Great psychotherapists require great patients

D.J. Enright

  • A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 608 pp, £25.00, February 1994, ISBN 1 85619 249 0

Psychoanalysis, says John Kerr, is ‘in a period of institutional decline’: ‘Candidacies are down, patients are harder to come by’ and other therapeutic disciplines are clamouring for attention. The seeds of this sorry situation were sown during the six-year partnership between Freud and Jung, when ‘historical accuracy first came to be less important than ideological correctness.’ (Later it is the termination of the partnership that is held responsible.) Kerr’s book is written ‘in the hope that it will significantly improve the prospects for psychoanalysis, now murkily hopeful at best’. A pious hope, but a misguided one. What chance does this archaic blend of science and art have at a time when anything goes, when every detail of sexual behaviour is laid bare? Psychoanalysis did a lot to make sex fashionable, turning Lawrence’s ‘dirty little secret’ into grand opera; and now sex is growing tedious. A strong dose, if not of repression then of reticence, seems to be in order.

The story Kerr is to unfold, we hear, is ‘not a nice one’, nor is it a love story. In a single phrase, he adds flesh-creepingly, he would describe it as ‘an unusually gruesome ghost story, where the ghost who finally devours all the people in the end is not a being but a theory’. The book has a cast of thousands: William James, Théodore Flournoy, Morton Prince (who failed to detect sexual wishes in his patients’ dreams and was given his marching orders), Eugen Bleuler, (Miss) Frank Miller (altruistically given to analysing her own poems), Otto Weininger (a suicide), Johann Jakob Honegger Jr (a suicide), Krafft-Ebing, Goethe, Nietzsche, Leopold Löwenfeld, Wilhelm Stekel, James Jackson Putnam, Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, Otto Gross (‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’), Wilfred Trotter (an English surgeon who comforted himself during the First International Congress for Psychoanalysis with the thought that he was the only person present who knew how to cut off a leg), the Rat Man, Dora, Little Hans, Leonardo, Oedipus ... Plus jealousies, quarrels and conspiracies, truisms, insights and ingenuities, sacred cows and unholy goats, world-shakers and fakers ... Also several pages on Freud’s alleged affair with his wife’s sister, Minna Bernays, a ‘great secret’ aired by Jung in his old age (Kerr grants there is no incontrovertible proof, but leaves us in little doubt as to his own view), and much discussion of dubiously related cases and matters: but what in this field, this universe, is unrelated?

However, we do slowly creep up on the new element, the tertium quid: Sabina Spielrein (the name, Kerr points out, means ‘play-pure’, and ‘easily takes on sexual connotations’, of course), ‘caches’ of whose personal papers were discovered in Geneva in 1977 and 1982. Jung first mentioned her to Freud in a letter of October 1906, as a hysterical 20-year-old Russian Jewish student, relating how between the ages of three and four she had seen her father spanking her older brother on the bare bottom, and how later, by pressing her heel against her anus, she would try to defecate and at the same time prevent defecation, an activity which ‘was superseded by vigorous masturbation’. It was well known, Kerr remarks, that hysteria could take ‘rather uncivilised forms’ in Russia. Spielrein ‘likely did not grasp the nerve she had hit’: in childhood Jung had day-dreamt blissfully of God dropping an enormous turd on Basel Cathedral and smashing it. It was not the only nerve she would hit.

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