Death/Life: Ferenczi, Lifton and Kiefer

By Lane Gerber

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Beginning to read Ferenczi’s correspondences with Freud, his Clinical Diary and some of his papers, especially “The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct,” was a powerful experience for me.  From the first, there was something about Sandor Ferenczi that struck me as I began reading his letters with Freud and then some biographies of him.    His emotional presence and outwardly “needy” nature (as compared with many of the other early as well as later analysts), his warm, affectionate presence and his lack of pretense drew me to him.  And yet, as I read his correspondence with Freud, I wanted to say to him “stop asking for what you’re not going to get from Freud.  Stop making a pest of yourself.  Stop being so needy.”  Then I looked at my own reactions, more specifically my reaction to what I read as his “neediness”.  Am I talking to him, I wondered, or am I talking to myself?  “What is it about this shushing of him and/or of yourself?  Who are you protecting and what are you afraid of?”

With these internal conversations in mind, I read on.  Something shifted in me.  I found myself saying, “that son of a bitch keeps speaking his truth. This is someone who speaks from his heart as well as his mind, and has such great courage.  Take a lesson.”

After this conversation with myself, I allowed myself to realize again  Ferenczi’s, Eastern European Jewish background which is so similar to my own (although we were more Russian/Romanian).  This drew me even more strongly toward him.  And, his relentless emphasis on the therapeutic, on what might help his patients (and himself, of course), rather than on just the theoretical was striking to me as a candidate, as an experienced therapist and as an analysand who hopes for more for myself not just for my patients.

But then I came to his paper “The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct”.  The idea of a death instinct, that Freudian biological given, has always been repugnant to me.  It has seemed like a handy excuse to invoke for inaction and passivity in the face of war and human violence.  The death instinct, as I have understood it from Freud and Klein, seems to offer little hope if one assumes that all of us have this genetic predilection to destruction.  I have been more persuaded by Kohut’s response that violence is a response to injury to the self and as a response to frustration, shame and/or fear of annihilation.  This gives a little more room for being other than a bystander to inevitable human violence.  So, this was my mindset as I picked up Ferenczi’s article on “The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct.”  I was drawn to the man, but wary of such an article.

But before discussing the article per se, a short perspective on Ferenczi might be helpful in understanding a bit of the person who authored writings that were/are both personal and powerful.  Ferenczi was born the eighth of 12 children.  His father died when he was 15.  It is probable that he was a survivor of early emotional and sexual abuse.  Despite his many talents and lovable qualities, he did seem to suffer from a need to be accepted and loved for much of his life.  It would seem that because of this need (and Freud’s accompanying need for a confidant, then a scribe, then a clone of himself), Ferenczi subsumed his independent thinking for much of his life in his efforts to be loved and respected by Freud.  One could say that his own independence and original thinking was impeded by the nature of his relationship with Freud–  by his need for more from the relationship, and by Freud’s fear or unwillingness to give more.  We also know that over the  later years of his struggle with Freud, he became more and more outspoken and independent of Freud.  In the end this led to his rejection by Freud and Jones and the ostracism of the larger psychoanalytic community.  Given Ferenczi’s more recent “rediscovery” by the analytic world and his acknowledgment as one of the father’s of the Interpersonal (and Relational) School (to be described in more detail below), one might say that his later independence and original thinking was born out of his perseverance, courage and faithfulness to his own ideas and clinical experiences.

It is also interesting to think of him as being one of the father’s of Interpersonal and Relational Psychoanalysis while at the same time being regarded as a more maternal figure in psychoanalysis.  His abandonment of the neutral and sometimes aloof stance of the analyst, which he felt often duplicated his patients’ (and his own) childhood experiences of deprivation and/or abuse, and his possessing and demonstrating in his work with patients a genuine sympathy for all human suffering, gives this “father” a distinctly “maternal” aspect as well.

Another association goes off in my head.  It is Robert Bergman’s review of Celia Brickman’s Aboriginal Populations in the Mind, and more specifically the issues of paternal and maternal.  Bergman writes, “A white man, especially an atheist scientist, becomes the standard to be aspired to…  Primitivity, Freud believed, implies the failure of a desirable repudiation of the maternal, and so women are almost by definition primitive”[p.4]  So Ferenczi who is described as maternal in his care of his patients and whose ministrations were felt by Freud to be “less than” analytic or appropriate (perhaps primitive?), had the courage to be “maternal” in the face of beliefs that were so degraded at the time.  In fact, Freud would not shake hands with Ferenczi following Ferenczi’s reading to Freud his paper on “The Wise Baby”.  Ferenczi was speaking truth to power, a frightening and courageous act that has life-giving power.

