The Freud Museum

Events Archive

16 June 2001

The Legacy of Charles Rycroft

Conference Report

This was the second conference of the year jointly organised by the British Journal of Psychotherapy and The Freud Museum.

Charles Rycroft was a significant figure in the modern history of psychoanalysis. Best known for his 'Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis', his ideas and interests ranged widely between philosophy, biology, history and art. He criticised the rigidity of psychoanalytic formulations and the institutionalisation of psychoanalysis, resigning from the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1968.

In the early 60s Rycroft passionately argued that the theoretical ideal of 'rationality' proposed by ego psychology alienates human adults from the creative springs of inner communication and emotion. His work on dreams and symbolism stressed the essentially positive function of these 'flights of the imagination', and in doing so he posited new ways of thinking about psychic development. As a humane and perceptive clinician Rycroft focused on the nature of language and preconscious communication in the analytic encounter. His books include Imagination and Reality (1968), The Innocence of Dreams (1979) Psychoanalysis and Beyond (1985), and Viewpoints (1991).

This conference brought together leading psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and historians of psychoanalysis to discuss the enduring legacy of Rycroft's work and the inspiration it has proved for clinicians and creative thinkers.

In her introductory talk, Jenny Rycroft (wife of Charles and herself a psychotherapist), described some of the personal influences which went to make up the paradox that was Charles Rycroft. Traditionalist and rebel, gentleman scholar and populariser, a rationalist who appreciated the spiritual side of life. She saw his life of extreme priviledge combined with early loss and deprivation (of his father and their country home) as significant traumatic factors.

The following talk by Margaret Arden explained some of the intellectual background which went to make up Rycroft's distinctive style of analytic theory. He read economics and history at Cambridge, then turned to medicine. Despite his reputation and public profile, he was averse to putting his name to a body of ideas. When asked what his theory would have been, he answered 'A biological theory of meaning'. He rejected the idea of psychoanalysis as a 'science of the mind' - meaning and subjectivity turned it in another direction.

Tracing the development of Rycroft's thought in detail, Jeremy Holmes noted also the 'poise' that characterised his style, both as a theorist and therapist. Ever willing to question orthodoxy and explore new avenues of research, Rycroft argued against the 'tyranny of psychic determinism', as he called it. He did not regard psychoanalysis as a causal theory but as a theory of meaning, and he offered interpretations and ideas in a questioning, tentative way - non-dogmatic yet carrying authority and authenticity. Indeed he devalued interpretations as the curative factor in therapy.

Paul Roazen, the eminent historian of psychoanalysis, focused on Rycroft's essay on 'ablation' in order to elucidate a psychic and social process that occurs frequently in history. He showed how the same disowning of the past (distinct from repression or denial) was prevalent in the history of psychoanalysis, social history and individual lives. The phantasy of self creation, having 'ablated' the parental images, can play a large role in the work of creative individuals. In creating their work they create themselves. Similarly, ablation of the historical past may be the starting point for dangerous ideologies such as Fascism.

Perhaps it was the idea of being a 'self made man' that led Rycroft to resign from the British Psychoanalytical Society. In the final paper of the day, Susan Budd, drew attention to some of the negative consequences of this act. In particular it meant that his analysands in training could not become analysts and he began to lose touch with developments in the clinical field. With some regret she felt that Rycroft did not make contributions commensurate with his outstanding gifts and intelligence, noting that his most creative output occurred before his split with the Society.

Each contribution provoked lively discussion and reminiscence. Many in the audience knew or had worked with Charles Rycroft and were eager to honour his name and remember his legacy. Pearl King chaired the day in the usual engaging, spontaneous and erudite manner that we have come to expect, and we would like to thank her and all the speakers for a memorable day.

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