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  • Ablative Affinities
  • Zachary Sng

Among the many remarks in Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams that speak to a special affinity between language and the unconscious, one of the most intriguing features a preposition:

In a psycho-analysis one learns to interpret propinquity in time as representing connection in subject-matter [die zeitliche Annäherung auf sachlichen Zusammenhang umdeuten]. Two thoughts which occur in immediate sequence without any apparent connection [zusammenhanglos] are in fact part of a single unity which has to be discovered; in just the same way, if I write an 'a' and a 'b' in succession, they have to be pronounced as a single syllable 'ab.' The same is true of dreams.

(246, 253)1

Freud says nothing more about this ab that he has introduced, this unintended unit of language that is part of a larger unity that remains to be discovered. It comes up again, however, when he turns to the topic of representation (Darstellung) in the dream-work:

Dreams carry this method of reproduction [Darstellungsweise] down to details. Whenever they show us two elements close together, this guarantees that there is some specially intimate connection [einen besonders innigen Zusammenhang] between what correspond to them among the dream-thoughts. In the same way, in our system of writing [wie in unserem Schriftsystem], 'ab' means that the two letters are to be pronounced in a single syllable.

(313, 313)

Once again, he is reticent about the word, moving past the example without saying anything more. [End Page 1233]

The word ab in German ranges widely in both syntactic function and semantic coverage. The entry in the Grimms' Deutches Wörterbuch notes that it was originally a common preposition in its own right, but in modern German, it is most often found attached to verbs (the Grimm brothers highlight abblasen and abschlagen, for example, meaning 'to blow' and 'to knock away' or 'to reject') or nouns (as in bergab or stromab for 'downhill' and 'downstream'). In almost all cases, it retains an original prepositional force that denotes a movement away from something. Much like the Latin ab- or the Greek apo-, its vector is primarily relative, measured as a separation from a place or object of origin. The grammatical case that we call "ablative," for example, conveys in Latin, Sanskrit, and some other languages a broad range of relationships, but one of its most common uses is to express the idea of separation, of movement away from either a place or person of origination. The word itself is indeed derived from the Latin words ab- and ferre, meaning roughly: to carry away from.2

One could argue, however, that what ab might or might not mean is inconsequential for understanding Freud's remarks about dreams, language, and the unconscious. I noted that Freud mentions the word without commentary, as if the omission were significant, but is it clear that he even means an actual word? Whether we call it a preposition or adverb, whether we take it to mean this or that, the role of this ab in Freud's text is indisputably liminal. The notion of writing down two letters in succession is presented as a fanciful thought experiment, and the arbitrariness of his example is heightened when he 'happens' to name the first two letters of the alphabet. We might be inclined to take this a + b as a kind of algebraic notation, where the letters simply function as variables, standing in for an entire range of values, except for the fact that Freud then insists on how they are to be pronounced (ausgesprochen). This should indicate that ab is linguistic rather than algebraic, but in reducing the question to one of pronunciation, rather than how the word might be interpreted or understood, he further adds to the sense that there is, at least on the surface, nothing to see here. Whether this deflection is symptomatic is, of course, another matter entirely. To ask after it would be to take on precisely the point under discussion by Freud: that there is [End Page 1234] sometimes a hidden Zusammenhang, an occluded connection between two things whose contiguity appears random.3

The same word ab (if it...


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