Perhaps this way of being was due in part to a combination of his restless curiosity and his imaginative thinking, linked to his own experiences of being abused and “unwelcomed”.  Perhaps this “maternal” care was what he longed for.  Whatever the causes, he seemed to identify with the pain of his patients and experiment with how to utilize his empathy and his abilities in the service of the treatment of others (L. Aron and A. Harris, eds., 1993, The Legacy of Sandor Ferenczi.  The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, N.J.).  Clara Thompson said, “He was never willing to admit that some mental diseases were incurable, but always said, ‘Perhaps it is simply that we have not discovered the right method.’”  (Maurice Green, ed., 1964, “Interpersonal Psychoanalysis:  The Selected Papers of Clara M. Thompson.”  Basic Books, New York.)  Or, perhaps this being “maternal”, this identification with the pain of his patients is like Kohut’s concept of “twinship” and recognizing and yearning for a “soulmate”—a kin with whom to share experiences of trauma, and thereby come to feel less strange and outside the human community.  (Judy Vida, “At the Frontier of Psychoanalytic Understanding”, Contemporary Perspectives on Trauma, Pasadena, CA., September 23, 2000).

There are so many contributions of his work that I cannot do more than briefly note them in order to give a bit more of a picture of the legacy of this pioneer who wrote in 1929 on “Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct”.  It should be noted that it was his emphasis on patients as having experienced early trauma–  not so much on the child’s struggle with their instincts, but rather the child’s struggle with the neuroses of their parents and their need for a more corrective (and examined) emotional climate, including the real and sincere presence of the analyst in order to do the needed work without retraumatizing the patient–  that is so important to remember before thinking about his 1929 paper.  As well it is important to note his focus on the real relationship to the analyst, a movement toward experiential work and away from an exclusive preoccupation with theory and the more distanced, intellectual understanding of the person who comes to analysis.  His paper on the “Confusion of Tongues” emphasizing the powerful, traumatizing effect of incest and the collusive silence of families (and some analysts) is likewise a powerful, and of course at the time was, a daring piece of writing.

* * * *

There are many, many more aspects of Ferenczi’s work that are noteworthy, but as noted above, when I saw the title of the paper “The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct”, I wondered if he in this paper was somehow capitulating to Freud’s will.  As I started reading the paper, however, my views changed.  The paper spoke to me in a very immediate and personal way that I could not have imagined from its title.

I have felt over the last eight to ten years of struggling with bodily pain and chronic illness that not living would in some way be a relief.  So, I was both put off by the title of Ferenczi’s paper and also strongly attracted to it.   As I began reading the paper, I remembered again feeling as a child the sense that the world is too messed up, that human kind needed to start over, that the lives that I saw people around me living were not the kinds of lives I wanted to live.  Perhaps this was part of a legacy of being the first born grandchild of people who escaped Russia after witnessing first-hand pogroms against Jews there and who fled to this country to leave all that behind and “become American”.  Perhaps this was also the experience of growing up as a young child during World War II and the Holocaust where such hatred and death seemed to be intensified in the world.  I wanted to escape this life–  a life that seemed unstable and all too predictably dangerous and sad.            Yet I also carried the rebellious Yiddish humor of my great uncles and aunts who resisted becoming “Americanized”—a split off part of my family’s heritage that I found life giving.

* * * *

In his paper “The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct”, Ferenczi writes of his experience as a physician in charge of a war hospital with soldiers/patients suffering epileptic manifestations.  In this setting he notes that he could examine the expressions of the death instinct more closely.  His work with patients who suffered circulatory illnesses and asthma further led him to speculate that these patients’ symptoms were attempts at suicide by self-strangulation.  These patients were also ones who “came into the world as unwelcome guests of the family…  All the indications show that these children had observed the conscious and unconscious signs of aversion or impatience on the part of the mother, and that their desire to live had been weakened by these” (pp. 103-104).  He continues, “I only wish to point to the probability that children who are received in a harsh and unloving way die easily and willingly.  Either they use one of the many proffered organic possibilities for a quick exit, or…  they retain a streak of pessimism and aversion to life”(p. 105).

Ferenczi then contrasts his views with the notions of others who state that children come into the world with the largest amounts of life instinct, and that death instinct becomes more manifest with advancing age.  In contrast, he states, “The child has to be induced, by means of an immense expenditure of love, tenderness, and care, to forgive his parents for having brought him into the world without any intention on his part; otherwise the destructive instincts begin to stir immediately…   Slipping back into this non-being might therefore come much more easily to children.  The ‘life-force’…  becomes established only when tactful treatment and upbringing gradually give rise to progressive immunization against physical and psychical injuries…  the innateness of the sickly tendency is deceptive and not genuine, owing to the early incidence of trauma”(p. 106).

