The terms Nachträglichkeit and après-coup are both used to refer to the phenomenon, common in psychoanalysis, of a retrospective realization that a process directed toward a particular end has been unfolding for some time. Arguably, what is occurring in these moments is the emergence into conscious awareness of unconscious intention and interaction. Typically, this realization has a sense of suddenness and surprise, an “a-ha!” aspect, an often-pleasurable “scales falling from one’s eyes” sensation; these qualitative (phenomenological) aspects are well captured in the French term, which carries, through coup, many associations with shocks, blows, the overturning of regimes, and so on.

However, due to its status as an adverbial phrase (which can be conceptualized as a kind of grammatical hinge or alternatively, membrane), the French term points primarily to the experience of realization, the moment of turning (perhaps analogous to the moment of teshuvah in Judaism, which has exercised such a powerful influence on psychoanalytic practice and theory). In these moments one turns toward and reconceptualizes the past, marking the present moment as the boundary between “up to now” and “from now on,”; the present moment comes to be understood as the past’s culmination (whimsically, one could say these are the moments in which one embodies the angel of one’s personal history, standing with wings outstretched and one’s back to the future).

All this is well conveyed by après-coup. The French term, however, does not facilitate as well as the German one our ability to think beyond the stream-of-consciousness experience (what in German one might call the Erfahrung) of retrospective realization to the content and import of the realizations themselves (what one might call the Erlebnisse one gains as a result of this process). Here Nachträglichkeit is the superior term. While it has been rendered into English as “afterwardness,” (an awkward locution, suggesting that what is being described is a quality of the insight in question), a better translation might be retrospectivity, denoting the state of mind of the analysand, analyst, or analytic dyad that produces retrospective insights. With an only slightly whimsical departure from colloquial usage, moreover, Nachträglichkeit could also be translated as an individual rather than collective or general noun, in other words as “a retrospectivity” (eine Nachträglichkeit) expressing a particular backward-looking insight (e.g., “I realized in retrospect that [fill in the blank]”).

The noun form of the word, emphasized through the German orthographic custom of noun capitalization, encourages us to think about the concrete results—both in terms of insights acquired and behavioral change– of psychoanalytic process (what in the degraded language of modern business are called learnings, deliverables or takeaways).

The lack of appealing and accessible terms for this phenomenon and its results in English—the language in which most modern-day analysts practice—hinders the advancement of the robust professional dialogue about it which could, if developed, contribute to a greater understanding (both within the profession and outside it) of the power and value of psychoanalytic work. It would also be valuable to bring into dialogue with the German, French, and English renditions of this concept whatever terms have been developed in Spanish, since the Latin American practice community (and the theoretical engagement of analysts with Spanish-speaking writers, e.g. of Ogden with Borges) have also contributed crucial influences to psychoanalysis as a global modern discipline.

Finally (and nachträglich), the preceding is a reflection on the difficulty, and importance, of seeking to bring into language a phenomenon experienced by many explorers of consciousness (which is what psychoanalysts and analysands, ultimately, are). It is only in language—and especially in writing—that knowledge gained from private explorations of consciousness (which is arguably what occurs in the consulting room) can be shared for the future benefit of others.  Multi-linguality in the profession and its literature is thus of indispensable utility, given that the phenomena under investigation are, by definition, not fully fathomable. Just as, mystically, one can argue that different religious traditions each seek to approach in their own way some necessarily-incomplete aspect of the ultimate reality of God, so too various languages capture, and allow to be expressed, different aspects of human consciousness. It is in the interplay among these linguistic explorations and explanatory attempts that the real can be if not discerned, then at least—perhaps only through a glass, darkly—glimpsed.

~ Kimberly Gladmann ~