Eternal triangles in psychoanalytic circles

The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi
February 3, 1995

This is the first of what will be several volumes of the correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi, and covers the period from the beginning in 1908 until the eve of the First World War in 1914.

A number of connecting threads run through this patchwork of letters. One of these is Ferenczi's credulity for thought-transference, or "induction" as he calls it. Throughout, Freud handles the matter with tact and sensitivity. When Ferenczi first announces his interest, Freud replies with suggestions for obvious experiments, but Ferenczi complicates the execution so much that nothing clear emerges. When he wants to rush to publish, Freud gently admonishes delay and encourages co-operation with Carl Jung. Finally, the whole thing culminates in a fiasco at a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, repeated at a further seance in Freud's own home a few days later.

Alternating with this comic theme is a tragic one concerning Ferenczi's triangular relationship with Gizella Palos and her daughter, Elma. Ferenczi has an affair with Gizella, but then takes the daughter into treatment, falls in love with her and appeals to Freud to intervene on his behalf with her mother. Freud, evidently against his better judgement, loyally responds with an uncharacteristically wordy and convoluted letter to Gizella. Ferenczi announces his decision to marry Elma, but then changes his mind, allegedly because Elma is now having doubts. Ferenczi writes by express mail that the three have decided that Elma shall continue her analysis with Freud in Vienna. Freud replies that he has no free hour, but that since "you don't ask about my inclinations and expectations but rather demand of me that I undertake it, then naturally I assent". (Letter 264) Before long, Ferenczi confesses he has gone back to Gizella but is now impotent with her. After more analysis with Freud, Elma returns to her mother and, again without consulting Freud, Ferenczi announces that he is taking her back into analysis with himself. He tells Freud that "she has to decide to speak with me freely and uninhibitedly, to admit her resistances. If she doesn't do that, then I am firmly resolved to give her up" (294). The volume ends with both women still hoping that Ferenczi will marry the daughter. (He eventually married the mother.)

This thread is intertwined with that of Ferenczi's relationship with Freud. Ferenczi deferentially addresses him as "Dear Professor" throughout, but Freud immediately adopts "Dear colleague" and "Dear Doctor", with "Dear friend" from the 78th letter, and even "Dear son" at the height of the P los crisis. But on a trip to Palermo, where Freud wanted to collaborate on the Schreber case, Ferenczi balked. "You certainly expected to wallow in constant intellectual stimulation," remarked Freud, "whereas nothing is more repugnant to me than posing, and I then often let myself go in the opposite direction. So I was probably mostly quite an ordinary old gentleman, and you, in astonishment, realized the distance from your fantasy ideal. On the other hand, I would have wished you to tear yourself away from the infantile role and take your place next to me as a companion with equal rights, which you did not succeed in doing". (169) Even in 1914, over the age of 40, and having known Freud for some six years, Ferenczi still complains to him that "your presence arouses inhibitions of various kinds in me that influence, and at times almost paralyze, my actions and even my thinking." (469)

At one or two points this thread becomes entangled with another: that of Freud's relations with Jung. At first, all Freud's comments glow with admiration: "Jung was again magnificent and did me a lot of good. I poured out my heart about many things . . . I am convinced more than ever that he is the man of the future." (190) But Ferenczi turns out to be the better judge of character, warning Freud of Jung's "unlimited and uncontrolled ambition, which manifests itself in petty hate and envy towards you, who are so superior to him." (269) While Freud speaks of Jung as "the Crown Prince" (199), Ferenczi prophetically insists that "there is no alternative: you have to do everything yourself all your life. Your successor has not yet arrived . . ." (269) Freud replies: "Must I really always be right, always the better one? In the long run it becomes downright improbable to one." (7) But Ferenczi is proved right, and by the end of 1912 even Freud cannot overlook what he calls "the kernel of dishonesty" in Jung's character. The same letter gives an illuminating account of Freud's last attempt to confront Jung at a personal level, and of Jung's confession of the true reasons for his antagonism to Freud: "that intimacy with me or with others would damage his independence . . . that he had certainly construed me according to his father complex and had been afraid about what I would say about his modifications, about his particular manner of expressing himself." (349) Yet, despite his disillusionment with the Crown Prince, as late as 1913 Freud can still be found praising Jung's latest work to Ferenczi, calling it "even excellent" in parts. (414)

This, like so much else in these letters, strikingly contradicts the picture of Freud that his many recent character assassins have tried to project. The correspondence shows a humane, forbearing and profoundly decent person who was a loyal and responsive friend to colleagues who, like Ferenczi, did not always treat him with the consideration and care that he had for them. Despite his intellectual superiority, Freud is reluctant to criticise or to press his ideas on his younger colleague. He can even bring himself to encourage Ferenczi's more dubious interests if they serve his emancipation: "You are scientifically on the right track towards making yourself independent. Witness your studies in occultism." (253) Freud is disarmingly frank about his fluctuating confidence in himself, confessing that "only with great difficulty can I, myself, take a position with respect to the question of the value of my works and their influence on the shape of future science. Sometimes I believe in it, sometimes I doubt it."(99)

As an exchange of ideas, these letters are disappointing on both sides. Although Freud credits Ferenczi with major contributions to his work at one or two places, it is hard to see why from the content of the letters. Perhaps Ferenczi was more communicative in conversation than he is here. On Freud's side the correspondence serves to remind us of works routinely ignored or forgotten today, but actually of great relevance. "I haven't felt so victorious for a long time," writes Freud about a short paper on "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words", which makes Jacques Lacan's view of language anything but a "return to Freud". Freud proclaims himself "totally totem and taboo" (240), adding that "not since The Interpretation of Dreams. . . have I worked on anything with the same feeling of certainty and elation" (395) - an interesting comment on a work that is today routinely disparaged and discounted. Although he calls On Narcissism "the scientific reckoning with Adler" (404), it is in this work that, 60 years before Richard Dawkins was to use the term, Freud speaks of the organism as "the vehicle" of its genetic material, revealing the essential identity of his view with the so-called "selfish gene" approach of modern Darwinism.

Along with more direct assaults on Freud, there has been a tendency to inflate minor peripheral figures around him so as to devalue him in comparison. The evidence of this correspondence hardly encourages this in Ferenczi's case. On the contrary, the picture of Ferenczi that emerges is one of a surprisingly immature, neurotic person with tendencies to hypochondria, impulsiveness and cranky ideas.

"It was plain to see but also easily recognizable as infantile that you presumed great secrets in me and were very curious about them," writes Freud to Ferenczi in words that apply with even greater force to much modern writing on Freud. (171) A comment in Andre Haynal's introduction to this book is an example. He speaks of "the triangle of Bleuler, Anna O. and himself", (meaning Freud). Anna O. was an alias for Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of Joseph Breuer (Bleuler was someone else). Freud never met her, heard about her case only at second-hand, and contributed nothing whatsoever to her treatment. I cannot see how this can be construed as any kind of "triangle". But whatever the shortcomings of their introductions, works like this remain the best antidote to the soap-operatic writing about Freud so common today. Here at least Freud's voice can still be heard speaking for himself, rather than for his biographers.

Christopher Badcock is reader in sociology, University of London, and author of PsychoDarwinism.

The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi: Volume One, 1908-1914

Editor - Eva Brabant, Ernst Falzeder and Patrizia Giampieri-Deutsch
ISBN - 0 674 17418 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.50
Pages - 584

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