Thus, Ferenczi writes of “aversion to life” as a consequence of environmental or psychical trauma/deprivation/turning away by the parental figure.  His therapeutic/analytic response in such cases was to move to an “elasticity” of analytic technique that characterized his attempts to work with his patients, especially his traumatized and/or “difficult” patients for whom he was the “doctor of last resort”.  He describes his work as one in which “the patient had to be allowed for a time to have his way like a child, not unlike the ‘pre-treatment’ which Anna Freud considers necessary in the case of real children.  Through this indulgence the patient is permitted, properly speaking for the first time, to enjoy the irresponsibility of childhood, which is equivalent to the introduction of positive life impulses and motives for his subsequent existence”(pp. 106-7).

Ferenczi continued his writing about “aversion to life” and death in his Clinical Diary (Judith Dupont, ed., The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1988) through numerous examples.    His entry of 8 March 1932, for example, has the ominous title of “The analyst as undertaker”.  In it he describes an analytic process in which he unknowingly responds to his patient in a way similar to that of her abusive, poisonous father.  He, Ferenczi, does not of course “like being accused of being a murderer.  In case B., I have finally come to realize that it is an unavoidable task for the analyst:  although he may behave as he will, he may take kindness and relation as far as he possibly can, the time will come when he will have to repeat with his own hands the act of murder previously perpetrated against the patient…  In my answer I openly admitted the inadequacy of my assistance, not making any secret of my own painful feelings on the subject…  But, I said, there is nevertheless a difference between our honesty and the hypocritical silence of parents…  This is why I do not give up hope and why I count on the return of trust in spite of all the disillusionment” (pp. 52-3).  And, importantly, he adds, “In the case of B., in view of the mutuality, the reaction naturally went much deeper.  This gave me an opportunity to penetrate much deeper into my own infantilism:  the tragic moment in childhood when my mother declares:  You are my murderer” (p. 53).  Thus, he is talking about death or “aversion to life”, and how an analyst even with the best of intentions is liable to behave/be seen by the patient as a murderer (as repeating some of the actions of the original perpetrator), but how an analyst’s courageous honesty differs significantly from parental denial and hypocrisy.  And, finally, in these comments he speaks to how his own abusive background was stimulated in the counter-transference, enabling him to understand and heal himself and his patient more effectively.

Two last examples also continue his working with this struggle of “aversion to life” and living.  The first comes from his entry of 18 June 1932, “A new stage in mutuality” states, “Trauma is a process of dissolution that moves toward total dissolution, that is to say, death…  Neurotics and psychotics, even if they are still halfway capable of fulfilling their functions as body and also partly as mind, should actually be considered to be unconsciously in a chronic death-agony.  Analysis therefore has two tasks:  (1) to expose this death-agony fully; (2) to let the patient feel that life is nevertheless worth living if there exist people like the helpful doctor” (p. 130-1).

Ferenczi’s  last entry in his Clinical Diary, on 2 October 1932, is one he writes in failing physical health about his relationship with Freud and about his own health.  “Further regression to being dead.  (Not yet being born is the danger.)…  In my case the blood-crisis arose when I realized that not only can I not rely on the protection of a ‘higher power’ but on the contrary I shall be trampled under foot by this indifferent power as soon as I go my own way and not his…  is it worth it always to live the life (will) of another person–  is such a life not almost death?” (p. 212).  To me he is speaking to the continuing necessity, and the difficulties in doing so, of speaking truth as we experience it.  When the horrors and fears of life are acknowledged, paradoxically there is life.  When they are denied, then there is an “aversion to life”, a death in life.

Death in life…  another association goes off in me; this one to the writing of Robert Jay Lifton.  Lifton, a psychiatrist who interviewed Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Vietnam vets with PTSD and Nazi doctors who performed heinous so-called “medical experiments” on concentration camp victims during World War II, has stated that after that war we all realized that we had the capability to destroy the world, and the will to use that capability.  His themes, similar to those of Ferenczi, are of death and of the continuing death in life that results when we do not speak out about trauma, pain and violence.  Learning to heal ourselves involves listening to survivors, not being deaf to their cries, permitting them to be our teachers.   Failure to listen and speak out against the horrors of our time as well as the real sexual abuses of Freud and Ferenczi’s time, means that we can not heal others or ourselves.  That is, we turn away from life to death.

