The Freud Museum

Events Archive

25 September 1999

Sandor Ferenczi For Our Time

Conference Report

Our international conference in September coincided with the publication of a paperback edition of Sándor Ferenczi's Selected Writings, newly translated by Julia Borossa. It offered an opportunity to re-appraise and celebrate the work of one of Freud's closest collaborators, and a true innovator in the history of psychoanalysis. The breadth of Ferenczi's work may be gauged by the range of interests represented at the conference: psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, academics and writers from many different disciplines: literature, film, history, philosophy, psychology. There is something in Ferenczi's multifaceted work to address and add insight to all of these areas; his commitment to the art of healing, his sensitivity to social issues and common misery, his analysis of the complex links between body and psyche and his subtle understanding of the nature of trauma. Julia Borossa says: "He surprises, challenges, disturbs us - disarranging easy assumptions, enabling them to be rearranged in altogether novel ways, this was his gift to his contemporaries and it is also his gift to us."

Ferenczi was born in raised in Miskolc, a small town some distance from Budapest, one of a dozen surviving children. His parents were both Jewish immigrants from Galicia who identified with and were part of a rising, educated Hungarian middle-class. They were booksellers, and small-scale publishers, and Sándor grew up surrounded by books, used to the company of poets.

He also caught the first spark of a lifelong interest in the strange wonder of the psyche: He experimented with hypnotism and with different kinds of spiritalist phenomena, before studying medicine in Vienna.
Ferenczi's lifelong relation with Freud began in early 1908, and soon blossomed into a close professional collaboration which merged into an intimate friendship. Their correspondence was, as Freud wrote, "an intimate sharing of life, spirit and interests". The interest that dominated both of them was psychoanalysis, and the two men exchanged thousands of letters in which we can see the emergence of many of the key concepts of the discipline: transference, countertransference, paranoia, object-relations. Despite a gradual strain in the final years of their friendship, the strain increasing as Ferenczi became more and more involved in theorising trauma and critiquing the power structure, as he saw it, of the analytic relationship, they never quite fell out, and their final four letters reveal a poignant desire to care for each other.

As early as 1913 Lou Andreas Salomé wrote in her diary: "Perhaps publication of Ferenczi's ideas is premature with respect to Freud's present and next endeavors, but they really are complementary. So Ferenczi's time must come".

Julia Borossa comments: "In our time, psychoanalysis is challenged in its defensiveness and is asked to open itself to a whole series of difficult, potentially transformative dialogues: with feminism, which challenges its male-centeredness, its phallocentrism; with 'queer theory', which challenges its heterocentrism, the normalising structure of the Oedipus Complex; with postcolonial studies, which challenges its Eurocentrism, its universalising of Western familial structures; and with sociology and politics more generally, which challenge the way it is seen to priviledge subjective processes over social ones. I think that Ferenczi's work can help psychoanalysis take up the challenge of these necessary dialogues. It does that on the one hand in the importance it accords trauma in the shaping of human subjectivity."

It was with the complexity of the concept of trauma that Ruth Leys, from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, introduced the conference. In a fascinating paper she elucidated the 'mimetic' and 'non-mimetic', 'originary' (for the ego) and 'post originary' models of trauma which traversed Ferenczi's theoretical and therapeutic endeavours.

After the morning break, Kathleen Kelly-Lainé from Paris offered clinical material to show how sexual trauma, or even witnessing constant arguments between parents, can turn a child into a premature adult. The child becomes, as she put it, 'a kind of psychiatrist', while thinking may become a substitute for maternal care.

In the afternoon Martin Stanton examined the importance of Ferenczi for the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. Ferenczi's research into 'activity' raised the issue of 'focus' in analysis, much considered today in 'brief therapy' techniques. In bold experiments he incorporated criticism and self criticism into the process and acknowledged the importance of distrust in the analytic relationship.

Finally Meira Liekierman ('The sense of reality: Ferenczi, Klein and Clinical Child Psychoanalysis') reminded us of the influence of Ferenczi's work on Melanie Klein. Able to feel and think himself into the life of the infant, she described his life's work as 'an extended discourse on human intimacy'.

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