The history of psychoanalysis would have been different if Sigmund Freud hadn’t decided to write it. Facing revolt from his former lieutenant Carl Jung and fighting an old guard of Eugen Bleuler and August Forel, he went on the offensive in 1914, publishing The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement. He wrote to his colleague Karl Abraham that “the bombshell has now burst, we shall soon discover with what effect.” (Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated three days later, on June 28.) The bombshell aftermath reinforced what Freud suspected: isolationism had its advantages. With his remembrance of things past, he abandoned attempts at institutional acceptance and laid down the story of the one embattled genius. Advancing the plot, he announced two years later that, with heliocentricity and evolution, science had already dealt two “blows” to man’s “naive self-love”; now a third, psychoanalysis, had landed the haymaker. It’s a familiar stratagem: who controls the past controls the future; who controls the narrative controls both.
To reconstruct pyschoanalysis’s arduous rise, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani in The Freud Files (Cambridge; $24.99) draw on the major revisionist works of the Freud wars by Henri Ellenberger and Frank Sulloway as well as letters made available in recent years, among them Freud’s correspondence with Abraham and Sándor Ferenczi. Despite Freud’s claims of “splendid isolation,” the psychiatric community engaged with his theories. When not greeted with open arms, however, the Freudians began to close ranks. If Forel wasn’t disparaging “much too much exegesis” and “belletristic studies of literary antiquity,” Bleuler was writing that “the ‘who is not for us, is against us,’ the ‘all or nothing,’ is in my opinion necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties…but I consider it harmful for science.”
Freud was a master tactician—pathologizing dissent, shirking public debate—but The Freud Files speaks best to the methodological points raised by Forel. Where is the “ego that is not even master in his own house” more readily found than in a novel or tragedy, and who makes for a better collection of analysands than the dead? Aside from his reliance on Sophocles, Shakespeare and Schiller, there is Freud’s exegesis, which uses an interpretive framework prone to blurring fact and fiction. The authors “propose to call this process of the transmutation of interpretations and constructions into positive facts interprefaction.” About the clinical data whence his theories derived, Freud mused, “It still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories.” The style of free indirect discourse certainly lends an air of naturalism, and malicious or not, it can blur the patient’s account with the analyst’s interpretation. The Wolf Man recalled as a child seeing his maid scrubbing the floor, and suddenly “he was faced once again with the posture which his mother had assumed in the copulation scene. She became his mother to him.” What was reported to Freud, and what did the good doctor infer? What’s clear is that he, like any good writer, punched up his material.
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History isn’t written by the losers—they are usually too busy or long dead. Otto Rank was always busy. He became the secretary of the Vienna Psychological Society in 1906; his minutes from a 1908 meeting are the record of Freud stating that he couldn’t read Nietzsche because he was “smothered by an excess of interest.” Over the next two decades—the focus of The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank (Johns Hopkins; $34.95)—Freud’s youngest deputy, twenty-eight years his junior, co-founded the journal Imago, edited the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, ran the society’s publishing house and published five books. Freud appreciated Rank as a friend and operator of the psychoanalytic machine, reporting to Abraham in 1919 that he and Rank were “delighted to be able to work in our jardin secret while the storm lays waste to everything outside.” Their letters’ mix of professional gossip and personal happenings can be dry, but the pleasure of reading Rankian lines like “It’s really too bad that analysts, with so few exceptions—almost none—lack insight into their personal, private affairs” or “What’s new in Vienna and psychoanalysis” is genuine. Nor does the Freudian diagnosis of New York City as “a deranged, anal, Adlerish mess” disappoint. Containing only seven letters from Freud between 1911 and 1916, then none until 1921, the volume rightly focuses on Rank, and the editors, E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer, do well by filling in gaps, aided by other primary sources.
It’s hard not to view the dissolution of Freud’s relationship with Rank in Oedipal terms—both men were aware of the father-son tension—but the tale is complicated by Rank’s re-evaluation of that complex’s centrality. In The Trauma of Birth (1924), Rank turned to the neglected role of the mother, how “the essential part of the analytic work, is accomplished by a reproduction of the birth trauma, so that the patient loses his doctor and his own suffering at the same time.” Ferenczi quotes Freud’s reaction to the book: “this is the most significant advance since the discovery of psychoanalysis. Someone else would have made himself independent” with this discovery. Self-willed or forced out, Rank became that someone else. His and Freud’s long breakup letters are the collection’s finest. The two met for the last time in April 1926. For Freud’s seventieth birthday the following month, Rank sent a twenty-three-volume set of Nietzsche’s works. He went on to coin the term “pre-Oedipal,” set up a Parisian practice (Anaïs Nin wrote that Rank taught her how to “swim in life, rather than collect aquariums!”) and publish Will Therapy (1936). At a lecture at Yale in 1929, Rank said, “Maybe, sometime after I have retired, I will write a history of the psychoanalytic movement from a scientific viewpoint.” He never retired.
In the September 20, 2010, issue, Elias Altman wrote about Ernst Weiss, whose novel Georg Letham delved into psychoanalysis to tap an atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery.