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Loewald, H.W. (1972). The Experience of Time. Psychoanal. St.


Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.

The Experience of Time
Hans W. Loewald, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University Medical School, New Haven, Conn.; Faculty,
Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis.
This paper consists of the Chairman's Introduction and contribution to the Panel on "The
Experience of Time," held at the Fall Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association,
New York, on December 18, 1971.

Transience is the backdrop for the play of human progress, for the improvement of
man, the growth of his knowledge, the increase of his power, his corruption and his
partial redemption. Our civilizations perish; the carved stone, the written word, the
heroic act fade into a memory of memory and in the end are gone. The day will
come when our race is gone; this house, this earth in which we live will one day be
unfit for human habitation, as the sun ages and alters.
Yet no man, be he agnostic or Buddhist or Christian, thinks wholly in these terms.
His acts, his thoughts, what he sees of the world around himthe falling of a leaf or
a child's joke or the rise of the moonare part of history; but they are not only part
of history; they are a part of becoming and of process but not only that: they also
partake of the world outside of time; they partake of the light of eternity. J. ROBERT

mental life. Yet psychoanalytic contributions dealing with the subject in
more than a tangential fashion are sparse, although there has been some
increase in recent years. Despite our vast experience
with time, despite our dealing with time in one way or another every day,
and despite our common-sense knowledge of it, the phenomenon of time,
and what is meant by the concept, have through the ages remained most
elusive and may well be incomprehensible to the human mind. "It is
impossible," Whitehead (1920) said, "to mediate on time and the mystery
of the creative passage of nature without overwhelming emotion at the
limitations of human intelligence" (p. 73). Freud (1933) has expressed
similar feelings of frustration in regard to the problem of time (p. 74).
Nevertheless, the experience of time, temporal phenomena, and the
concept of time play an essential role in psychoanalysis, both as a method
of treatment and research and as a body of theory.

Here are some of the temporal phenomena and concepts that most
obviously are of importance in psychoanalysis: memory, forgetting,
regression, repetition, anticipation, presentation, representation; the
influence of the past on the present in thought, feeling, and behavior; delay
of gratification and action; sleep-wakefulness and other rhythmicities in
mental life; variations and abnormalities in the subjective sense of elapsed
time; the so-called timelessness of the id; the role of imagination and
fantasy in structuring the future; values, standards, ideals as future-
oriented categories; concepts such as object constancy and self identity;
not to mention the important factor of time in the psychoanalytic situation
itself, in technical aspects, appointments, length of hour, etc.

More generally, psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline is unthinkable

without the theory of evolution and of ontogenesis of mental development.
In this regard psychoanalysis is in the mainstream of modern science and
its "Discovery of Time" (see the book of that title by Toulmin and Goodfield,
1965): time, the historical dimension, having gained equal importance in
the natural sciences and in the social sciences1.

In psychoanalysis, more than in any other form of psychological research

and treatment, man is taken as a historical being, a being that as a race
and as an individual has a history, has run and continues to run through a
course of development from something simple and primitive to something
complex and "civilized." We are aware of the parallels, in certain respects,
between archaeology and psychoanalysis. This time dimension, and the
fact that human beings become, to a greater or less degree, aware of their
history and their historicity, determine mental life. Furthermore, fixations,

1 For those who have more than a passing interest in the problems of time, I
mention the book The Voices of Time, edited by J. T. Fraser (1966), being, in the
words of the subtitle, "A cooperative survey of man's views of time as expressed by
the sciences and the humanities." See also the review of this book by Blank (1967).
delays, detours, arrests, and developmental spurts are considered to be
prime factors in shaping the course of mental life and its disturbances, all
of them factors crucially involving the dimension of time. We hold that
emotional-intellectual understanding and reworking of such developmental
factors of the past in the presentin the psychoanalytic situationmay
lead to a more harmonious, less disturbed integration of the personality.
That man can own up to his past and thus gain some measure of mastery
of his present life and the shape of his future, is part of his experience of
time and implicit in the whole undertaking of psychoanalysis.

