Sándor Ferenczi, a classical and contemporary psychoanalyst

(with particular reference to transference and countertransference)

by Franco Borgogno

(Forthcoming in Psychoanalytic Dialogues)

On our ancestors

Although we encounter and choose our own predecessors starting from the tastes and sensibilities of the years in which we work, with each of us finding points of consonance and similarity with our own way of understanding psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic practice (revisiting, so to say, the figures and the works in the light of the present time), Sándor Ferenczi is a genuine precursor for many of the themes which lie at the centre of the current psychoanalytic debate.  Why do I say “genuine”? Because, if we look at our history, what we find in our “pet” analysts in après coup does not always have any real correspondence in their works and writings, with the consequence that they seem, at times, to have been invented and recreated, rather than discovered and rediscovered,  through a sort of family romance which “ablates” (to adopt a personal take on the concept of “ablation” introduced by Charles Rycroft in 1965) the chosen ancestors, stripping them of their actual characteristics and substituting these with others that are more congenial to our own purposes.  It is difficult to explain (because it is excessively complex) why we psychoanalysts continue even today to proceed in this manner, falsifying our history, and do not instead consider the numerous criticisms by colleagues and historians of psychoanalysis to which we have repeatedly been subject over the course of time.

This is obviously neither the time nor the place to tackle this issue of the anti-historical turn of psychoanalysis, which will nonetheless have to be addressed sooner or later. But coming back to our own topic, i.e. to Ferenczi, we can surely state that such is not the case even though, also in his regard, we may observe today an excessive idealisation of and emphasis on certain aspects of his myriad audacious intuitions, and especially of some of those to be found in The Clinical Diary, in the Notes and Fragments and in his final writings from 1927 to 1932.


Ferenczi before his encounter with Freud

Rather than limiting myself to Ferenczi’s later works, as has been the custom for the past few decades, in this presentation I intend to map out his unique journey as a clinician and psychoanalyst in its entirety: a journey that – we must at once state – begins with “Ferenczi the psychiatrist”, who had yet to encounter Freud and psychoanalysis, when, for example, at the turn of the century, with an unaffectedness innate to him, he stood side by side with the weakest individuals, maintaining that their suffering needed a voice and inviting them to speak about their own pain and anxiety, which he believed to be rooted in love (Ferenczi, 1901). To his mind, love was something being neglected by all of the specialists in the “psi” fields, with the exception of the poets and writers; and yet, as he himself already noted at the time, love should have been their focus, since it is the source of every emotional turbulence and catastrophe.  It is the source, that is to say, of every “change in form” for better or worse – of every psychic transformation, then, to use a term which is more familiar to us nowadays.

In these pre-analytic years, amongst the thoughts that accompanied this underlying supposition was the idea that we each carry with us a “subjective truth” (Mészáros, 1999) that, however eccentric, senseless and indecipherable it might appear, is nonetheless based on a painful real life experience which needs to be sought out and imagined, encouraging the patient himself to help us understand the nature and origin of his mental condition, about which he himself often knows more than the specialists (Rosa K is a case in point: Ferenczi, 1902). Indeed, Ferenczi observed that specialists were often over-hasty to rest on the laurels of their successes and were far from keen to explore their failings and errors (Ferenczi, 1903). Yet if, rather than hushing them up, we addressed these failings and errors with honesty and courage, we could surely establish firmer foundations for our skills and knowledge.  Notwithstanding this, Ferenczi asserted, although doctors start out in the service of their patients with passion and enthusiasm, they soon get bored and run out of patience, placing their own interest in money and the convenience of social status ahead of the need to listen, respond and dedicate themselves to the patient (see the letter from George Dumas to “a young person who wants to become a doctor”, translated by Ferenczi in 1906, in Lorin, 1983).  There also takes place, as Ferenczi already maintained in those years, a dialogue between the unconscious of the patient and that of the analyst and, if we were only to pay attention to that which is reciprocally transmitted in the course of this exchange, how much we could learn!  Not only about the patient and the therapeutic process, but also about ourselves as analysts and patients.

What is to be gleaned from Ferenczi’s beginnings, as they have here been summarised in my own words, beyond the fact that right from his very first analytical reflections he was not so much an observer-participant but rather a participant who retained his capacity to observe?: that his vision right from the outset was largely bi-personal, involving both the patient who needed to be reawakened through whichever treatment was taking place and the caregiver who needed, at the same time, to pay the greatest possible attention to the treatment being offered and to his own attitudes in its pursuit.  In sum, even before Ferenczi became a psychoanalyst he believed that the patient and the therapist could be reciprocally activated and influenced unawares, albeit that the responsibility for this influence fell primarily to the therapist and not to the patient – to the therapist who Ferenczi even at this early stage constantly called out and questioned, deeming this to be the best way to consolidate our understanding of psychic events and to render our efforts in the servies of those whom we wish to help more effective and substantial.


