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mise à jour du
29 janvier 2006
Int J Psychoanalysis
1934; 15; 187-190
Infectious parapraxes
Alexander Szalai


Freud has more than once drawn attention to the familiar fact that parapraxes are highly 'infectious ' hope to contribute a little to the understanding of this phenomenon of infection by describing and explaining two cases of the kind.
I was invited one evening to the house of a certain Herr B. This man is a conceited person, of a petty disposition, who sets great store upon being regarded as a man of culture although he is not in fact very well-informed. When I arrived at his house, a number of guests had already assembled, but others were still to come. In the course of conversation it suddenly occurred to me that I had left my pocketbook in my overcoat pocket. I got up unobtrusively and went into the room where we had left our coats, but it was in darkness and I could not find the electric switch. I was much surprised that the light had already been turned off, when other guests were still expected. I thought to myself: 'Really, this is a mean sort of economy'. (B.'s meanness, which we often ridiculed, had played a part in my forgetting of my pocket-book, but I will not go into the analysis of this parapraxis.) I went back to the other room; the master of the house had observed my absence and came to meet me, asking if I were looking for something. I said: 'I have left something in the other room. Would you show me where the switch is? It is quite mean [German: kieinlich] out there-er-that is to say, there is no light' [German: kein Licht.]
I was horrified at my slip of the tongue, but B.'s expression reassured me; evidently he has noticed nothing and, even if he had noticed, he certainly could not have understood my slip, for he knew nothing whatever about psycho-analysis and would put the whole thing down to chance. To my great astonishment, however, in the course of the evening B. himself made several slips, all of which were obviously a response to my own slip. In giving me a light for my cigarette he 'accidentally' struck two matches at once and burnt my hand. This parapraxis is not simply to be interpreted as an act of revenge, though probably the revenge-motive did enter into it; obviously the unconscious thought behind it was: 'I don't economize in fire (light) ; on the contrary I am so lavish with it that you may even burn yourself'. Later, the conversation was on the subject of Italy. B. said: Last summer I bought three Stromhüte (current-hats) ', meaning, of course, Strohhütee (straw-hats). Strom= electric or other current. Stroh = straw.] It is hardly possible fully to understand this last slip without analysing it, but at all events a boast about the use of the current underlies it.
That these parapraxes were aimed at me became quite evident later. B. was speaking about Italian art, of which he knew very little except some famous names, and asserted that he 'did not care for Andrea Salaino; he had such a commonplace style'. It turned out that he could not recollect a single picture by this artist and had probably never seen one. The unfavourable criticism was aimed at me by way of the similarity in the names Salaino-Szalai. Very likely B. had heard the name of this not particularly famous painter somewhere and wanted to work it into his ' art-criticism'; his aggressive feeling towards myself came out in the content of his verdict.
It looks as though B.'s unconscious had immediately interpreted my slip of the tongue and thereupon reacted with parapraxes on its own account.
My friend, D., who was present when both B. and I made our slips, also made a slip of the tongue in speaking to our host: instead of saying 'gas-fire' [Heizgas], he twice said' miser' [Geizha(l)s] without anyone else noticing it.
My second instance is of a rather different type. I wrote a letter to my friend G., in which I betrayed some annoyance. In his reply he said at the end' However, in your last letter you made a little slip: you forgot to sign your name. I had a good laugh over that'. My friend is well acquainted with psycho-analytical theory and he immediately interpreted my slip, quite correctly, as an act of aggression against himself, comparable to cutting someone in the street. (Actually may omission had another meaning as well, which we may infer from the particular situation when I wrote. It meant 'I do not altogether identify myself with the contents of this letter '.)
The remarkable point in this instance is the following: my friend, who not only noticed but interpreted my parapraxis, himself made several slips in his reply. He misspelt my name on the envelope in a comical way and wished me 'alles gutte' [the correct spelling would be'allesgute = all the best ']. These were all slips of the pen expressing aggression and derision (his reaction to my own slip).
It appears, then, that it makes no difference whether or not a person consciously recognizes the meaning of a parapraxis of which he is the object; the reaction of the unconscious is the same in either case.