The "experience of time" may be understood as referring to the question:

how is time, objectively measured by clocks as duration, subjectively
experienced; what distortions of objective world time can we observe and
how can we understand and explain such distortions? Further, phenomena
such as dj vu and other paramnesias, screen memories, amnesias,
contraction of time in dreams and fantasy, fall under the rubric of time
experience and its variations. We ask how time is experienced by children
and in the various stages of life including old age; there is the problem of
life cycles, the relationships between aging and its physical changes and
time experience. What symbolic meanings of time play a role in mental life
(Father Time, death, etc.)? There is the question how the sense and the
concept of time as duration and succession of events in physical time-
space develop; what determines the rise of this time concept in secondary
process ideation?
In an earlier contribution (1962) I have attempted to outline a conception of
time which is not based on the time concept of physical science and
present-day common-sense experience, but which considers time in terms
of the reciprocal relations between past, present, and future as active
modes of psychic life. In this sense the experience of time, as a
psychoanalytic topic, refers to the interactions and interrelations between
these three temporal modes of psychic activity, as we discern them in our
psychoanalytic work, for instance, in the play of transference, in the impact
of unconscious and conscious remembering and anticipating on the
present, in the interplay between primitive (stemming from the past) and
higher-order ("present") motivations. In this conception time is understood
neither as a dimension of objective external reality, nor merely as a form of
our cognition or apprehension of this reality (Kant).
There is another aspect of the experience of time which deserves mention
here. Is the course of our lives seen as propelled by forces of the past, by a
vis a tergo (absolute determinism), or is it seen as pulled by the attraction
or prospect of future possibilities or purposes (conscious or unconscious)?
In the early stages of psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on id psychology,
there was a decided tendency to understand psychic life as wholly
determined by our unconscious past: unconscious forces from the past
explained the development and vicissitudes of life; and future was nothing
but a time when a past state would be attained again. With the ascendancy
of the structural theory and ego psychology, with the growing importance
of object relations in psychoanalytic theory, this time perspective shifted.
The shift is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Freud's stipulation of a life
or love instinct, which works in opposition to as well as in cooperation with
a death instinct. The idea of a life instinct bespeaks an orientation toward a
view in which life is not altogether motivated by forces of the past but is
partially motivated by an attraction coming from something ahead of us.
Our experience, I believe, tends to oscillate between these two time
perspectives. It is the latter which makes it difficult to eliminate teleological
considerations from biology and psychoanalysis.
Having taken this cursory glance at temporal phenomena and concepts
relevant to the psychoanalyst, I now turn to the specific subject of my

There are two experiences, at the opposite poles of time, which may throw
some light on the problem of time. Both are exceptional in the sense that
they rarely, for many people never, come to full awareness. In our present
civilization they are apt to be seen as pathological, because they constitute
extreme limits beyond which our accustomed, normal organization of the
world no longer obtains.
At one extreme is the experience of eternity where the flux of time is
stayed or suspended. Eternity is to be distinguished from sempiternity or
everlasting time. Scholastic philosophers speak of the nunc stans, the
abiding instant, where there is no division of past, present, and future, no
remembering, no wish, no anticipation, merely the complete absorption in
being, or in that which is. Insofar as that which seems to last forever, even
in change such as the revolutions of the sun and stars, appears not to
partake of a past and future different from the present, what lasts forever is
confused with the eternity of the abiding instant. But the experience of
eternity does not include everlastingness. Time as something which, in its
modes of past, present, and future, articulates experience and conveys
such concepts as succession, simultaneity, and duration is suspended in
such a state. Inasmuch as this experience, however, can be remembered, it
tends to be described retrospectively in temporal terms which seem to
approximate or be similar to such a state.
States of this kind have been described by mystics and are in some
respects akin to ecstatic states occurring under the influence of certain
drugs or during emotional states of exceptional intensity. In conditions of
extreme joy or sadness, sometimes during sexual intercourse and related
orgastic experiences, at the height of manic and the depth of depressive
conditions, in the depth of bliss or despair, the temporal attributes of
experience fall away and only the now, as something outside of time,
remains. In his discussion of the origins of religious feelings, Freud (1930)
briefly considers the "oceanic" feeling and its relation to the concept of
eternity, connects such "ego feelings" with the primal ego feeling of the
infant, prior to the differentiation between subject and object, and alludes
to relations between these issues and the "wisdom of mysticism" and "a
number of obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and
ecstasies" (p. 72f.)
At the other pole of time is the experience of fragmentation, where one's
world is in bits and pieces none of which have any meaning. The time
continuum by which we hold our world together, the interrelatedness and
the connections between a past, present, and future disintegrate, are
broken in the most elementary sense, so that each instant loses its relation
to any other instant and stands by itself, not embraced in a time
continuum. While in the experience of eternitywhich objectively may last
only for a small fraction of timetemporal relations have vanished into a
unity which abolishes time, in the experience of fragmentation time has
been abolished in the annihilation of connectedness. To express this in a
different way: in the experience of eternity, all meaning is condensed in the
undifferentiated, global unity of the abiding instant, the nunc stans, and
may flow out from there again to replenish the world of time with meaning;
while in the experience of fragmentation, meaning, i.e., connectedness, has
disappeared, each instant is only its empty self, a nothing. There are
probably, here too, genetic affinities with early stages of psychic
functioning in which the connectedness of experiencewhich is temporal
as yet is not, or not firmly, established. Experiences of estrangement,
depersonalization, derealization may approximate such fragmentation 2.
The fact that experiences of eternity and fragmentation are often best
understood as defenses against anxiety, as escapes from the world of
temporal reality, does not invalidate their status as genuine representatives
of transtemporal states.
I mentioned that the experience of eternity may itself last only for a
fraction of time, and the same is true for fragmentation. When we say this,
we speak of time as observed duration, of so-called objective time which
can be clocked and measured. In that sense such experiences are of course
not outside of time; in that sense they are moments or episodes in time,
have a beginning and end and duration, may be located in the past and
remembered, or feared or wished for in an anticipated future. By this
standard of objective time we view such experiences as representatives of
so-called subjective time. Subjective time here means a sense of time
which conforms or does not conform to, or is a distortion of, observed time
as duration which can be measured objectively.

2 There are relations between the experience of fragmentation and Pious's (1961)
concept of nadir.
I submit that this concept of time, as adequate as it may have been or still
may be in the physical sciences, and as useful as it is for our orientation in
what we have come to perceive as objective reality, is inadequate for a
psychoanalytic investigation of time. If this is true, it follows that we have
to abandon the concept of subjective time, insofar as the viewpoint from
which we define subjective time is that of objective time as duration, as
clock time. Even if one takes into account recent findings regarding
biological time, internal clocks, circadian rhythms, etc., findings which raise
fascinating questions about the relations between subjective and objective
time and about a possible "objective" validity of "subjective" timeeven
then the time concept involved in such investigations remains essentially
When we consider time as psychoanalysts, the concept of time as duration,
objectively observed or subjectively experienced, loses much of its
relevance. We encounter time in psychic life primarily as a linking activity in
which what we call past, present, and future are woven into a nexus. The
terms themselves, past, present, future, gain meaning only within the
context of such a nexus. The nexus itself is not so much one of succession
but of interaction. Past, present, and future present themseles in psychic
life not primarily as one preceding or following the other, but as modes of
time which determine and shape each other, which differentiate out of and
articulate a pure now. There is no irreversibility on a linear continuum, as in
the common concept of time as succession, but a reciprocal relationship
whereby one time mode cannot be experienced or thought without the
other and whereby they continually modify each other. As terms they are
correlative, like the terms father and son; as experiential phenomena they
The phenomenology of transference may serve as example: not only is the
present relationship to the analyst partially determined by the patient's
past (which is, as we say, still active in the present) and by a wished-for or
feared future (itself codetermined by the past). It is also true that the
present relationship, and the expectations it engenders, activate the past
and influence how it is now experienced and remembered. This
reintegration of the past, in its turn, modifies the present relationship with
the analyst (and of course with other people as well) and has a bearing on
the envisaged future. The modification of the past by the present does not
change "what objectively happened in the past," but it changes that past
which the patient carries within him as his living history.
Similar reciprocal relations between past, present, and future can be
ascertained in the connections between day residue and infantile,
unconscious wish in the construction of dreams (and I would add: in the
construction of reality). Freud (1900) speaks of the need for attachment
between one and the other. Without such mutual attachment, between the
contemporary day residue and the past infantile wish, neither gains
ascendancy in psychic life. The important and still poorly understood
complex of problems subsumed under such titles as self or identity and
object constancy (the latter being correlative to "ego identity") is directly
related to the interactions between past, present, and future.
Such time phenomena, where the three temporal modes appear as active
agents in mental life, are those which in my view are of primary concern to
the psychoanalyst; the time concept of classical physical science and of
everyday clock time is of little value or relevance here.
In the experience of fragmentation the reciprocal relationship between
past, present, and future, taken as active agents, is broken, and the three
words no longer carry meaning. What is experienced is a meaningless now,
not a present as element in a temporal context. In the experience of
eternity that context is not broken up but ceases to exist as a nexus by
virtue of a fusion of its elements into a unitary now. This now does not lose
but overflows its meaning, goes beyond meaning in the accepted sense in
which meaning comes into being by connections, linkings between
elements. We are familiar with momentary and isolated fragmentation, as
when we focus on a word, perhaps by repeating it several times, and the
very focusing may make the word into a meaningless sound; the same kind
of thing may happen with visual objects if stared at long enough. There are
hypnagogic and hypnopompic phenomena, especially regarding one's own
mental processes, which are of a similar order. The connections between
elements are broken or, to put it more correctly, are not re-created.
This leads to another aspect of time as active agent in psychic life. It
concerns what I may call the microdynamics of memory. The examples just
cited are not instances of all-including fragmentation of self and object
world, but of minute fragmentations in the texture of mental processes,
perceptions, etc. It is the memorial activity of the mind by which a before,
now, and after in their meaningful connections, as well as the simultaneity
of occurrences, are created. This memorial activity links what otherwise
would be disparate bits into a nexus which has meaning and gives meaning
to each element by virtue of the reciprocal relationship created between
them. That this linking activity is automatic and unconscious in most of our
daily life obscures the fact that it is an activity; in fragmentation this
activity is interrupted. Related to such interruption of memorial processes is
the compartmentalization engaged in by obsessive-compulsive characters.
On the other hand, fragmentation in certain instances may be the starting
point for novel linking processes which create new meanings.
When we consider time in mental life, time and memory are inseparable
memory here understood as mental activity (the words, mind and memory,
are etymologically related), and not as a fait accompli which we find as one
of the functions of the mental apparatus, perhaps ultimately based on so-
called memory traces imprinted on a waxtablet brain. Memory, memorial
activity, is understood here as a linking activity in which either a global
event becomes articulated, a unity becoming a textured manifold
("analysis" in the literal sense of the word) which is held together by inner
connections, or in which bits of events get linked together ("synthesis").
The microdynamics of memory is the microcosmic side of historicity, i.e., of
the fact that the individual not only has a history which an observer may
unravel and describe, but that he is history and makes his history by virtue
of his memorial activity in which past-present-future are created as
mutually interacting modes of time. Psychoanalysis is a method in which
this memorial activity, shared by patient and analyst and more or less
strongly defended against by the patient, is exercised, reactivated, and
promoted. The personal myth, with the pathological aspects of which Ernst
Kris (1956) has dealt, but in the creation of which every individual is
unconsciously and sometimes consciously engaged, is a precipitate of this
history-making or time-weaving memorial activity. A patient, after
considerable analytic work had been done on his relationship to his father,
once put it this way: you have to create your own history. Myth here is used
not in the sense of a lie, or of an ad hoc invented fable, although
reconstructions in analysis, for example, may sometimes come dangerously
close to the latter. Myth, in other words, is not meant here as the opposite
or as a distortion of historical truth, of "how things actually were." Its use
here emphasizes that any historical truthwhatever Freud might have
thought of the status of objective reality and of the truth of objectivityis a
reconstruction or construction which restructures in novel ways what
already at the time when it actually happened had been a mental
construction, a memorial structure unconsciously built by the time agents
of the mind.


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Article Citation:
Loewald, H.W. (1972). The Experience of Time. Psychoanal. St. Child, 27:401-410