Primal Scene (Urszene)


Scene of sexual intercourse between the parents which the child observes, or infers on the basis of certain indications, and phantasises. It is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father.



   The term 'Urszenen' makes its first appearance in a manuscript of Freud's dating from 1897 (1), where it is used to connote certain traumatic infantile experiences which are organised into scenarios or scenes (see 'Phantasy'); at this point Freud  gives no special consideration to the type of scene involving parental intercourse. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), there is no mention of primal scenes as such, but Freud does underline the importance of the observation of coitus between the parents in so far as it generates anxiety: 'I have explained this anxiety by arguing that what we are dealing with is a sexual excitation with which their [children's] understanding is unable to cope and which they also, no doubt, repudiate because their parents are involved in it' (2).

  Analytic experience was to cause Freud to attribute an increasing importance to the scene where the child happens to witness sexual relations between its parents: 'Among the store of phantasies of all neurotics, and probably of all human beings, this scene is seldom absent' (3). It falls into the category of what Freud calls the primal phantasies* (Urphantasien). It is in his account of the case of the 'Wolf Man'-- 'From the History of an Infantile Neurosis' (1918b [1914]-that the observation of parental intercourse is called 'the primal scene'. Basing himself upon this case, Freud brings out different aspects: first, the act of coitus is understood by the child as an aggression by the father in a sado-masochistic relationship; secondly, the scene gives rise to sexual excitation in the child while at the same time providing a basis for castration anxiety; thirdly, the child interprets what is going on, within the framework of an infantile sexual theory, as anal coitus.

  In  addition,  according  to  Ruth  Mack  Brunswick, 'the  understanding  and interest which the child brings to the parental coitus are based on the child's own preoedipal physical experiences with  the mother  and  its resultant  desires' (4). Should we look upon the primal scene as the memory of an actually experienced event or as a pure phantasy? Freud debated this problem with Jung, he debated it in his own mind, and it is raised at several points in the case-history of the Wolf Man. However varied Freud's proposed solutions  may  seem,  they invariably  fall  within  certain  bounds . In  the  first  version  of  The  Wolf Man, where he is concerned to establish the reality of the primal scene, he is already laying stress on the fact that it is only through a deferred action* (nachtriiglich) that it is grasped  and interpreted  by the child. At the other end  of the scale, when  he  comes  to emphasise  the  role  of  retrospective  phantasies  (Zurilck­phantasien),  he  still maintains  that  reality  has  at least  provided  certain  clues (noises, animal coitus, etc.) (5).

  Over and above the discussion of the respective dosages of phantasy and reality in the primal scene, what Freud seems to be getting at and what he wants to uphold, particularly against Jung, is the idea that this scene belongs to the (ontogenetic or phylogenetic) past of the individual and that it constitutes a happening which may be of the order of myth but which is already given prior to any meaning which is attributed to it after the fact.


(1) Cf. FREUD,S. Anf , 210; S.E., I, 248.

(2) FREUD, S., G.W., 11-IJI, 591; S.E., V, 585.

(3) FREUD, S. 'A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease' (1915/), G.W., X, 242; S.E., XIV, 269.

(4) BRUNSWICK , R. M . 'The Preoedipal Phase of the Libido Development' (1940) in The Psycho-Analytic Reader (1950), 243.

(5) Cf. FREUD, S., G.W., XII, 137n.; S.E., XVII, 103n.


From J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans, Donald Nicholson-Smith (Norton, 1973), 335-6