Secrets

Adam Phillips

There has always been a resistance, at least among psychoanalysts themselves, to thinking of their work as mind-reading or fortune-telling. Despite the fact that most ordinary conversation is exactly this, or perhaps because it is, psychoanalysts have wanted to describe what they do as different, as rational even: dealing with the irrational but not dealing in it (‘On waking,’ Ferenczi writes mockingly to Freud, ‘one wants on no account to have thought something quite nonsensical or illogical’). It was important to Freud that psychoanalysis should not become a cult of the irrational. The unconscious may be disreputable, but the psychoanalyst must not be. And yet Freud’s description of the unconscious was a threat to, and a parody of, the more respectable versions of professional competence. If a psychoanalyst knows what’s in the unconscious, or knows how it works, she has a specific expertise. But if the unconscious is what cannot be anticipated, can there then be experts of the unknown? ‘The weather,’ as Freud puts it here, ‘of course never comes from the quarter one has been carefully observing.’

If you locate psychoanalysis somewhere between literature and science it can begin to look like a legitimate and intelligible social practice: not so much a mystery for initiates but a skill that can be learned, with real rules and a body of knowledge. Like the so-called neurotic whose project is to be extremely normal, psychoanalysis has always struggled to distance itself from supposedly discredited things like religion, glamour, mysticism, the paranormal, and all the scapegoated ‘alternative’ therapies. Psychoanalysis, that is to say, has used its discovery of the unconscious to legitimate itself. This would once have been called an irony. Psychoanalysis as a treatment may be about reclaiming the marginalised parts of oneself, but psychoanalysis as a profession has always been resolutely committed to the mainstream, which at the moment happens to be science and various literary theories of narrative. So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that psychoanalysis has been especially dismissive of – indeed, pathologising of – what was once referred to as the supernatural. From this extraordinary correspondence, which will radically change the way we read psychoanalysis, it is clear that ‘sexuality’ and the ‘unconscious’ were the new, the scientifically prestigious words for the occult: for that which is beyond our capacity for knowledge, for the weird, unaccountable effects people have on each other. In psychoanalysis the supernatural returns as the erotic. And it was Ferenczi, and Jung in a different way, who had to keep reminding Freud of the limits of scientific enquiry; that to rationalise the unconscious was not only an aim, but also a betrayal of psychoanalysis. When Ferenczi wrote to Freud in 1911 that he ‘considered the fight against occultism to be premature’, he was trying to keep alive something he saw as integral to the psychoanalytic project – something which might be called, say, inexplicable human powers – and that Freud, in his view, was too keen to disavow.

If the aim of a system is to create an outside where you can put the things you don’t want, then we have to look at what a system (or a person) disposes of – its rubbish – to understand it; to get a picture of how it sees itself and wants to be seen. Freud had apparently included sex and violence in the science of psychoanalysis, but he baulked at the investigation of occult phenomena. If sexuality was the unacceptable in psychoanalysis, then what kind of sexuality was the occult if it was proscribed by the master of the forbidden himself? (One answer, as we shall see, is homosexuality.) Ferenczi, Freud wrote in a foreword to a collection of his papers, was ‘familiar to an extent that few others are, with all the difficulties of psychoanalytic problems’. In these letters it is as though Ferenczi is Freud’s repressed unconscious – the prodigal son who keeps coming back for more – wittingly and unwittingly drawing Freud’s attention to the implications of psychoanalytic theory that Freud preferred to forget; partly because they were, inevitably, connected to all the difficulties of his own ‘problems’. Intimacy between people, like occult phenomena, is fundamentally bewildering. Freud, as Ferenczi knew, was cautious about passion in his private life. If psychoanalysis, for Ferenczi, was a way of dispelling the secrecy between people, it was also a way of having an intimate relationship with Freud (Ferenczi did, of course, have a brief analysis with Freud). But Freud, unlike Ferenczi, was a lover of secrets, and believed that they should not be squandered, or allowed to become some spurious currency of intimacy. ‘Don’t sacrifice too many of your secrets,’ he warns Ferenczi, ‘out of an excess of kindness.’