Ferenczi encounters Freud: his writings from 1908 up to and including 1919

I will now move on to Ferenczi just after his encounter with Freud, with whom he forged a reciprocal and intimate “fellowship of life, thoughts and interests” (Freud/Ferenczi, 11 January 1933).  I will proceed by listing the writings which most clearly reveal Ferenczi’s modernity, outlining for each one the most salient arguments and aspects.

  • Just a few months after meeting Freud, Ferenczi wrote about “premature ejaculation” (Ferenczi, 1908a) but, rather than concentrating on the origin of the symptom and its pathological traits, he turned his attention – in a manner that was astonishing at the time – to its effects on the partner, declaring that a failure to take into account the woman’s specificity, needs and rhythms and the time required by her for coupling will generate suffering, depression and anxiety. The analyst’s premature ejaculation, and his masturbation in only relating to himself and to his own theories and not to the other would, as I have emphasised on numerous occasions since 1998 (the year in which I wrote the introduction to the Italian version of the anthology edited by Aron and Harris: Borgogno, 1998), prove to be a central concern throughout Ferenczi’s career.  Ejaculators and onanists – Ferenczi noted in On onanism (Ferenczi, 1912a) – swiftly tire of the object and hence unconsciously shorten the moment of their encounter with the other.
  • 1909. This was the year in which Ferenczi first wrote about “introjection,” a term which he introduced into psychoanalysis, alongside projection, thus giving an egalitarian dimension to the both the mother-child and the analyst-patient relationship. The relevant aspects of this work, however, range far beyond those which have thus far been commented on. I will mention just a few. Children and individuals in a state of need yearn and seek for objects to introject, and since they are extremely dependent, they easily remain at the mercy of their caregivers who, to his mind, cannot be considered as “good” by definition (and herein, we should stress, lies the “revolutionary” aspect of his argument).Indeed, caregivers may take advantage of their superiority and exploit the weakness of their partner to tie him to them out of self-interest through love and fear.  In brief, the analyst is, essentially, not only a “revenant” of figures from childhood and the past, or a “catalytic ferment”, attracting the patient’s affects to himself, but also (albeit perhaps unconsciously) a veritable “hypnotist” who sends out hypnotic commands which often remain in an undissolved state, with the result that these often gestate unrecognised and unnamed within the subject.
  • I will not dwell any longer on the various forms of maternal and paternal hypnosis which Ferenczi perceives to be at work during psychoanalytic treatment, although this issue would merit further consideration. Instead, I will now pass to another particularly insightful publication from 1912 (Ferenczi, 1912b), which foreshadows the modern psychoanalytic technique based on transference and countertransference and on the reciprocal relationship between patient and analyst, the title of which is Transitory symptom-constructions during the analysis. To define, in broad terms, what is particularly prescient about this publication, I would point to his perception that the events which happen during the sessions and the various symptoms, bodily or otherwise, which appear therein, are a response – of ill-being or well-being – stimulated by analysis and by the analyst. If we read analytic events in these terms, asking ourselves what we have or have not done, also simply through our own sentiments, we can indeed, to his mind, understand how the dialogue is evolving and, starting from what is happening in the hic et nunc, we can trace “en miniature” that which happened in the past, thus formulating a “theoretic conception of the [interpersonal] dynamics of disease” and of the constitution of a peculiar psychic world. This innovative and creative clinical reading, based on transference and counter-transference, was carried forward in many other writings of this period, such as the 1915 Dream of the occlusive pessary and The analysis of comparisons, Dreams of the unsuspecting in1917 and, later, The Clinical Diary, together with another real gem of an essay, to which we will return below, published in 1926 and entitled Review of Rank O.: The technique of psycho-analysis.
  • 1918-1919. The 1918-19 essay On the Technique of Psycho-Analysis collects together all of the ideas which I have thus far highlighted. The essay was written in concomitance with Abraham (Abraham, 1919) and treats of those (narcissistic?) patients who “resist” analysis by refusing to engage in free association. While Abraham is unequivocal in ascribing the rejection and negativity of the patient to envy and destructiveness of all the good things being offered by the analyst and analysis, Ferenczi adopts quite another viewpoint, reading such outcomes as a reaction on the part of the patient to some improper behaviour, itself resistent to analysis, in the analyst’s affective coupling with him – an engagement which should be generous and unhindered by qualms or prejudices.  In such cases the problem would in fact be created by the narcissistic components of the analyst himself, which the patient intercepts (the patient reads and unmasks “the doctor’s unconscious,” as Ferenczi puts it) converging with the analyst in an anti-evolutionary collusion.  From such passages the temptation might arise to envisage a rather sugary sweet Ferenczi, but such a perspective would be inaccurate since in this very same essay Ferenczi writes that the analyst must be firm and act like an “obstetrician”, who assists the patient without rushing or impeding birth but, if necessary, intervenes and does so forcefully.