These instances, which I selected as the most characteristic from many similar ones, prove that the unconscious of one person can directly understand the utterances of the unconscious of someone else. By this I do not mean that the unconscious can discern the full meaning and determination of another's parapraxis (as a psycho-analyst would understand it after a thorough analysis) ; that is impossible. The unconscious merely grasps the general character of the slip and its most obvious meaning, much as a psycho-analyst may have insight into a parapraxis without knowing the whole nexus of its associations.
It is important to note that the unconscious may also misunderstand another person's parapraxis, because it does not know the deeper connections in his mind. I know of several cases in which the reaction of another person's unconscious to a parapraxis which was carefully analysed was incorrect and was based on an obvious misunderstanding.
If we accept the fact that the unconscious can understand the unconscious system of another, we shall not have any difficulty in explaining the 'infectious' character of parapraxes. The infection is either an expression of the reaction of the unconscious to the utterance of the unconscious of another or else it indicates an unconscious identification with that utterance, or, rather, with the thoughts that underlie it.
The hypothesis that one person's parapraxis 'calls the attention' of another's unconscious to this mode of expressing itself and that the infection results from this seems to me to have no general validity.
For example, it hardly accounts for the fact that a slip of the tongue on my part may, by 'infection', cause someone else to pick up some object which he did not intend to, as in my instance* of the matches. There may be some cases which can be adequately explained by such a notion, but I am sure that there are many more for which this analysis does not suffice.
The theory which I have suggested here may be applied to another phenomenon, namely, the infectiousness of yawning. Yawning has this point in common with parapraxes: it is an involuntary and, in many cases, a regrettable manifestation. There are two situations which correspond exactly to the two kinds of infection. Two people are talking to each other when suddenly one of them yawns. Sometimes, according to the situation, this implies 'You bore me'! In a few minutes the other also yawns. The meaning certainly is 'And you bore me!' Here, the infection is by way of reaction. In another case, e.g. when someone yawns during a dull lecture and the yawning spreads through the audience, the infection is based on identification with the first manifestation of boredom, which, of course, was again an act of aggression against the speaker. Yawning is not invariably to be deemed a parapraxis, but, while the physiological theory may often suffice to explain the yawn itself, it never accounts for the infection.
The physiological explanation of yawning may perhaps help us in determining the reason why this curious mode of expression-opening the mouth and taking a deep breath-should be selected to indicate boredom and sleepiness. Thoroughly to analyse this phenomenon requires a separate investigation; here I will only draw attention to the remarkable fact that boredom does not enter into our dreams. To my knowledge no one has ever been bored in a dream, and this is in accordance with the circumstance that the end of boredom may be sleep.

Unconscious impulses leak out in everyday life:
•Parapraxes: forgetting, slips of the tongue,  accidents.
•Wit: a "leak" occurring in a controlled manner
•Dreams: "the royal road to the unconscious" containing latent content
According to Freud, unconscious impulses leak out in everyday life:
Forgetting to do something, slips of the tongue (e.g., accidentally calling your partner by an ex-partner's name!), so-called accidents which may be hidden hostility, etc.
Freud believed that parapraxes are more or less random leaks that occur wherever defenses are weak. However, in wit, a forbidden impulse comes out in a controlled manner. Freud saw wit as essentially a form of sublimation.  An impulse that would be anxiety provoking or even harmful is vented in an enjoyable way. Wit is therefore the safe expression of evil according to Freud. Of course, the most common themes of wit are sex, violence and bodily elimination - all Freud's favourites! The forbidden impulse is not just being expressed by the person telling the joke but by those who laugh at it. The purpose of wit or a joke is to allow a forbidden impulse to be release in such a way that anxiety can be avoided.
"The royal road to the unconscious". What most of us think of as the dream i.e. the actual sensory content, Freud called the manifest content. He believed however that there are unconscious thoughts, feelings and urges which give rise to the manifest content. This he termed the latent content of the dream. Freud felt latent content came from 3 sources:
1.Sensory stimulation (lightning, telephone) that can prompt as well as be incorporated into a dream.
2.Current concerns: incorporating these anxieties into a dream will prevent them from waking you.
3.Unconscious id impulses which the ego has blocked while you're awake - often childhood conflicts.