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  • Repeating Staging Meaning Between Aristotle and Freud
  • William N. West* (bio)

The human differs from all other animals in this respect: that it is the most mimetic.


It emerges from this discussion that there is no need to assume the existence of a special imitative instinct in order to provide a motive for play.

—Freud 1

My daughter, at the age of a little more than one and a half, sometimes asked me to have tea with her. She played the game perfectly—asked if I wanted milk, how much, sugar, how much, asked if I had plenty or wanted more. She was very definite in her actions—tea came always from the pot, milk from the creamer, sugar from the sugar bowl, always in that order, tea first. She would play with me with endless interest, filling and refilling the imaginary cups, adding milk, adding sugar. The tea game is not incomprehensible to me, as that more famous example of child’s play, Fort/ Da, was at first for Freud. To begin with, Fort/ Da does not make sense—the boy’s mother and grandfather do not understand why the boy throws his toys around the room, why he makes the sounds he does, why he does not drag the spool behind him by its string like a carriage (BPP 13–14). Their first understanding is that the boy only uses his toys to play Fort/ Da; later, it becomes clear to Freud that the game includes, always, sending toys away and making them come back. The tea game, on the other hand, is instantly meaningful to me; if anything, it is strange to me because it is too comprehensible. My daughter does not know anyone who drinks tea, certainly not with creamers and sugar bowls. What does the game mean to her? Does she even understand what tea is? What does it mean to her when I tell her I want two sugars (she herself always wants eight—is it because she would like her tea sweet, or because she knows that eight, like two, is a number?)? According to Freud, the game of Fort/ Da gives a pleasant sense of mastery [End Page 138] to the grandson, and so there is an “economic” gain in enacting his mother’s unpleasant disappearance. But what does it mean when my daughter plays tea?

In the current rush to show that psychoanalysis is not the science it wanted to be, Freud’s great strengths (and greatly indicative blindnesses) as an interpreter are sometimes bypassed. It is to Freud’s own tactics of hermeneutics and poetics—his devices for producing meaning from what seems to lack it—that I will turn first in this paper for guidance, less for their accuracy (or inaccuracy) than for their suggestiveness. It is usually forgotten that Freud’s grandson’s game of Fort/Da is introduced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in the specific context of rejecting a theory of mimesis: “It emerges from this discussion that there is no need to assume the existence of a special imitative instinct (die Annahme eines besonderen Nachahmungstriebes) in order to provide a motive for play.” 2 Rather, Freud argues, it shows his grandson’s attempt to master the comings and goings of his mother rather than the presence of any automatic drive to imitate her action. The intertext is suppressed in Freud’s account, but it is still recognizable: the “special imitative instinct” that Freud here wants to deny is Aristotle’s idea of the human as an animal naturally more mimetic than others (Poetics 4. 1). Freud makes his submerged reference to Aristotle clearer with his next topic; like Aristotle, Freud turns immediately from the mimetic instinct to the enjoyment adults get from even painful experiences represented on stage, which he again connects not with any particular reference to mimesis but with the imperfect dominance of the pleasure principle (BPP 17).

In the Poetics, Aristotle also follows the passage that posits a mimetic instinct with an explanation of the pleasure the spectator gets in viewing unpleasant things (Poetics 4. 3), asserting the opposite of Freud. For Freud, the pleasure that a viewer takes in such...

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