In these pathological losses of memory, whether for one incident or for a whole period, it is important to note that the patient does not necessarily recognise the incident when he is told of it, just as the lad mentioned above failed to recognise his father when he met him. A patient may in a sleep-walking state act as if performing a definite action, such as bayoneting one of the enemy, and when awake deny all knowledge of such an incident; yet the memory of it may return later with overwhelming emotion. This failure to recognise a personal experience is of great importance in the consideration of some spiritualist phenomena.
It requires little thought to realise that the only memories we try to repress are those that conflict with our other feelings or desires, and their repression is to some extent tolerated by a healthy man and may be regarded to that extent as a normal process.
But in addition to the repression of unpleasant memories there are other ways of forgetting. It has been assumed that each individual has a limit to his capacity for remembering, and that when that limit is reached fresh memories can be stored up only by casting out old ones. Whether that be so or not, it is certain that we can recall to consciousness only a tiny fraction of our past experiences, and no one can say what proportion that fraction bears to the whole contents of the storehouse of the unconscious. Let two men meet and recall old school-days spent together: one memory brings up another, schoolboy phrases and terms of speech appear as it were spontaneously, and by their united efforts the two recall far more than the sum of their recollections before the meeting, and still neither knows how much is left untouched.
The ordinary man reads many books, and each one leaves some impression and has some influence upon his later thoughts, though in time the recollection, not only of the contents of the book, but even of having read it, may fade away. This is the explanation of some cases of literary plagiarism: a previously read phrase comes up from the unconscious, and all recognisable connections with memory having been lost it is greeted as a fresh creation and given rank accordingly.
There is still another type of forgetting: most of us know the man who ‘draws the long bow’, who embellishes his story and embroiders it with imagined incidents, whilst we listen and wonder how much the narrator himself believes. Fishermen’s stories and snake yarns are examples, and one explains the mental process of the story-teller by saying, ‘He’s told the story so often that at last he believes it himself.’ The process is really one of forgetting and is closely allied to the repression of an unpleasant memory, for the man is the victim of a mental conflict: on the one side is his desire to tell a good story, and on the other is his moral complex which forbids a lie, so he solves the conflict by forgetting that the embroideries are inventions. This type is an important one, and what I shall call the ‘repression of the knowledge of deceit’ plays an important part in the explanation of the abnormal phenomena with which this book deals. In tracing the development of the abnormal we must start with what is nearest the normal, and the man who embroiders his story gives an illustration of the simplest form of this particular repression.
Now, just as memories are repressed because they were repugnant to the other contents of the consciousness, so other complexes may be repugnant and meet the same fate. To be torn by conflicting emotions is the fate of most people at some time or other, and the conflict between two complexes may be solved in various ways. The healthy way is to face the difficulty, to reason it out, and reach a conclusion by which action may be guided; another way, a common one, is to seclude one complex in a logic-tight compartment and so avoid the conflict. The man who uses sharp or shady methods in the city and is a gentle-minded philanthropist in other walks of life is using the latter method, and will produce such rationalisations as ‘business is business’ when the contents of his different compartments need protection from each other.
But for some people such methods are impossible: either they cannot directly solve the conflict or they are too self-critical to build a logic-tight compartment, and in such cases a repression of one of the opposing complexes may result. In this way complexes concerning ambitions and desires may be repressed, and so may those concerning fears and dislikes. The youth put to an uncongenial trade, the man or woman married to an unsuitable partner, may find no escape from the position and decide to bear it and forget its anxiety. How far this succeeds depends upon the previously existing tendencies of the individual: he may suffer no evil from the repression or, like the soldier’s repressed war memories, it may manifest itself by indirect means and the unfortunate sufferer becomes a victim of one of the varied forms of neurosis.
The day-dreams of youth are rarely openly expressed: no one can tell what fantasies a child may have, and many of us are familiar with the thoughtful child who sits lost in meditation and presents an impenetrable barrier to the grown-up who would enter into the secrets of the day-dream. These fancies may be, and probably are, completely forgotten, but they can still lie in the unconscious, and Freud and his followers claim that they influence us throughout life.