BOOK REVIEW / Jung woman's fancy: 'A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein' - John Kerr: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds

Galen Strawson
Sunday 13 February 1994 01:02

SABINA SPIELREIN arrived at the Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich in August 1904. She was 18. She came from a rich and influential Russian Jewish family, and her case was given to the young Carl Jung.

Jung was just beginning to use Freud's little-known psychoanalytical methods, and reckoned that Spielrein was suffering from 'psychotic hysteria'. She could not sit at table without being overcome by thoughts of defecation, and 'if she was reproached in any way', Jung wrote in 1907, 'she answered by sticking out her tongue or . . . cries of disgust, and gestures of horror, because each time she had before her the vivid image of her father's chastising hand, coupled with sexual excitement, which immediately passed over into ill-concealed masturbation'.

Spielfrein's meal-time obsession was commonplace at the time, and unsurprising in a household that grotesquely suppressed any mention of natural functions. (Her inconsistent and flirtatious mother managed to have the curriculum of the Rostov-on-Don Gymnasium changed specifically in order to prevent her daughter learning about sexual reproduction.) Once away from her family, however, she recovered fast - her analysis with Jung was over by December 1904, although she was not officially discharged until June 1905 - and she enrolled at the Zurich medical school. She qualified as a doctor in 1911, with top honours in psychiatry, and her dissertation on schizophrenia was published in the same year in the Yearbook for Psychoanalytic and Psychopathological Researches, which was edited by Jung.

Spielrein's psychoanalytic involvement with Jung developed into an intense intellectual friendship and love affair - which may just conceivably have stopped short of full sexual intercourse. She played a major part in the development of his theories, producing instructive emotional tumult and a number of new ideas. She longed to have a son by him, and her feelings were at times fully reciprocated. Both were taken with the idea of mixing their Jewish and 'Aryan' genes to the greater glory of the universe. They fell into a habit of mutual 'poetry', according to Spielrein's journals and letter-drafts:

Dr Jung was my doctor, then he became my friend and finally my 'poet', ie, my beloved. Eventually he came to me and things went as they usually do with 'poetry'. He preached polygamy; his wife was supposed to have no objection, etc, etc.

But Jung's two daughters were followed by a son at the end of 1908, and after that he tried progressively to detach himself from Spielrein.

Having qualified as a doctor, she moved to Vienna in 1911, began to take on non-paying patients for analysis and wrote some of the 30 papers that survive in published form. She joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (its second female member) and made arrangements to be analysed by Freud - who already knew something of her involvement with Jung - just as the rupture between the men was moving into its final phase. John Kerr judges her theoretical work to have been impressive, but it was misunderstood and in effect dismissed, and she is now remembered principally as someone to whom Freud misattributed a version of his theory of the death instinct in a footnote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

On certain points of theory Spielrein aligned herself with Freud against Jung, but it seems that she continued to love the man who had 'smashed my whole life'. She married hastily in 1912, and in the event unhappily. She had two daughters, worked in Berlin and Geneva, analysed Jean Piaget for a while, and returned to Russia in 1923 to work at the Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute. Here she met the young Luria and the young Vygotsky, helping to 'jump-start Russian psychology into the 20th century'. Kerr has no information about her later career, but at some point she returned to her home town of Rostov-on-Don, for she was murdered there in a synagogue by the Germans, who occupied the town in 1941. Her two daughters were murdered with her. Her three brothers were murdered by Stalin.

Books about the early history of psychoanalysis cut many ways. Different cuts expose different structures, and two good books can have little in common. The plane of Kerr's initial incision is determined by Spielrein and the three boxes of her papers - including drafts of her letters to Freud and Jung and their replies - that were discovered, by chance and in three different places, in the 1970s and 1980s. His cut goes deep, however, and A Most Dangerous Method amounts to a new history of the early years of psychoanalysis, with special emphasis on the relations between Freud and Jung.

Kerr is clever and thorough, ingenious and reasonable. He orders an enormous amount of material. Some of his discussions of the serpent- windings of psychoanalytic theory are oppressively involved, and there are tensions between his scholarly precisions and the verve devices of his story-telling, but his overall picture is convincing and in many ways highly surprising. We look back through the myth of Freud: lonely genius out of step with his time, almost universally reviled, ultimately triumphant, sole leader of the psychoanalytic movement from the start. None of this is true. Freud's ideas were of their time, not before it. His principal source of inspiration was his library. Some of his ideas were good, some were preposterous, but all received serious consideration right from the start.

Freud's and Jung's international reputations were effectively equal before they broke off communication, and Jung's contribution to the success of the psychoanalytic movement was enormous. It was he and his distinguished Swiss colleague Bleuler 'who put Freud on the scientific map, not the other way round'. Jung was 'the motor of the story, the engine that (made) things happen', according to Kerr. His secession was a great loss, for 'henceforth psychoanalysis was whatever Freud said it was'. Concern for doctrinal orthodoxy overrode the search for truth.

The story of Freud, Jung, and Spielrein is extraordinary, and Kerr has his reasons for calling it 'an unusually gruesome ghost story'. Freud wrote to Karl Abraham of 'the brutal holy Jung and his pious parrots'; Jung wrote to Spielrein of Freud's 'sinful rape of the holy'. Freud succumbed to paranoia about anti-Semitism - a difficult thing to do when surrounded by so much real anti-Semitism. Jung toiled through mystical absurdities and episodes of near madness. They fought and parted, and misbehaved in exotic ways, and neither gave Sabina Spielrein her due.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments