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A Fine Romance

A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud

by Aldo Carotenuto, translated by Arno Pomerans, by John Shepley, by Krishna Winston
Pantheon, 250 pp., $16.95

Sabina Spielrein was the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family from Rostovon-Don in Russia. Her grandfather and great-grandfather had been rabbis. From early childhood, her rich imagination strained both to the heights and to the depths: in Goethe’s words (quoted by Freud as applicable to sexuality), “from Heaven, across the world, to Hell.” She thought of herself as a goddess, in possession of a great strength that would allow her to achieve anything she wanted. She also became obsessed with feces, once sitting on her heels in a way which hampered defecation for two weeks. By the age of eighteen she could no longer look at anyone without imagining that they were defecating. Fits of depression alternated with hysterical outbursts.

Around this time (1904) she traveled to the Bürghölzli clinic in Switzerland to seek a cure. She came into the hands of Jung. “Difficult case,” he informed Freud, “a twenty-year-old Russian girl student, ill for six years.” Jung designated the case as one of “psychotic hysteria,” and reported it to the First International Congress. By 1911, she was well enough to gain a degree in medicine. She also wrote to Freud saying that Jung, her analyst, had been her lover and had cast her off.

Hitherto it has been assumed that Sabina was fantasizing. But in 1977, two Italian psychoanalysts, Aldo Carotenuto and Carlo Trombetta, discovered documentary material, in the basement of the former Institute of Psychology in Geneva, that substantiates Sabina’s claim. Her diaries, letters to Freud and Jung, and twenty letters from Freud to her, form the basis of Aldo Carotenuto’s study. A serious loss is that forty-six letters from Jung have been withheld by his heirs.

The nature of the relationship, however, seems not to be in doubt. Sharing Jung’s passion for Nordic myths and for Wagner, Sabina fantasized that they would have a blond son, whom they would name Siegfried. In reality they confined themselves to kisses and speechless gazing…. “We could sit in speechless ecstasy for hours…he wept in my presence, etc., etc.” The love was platonic, in the deepest sense. He became, she says, enraptured at their telepathic sympathy.* Eventually someone (Sabina suspected his wife) sent her mother an anonymous letter, and the mother wrote to Jung. Jung brazened it out in his letter of reply, explaining that since her daughter had not been paying him for the consultations he had not felt professionally obligated, and therefore it was easy to move from a relationship of doctor and patient to one of friendship: “Therefore, I would suggest that if you wish me to adhere strictly to my role as doctor, you should pay me a fee as suitable recompense for my trouble. In that way you may be absolutely certain that I will respect my duty as a doctor under all circumstances…. My fee is 10 francs per consultation.” He then broke with the young woman. She writes to Freud that she is tortured not so much by the actual breaking off as by the cruel and cynical way he has gone about it: as if their love never existed. She can bear the thought that they must part, but she cannot bear the thought that she has given her heart and soul to a monster.

On first becoming aware of the young woman’s accusations against his colleague and disciple, Freud was honorably cautious in his response to her. “Audiatur et altera pars,” he reminded her—nothing like some legal Latin for putting a hysterical Russian girl in her place. Jung, in offering Freud his version of events, commented that Miss Spielrein had “kicked up a vile scandal solely because I denied myself the pleasure of giving her a child.”

The speechless ecstasy became a quarrelsome triangle; Jung upset Sabina further by claiming that he had projected on her his love for one of Freud’s daughters; Sabina dismayed Freud by discovering that her mythical blond Siegfried was fathered by Freud as well as by Jung. However, Freud’s reluctance to claim spiritual paternity diminished as his father-son relationship with Jung grew strained and then broke. Sabina came to Vienna, and joined his circle. He congratulated her on furthering her separation from Jung by marrying a doctor, and hoped she would bear a dark, not a blond, son (she had a daughter). As his unfulfilled wish implies, Freud attempted to draw Spielrein into their shared Jewishness, against the blond Aryans: “We are and remain Jews. The others will only exploit us and will never understand or appreciate us.” That sounds racist—yet what verbs would Freud have used if he could have seen into the future?

Sabina Spielrein’s “gift” to him was not a little Siegfried, but the germ of his theory of the death-wish. Her important essay on the balance of creative and destructive forces in passion was published in the Year-book of 1912. Her ideas were influenced both by Jung’s theories and the experience of their passion for each other: so, through Sabina, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle was linked with the apostate Jung. In fact, she went on striving consciously to reconcile the views of the two men. Far from learning to transform her love of Jung into hatred, as Freud urged her to do, she succeeded in preserving her love and respect for him, as clearly she needed to do for the sake of her own self-respect. She wrote him long, friendly letters on psychoanalytical topics. Never afraid to try to take on both sages on equal terms—though she seems not quite up to the struggle—she urged Jung to “have the courage to recognize Freud in all his grandeur, even if you do not agree with him on every point…. Only then will you be completely free, and only then will you be the greater one.”

To Freud she wrote: “In spite of all his wavering, I like J. and would like to lead him back into our fold. You, Professor Freud, and he have not the faintest idea that you belong together far more than anyone might suspect.” Her attempt at reconciling the two profound and complementary figures was noble and correct. But of course it was doomed to fail: especially with Freud, who, if once he hated someone, never wavered. (The most chilling sentence in this book is his dismissive report to Sabina of the suicide of the loyal but vaguely threatening disciple Victor Tausk: “Dr. Tausk put an end to his unfortunate life on 3 July.”)

In 1923, Sabina decided to return to Russia and practice psychotherapy there. Freud seems to have been not unhappy to see her go. What happened to her is unknown. Her name appeared in the lists of Soviet analysts, until psychoanalysis was banned in 1937. She is thought to have perished during the Terror. Not even a photograph of her has come down to us.

Like everything to do with Freud and Jung at that period, the Jung-Spielrein affair is interesting. But it is not really a surprise. From the very beginning of psychoanalysis, Venus attached herself to its rituals, taking the practitioners unawares. The germinal case, Breuer’s treatment of Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim), ended in chaos when the patient went into abdominal retractions and announced that Dr. Breuer’s child was coming. Breuer, realizing that he too was emotionally involved, fled in a cold sweat and took his wife on a second honeymoon to Venice. The terms later coined for such experiences—transference and counter-transference—seem scarcely adequate to express the Dionysiac forces unleashed: forces that were excluded when the case came to be written up.

Freud, aware of the dangers, ruled that the analyst must keep his patient emotionally at bay. When Sandor Ferenczi claimed that one ought to kiss one’s patients, since they were in need of the love denied them as children, Freud discouraged the practice, on the grounds that one did not know where it might lead. (It led, eventually, to the sexual therapy defended by—among others—Martin Shepard in his Memoirs of a Defrocked Psychoanalyst.) But Freud, too, kissed his patients unconsciously—and worse, or better. His earliest case histories are quite revealing. When he compels Elisabeth von R. to confront the hidden knowledge that she had been in love with her brother-in-law, his style becomes erotically charged: “…now forced itself irresistibly upon her once more, like a flash of lightning in the dark…the analyst’s labours were richly rewarded…fending off…excitations…resistance…a shattering effect on the poor girl…the most frightful pains…one last desperate effort to reject…we probed…. I was able to relieve her once more….” Apart from the analytical terminology, it is the style of mildly sadistic pornography. As with such eroticism, the male never loses control. Freud practices on Elisabeth von R. a mental coitus interruptus: “I put the situation dryly before her….”

The rituals of the archetypal Freudian analysis are similar to the rituals of love and seduction. A young woman in a highly nervous state goes every day to the private room of a middle-aged, married gentleman, and lies down on a couch. He is in a position of complete power, she is exceptionally weak. He demands that she trust him completely, revealing to him her dreams, her most intimate, embarrassing secrets, her obscene desires. He probes and probes, over a period of months. He expects her to resist, and this becomes a part of the charm of the situation. Freud’s case studies are tales of psychic seduction, infinitely more subtle and stirring than the conventional sort. At first, he unveils the superficial layers, then he reaches the more resistant material—the corset, so to speak; and finally, after a superhuman effort by the seducer, “everything is now clear….” Having achieved his goal, the analyst must now get rid of the young woman as firmly but gently as possible: making her see sense. The affair is over. They “talk it through,” or abreact. The parting is usually sober, subdued. Freud is happy if, a few years later, he bumps into his former patient and finds she is reasonably well and bears him no ill will.

These undercurrents of Eros—if I am correct in detecting them—are not to be regretted. The instincts of Ferenczi were surely correct: almost everyone needs more love, and a love affair cheers us all up—at least in the short run. It is a strength, not a weakness, of the early analyses that they are not at all as scientific as they claim, but crammed with deceits, confusions, weaknesses—the analyst’s as well as the patient’s. It makes them human; and perhaps, for that very reason, more therapeutic than the objective, unemotional analyses which Freud recommended and believed he practiced. It may be significant that although “Anna O.” suffered relapses after her treatment by Breuer, she became later on a prominent social worker on behalf of Jews. Sabina Spielrein made a more dramatic recovery, taking her degree in medicine only seven years after Jung began treating her, and going on to make original contributions to psychoanalysis. Considering the extent of her disorder when the treatment began, this is equivalent to a violent criminal becoming an outstanding judge.

Admittedly, in her letters and diaries she rarely appears more than sane “nor’-nor’ west”: but that is a great deal. Some of her academic writings, particularly her paper on the death-wish, would have made interesting additions to the book under review. As a writer, Dr. Carotenuto falls way behind the founders. One chapter begins: “It is time to return to the external events of Sabina Spielrein’s life”; and his next chapter begins, after another digression: “But it is time to return to Sabina Spielrein.” A Jungian himself, he is at his best when helping us to understand Jung’s apparently cruel behavior. In spite of the withheld letters, the actions of Jung do become explicable and forgivable. Sabina’s transference, according to Dr. Carotenuto, was “psychotic” rather than “neurotic.” In simpler terms, her nature demanded all, gave all. Encompassing in her vision, at one and the same time, superhuman goddesses and feces, she must have held an immense allure for Jung, whose imagination also stretched life to its limits, who once hallucinated a golden turd unloosed by God. Probing into Sabina’s soul, he must have felt that “Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.” Not a psychic affair, therefore, like Breuer’s with Anna O. or Freud’s with Elisabeth von R., but a psychic marriage. Alone day after day, month after month, with this voracious, all-loving, all-accepting anima-woman, he seems to have fallen into a kind of trance, like an enchanted prince in folk tales.

The accusatory letter from Sabina’s mother may have brought reality flooding back. In his terror at what he had allowed to happen, he reacted with a defensive, childish cruelty. In 1919, in one of his last letters to Sabina before her return to Russia, Jung explained his actions in words that are truthful and moving: “The love of S. for J. made the latter aware of something he had previously only vaguely suspected, that is, of a power in the unconscious that shapes one’s destiny, a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance. The relationship had to be ‘sublimated’ because otherwise it would have led him to delusion and madness…. Occasionally one must be unworthy, simply in order to be able to continue living.”

  1. *

    Jung might also have been intrigued, as I was, by the many coincidences which link Sabina Spielrein’s life with that of the fictional patient Lisa Erdman in my novel The White Hotel, though the details of her life were unknown to me when I wrote the novel.

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