Bread-and-butter letters to a friend

The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi
October 18, 1996

This is the second volume of the collected correspondence of Sigmund Freud and S ndor Ferenczi, and covers the period of the first world war. Much of it is taken up with minutiae to do with publications, patients, summer travel plans (usually the only time the two could meet) and, increasingly towards the end, food. Ferenczi seems to have had the better access to supplies, and sends Freud bread, butter, bacon and other things, often by indirect routes and ingenious means. Mundane this may be, but it brings home the day-to-day impact of the war on people like Freud and Ferenczi and provides a backdrop of sombre reality to the correspondence.

The content is thin, partly because of the war, which distracts and depresses Freud (who had three sons in the army) and preoccupies Ferenczi, who was drafted for military service. Freud repeatedly expresses his hope that together they can "leave a calling card with biology", but the project is never realised.

The main theme turns out to be Ferenczi's complicated involvement with a married woman, Gizella P los, and her daughter, Elma. Many of Ferenczi's letters are best passed over in silence, especially those revealing that his hand was not just offered to Gizella and her daughter, but run over Gizella's sister too . . . not to mention female patients. (This was called "active technique" but it was actually sexual harassment and today would probably have landed him in court.) There is a marked change in tone round about July 1910, just after Ferenczi had a session of apparently much-needed analysis with Freud. For once he puts his finger on the point rather than a woman when he remarks that "the doctor . . . taught him to comply with the real demands of life. But he took away the pleasure which . . . accompanied all his . . . symptoms. Analysis suddenly makes out of a man who has remained childish I another who really becomes conscious of all responsibilities."

Responding to Ferenczi's hypochondria, Freud remarks: "One must be able to decide whether one loves a woman or not, even with stuffed-up nostrils." In his introduction Alex Hoffer quotes this letter and then adds: "Freud's sarcastic comment expresses his exasperation with what he sees as Ferenczi's 'resistance'." You would think that the word "resistance" must be part of the letter, just as Hoffer's preceding quotation, also in inverted commas, indeed is. But the word "resistance" does not appear anywhere in the letter, nor is there any comment by Freud here or elsewhere that abuses the psychoanalytic concept of resistance in connection with Ferenczi's relationship in the way suggested.

Hoffer's description of Freud as "authoritarian and judgemental" in regard to Ferenczi's indecisiveness about marrying Gizella P los is a ludicrous assertion, as letter after letter shows. "I don't know what advice I can give; which one shouldn't do anyway," writes Freud in response to Ferenczi's repeated requests for authoritative judgement.

Hoffer informs us that "the struggle between Freud and Ferenczi on an individual scale symbolically parallels international events in the struggle between asymmetry and mutuality, authoritarianism and egalitarianism, or, in the language of politics, monarchy and republic." This must be why Ferenczi expressed "moods of tenderness and feelings of friendship" for Freud and went to such pains to send him provisions. It also explains why Freud called the 1917 February Revolution in Russia "this splendid change" and, writing in 1918, the prospect of a German victory "very disagreeable". And it is good to know that the Nazis burnt Freud's books and drove him out of Austria because he was a one-sided, authoritarian, monarchist!

Hoffer's resort to innuendo, misquotation and nonsense of this kind underlines the fact that there is little in this volume to appeal to the apparently insatiable demand for character assassination of Freud even though there is ample to destroy the reputation of Ferenczi once and for all.

Christopher Badcock is reader in sociology, University of London.

The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi: Volume 2, 1914-1919

Editor - Ernst Falzeder and Eva Brabant
ISBN - 0 674 17419 4
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £28.50
Pages - 397

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments