The Modernity of Sandor Ferenczi

A Life inscribed within the crucible of the history of the psychoanalytic movement

This is an excerpt from chapter 2 of The Modernity of Sándor Ferenczi: his historical and contemporary importance in psychoanalysis, by Thierry Bokanowski. By providing a concise yet thorough overview of the life and work of Sandor Ferenczi, The Modernity of Sandor Ferenczi seeks to help make his thought and work better known. He was as a controversial and pioneering analyst whose importance to psychoanalysis has been routinely and wrongfully relegated to the margins of the discipline.

Covering Ferenczi’s relationship with Freud and with other early psychoanalysts, and his role in formulating well-established concepts such as introjection, countertransference and narcissistic splitting, The Modernity of Sándor Ferenczi provides an essential and accessible read for any student or clinician of psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy seeking to apply Ferenczi’s work in the present and understand the historical development of psychoanalytic ideas.

A Life inscribed within the crucible of the history of the psychoanalytic movement

Very little is known of the childhood of Sándor (Alexander) Ferenczi, the eighth child of a family of 12, born in Miskolcz, Hungary on 7 July 1873.

Sándor’s father, Bernàt Fraenkel, was a Polish Jewish immigrant born in Cracow in 1830. Sustained by his enthusiasm for the liberal and progressive national Hungarian Revolution of 1848, he took part at the age of 18 in the Hungarian insurrection against Austrian domination. Thereafter, he settled in Miskolcz, where he became the manager, and later the owner, of a bookshop, to which he added a printing press, which enabled him subsequently to practice the profession of printer and publisher. In 1879, he Magyarised his name Fraenkel into Ferenczi. In 1880, he was elected President of the Chamber of Commerce in Miskolcz. He died in 1888, when Sándor was 15. Family testimonies suggest that Sándor was his father’s favorite child.

It was Sándor’s mother, Rosa Eibenschütz, born in 1840 and married in 1858, who, on her husband’s death, took over the task of running the bookshop and printing press, managing them both successfully.

Owing to his father’s profession and cultural interests, it seems that Sándor Ferenczi’s childhood was spent in an intellectually stimulating environment, from which he benefited: he was a brilliant pupil at the Protestant College in his town and, as an adolescent, wrote poems in the style of Heine and carried out experiments in hypnosis. At the end of his secondary studies, he left for Vienna to do medical studies, receiving his medical degree in 1894. After completing his military service in the Austro-Hungarian army, he established himself in Budapest. In 1897 he started working as an intern at the St Rokus hospital in a service for prostitutes, before moving on to a neurological and psychiatric unit at the St Elisabeth poor house in 1900. Then, in 1904, he entered the clinic of a health insurance cooperative. He became an expert court medical witness in 1905, a post he gave up after the First World War. He set up his own practice in 1900, working as a general practitioner and neuropsychiatrist.

Before his first meeting with Freud, at the beginning of 1908, Ferenczi had published, among other things, a certain number of articles that clearly evoked his early interests for problems of a psychic order and neuropathic affections: ‘Consciousness and development’ (1900), ‘The love of the sciences’ (1901), ‘Female homosexuality’ (1902), ‘Saturnine encephalopathy’ (1903), ‘On the therapeutic value of hypnosis’ (1904), ‘On neurasthenia’ (1905a), ‘On sexual transitional stages’ (1905b) and ‘Treatment with hypnotic suggestion’ (1906).

Ferenczi, whose mind was cultivated, eclectic and insatiably curious but nonetheless ‘restless’, as he would later describe himself, was a man whose sensibility, strong personality and desire to ‘take care of others’ soon led him to acquire significant medical, psychiatric and therapeutic experience. He had already read Freud and Breuer by the age of 20, but, as he was to report later, neither of these readings had interested him particularly: ‘In 1893, I had read the paper he wrote, along with Breuer, concerning the psychic mechanism of hysterical symptoms, and, later, another independent paper in which he discusses infantile sexual dreams as the causes or starting-points for the psycho-neuroses’ (Ferenczi, 1926b, p. 31). It was not until he became interested in Jung’s timed associative methods and, with the encouragement of a colleague, Philippe Stein, that he took up his reading of Freud again, in particular The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a); ‘this time the effect was electric’ (Jones, 1955, p. 39).

