Hansjürgens Ami

Sándor Ferenczi

(paper from candidate of Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society, presented in February 2003 at ČPS meeting)



After lapsing into temporary obscurity, some of Ferenczi's more salient ideas have in the last few years been rediscovered, both in the area of theoretical and applied psychoanalysis.

The era in which he lived had a significant impact on his conceptual outlook and approach, and his whole life was coloured by the influence of family. He was born seventh in a family of 12 children.

His father, Fraenkel Baruch, was born in 1830 in Cracow, from where he moved to Miskolc, a town in the north-east of Hungary, in an attempt to escape the pogroms. At the beginning, he worked as an assistant in a bookshop, which he later took over after its owner emigrated. At the age of 18, he joined the fight for Hungarian liberation in the revolution of 1848-49.

Studying the life of the Fraenkel-Ferenczi family reveals fascinating insights into an aspect of social change within the Monarchy of the time. The young Jew, who had escaped from Poland and went on to become a true Hungarian patriot, contributed to the country's bourgeoisfication and cultural development, and then the boy who went on to create something of lasting importance in the world of science. The Hungarian nationalism of the 19th century accepted and supported Eastern European Jewish immigrants, with a certain measure of tolerance, who were willing to become Hungarian, offering them a chance at social betterment and promoting social mobility. A significant part of what was a modest-sized middle class consisted, by the turn of the century, of assimilated Jews. This tolerance, however, lasted only for as long as it was politically expedient for the purposes of improving the country's "ethnic composition": after the Trianon borders were drawn, antisemitism became increasingly prevalent.

This historical backdrop significantly influenced the life of the Ferenczi family. Ferenczi Bernát's bookshop grew to become a cultural centre in the city - a magnet for those interested in literature, music and the arts. The family business had in the meantime expanded its profile to include book publishing, and several personages, such as S. Fischer, who would later go on to become a renowned German publisher, studied at the Ferenczis.

Following the untimely death of the patriarch of the family, the ambitious widow, Róza Eibenschüzt, took over the business with a vigour and single-minded purpose that ensured its long-term success, and that meant that all 7 boys were able to choose whatever career they wished.

Sándor, who had spent his childhood browsing among the bookshelves, and had gained an exceptional schooling in literature and the arts, suffered from the premature loss of his father, especially since he did not receive the kind of love from his harsh and emotionally distant mother that he yearned for. He recorded his memories of this emotional lack in his clinical diaries published in 1932, and it is probably himself he is writing about in his work entitled «The Unwanted Child and the Death Instinct» (1929).

He began his university studies in medicine in Vienna at the age of 17. At that time he still hadn't heard of Freud. He began his work in Budapest as a neural psychologist in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.

From early on he published a great deal, mostly scientific articles, and when in 1901 he was asked to review Freud's work «The Interpretation of Dreams», he described it dismissingly as "superfluous". In 1907, at the recommendation of a friend, he re-read the book and immediately became a devotee of psychoanalysis. In 1908, he personally met Freud, and it was then that what was to become a life-long "Friendship- Correspondence- Analysis" began. The extent and scope of this correspondence was very extensive, and by 1933 Ferenczi had written no less than 1,234 letters to Freud.

His professional attentions and academic publications also turned towards psychoanalysis in 1908, and he gave a talk as an independent guest speaker that year at the Salzburg Congress. Freud held Ferenczi in great esteem, and took Ferenczi with him on his family vacations, and would have been happy to see his eldest daughter, Mathilda, marry him.

When Stanley Hall invited Freud to the Clark University jubilee celebrations, Freud brought with him Jung and Ferenczi as his co-lecturers. In 1909, they analysed each others' dreams on the boat from Hamburg to New York. Indeed, Freud's lectures at the University took shape during the many walks that he took with his two companions, both during and after the voyage. The series of lectures brought renown and success for all three of them. From 1910, Ferenczi devoted himself full-time to psychoanalysis.

The first conflict with the master emerged during the course of a journey through Italy, when they were working together on the Schreber Case. Ferenczi did not take kindly to the fact that Freud was evidently dictating the "correct" interpretation of the case to him, and voiced his dissatisfaction, while Freud responded thus:
"Well, that's you all over. Obviously, you want everything for yourself."