The Development of Psycho-Analysis and its “surroundings”

At this point I will jump to the 1924 Development of Psycho-Analysis, which was co-written with Rank. I call this a “jump” because in the course of the 15 years which I have just considered Ferenczi produced many other writings in which he dwelt in detail on the functions and the person of the analyst; on the definition of “trauma” and the response thereto; on the traumas of war and their consequences; on – in particular – the primitive defenses and identifications  brought into play by patients who, in analysis, Ferenczi affirms are always “children”; and, finally, on the technical experimentations through which – I would specify – Ferenczi sought not to allow the analyst to break away from the processes of working-through and thought but rather to mobilise and awaken the participation of the patient at times when the treatment seems to have come to an impasse.  All of this are aspects which, I would note, are an undercurrent throughout Ferenczi’s oeuvre but doubtless become increasingly visible during the last five or six years of his life.

What are the most relevant points for our purposes in this 1924 study? Here, Ferenczi argues that the analysis being practised in those years was too cognitive and pedagogical.  He also suggests that changes only take place when psychic events are lived and repeatedly worked-through in present experience (“fully-relived”, as Ferenczi puts it, not only by the patient but also by the analyst) because it is “the feeling” that leads to “believing” (Ferenczi, 1913) and to the past being remembered instead of being repeated, as Ferenczi already maintained as early as 1913.  In this regard, incidentally, shortly before his death Ferenczi carried this even further, claiming that, for many of his patients, mental events only go back to be recognisable and representable when they are “objectified” “as something that happened to another person” (Ferenczi, 1933, p.180).  Could this objectification imply that someone else carries them into the present, making them incarnate that they might acquire an affective meaning?  I believe this to be the case, bearing in mind Ferenczi’s description of his work with Elizabeth Severn.  That reciprocal influence produces specific unconscious interactions (“enactments!”) that can only be redeemed if we identify and become aware of them. In concise terms, the analysts must, in any case, be prepared, firstly, to take on, temporarily, the various roles that the unconscious of the patients “prescribes” them to personify (roles corresponding to the two parental imago: mother and father) and, secondly, to recognize that the reasons for any impasse are not necessarily connected to the patient’s narcissism and negative transference, but may rather be attributed to the analyst’s own negative and narcissistic countertransference, as Ferenczi had already declared in 1918-19.


The later Ferenczi

 Having been as concise as possible in dealing with the earlier part of Ferenczi’s career, we now come to Ferenczi’s last writings, the Notes and Fragments and The Clinical Diary.  Nonetheless, before providing a brief overview of these texts, during which I will limit myself to indicating the new contributions which each of these anticipated within the field of modern psychoanalysis, I wish to briefly outline Ferenczi’s vision at this point in his career.  I would summarise his position thus: 1) although, for Ferenczi, “every dream, every gesture, every parapraxis, every aggravation or improvement” is “an expression of transference and resistance” in the relation of the patient toward the analyst, as he argues in Contra-indications to the “active” psychoanalytical technique (1926a, p. 225), he does not define everything as transference, since the analyst, as well as being an object of transference, is also a real object and, to the same extent, a symbolic (or symbol) object; 2) Ferenczi’s focus on the hic et nunc is not necessarily exclusive since the historical element and the construction of the childhood and adolescent past continue to represent the essential pillar on which the therapeutic process and the subjectivization of the individual rest (cf., in this regard, Ferenczi’s admirable critical commentary, also written in 1926, on the dreams of one of Rank’s patients, to which I have already referred above); 3) interpretation should not be frequent and excessive, but should rather be dealt out in carefully monitored doses, with prudence and patience, paying the greatest possible attention to that which is thereby “surreptitiously introduced” (Ferenczi, 1924b) into the other, since, through that which is said or unsaid and the way in which we say it, we always prescribe a certain kind of behavior, suggesting what our patients should or should not think and feel in order to satisfy us (note his continuing preoccupation with the hypnotic commands to which he referred at the beginning of his career!) and this is something which needs to be monitored, not only in the present time of the relationship, but also in what I term “the long wave” of transference and countertransference; 4) and lastly, another point with regard to interpretation: we need to construct “a bridge” together with the other so that this connection might be characterized by the mutual identification and flexibility which are also to be reached in “felicitous” sexual intercourse (Ferenczi, 1924c).