When Ferenczi sought to meet Freud, who responded favorably by suggesting that he came to Vienna on Sunday, 2 February 1908, it was the opportunity for Ferenczi to emerge from his ‘splendid isolation’. Since 1904, a relatively important group of pupils and disciples had been gathering around Freud regularly at the evenings of the Psychological Wednesday Society. Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and C.J. Jung were to join this group in 1907 and were followed in 1908 by A.A. Brill, Sándor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones and Victor Tausk (Jones, 1955, p. 9).

This meeting was decisive. Michael Balint writes that Freud ‘was apparently so impressed by Ferenczi that he invited him to present a paper at the 1st Psychoanalytic Congress in Salzburg in April 1908, and to join him in Berchtesgaden where Freud’s family were planning to spend their summer holidays – an unprecedented event’ (Balint, 1964, p. 9). Ernest Jones adds that Ferenczi ‘soon become a special favorite’ (Jones, 1955, p. 39).

From that moment up until 1933, the year of his death, the thread of Ferenczi’s biography may be seen as being woven around the development of the extremely close ties that he maintained with the founder of psychoanalysis, and as overlapping with the history of the psychoanalytic movement, of which he immediately became one of its most distinguished members. Today this history can be followed almost from day by day thanks to the correspondence exchanged between Freud and Ferenczi, which contains almost 1,250 letters (Freud and Ferenczi, Correspondence, vols. 1–3, 1992, 1996, 2000). This correspondence constitutes one of the most precious sources of information that we possess today concerning the private lives of the two men. Comparing it with other epistolary exchanges that Freud maintained, Jones writes that Freud’s letters to Ferenczi are ‘by far the most personal’ (Jones, 1955, p. 176).

From their very first exchanges, Ferenczi was immediately and powerfully mobilized by a massive and idealizing transference onto Freud, who, as we know, never left his interlocutors feeling indifferent. This massive transference was duplicated by an immediate transference onto psychoanalysis and its corpus, which were inseparable at that time from the man Freud. Helped by Ferenczi’s remarkable aptitude to put the Freudian ferment to full use immediately – one only needs to recall the ‘master stroke’ of his article entitled ‘Introjection and transference’ (1909a), which was written one year after his meeting with Freud – this situation did not fail to seduce Freud immediately. From then on, an exceptional bond was formed between the protagonists.

Truly a case of ‘love at first sight’, Freud and Ferenczi’s relationship was strengthened by numerous common points and centers of interest that inspired them. Freud very swiftly discovered in Ferenczi the immense aptitudes for becoming a practitioner as well as a theoretician of psychoanalysis of the first order; moreover, he saw him as one of those who would prove to be the most prepared to get involved in all the battles for the Cause (die Sache). Ferenczi, for his part, found in Freud a ‘father’ who was apparently not afraid to lean on a ‘son’ and who even seemed to be able to tolerate all the stages of Ferenczi’s struggle to assert himself and his independence.

However, Ferenczi’s character, which was enthusiastic, sensitive and generous, hungry for recognition and affection, and dominated by great spontaneity of impulse, sometimes met with a lack of reciprocity on Freud’s part. Although communicative and warm, Freud often took refuge behind his seriousness and thus imposed a kind of distance that was all the greater in that he tried to find in Ferenczi a ‘son’ who would sometimes be less sensitive and more independent. This difference in the way they managed their sensibility, which underlay their respective modes of thought, was at the root of some of the difficulties which at certain times marked their relationship.

In April 1908, Ferenczi presented his paper ‘Psycho-analysis and education’ (1908) at the 1st International Congress in Salzburg, Austria. Freud spoke for five hours about the treatment of the ‘Rat Man’. There were seven other presentations, including one by Jung on dementia praecox. During the summer, Ferenczi spent his holidays with Freud at Berchtesgaden.

In 1909, at the end of the summer, Ferenczi left for America with Freud, who had been invited by Stanley Hall, the President of Clark University, Worcester (Massachusetts) to give a series of lectures on the occasion of the University’s celebration of the twentieth year of its foundation (Freud, 1910a [1909]). Jung, who had also been invited, made the trip with them. During the crossing on the George Washington, Freud, Ferenczi and Jung analyzed each other’s dreams. On their return from America, the tone of the epistolary exchanges between Freud and Ferenczi became warmer, a clear sign that the two men had established a much closer relationship. It was also at this time that Freud admitted to Ferenczi, who had congratulated him on the marriage of his elder daughter, Mathilde, to Robert Hollistcher, that the year before, in Berchtesgaden, he would have been glad if he had been the lucky one. At the end of the year, Ferenczi published ‘Introjection and transference’ (1909a).

