Freud’s usage of ruinous and archaeological metaphors shifts through his psychoanalytical thinking, beginning with something broadly equivalent to ruinlust and ending on a note of anxiety and melancholy. At the earliest stages of this relation, he assumes the role of an intrepid adventurer, keen to excavate the buried secrets lurking in the psychic and earthly unconscious. A passage from the 1896 essay “The Aetiology of Hysteria” reads thus:
Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions... He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. If his work is crowned with success, the discoveries are self-explanatory; the ruined walls are part of the ramparts of a palace or a treasure house; the fragments of columns can be filled out into a temple; the numerous inscriptions, which, by good luck, may be bilingual, reveal an alphabet and a language, and, when they have been deciphered and translated, yield undreamed-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the monuments were built (Freud 2001a, 192).
With this account, Freud indirectly gives us the foundations of analytic theory. In assuming the role of classical explorer, Freud elevates psychoanalysis to a mode of both retrieval and restoration. The dotted fragments and sketchy remains of a former civilization require careful work in order to bring them back the light of consciousness. Too abrasive, the explorer risks effacing the traces through driving them deeper into the buried earth. But with cautious probing, these same traces point to a past that is accessible through the work of reanimation and reconstruction.
Still in this early phase of his thinking on ruins, Freud expands upon his archaeological analysis, remarking that “This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city” (Freud 2001b, 139). In each account, the ruin is presented as material, which if disorderly, is also lodged in time and thus receptive to the work of excavation, interpretation, before subsequent reconstruction.
From the outset, then, Freud’s relation to ruins is laden with tremendous psychic value. Far from inert matter, devoid of substance, at all times, the materiality of the past assumes a latent meaning. Freud recognises here the value of the ruin as being imbued with a future life, making it clear that the appearance of inactivity is deceptive. In this way, the past in question is one that has an afterlife attached to it, its buried meaning waiting the emergence of a future psychoanalysis to restore it.
This rather uneven relationship between Freud and the ruin gives voice to the latter only by dint of a psychoanalytic intervention. The ruin, to put it in phenomenological terms, speaks less for itself and more through the method of analysis. The ruin does not decipher itself. As a fragment rather than a complete work of materiality, it requires analysis for the ruin to reach a state of reconstructed completion, begging the question of where the ruin ends and the psychoanalysis begins. I leave this important question unanswered for the moment.