Freud, Ferenczi had written in one of his early papers, ‘had succeeded in surprising a process ... in taking it in the midst of its work, in flagrante, so to speak’. Dreaming was the process in question; Ferenczi clearly liked the idea of Freud as the man who found things out, the transgressor of privacy. But from a Freudian point of view that Ferenczi would never quite accept, human beings were the animals that kept secrets. Ferenczi always wanted to get to the bottom of such things, so to speak; and the secrets of sexuality, that Freud had discovered, were inextricably linked for him with the mysteries of more traditional, folkloric forms of magic. Of course a lot of ‘artists and intellectuals’, not to mention ordinary people, at the turn of the century were interested in what was then called, to give it scientific credibility, psychical research. Freud himself had been made an honorary member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1911, but he was wary, as this correspondence makes clear, of psychoanalysis being associated with the fringes of science. He preferred to think of psychoanalysis as a medical treatment rather than a séance. But despite Freud’s misgivings, Ferenczi went to visit a medium, Frau Seidler, with Freud’s full endorsement, after his and Freud’s trip to America in 1909. He went ‘with the intention’, the editors write calmly, ‘of investigating parapsychological phenomena’, as if we might be suspicious of his real motives (as in, ‘he bought pornography with the intention of investigating erotic phenomena.’) He enthusiastically reports the outcome to Freud and the intrepid conquistador of the other mysteries is ‘shocked’. ‘Keep quiet about it for the time being,’ Freud counsels. In his next letter, written five days later, Freud has, as it were, changed his mind: ‘let us keep absolute silence about it ... should one now, as a result of this experience commit oneself to occultism? Certainly not; it is only a matter of thought transference.’ But what, then, is thought transference, and how does it work? The vocabulary for one mysterious form of exchange merely replaces another. And what has happened to the honesty (a key word in this correspondence), the spirit of open scientific enquiry that Freud and psychoanalysis had prided itself on? The psychoanalyst could protect himself from sexuality, but he might not be able to resist the contamination of the paranormal.

But Ferenczi, who planned a book on thought transference that he never wrote, was beginning to discover something in his clinical work that the peculiar practices of psychics helped him to think about; and that it has taken psychoanalysts virtually until now to appreciate fully (or rather, face). Ferenczi was finding that sometimes his own free-associations to the patient’s material seemed to be of a piece with what the patient was saying to him. As though the analyst might be having some of the patient’s (repressed) thoughts for him; continuing them, as it were. The analyst therefore became, in a slightly different sense of the word, a medium for the thoughts and feelings the patient could not bear. The patient, that is to say, could evoke in the analyst – as though by thought transference – the disowned parts of himself. In a way that parapsychological phenomena made crudely vivid, there was a kind of hidden exchange of psychic states going on between people, a black market of feelings that was not subject to conscious control. And it was obvious to Ferenczi that if this was true, then it was going to be a two-way traffic: it couldn’t only be the patient doing this to the analyst but it must also be the analyst doing it to the patient. This made psychoanalysis a rather more reciprocal venture than Freud’s resolutely scientific, quasi-medical model could allow. When two people speak to each other they soon become inextricable. As Freud and Ferenczi went on speaking to each other, and of course to other people, they needed to find theories about what happens when people speak (and listen) to each other, to manage the intensity of the experience. It was as though Freud had invented the psychoanalytic relationship as a refuge from intimacy – a place it could be studied, a relationship about intimacy but not ‘really’ intimate itself – and that Ferenczi was determinedly showing him that there was no talk without intimacy or its refusal.

It is, as it were, no accident that, in the years covered by this correspondence, Freud and Ferenczi, as their relationship evolves, begin to write about the connections between homosexuality and paranoia (between sameness and difference). In 1911 Freud published his Schreber case (‘I am Schreber, nothing but Schreber,’ Freud writes to Ferenczi); and Ferenczi published ‘On The Part Played by Homosexuality in the Pathogenesis of Paranoia’, and his remarkable paper, ‘The Nosology of Male Homosexuality’. And towards the end of this correspondence Freud published a provisional summation of all this in Totem and Taboo, which Ferenczi ingenuously praises as Freud’s ‘new and outstanding idea of transmission by means of unconscious understanding’ – an idea that Ferenczi had been ‘carrying’ for Freud for several years, an idea derived from parapsychology. As the editors put it, I hope with unconscious irony, ‘Freud and Ferenczi did more work together than has sometimes been acknowledged.’ Theory, as psychoanalysis shows, is always first and foremost local emotional politics. ‘If psychoanalysis is a paranoia,’ Ferenczi writes ‘jokingly’ to Freud, ‘then I have already been successful in overcoming the stage of persecution mania and replacing it with megalomania.’

