Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein, by John Launer

Janet Sayers admires a detective-like tale of the psychoanalyst and her involvement with Jung and Freud

February 12, 2015

What is the truth behind Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Sabina Spielrein as hysterical victim of spanking by her psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, in David Cronenberg’s recent film A Dangerous Method? Precious little, contends John Launer. In this gripping, archive-based, detective-like tale, he debunks depictions by Cronenberg and others of Spielrein, her affair with Jung, and Jung’s troubles on this account with Sigmund Freud.

Less well told is Launer’s debunking of the claim that Spielrein’s lasting importance to psychoanalysis resides in her contribution to Freud’s theory of the death instinct. Much more important, he argues, is her prefiguring of today’s sociobiological theory that evolution proceeds via the subordination of individual self-interest to the teleological aim of maximising the sexual reproductive success of one’s genes.

However, apart from being a travesty of Darwin’s non-teleological evolutionary theory of natural and sexual selection, this is a travesty of Spielrein’s contributions to psychoanalysis. They include her observations about defensive overvaluation of symbols and words – an idea adopted by Freud in his account of schizophrenia. They also include her observations about the baby’s pleasurable sucking sounds at the breast, and their articulation into speech by its mother and other carers – observations that have similarities with ideas developed by the much later psychoanalysts Donald Winnicott and Julia Kristeva, regarding the bodily based precursors of language.

Launer makes little mention of these contributions, observations and ideas. He says much more about Spielrein’s hero worship of Jung after she was briefly incarcerated in 1904, aged 19, as an inpatient at the mental hospital in Zurich where Jung worked; about her psychoanalytic treatment by and subsequent affair with Jung; her qualifying as a doctor and quitting Jung and Zurich to become one of the first female members of Freud’s psychoanalytic circle in Vienna; her marriage in 1912 to a doctor, Pavel Sheftel, in her home town, Rostov-on-Don in Russia; the birth of their daughter, Renate, in 1913; their unhappy life together in Berlin followed by Spielrein living as a lone parent (with Renate) in Zurich and corresponding with Jung during the end of the First World War.

Then, at last, Jung drops out of the picture with Spielrein’s post-war move to Geneva, where she contributed significantly to developmental psychology and her psychoanalytic patients included Jean Piaget. Nor does Jung return to Spielrein’s life following her move, in 1923, to Moscow, where she worked at its State Psychoanalytic Institute, and at its experimental school and laboratory for research into child development. Here, it seems, she may also have influenced the path-breaking emphasis by Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky on the interpersonal, social and linguistic basis of cognitive development.

Launer also considers the crushing of psychoanalysis in Stalinist Russia; Spielrein’s reunion with Sheftel in Rostov-on-Don; the birth of their daughter Eva in 1926; Sheftel’s death from a heart attack in 1937; and Spielrein’s poverty-stricken life working part-time as a doctor and in a nursery. Much, much worse happens after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 with the anti-Semitic rounding up, shooting and burying of Spielrein, Renate, Eva and 13,000 other Jews in a gully outside Rostov-on-Don on 11 August 1942.

Spielrein’s ideas live on thanks to her writings, and their publication and republication by her admirers. The merit of Launer’s book resides not in his assessment of her work, but in the very readable story it tells about her involvement with Jung and Freud and about her life in Russia, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The result is an admirable counter to her absurd portrayal by Knightley in the film with which this book begins.

Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein

By John Launer
Duckworth Overlook, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780715647417 and 49800 (e-book)
Published 20 November 2014

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