Yet now we come to the later Ferenczi and we will directly analyse the ways in which his final works fit in with our discussion. It is certainly true that, generally speaking, he increasingly foregrounds the figure of the child, with whom the analyst must imaginatively identify, remembering his own childhood and the fact that he himself, like the patient – to quote my own phrase – “comes from afar” (Borgogno, 2013), also in the sense that he himself has been, and perhaps still is, a patient. An authentic understanding in and with analysis and, together with that, the possibility of rendering physiological and normal that which initially appears catastrophic and not infrequently produces a pathological response should derive for Ferenczi from our remembering of the suffering (and the joy) of our past and of what happened between us and our parents (including our personal analysts) at the crucial turning points of our existence. Consequently, in the perspective which enables us trust in and open up to the future (and not only to the past) in a confident way, the analyst must place himself at the service of the patient and be “elastic” in his encounters with him, knowing that it is down to him to perform the groundwork in order to develop trust in the analytic method and in the work being carried out together.  It is from such a psychological stance on the part of the analyst, made up of modesty, humility, honesty and sincerity, that the “contrast” between past and present necessary to lend momentum to a new evolution of transference (what Michael Balint would later term a new beginning) can be established, gradually dismantling, through the working-through of painful memories, the tendency to virulently repeat and reproduce originary conflicts (which were initially with the outside world but have now become internal).

If in the later writings by Ferenczi which I have thus far quickly surveyed (the writings in question are: The adaptation of the family to the child, 1927, The elasticity of the psycho-analytic technique. 1927-28, Child-analysis in the analysis of adults 1931and – with regard to the abovementioned “contrast” – The principles of relaxation and neocatharsis, 1929), Ferenczi evinces a growing conviction that the spark necessary to generate a new intrapsychic relation is to be found in the development of a new interpsychic connection, this belief becomes even more pronounced in his subsequent works, namely the Notes and Fragments and The Clinical Diary, where he comes to focus on patients suffering from  severe and composite cumulative traumas of various natures. For Ferenczi, these individuals – and here we are in the borderline area, in the area of “before I was I”, of “dissociation” (when the individual lacks a growth context that would allow him to fully insert himself as a subject in a human context) – more than other patients (the neurotics), require an analyst who, on the one hand, has no qualms about allowing himself to be constructed, deconstructed and destroyed by the patient and, on the other, has no reservations about offering himself, up above all in contexts in which – due to a non-providing environment – they appear “to be empty and lacking of their selves” (E. Balint, 1993) and withdrawn into or lost in a world of “thinking without feeling and feeling without thinking” (Ferenczi, 1933).  For example, firstly, such an analyst might offer positive vital impulses, motivations to continue living and little or unknown and unexperienced affects-concepts-values to those patients who, in becoming subjects, have been mortified by parents who were psychically absent, standoffish and who had themselves been reared as if they were “orphans” and were consequently incapable of rearing their own offspring (see The Unwelcome Child and his Death Instinct, 1929); or he might be willing to refrain from leaving patients alone with their pain, as had been the case in their past when their parents failed to see, disavowed or denied the traumas which they themselves had provoked through an essential disbelief in their children’s accounts and a failure to be close to them in their suffering (Ferenczi stressed, right from the beginning of his career, that what is traumatic is not so much events in themselves but their denial and the sense such children come away with of having been “left alone:” Ferenczi, 1908b); or he might be capable of creating a “benevolent atmosphere” lacking the pulsional excesses of “too much” or “too little” that might have characterized the parent-child relationship (the double form in which the “confusion of languages” is manifest) and knowing how to speak the language of achievement and not that of blame, even when put to the test with repeated, although not always conscious, hateful and angry provocations.  Again, with regard to that “something” which the analyst must bring into the field, Ferenczi calls on us to allow ourselves to be penetrated and parasitically fed upon by our patients, working together with them to identify the best solution to the drama being played out (in such moments the courage lies in one’s ability to accept remaining in the schizoid-paranoid position, in PS, feeling inexistent and devoid of any skill or utility, for an extended period of time). Nor should we take refuge, in the course of this uncertain and inescapable journey, from the risk that we might become “re-perpretators of the trauma” and new “soul murderers”, in spite of ourselves, and from recognising our own powerful defences and limits (as Ferenczi observes, we provoke transference in many different ways, cheering ourselves by turning our patients back into children, but subsequently becoming insensitive and indifferent and not infrequently irritated if this means that we have to live in the world of childish dependence and especially of that connected to those essential psychic needs which have been disregarded); herein, incidentally, lies the principal leitmotiv of the Clinical Diary (i.e. “the terrorism of suffering”).  He should, ultimately, evince an untiring perseverance in continuing to seek to bring the patient and the analytic couple back to life without allowing himself to be terrorised by the fear of suffering and without abstaining from experiences of countertransference strongly marked by decidedly negative and unpleasant emotions.