Nonetheless, Ferenczi yearned for a greater degree of intimacy than Freud was capable of giving him. His unresolved personal conflicts may have been one of the main motivations for this desire. Despite this, Ferenczi became one of the most devoted exponents of psychoanalysis, and a member of the Committee, and together with Abraham, Jones, Rank and Sachs, received a gold ring studded with precious stones from Freud in recognition of his devotion.

The relationship between the two of them was further complicated by Ferenczi's analysis training with Freud. In line with the practices of the time, this was considerably shorter than the international standards of today. Ferenczi worked with Freud over a total of three periods of analysis training - two weeks before the outbreak of war, after which he travelled twice from a military base in Western Hungary to Vienna for two separate fortnightly sessions. One of the main themes of the analysis was Ferenczi's marriage, and this may well have been the other source of conflict between the two men.

Though he lived as bachelor, since 1900 Sándor Ferenczi had an ongoing relationship with the wife of an old family acquaintance, Gizella Altschul Pálos. Although she lived apart from her estranged husband, her husband had for a long time refused to agree to an official separation, and so her marriage to Ferenczi did not take place until 1919. Another reason for the long period of engagement was Ferenczi's uncertainty. The fact that Gizella was 8 years his senior meant that he would have to forego having children of his own. The decision as to whether to marry her was made even more difficult by the fact that in 1911 Ferenczi had begun to treat Elma, Gizella's elder daughter, for depression.

Since the therapist and his patient had fallen in love with each other, Ferenczi asked Freud to take over Elma's treatment and see whether Elma's feelings for him were genuine. Freud advised Ferenczi not to marry Elma, but rather her mother, Gizella. Ferenczi continued to procrastinate for a further 7 years, and finally married Gizella in 1919, which according to Freud, was the only "non-neurotic choice" for Ferenczi to make. Throughout his entire life, Ferenczi tried to justify this choice of his, and he constantly spoke to Freud about his marital problems and his doubts.

A significant step forward in terms of recognition in Hungary for Ferenczi and psychoanalysis in general was the plan that was drawn up towards the end of the war for the treatment of war-induced neurosis. An increasing number of the medical heads in the military were willing to place the neurotic victims of war who had proved resistant to other methods of treatment, into the hands of psychoanalysts. The 1918 Congress was held in Budapest, and a number of military heads also took part in it.

Ferenczi was elected president of the international association of psychoanalysts, but was forced to resign from the post due to the change in political situation and the isolation that followed the war.

As early as in 1918 several university students requested in a petition addressed to the dean that psychoanalysis be made an integral part of their medical studies. Following the short-lived rule of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the discipline of psychoanalysis was given a university department all of its own, which Ferenczi was asked to head. After the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Ferenczi had to resign from his post, and although he was not personally victimised, the growth of antisemitism filled him with a strong sense of foreboding.

After the White Terror had petered out, the twenties went on to be the golden age of psychoanalysis in Hungary.

Although psychoanalysis did not become a component of official, mainstream medical practice, the membership of the Hungarian Association of Psychoanalysis grew markedly with the entry of young practitioners. Initially, the members of the Association held their meetings in the home of Vilma Kovács, often referred to as the mother of Hungarian psychoanalysis. Later on, in 1931, a consulting room was opened in which training courses and seminars were held. The members of the Association included Ferenczi, the Bálint couple, Géza Róheim, Imre Hermann and the young Margit (Schönberger) Mahler.

Ferenczi became a teacher of considerable renown, and his lectures and case studies were held in high esteem at the Association. In his theoretical work he began to focus on a particular interest of his - psychosomatic mechanisms and bio-analysis, a preoccupation that had been anticipated by his earlier work. His study entitled Thalassa: Catastrophes in the development of sexual life was published in 1924. According to Ferenczi, the main driving force behind human sexuality is the urge to return to the tranquil state of prenatal existence. It was in these years that Ferenczi made a name for himself as someone willing to take on cases that appeared to be utterly hopeless. And it is against this backdrop that he began his technical innovations. Although a part of these innovations were substantiated in the light of later practice, from the start of the 1920s they resulted in a serious difference of opinion between him and Freud. Ferenczi radicalised psychoanalysis with the insight that the therapeutic act itself - the hypocritical conduct of the therapist remaining aloof from the patient - is, in fact, a repetition of the patient's childhood trauma. As the therapist's task is to substitute for the love that the patient did not receive in his or her childhood, Ferenczi believed that the relationship between the therapist and patient must be bi-directional.

Freud was concerned that Ferenczi might compromise psychoanalysis with the "therapy of indulgence". It must have been even harder for the master to digest what Ferenczi was doing when he began to re-consider the theory of seduction. In the course of his therapy work, Ferenczi found that patients were telling the truth, as the trauma they related had actually occurred in reality, not just in their imagination.

In one of his last works, and one that has perhaps had the most enduring effect, Ferenczi established the two-stage theory of trauma. He also dealt with language dissonance between adults and children. In his study entitled The Language of Tenderness and Passion, he describes how the child's desire for tenderness elicits in some immature adults a sexual response. The traumatised child attempts to share his trauma with the person responsible for raising him, most often the mother, who, refusing to accept that the trauma is justified, tells the child there is nothing to be depressed about, with the result that the child's loneliness is compounded.

Ferenczi recognised that the traumatised child, identifying himself with the aggressor, also tends to assume the aggressor's remorse. Ferenczi's ideas are supported by several theories that have been borne out by more recent research. The members of the Budapest School recognised quite early on the significance that the pre-oedipal stage plays in the development of personality. They strongly emphasised the importance of the first dyadic relationship between mother and child.

Published for the first time a few years ago, the correspondence between Freud and Ferenczi is highly significant, and if read in conjunction with Ferenczi's Clinical Diary of 1932, sheds considerable light on the friendship of the two scientists and the difference of opinion that emerged between them.

It was in the course of therapeutic practice that the idea of mutual analysis arose, an idea also much resented in professional circles. Although Ferenczi refused to apply this method later on, it did highlight the fact that complete neutrality in therapy cannot be sustained, and that a defining component of the therapeutic process is the personality of the therapist himself. Ferenczi was the first to report on counter-transfer as a means of therapy, although this phenomenon was regarded as a disturbing by-product of psychoanalysis. It was experience gained from mutual analysis that alerted experts to the fact that a therapist must have a high degree of self-knowledge, which is best acquired by subjecting oneself to training-oriented psychoanalysis under the assumption that "the best therapist is a healed patient."

Perhaps the most sensitive aspect of the Clinical Diary is that, while criticising psychoanalysis, Ferenczi also criticises his own analysis, and at the same time that of his master, Freud. Although Ferenczi's actual analysis lasted only weeks, in view of the 25-year correspondence between Ferenczi and Freud, it would be fair to speak of a never-ending analysis. Ferenczi's main point of criticism against Freud is the inflexibility and remoteness with which he treated his patients, and the fact that he "trained" his patients almost as though he were their teacher. For Ferenczi, whom Freud had criticised for his furor sanandi (passion to heal), this was painful, both as therapist and patient.

At the end of the Diary, Ferenczi emphasises a tragic dilemma:
"…is it also necessary to place my personality on a new footing… do I really have to make a choice between dying or 'establishing myself anew…'"

Ferenczi died of chronic leukaemia in his home in April 1933. He had been forced to abandon his medical practice in the winter of the previous year.
After his death, malicious rumours began to circulate alleging that Ferenczi, in the last years of his life, had become a psychiatric patient, and that it had been under the influence of illness that he had formulated his technical and theoretical innovations. Jones, jealous of his one-time analyst Ferenczi, who of all analysts had perhaps been the closest to Freud, played a particularly prominent role in spreading such rumours.

Ferenczi's work was essentially motivated by the overriding desire to heal. He put both his theories and methods at the service of medical treatment. He took the risk of becoming an object of derision and of being expelled from the ranks of the profession. At the end of his career, as he learnt more about his patients, he accepted that his own self, as the vehicle for healing, should be examined and even challenged.

His ideas and innovations remained shrouded in silence for decades, and now that they have been rediscovered, it is clear that many of his theories regarding early personality development and therapeutic work have been proved well founded.



© Ami Hansjürgens, 2003