de-flowering' a girl to a discussion of masturbation ["pulling-out"] -- a meaning Freud the analysand rejects as inconsistent with the childhood scene because the latter was public, leading Freud the analyst to observe "whereas his seduction to masturbation must have occurred in solitude and secrecy"? What is middle-aged Freud admitting here about his childhood and adolescenct sexuality?

Freud ends this brief account four pages later with the most radical challenge to the integrity of early memories:

It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves. (p. 322).

In Freud's case the powerful, if fanciful, image of play in the dandelion field both footnotes the new psychoanalytic conceptions with which Freud was replacing his "seduction theory" and alerts us to the autobiographical undercurrents in his work (Davis, 1990; 1994). Freiberg -- the birthplace lost in infancy and recovered in adolescence -- apparently continued to hold a place in Freud's fantasies. In any case, when he was invited back in 1931 for the unveiling of a marble tablet to commemorate his birth there 75 years before, he was too disabled by his cancer to attend. He sent Anna with a statement thanking the town fathers for thus honoring him -- "and this during my lifetime and while the world around us is not yet agreed in its estimate of my work" (p. 259). Freud mentions the fateful adolescent visit to the Fluss family, then concludes:

At seventy-five it is not easy for me to put myself back into those early times; of their rich experiences but few relics remain in my memory. But of one thing I can feel sure: deeply buried within me there still lives the happy child of Freiberg, the first-born son of a youthful mother, who received his first indelible impressions from this air, from this soil.4

Poignant, revealing words.


Davis, D.A. (1990). Writing Freud. Haverford College Faculty Research Talk, November 29, 1990.

Davis, D.A. (1994). A theory for the 90s: Freud's seduction theory in historical context. Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 627-640.

Freud, S. (1899). Screen memories. Standard Edition, 3, 301-322. London: The Hogarth Press.

[1]Teaching notes for Haverford Psychology courses. Copyright © Douglas Davis 1995-1998. All rights reserved. Do not quote or use for any other purpose without my permission.


There are, of course, several essential sources on episodic memory.

[3] protasis and apodisis are Greek rhetorical terms for the conditional clause (viz. "If I had married Gisela") and its consequence (viz. "I'd have been a happy country bumpkin") in Freud's reconstructed reverie.

[4]Freud, S. Letter to the burgomaster of Pribor. (1931). SE 21, 259-260.