To close, what is there still to add? It is noteworthy that during the final years of his career (see Notes and Fragments and The Clinical Diary), Ferenczi came to ask the patient, who, in 1919, he discovered to be the reader of the analyst’s unconscious, to become his “partner” in analysis (“reciprocal analysis”), not having found in current psychoanalytic technique or amongst his colleagues anything or anyone able to support and help him in his singular approach method. He also observed that, in putting this procedure into place (cf. all the passages referring to his analysis of RN, alias Elizabeth Severn) the analyst may admit that – if he willingly agrees to embody the “good,” or, preferably, an ideal or idealised object, “growling” if he personifies the bad object and growling even more when he realises that he himself elicited this object with his own less than praiseworthy behaviour – he has no intention whatsoever of incarnating the traumatised and intensely suffering child, a part that he must, instead, necessarily unconsciously play, at least temporarily, since the patient has totally disassociated it from himself and has come to unconsciously identify himself with the depriving-destructive object (this is “role reversal”, an issue I have been studying since 1994 and have been considering in collaboration with Massimo Vigna-Taglianti since 2005). Only in this way – by viscerally living it on his own guts – may the analyst 1) perform the function of “witnessing” that has been absent from the patient’s existence and that is terribly fundamental to his overcoming of trauma and its repercussions; and 2) bring into being that very “proof of reality” for which the patient yearns without, often, knowing what he is looking for (“you, my analyst must really go through the pain and suffering which are gripping me and you must be willing to combat viscerally for me and with me against my agony, my sense of unreality and my withdrawal”).  In conclusion, having accepted the heuristic value of errors when they have been identified and corrected, the analyst should show himself to be not only different from the mother and father with whom the patient found himself, but also to embody a child and an adolescent who does not give up and compromise but who rather rebels against and transforms his destiny – to be, in other words, the child and the adolescent who the patient could not and cannot be.


 And now, by way of an afterthought, I would like to propose a final consideration. Ferenczi was a man of his time, but his way of thinking neither corresponded to that of his historical period nor adjusted itself to its assumptions. He perceived something which escaped others at that time, and in his non-conformity he kept his distance, maintaining a constant vigilance towards that which did not convince him. He recognised the brilliance of his period, but he also observed its darkness and obscurity and was able, unlike his contemporaries, to avoid being dazed and blinded thereby. One might say that the darkness of his time never ceased to throw up questions to which he tirelessly sought to reply.

I believe that it is precisely for these reasons that Ferenczi has gradually come to epitomise the kind of intrepid colleague to which we aspire, and that this is the reason why, for many of us today, he is at once the classical and the contemporary psychoanalyst par excellence: because he glimpsed – beyond the enlightened vision of Freud’s psychoanalysis – that which Freud and his pupils, despite their extensive experimentation, experience and thought, neither lived through nor thought of. For this same reason, and for no other, Ferenczi was punished for a long time, first and foremost in not seeing any full recognition of his value and his contribution every time he distanced himself from the pack and refused to “howl with the wolves” (Gaburri, Ambrosiano, 2003).

In refusing to howl with the wolves, Ferenczi inevitably condemned himself to solitude –to solitude and to the sense of not having fully grasped and recognized that which he so tirelessly and incessantly sought.  And herein lies another aspect of Ferenczi that we should consider – a characteristic common to the lives of all those who are ahead of their time in their own disciplinary field: the fact that the people close to them, who remain a step behind, besides the envy and jealousy to which the creativity of such individuals will inevitably give rise are incapable of understanding and following their masterly intuitions.




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