The year 1910 saw the 2nd International Congress, which was held in Nuremburg (Germany). Jung became the first President of the International Psychoanalytic Association, whose creation Ferenczi had proposed. It was at this Congress that he presented his text, published the following year, ‘On the organization of the psychoanalytic movement’ (1911a).

In August, Freud and Ferenczi went off to visit Florence, Rome, Naples, Palermo and Syracuse. It was during this trip that the so called ‘Palermo incident’ occurred. This episode remained an important event in their relationship over the next 20 years and they often referred back to it at times of difficulty between them. This journey they made together for more than three weeks turned out to be a disappointment for both of them, as can be seen from Freud’s letter to Jung, dated 24 September 1910:

My traveling companion is a dear fellow, but dreamy in a disturbing kind of way, and his attitude towards me is infantile. He never stops admiring me, which I don’t like, and is probably sharply critical of me in his unconscious when I am taking it easy. He has been too passive and receptive, letting everything be done for him like a woman, and I really haven’t got enough homosexuality in me to accept him as one. These trips arouse a great longing for a real woman. (McGuire, 1974, p. 353)

Jones comments on the incident in the following manner:

In Sicily… Ferenczi was inhibited, sulky and unreliable… he was haunted by a quite inordinate and insatiable longing for his father’s love… His demands for intimacy had no bounds. There was to be no privacy and no secret between him and Freud. Naturally he could not express any of this openly, so he waited more or less hopefully for Freud to make the first move. (Jones, 1955, p. 91)

On their return, Freud responded to Ferenczi’s repeated apologies in a letter dated 6 October 1910:

I no longer have any need for that full opening of my personality, but you have also understood it and correctly returned to its traumatic cause. Why did you thus make a point of it? This need has been extinguished in me since Fliess’s case, with the overcoming of which you just saw me occupied. A piece of homosexual investment has been withdrawn and utilized for the enlargement of my own ego. I have succeeded where the paranoiac fails. (Freud and Ferenczi, 1992, p. 22).

However, this incident would not prevent them, subsequently, from going on holiday together.

In 1911, at Easter, Ferenczi joined Freud in Bolzano to help him rent a villa for the summer. In August, Ferenczi spent a fortnight with the Freuds in the Dolomites. On 21 and 22 September, the 3rd International Congress was held in Weimar (Germany), at which Ferenczi presented a milestone paper on homosexuality: ‘The nosology of male homosexuality (homoerotism)’ (1914a). At the same Congress, Freud presented his hypotheses on Schreber.

At the end of the year, an important event occurred that was to play a major part in relations between Freud and Ferenczi during the year 1912, as well as in the following years. Since 1904, Ferenczi had been having an affair with a married woman, Gizella Pálos, the mother of two daughters, Elma and Magda (who would marry one of Ferenczi’s younger brothers, Lajos). The affair with Ferenczi remained more or less clandestine, owing to the fact that Gizella’s husband, Géza Pálos, refused to divorce her. Gizella was eight years older than Ferenczi and could no longer have a child. Elma was a young woman much in demand, but unstable sentimentally. Gizella was concerned about her daughter’s emotional instability and Ferenczi, wishing to make amends, decided in July 1911 to take Elma into analysis. A few months later, Ferenczi informed Freud about the ‘failure’ of his analytic neutrality towards his young patient, with whom he had begun an affair. In a state of complete distress and confusion, Ferenczi wanted to get out of the impasse in which he found himself and so turned to Freud, asking him if he would agree to take Elma into analysis himself, something which Freud, who was initially very reticent, finally agreed to do.

To read a complete version of the chapter click here.

Thierry Bokanowski is a training and supervising analyst of the Paris Psychoanalytical Society (SPP), a member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, a former secretary of the executive committee of the Paris Psychoanalytical Institute, and the former editor of La Revue Française de Psychanalyse. His books include, Sándor Ferenczi, and De la pratique analytique, translated under the title The Practice of Psychoanalysis.

This extract has been published with permission, and thanks to, the Taylor & Francis Group. Purchase a copy of The Modernity of Sandor Ferenczi here.

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