The Secret Ring:
Freud's Inner Circle & the Politics of Psychoanalysis

by Phyllis Grosskurth,
304 pages,
ISBN: 0921912242

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by Elizabeth Anthony

THE PRESERVATION of a legacy of thought can be problematic. Publication may only be an embalming procedure for a body of theory if there is no coterie of believers to animate it with living breath, to exercise and safeguard its interpretations. Sigmund Freud had premonitions that death would come early to him. By the early 1900s, though he had many disciples, Freud still sought a successor to "defend the cause against personalities and accidents" after his death, and at one point thought he had found his heir apparent in Carl Jung. But their fantasized father-son relationship was doomed when Jung realized he was to have limited freedom of thought in this claustrophobic, more-than-collegial alliance. When Jung proposed that psychic energies might not be exclusively sexual in nature, Freud admonished him not to "deviate too far" from psychoanalytic doctrine as it then existed, or "we may one day be played off against one another."

Perhaps hoping that the checks and balances of group politics might better serve his purpose, Freud responded positively to Ernest Jones's suggestion, in 1912, that a secret committee of "the best and most trustworthy among our men" be chosen to defend the developing Freudian canon. Phyllis Grosskurth's trenchant examination of Freuds "Secret Ring" soon reveals how native Sandor Ferenczi was in conceiving of this council as a group of men who would be both analysed by Freud and "represent the pure theory unadulterated by personal complexes."

The Freudian turf is familiar ground for Grosskurth. One of her previous books was a biography of Melanie Klein, a student of Freud who was a pioneer in child therapy. Grosskurth's account of The Secret Ring is, by her own admission, not dispassionate. Openly revealing her biases, he presents Freud as a manipulative cult leader who demanded complete professional and personal loyalty. His group's binding theory was psychoanalysis, its theoreticians analysts who seemed unable to proceed without interminable analyses of the motivations of each member's words and deeds; inevitably, every proposal and action became "couched" in the incestuous psychopolitics of the analyst elite.

Grosskurth's method is a chronological tattling of the good gossip of documents, her primary source material being Freud's correspondence with committee members and theirs with each other. At times, the overall effect is not unlike listening to the after-school tales of a 10-year-old recounting the shifting fidelities and playground in-fighting among the fragile egos of the sandlot crowd.

The format with which Grosskurth introduces her tale signifies that it is to be a (psycho)drama. Describing Freud as Wagnerian in his own estimation, she unfurls a tale of the Ring of the Nibelungen, but like the libretto to an opus less grand: the petulance and prattle songs of an opera buffa. The aftertaste, however, is neither comic nor even particularly tragic, since psychoanalysis eventually prospered; rather, it is one of incapacity, of great minds bruised by their simultaneous smallness. Grosskurth lists the dramatis personae and the supporting cast, and opens the curtain in the Harz Mountains in 1921, where the Secret Committee for the guardianship of psychoanalytic theory has gathered for a renewal after years of accumulating interpersonal, political, and economic tensions. Eight years earlier, Freud had given the members of the committee -Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Rank, Eernest Jones, karl Abraham, and Hans Saches (and later, Max Eitingon) - intaglios to be mounted in gold rings. These rings, states Grosskurth, "were pledges of eternal union, symbolizing the allegiance of a band of brothers to their symbolic father, Freud the ring-giver."

It soon becomes apparent that psychoanalysis survived through the devoted efforts of the committee, despite the eventually destructive squabbling of this multi-ring Oedipal circus. Though Grosskurth describes them as "a male family of sons led by a patriarchal father, hut conspicuous in its lack of a nurturing mother," surely psychoanalysis itself was the mother, birthed from Freud's mind like Athena from the brow of Zeus. But Freud could not allow his offspring independence. As the progenitor and possessor of the mother, Freud permitted the six brothers to have relations with psychoanalysis only through the rigid dictates of the father -himself.

Conflicts and alliances shifted within the group as members tentatively launched adjunct theories - Rank that of birth trauma, and Ferenczi that of active analysis - that were not appreciatively received. Freud was increasingly reluctant to read his committee's work with any care, but continued to expect them to read his with ardour. Competing ambitions resulted in jealousies that cracked the taut veneer of polite professionalism. Each suspicious of the others' ascendancy, Rank, Ferenczi, and Jones ingratiated themselves with Freud when they felt their bonds to him imperilled, which riddles their correspondence with complaints of actual and misperceived slights. "We are witnessing not actors on a stage but real people wreaking havoc on each other," Grosskuth sorrowfully concludes.

Facts are sometimes clouded by the contortions of the players' affect, and Grosskurth occasionally inserts a feeling or a leading question pertaining to her sdramatis personae that seems presumptuous. Indeed, in her epilogue, she mentions the difficulty scholars have indiscerning fact unbedevilled by "mythology, gossip and rumor,'' given that the Sigmund Freud Archives has stringent restrictions on the use of its material in the Library of Congress.

Freud emerges as an autocrat, intolerant of democratic discussions of theories he construes as threatening to his own; as a meddler in committee members' private affairs (not that they didn't sometimes request this interference, the personal and theoretical being inextricable); and as someone needing intimacy, and yet needing to control it within sure, hierarchical bonds.

By 1927, the committee was no longer secret. Freud's "son" proved not to be a committee at all, but his daughter, Anna. Psychoanalysis was internationally accepted, some of the committee members became executives of the International Psychiatric Association, and their internal correspondence, the Rundbriefe, had become an official newsletter.

In the end, Ernest Jones's analysis seems to best pinpoint the committee's weaknesss: the quarrelling in the Secret Circle was largely due to the fact that analysts are frequently neurotic people drawn to psychoanalysis as a means of understanding and healing their own neurosis. Most, he admits, were insufficiently analysed before embarking on their careers. Grosskurth's focus on this aspect of the history of psychoanalysis is both enlightening and disheartening, a tale too human for comfort when we consider the far-reaching influence Freudian theory has exercised in the shaping and interpretation of this century.


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