Obituary: Kurt Eissler
Tuesday 02 March 1999
An eminent scholar and historian of the international psychoanalytic movement, Eissler was a distinguished clinician. He combined a profound understanding of Freud's metapsychology with practical application and, alongside Freud's daughter Anna, is one of the only successors who developed and expanded Freud's concepts without distorting them.
He was the author of 12 published books and almost 100 articles, many of which are cornerstones for psychoanalytic training. His most important role was as a Freud biographer, with a special understanding of trauma, creativity, and genius. He subsequently founded the Sigmund Freud Archives, and established the Anna Freud Foundation and the Freud Literary Heritage Foundation.
Among the psycho-biographical books Eissler published is a notable study of Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci: psychoanalytic notes on the enigma, 1961), a two-volume work on Goethe (Goethe: a psychoanalytic study, 1775- 1786, 1963), and another on Shakespeare's Hamlet. He wrote a pathbreaking book in The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient (1955), and another on medical orthodoxy and the future of psychoanalysis. His "irreverence" - his own word - for rigid orthodoxies defined his consistent stance as a classical psychoanalyst impatient with institutional inflexibilities, which he believed endangered the future of psychoanalysis.
Eissler's radical open-mindedness allowed him to introduce new rules for treatment of patients, to address questions of fees and the effect on the analyst of his own ageing process, and to write definitive essays on mechanisms of defence such as isolation, on the death drive, on the metapsychology of the preconscious, and on ego structure and psychoanalytic technique.
Bold in argument, he refuted the mis-statements and errors of Freud's would-be biographers and detractors by simply demonstrating that they did not read closely or accurately enough: he wrote two books to correct lesser scholars' views on the suicide of Freud's patient Viktor Tausk. Most recently, he combated injustices of many kinds, including the fashionable misapprehensions of Freud's seduction theory, the topic of his Nachlass, a book-length manuscript.
Indefatigable and enormously disciplined, he owed his stamina to his early rigorous training in Vienna, where he assisted August Aichorn, a specialist in adolescence and delinquency, and also to his service as a psychiatrist in the US Army during the Second World War. His writings on schizophrenia, delinquency, efficient soldiers, and malingering indicate his mettle.
He wrote a book on Freud as an expert witness in the trial of Julius Wagner-Juaregg. After the war, he wrote a prescient indictment of German psychiatry which defended against compensating survivors of the concentration camps, including parents who saw their children killed. His own sibling was murdered in a concentration camp in the autumn of 1943.
K.R. Eissler (as he preferred to style himself) was born in Vienna in 1908. He received a PhD in Psychology in 1934 and an MD in 1937 from the University of Vienna. His PhD thesis under Professor Karl Buhler was on the constancy of visual configurations in the variations of objects and their representation. He underwent psychoanalytic training at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in its most fertile period among colleagues such as August Aichorn, Paul Federn, and Richard Sterba, and became a member of the Vienna Psychoanlaytic Society in 1938.
His psychoanalytic practice was interrupted by Germany's annexation of Austria. He fled to the United States, to Chicago, where he qualified for the American Board of Psychiatry, and contested the hegemony of Franz Alexander's technique. He once again interrupted his practice and volunteered in 1943 for service in the army and, as Captain of the Medical Corps, he directed a consultation service in a training camp of the US ground forces. After the war, he moved to New York, where he remained in psychoanalytic practice until three weeks before his death.
A footnote to his legacy is the controversy which arose during the establishment of a line of succession to the directorship of the Sigmund Freud Archives which he founded in 1952 with a group of psychoanalysts, with himself in the capacity of secretary. The purpose of the archives was to collect original documents relating to the history of psychoanalysis, especially letters to and from Freud and interviews with those who knew him.
A recent exhibition of a small sample of the collection housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and soon to travel to the Jewish Museum in New York, and then to Vienna and Los Angeles, does not do justice to the scope of Eissler's original project which arose out of his traumatic flight from Vienna: all his papers had been left behind and after the war he longed to find an answer Freud had published to a newspaper questionnaire regarding "10 good books". It was the frustration of that quest which led Eissler to conceive of establishing an archive "fur Ewig".
He was predeceased in 1989 by his wife, Dr Ruth Eissler, an editor of the book series "The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child".
Kurt Robert Eissler, psychoanalyst: born Vienna 2 July 1908; married 1936 Ruth Selke (died 1989); died New York 17 February 1999.
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