Ferenczi’s pursuit of techniques that would be most helpful to the analyst, and his pursuit of his own healing to the end of his life is also a reminder that psychology (and psychoanalysis) is an event.  It is not a thing that is finalized and can be written in stone…  My associations now lead me to my experience of seeing some of the works of the German artist, Anselm Kiefer.  Kiefer, born in Germany just before the end of World War II, was one of the first German artists to recognize, not back away from, but call attention (ala Ferenczi’s listening) to the atrocities committed by the Nazis before and during the war.  His first works were scorned by Germans and art critics alike, but he persevered, and working in a variety of media (analogous to Ferenczi’s “elasticity” of technique) has become an artist emblematic of our contemporary age of dislocation and destruction.  In facing and speaking out about such matters, he paradoxically turns from death toward life.

Like Ferenczi and like Lifton, Kiefer’s work deals with trauma.  He searches for different artistic media (again analogous to Ferenczi’s search for the most effective techniques for the patients who had come to him as a last resort) with which to express both the forces aversive to life as well as the transcendent in life.  Among the media in which Kiefer works is lead, a so-called base metal on which the effects of time, weathering and the imprint of anything that touches it affects its color, surface and shape.  Lead is malleable and is different depending on its locale, treatment and history.  Lead is also something that can be transformed, not only in the mystical, alchemical wish of turning it into gold, but in the real sense of making it into different shapes and forms.  So perhaps Ferenczi, in experimenting with and revising analytic techniques over time, recognized or hoped that what could be said of art could also be said for psychoanalysis and healing.

Kiefer and Ferenczi also seem to share a feeling of melancholia.  Here I mean melancholia in the sense that one can strive for what works best with a particular patient in a particular context and historical setting yet know that any “true” knowledge is ultimately beyond one’s reach.  One of Kiefer’s pieces is a large lead book that is opened on a bookstand.  It has very large lead wings coming out of each side of the book.  It is a very striking and evocative piece of sculpture leading one to associate to reading and learning that can stir the imagination of the reader beyond themselves, while at the same time reminding the viewer that this leaden weight may change its patina over time, but is all too firmly and heavily anchored to the ground.  So what do we know?  What can we know?  Yet, it was in the nature of Ferenczi’s strivings, enactments, nudgings of Freud to mimic our basic human reaching out for more for ourselves and for our patients despite the knowledge of our own and others’ limitations, hurts, and conflicts.  To look away, to fail to speak is an “aversion to life”.

Likewise a very large oil canvas, “Sternenfall” (Falling Stars) depicts the artist lying down on clods of broken, barren land.  His eyes are closed in sleep or meditation, and he is naked from the waist up.   His arms are at his sides.  There is the vast panorama of a starry, night sky above him.  And, there is a very, very thin line that runs from his eyes to the vastness of the heavens.  He seems both vulnerable to and in communion with the vastness of the heavens above. In art, psychoanalysis and life there is always the very realness of death and one’s wish to die, to stop, to be silent, to avert one’s face from what we have done to the world and to each other.  In this regard it should be noted, that the light from the stars in the heavens that we see now actually represents light that originated many light years ago.  The stars we see are not the stars as they are now.  So then what are we seeing?  What do we know?  What can we know?  This is our existential position in the world.  Yet we have an ancient longing to try to imagine, to try to see and speak what we see in the face of our ultimate “unknowing”.

The battle between aversion to life and facing life apparently went on throughout Ferenczi’s lifetime, but he nonetheless did stand out and speak his truth.  And Lifton and Kiefer chose life in calling attention to death, to what had been ignored, denied by the United States and by Germany.  On a personal level I and I think all of us, like Ferenczi and Lifton and Kiefer are faced with this choice not once and for all, but all the time.  There is an “aversion to life” in all of us as we keep still, give ourselves up in the hope that another will like us or that we won’t stand out as being different.  We fear how others may react to us if we speak our “truths”.  There is the risk, if we speak, of being separated out from the others, being found wanting or not good enough, of feeling that what we sense is our own neurosis not “reality”. Perhaps if we are quiet, we will make it through our analytic training.  Yet averting our faces and our voices means choosing “death”.  Can I, can we, act/speak toward life in the face of not knowing?   In his own way and through his own pain and struggles, Ferenczi and his paper on “aversion to life” is a guide.


Lane Gerber, PhD, ABPP received his doctorate from the University of Chicago and recently completed his psychoanalytic training at the Northwest Center for Psychoanalysis, Seattle.  He is a professor emeritus at Seattle University, on the clinical faculty at the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and maintains his clinical practice in Seattle.  He is married to Joanna (48 years) and they have two children and three grandchildren.

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