Zeno’s Psychoanalytic Excercise

See my childhood? Now that I am separated from it by over fifty years, my presbyopic eyes might perhaps reach to it if the light were not obscured by so many obstacles. The years like impassable mountains rise between me and it, my past years and a few brief hours in my life.

The doctor advised me not to insist too much on looking so far back. Recent events, he says, are equally valuable for him, and above all my fancies and dreams of the night before. But I like to do things in their order, so directly I left my doctor (who was going to be away from Trieste for some time) I bought and read a book on psychoanalysis, so that I might begin from the very beginning, and make the doctor’s task easier. It is not difficult to understand, but very boring. I have stretched myself out after lunch in an easy chair, pencil and paper in hand. All the lines have disappeared from my forehead as I sit here with mind completely relaxed. I seem to be able to see my thoughts as something quite apart from myself. I can see them rising, falling, their only form of activity. I seize my pencil in order to remind them that it is the duty of thought to manifest itself. At once the wrinkles collect on my brow as I think of the letters that make up every word. The present surges up and dominates me, the past is blotted out.

Yesterday I tried to let myself go completely. The result was that I fell into a deep sleep and experienced nothing except a great sense of refreshment, and the curious sensation of having seen something important while I was asleep. But what it was I could not remember; it had gone forever.

But today this pencil will prevent my going to sleep. I dimly see certain strange images that seem to have no connection with my past; an engine puffing up a steep incline dragging endless coaches after it. Where can it all come from? Where is it going? How did it get there at all?

In my half-waking state I remember it is stated in my textbook that this system will enable one to recall one’s earliest childhood, even when one was in long clothes. I at once see an infant in long clothes, but why should I suppose that it is me? It does not bear the faintest resemblance to me, and I think it is probably my sister-in-law’s baby, which was born a few weeks ago and displayed to us as such a miracle because of its tiny hands and enormous eyes. Poor child!

Remember my own infancy, indeed!  Why it is not even in my power to warn you, while you are still an infant, how important it is to your health and your intelligence that you should forget nothing. When, I wonder, will you learn that one ought to be able to call to mind every event of one’s life, even those one would rather forget? Meanwhile, poor innocent, you continue to explore your tiny body in search of pleasure; and the exquisite discoveries you make will bring you in the end disease and suffering, to which those who least wish it will contribute. What can one do? It is impossible to watch over your cradle. Mysterious forces are at work within you, child, strange elements combine. Each passing moment contributes its reagent.

Not all those moments can be pure, with such manifold chances of infection. And then — you are of the same blood as some that I know well. Perhaps the passing moments my be pure; not so the long centuries that went into your making.

But I have come a long way from the images that herald sleep. I must try again tomorrow.

— Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno, “Introduction”

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