If psychoanalysis is a paranoia then it is, in the terms of its own theory, a love between men. ‘Paranoia,’ as Ferenczi wrote, more or less echoing Freud, ‘is perhaps nothing else at all but disguised homosexuality.’ There is something so unbearable about love for one’s own sex that it is turned into hatred, and the hatred is then projected into other people and comes back from outside as persecution. In fact Ferenczi believed that men adored women to protect themselves from their love for men; so the men then hated the women because they weren’t men and the women felt inadequate, unable to satisfy their men or themselves. ‘I quite seriously believe,’ Ferenczi wrote in ‘The Nosology of Male Homosexuality’, ‘that the men of today are obsessively heterosexual as the result of this affective displacement; in order to free themselves from men, they become the slaves of women.’ But what is it in men that men are so much on the run from? This was the question that Ferenczi implicitly addressed to Freud, sometimes as theory and sometimes as a direct appeal to Freud for a different, less careful intimacy.

Despite Freud’s commitment, in theory, to bisexuality – love, hate and rivalry with both parents – it was more or less assumed in psychoanalysis (and still is in some quarters) that if all goes well heterosexuality wins the day. For example, in psychoanalytic theory love for the parent of the opposite sex is referred to as the positive Oedipus complex and love for the parent of the same sex is called the negative Oedipus complex. It is, in other words, quite clear what we are supposed to be doing. But, of course, as Ferenczi intimates in the letters and his ‘scientific’ papers, heterosexuality is, among other things, a form of self-hatred; after all, what is so distasteful about one’s own sex that one has, so exclusively, to desire the opposite one? The interesting link that psychoanalysis had constructed between paranoia and homosexuality revealed something even more disquieting which Freud and Ferenczi could never quite formulate: that in psychoanalysis, at least, heterosexuality was a form of redemption from a profound, perhaps constitutive self-fear. In theory psychoanalysis promoted the value, indeed the necessity, of love for both sexes. Unlike Freud, Ferenczi wanted to try and live out – or ‘act out’, as psychoanalysts would say disparagingly – the consequences of psychoanalytic theory; and in part, with Freud himself. Or, as the editor says in his sensible Introduction, Ferenczi ‘made little clear or defensive distinction between his professional life and his private life’. The unconscious does not have a professional life. Except, that is, in psychoanalysis.

Ferenczi proposed the new term ‘ambisexuality’ in place of ‘bisexuality’ to stress what was perhaps the real novelty of the psychoanalytic version of this old, indeed ancient idea. In his view it better described the child’s actual predicament, his ‘psychical capacity for bestowing his erotism, originally objectless, on either the male or the female sex, or on both’. The translators’ word ‘bestow’ sounds quaint now, but it accurately captures the sense of desire as something conferred. For the child, like the adult, his or her desire is experienced as a gift; we privilege people with our desire for them, though they don’t always recognise quite what an honour they are being given. As these letters show, with amazing candour Ferenczi bestowed his child-like capacity for intimacy on Freud, and Freud responded with a wariness and a generosity no less passionate, but, of course, never quite passionate or open enough for Ferenczi. ‘You actually do feel best,’ Ferenczi writes to Freud, as compliment and reproach, ‘when you can be independent of the whole world.’ Both of them, inevitably, were confronted, as in a psychoanalysis, with the question of what they wanted from each other; which brought with it the question that was to haunt psychoanalysis: should wants be understood or met? In Freud’s view psychoanalysis was defined as a treatment in which wants could be thought about and not pre-empted by being gratified. In Ferenczi’s version of psychoanalysis, to frustrate the patient too much was to re-create in the treatment exactly the childhood trauma that had necessitated the treatment in the first place. This issue of whether a want is something that can be satisfied or whether it in and of itself spells the impossibility of satisfaction – the necessary gap between desire and its object – was one of the many contentions that bound Freud and Ferenczi together, and set the terms for the future of psychoanalytic debate. This correspondence, like the theoretical work written during these years – 40 works by Freud and 56 by Ferenczi – is a record of the inspiring turbulence they evoked in each other, in which issues of truth and honesty were bound up with the apparently theoretical question of homosexuality; of the feelings two men might have for each other (in the context of other significant relationships). It is unusual to be able to read such theoretical love letters, a genre traditionally associated with fantasies of truth-telling.

For Ferenczi, 17 years younger than Freud, and more emotionally extravagant, psychoanalysis was useful as a way of thinking about what he called his ‘ideal of honesty’. ‘Not everything that is infantile should be abhorred,’ he writes to Freud in the early years of their relationship, ‘for example the child’s urge for truth, which is only dammed up by false educational influences ... I still hold firmly to the conviction that it is not honesty but superfluous secrecy that is abnormal’ – one of the things that Ferenczi might be hinting at here is the superfluous secrecy between Freud and himself. In Ferenczi’s view the child is an instinctive truth-teller potentially perverted by adult conspiracies. ‘Many intelligent children,’ he writes in ‘Transitory Symptom Constructions During the Analysis’ (1912),

at the stage of repression marked by the latency period, before they have gone through ‘the great intimidation’, regard adults as dangerous fools, to whom one cannot tell the truth without running the risk of being punished for it: and whose inconsistencies and follies have to be taken into consideration. In this children are not so very wrong.

From the child’s point of view parents can be occult phenomena. And children, and the adults they will become, suffer from their parents’ inability, or unwillingness, to acknowledge their truth.

For Freud it wasn’t that children told the truth, it was that they desired their parents. So is desiring, as Ferenczi implies, a way of telling the truth, or is this belief in truth, at least in a psychoanalytic context, a noble and innocent – noble because innocent – cover story for the forbidden mess of desire? Freud believed that children lived the truth about sex; Ferenczi believed that children spoke the truth about Truth. It was as if Original Virtue was being smuggled back into psychoanalysis, Rousseau returning through the back door. Because if there is a Freudian unconscious what exactly is this truth that the child has an ‘urge’ for? ‘Superfluous secrecy’ could just be a way of describing the repressed unconscious of Freudian Man. What Ferenczi never quite spells out is what the child wants from telling the so-called truth; that would be the Freudian question. In so far as childhood, in Ferenczi’s version, is a state of submission then the fault lies fairly and squarely with the parents, and the child is virtually robbed of his intrinsically ambivalent and complicated nature.

At its best, of course, Ferenczi is saying something that has come to seem very important: that children grow by being listened to; that adults are frightened of listening to children because of what they might feel as a consequence; that some secrets in the family turn children into sleepwalkers; that adults seem extraordinary to children. But at its worst children are burdened with a quasi-oracular status that they cannot make sense of, or bear the responsibility for. Fantasies of Truth, after all, are adult constructions, something children learn from the adult world. Children are not ‘naturally’ anything, other than the adult’s construction of (their) nature. But these issues, as discussed between Freud and Ferenczi, are part of the origins of the contemporary debate about child sexual abuse. And Ferenczi’s ‘ideal of honesty’, which is a recurrent theme in these letters, alerted psychoanalysts to the senses in which interpretation can be a refusal to listen; and that believing the patient – which means believing in the patient – is both integral to the successful process of analysis and, more importantly, is a fundamental form of kindness. But in what sense does believing what people say entail agreeing with them, and how do I know if I’ve believed what someone says to me? If I hear something they don’t hear in what they say, am I then disbelieving them? Freud’s work, in a way that Ferenczi could not always acknowledge, ineluctably complicates these notions of truth and belief. In fact, one of the implications of Freudian theory was that the idea of Truth, as some consensual superordinate idol, as something around which we might all agree, could be a coercive attempt to deny differences. Ferenczi, at various points in this correspondence, suggests that psychoanalysis, with its promise of free speech, might itself be a unifying force.

Freud, however, experiences his younger colleague’s ideal of honesty as a more complicated appeal than it in fact was. Characteristically, Freud picked up the demand in Ferenczi’s often expressed wish for openness and honesty. ‘Just think what it would mean,’ Ferenczi wrote to Freud in 1910, ‘if ONE COULD TELL EVERYONE THE TRUTH, one’s father, teacher, neighbour, and even the king. All fabricated, imposed authority would go to the devil – what is rightful would remain natural.’ Ferenczi understood like nobody else, even Freud perhaps, the revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis. He knew that people speaking differently to each other changes the world (it is noticeable, though, that the people he wants to speak the truth to, in so far as they are explicitly gendered, are men). Ferenczi doesn’t, however, tell us quite why or how being able to tell everyone the truth – whatever one conceives that to be – would destroy those forms of oppressive authority. But in his reply to this letter of Ferenczi’s it is as though Freud has heard this as a wish, which it must also have been, for freer talk between the two of them: Freud was certainly, as Ferenczi was quick to tell him, father, teacher and king to him. ‘I feel myself to be a match for anything,’ Freud replies cannily, ‘and approve of the overcoming of my homosexuality, with the result being greater independence.’ For Freud freedom was, at least explicitly, in the overcoming, the silencing of his homosexual self: for Ferenczi independence would be in its free expression. Freud sensed, I think, that Ferenczi’s fantasy of honesty, of people saying anything and everything to each other, was also a fantasy of symbiosis, of there being no differences between people – if we tell each other everything it is as though we never leave each other out. Saying whatever comes into one’s mind was something Freud believed one should do in analysis; Ferenczi wanted the psychoanalytic relationship to be the paradigm for social relations. But it would have to be a version of psychoanalysis in which the analyst could tell the patient whatever was on his mind as well. Mutual interpretation and mutual free-association. No kings.

What was homosexuality for Freud, we are obliged to wonder now, if he needed to ‘overcome’ it to sustain his independence? It often seems as though Freud experiences Ferenczi, in these letters, as both the son trying to seduce the father, and as the son trying to turn the father into a mother. Unsubtly, Ferenczi refers in a letter to Jung’s wife talking of Freud’s ‘antipathy toward giving completely of yourself as a friend’. Was Freud anxious about intimacy, as Ferenczi often implies in this correspondence, or was it that Ferenczi couldn’t tolerate the differences between them; differences of generation and temperament, different ways of loving? Difference or defensiveness, of course, has always been a dilemma that psychoanalysis has been unable to deal with. Is the patient different from the analyst’s description of him, or merely resistant to the analyst’s interpretation, and who is in a position to decide? If one way of talking about these perplexing issues, albeit guardedly, was to theorise about homosexuality, the other, significantly less contentious way, was to talk about the women in their lives. Or rather, for the younger men to talk to Freud about the women in their lives. Mrs Freud was another of Freud’s secrets.

As in all Freud’s correspondences, the men tend to flex their psychoanalytic muscles over the women. The psychoanalytic ‘movement’ is always an invigoratingly fraught subject around which they can divide and bond; but it is as though they have the women in common, as a problem they can huddle over. Managing the women – Freud, for example, refers in a letter here to Lou Andreas-Salomé as ‘a woman of dangerous intelligence’ – and the so-called heretics kept Freud’s psychoanalytic group together. The drama of Freud and Ferenczi’s relationship in this correspondence is fed by the well-known drama of Jung’s dissension, and the less notorious drama of Ferenczi’s love affair with an older woman, Gizella, his mistress and future wife, and her daughter Elma, who was Ferenczi’s, and later Freud’s, analysand. Ferenczi was briefly engaged to Elma, who eventually married someone else. Jung, as this correspondence shows, was clearly scapegoated as an occultist and anti-semite; which is not to say that he wasn’t both those things, but it is to say something about what the psychoanalytic group used him for. And Ferenczi’s professional reputation was to be retrospectively disparaged because of his supposed emotional and erotic instability.

In these letters, the first of three volumes, we see Ferenczi gradually trying to cure himself of Freud, but sustain his relationship with him. Jung, Ferenczi writes to Freud in 1912, ‘identifies confession with psychoanalysis and evidently doesn’t know that the confession of sins is the lesser task of psychoanalytic therapy: the greater one is THE DEMOLITION OF THE FATHER IMAGO, which is completely absent in confession.’ Ferenczi realised that the future of psychoanalysis depended on analysts understanding their relationship with – their transference to – Freud himself. Freud, after all, had done a very paradoxical thing; he had invented a form of authority, the science of psychoanalysis, as a treatment that depended on demolishing forms of authority. It was to be a double-bind that drove people mad; either crazily conformist or crazily bizarre. ‘I had to observe not without pain,’ Ferenczi writes to Freud after their holiday together in 1914, ‘that my position with respect to you, specifically, is still not completely natural, and that your presence arouses inhibitions of various kinds in me that influence, and at times almost paralyse, my actions and even my thinking.’ It takes two to create this kind of unease.

Ferenczi was showing Freud something very important, making the difficult demands on psychoanalysis and its discoverer that would be the source of its future vitality. How could two people sit in a room together talking and go on believing that one was more authoritative than the other? Why would a person want to understand someone, or even cure them, rather than have sex with them? How could one protect a person’s best interests by being unfriendly to them? Psychoanalytic theory made these questions, as Ferenczi knew, unavoidable. Psychoanalytic institutions ruled them out of court.

Psychoanalytic trainings are still paralysed by their excessive regard for the older generations (the average age of the contributors, if they are not actually dead, to the so-called New Psychoanalytic Library must be at least sixty). The legacy of Freud and Ferenczi – the correspondences between them – might lift some flagging spirits in a profession whose moralism and truth claims are rightly under suspicion.