Sándor Ferenczi, an empathetic psychoanalyst

Sándor Ferenczi, the enfant terrible of psychoanalysis

by Benoît Peeters

Flammarion, 382 p., € 23.90

After Derrida, Paul Valéry and Hergé, the more discreet figure of Sándor Ferenczi, a Hungarian psychoanalyst, benefits from Benoît Peeters’ talents as a biographer. Sándor Ferenczi (1873-1933), psychiatrist, was one of Freud’s closest collaborators. Defining himself as “An incorrigible therapist », he concentrated on the practice of analysis, inhabited by “Passion for healing”, when Freud, who felt more of a philosopher, moved towards more speculative work. In a letter from 1930, the father of psychoanalysis wrote to his colleague and friend: « It is quite possible (…) that you practice analysis better than I do, but I have nothing against it. I am saturated with analysis as therapy, fed up, and who then should do it better than me if not you? »

A living account of the beginnings of psychoanalysis

By recounting the relationship between the two men, Benoît Peeters’ book offers a living and documented account of the first decades of psychoanalysis. Between confidences and professional discussions, vacations and shared trips, their link reveals the discoveries and the trial and error of new science. Between the two friends gravitate a number of figures that Peeters skillfully stages: Wilhelm Fliess, Carl Gustav Jung, Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, Georg Groddeck, Michael Balint…

The biographer takes a nuanced but benevolent look at these years of genesis, where we explore the unconscious without a map or a traced path. It is a time of gestation – and sometimes of confusion – where therapy is carried out between friends, between lovers, between father and daughter, in defiance of what will be the rules of analysis later. A time when Freud and his close guard strove to build an overall movement, but where fratricidal wars are numerous, pride and the desire for glory playing the worst tricks here as elsewhere. Yet despite their weaknesses and their mistakes, these men show impressive courage in their effort to clarify the human mystery a little.

A pioneer in the recognition of sexual abuse of minors

In this gallery of portraits, Benoît Peeters does not hide his attachment to the figure of Ferenczi, a complex character, mired in his almost infantile admiration for Freud, and indecisive lover, hesitating between his mistress Gizella and his daughter, Elma. Between suffering and research, Ferenczi brought his stone to psychoanalysis. He was a pioneer in the importance he recognized in child sexual abuse and its devastating effect.

Ferenczi also advanced the reflection on the role of the analyst, to whom he recommends a solid humility, refusing “The fanaticism of interpretation” and all claims to infallibility. Attentive to the suffering of his patients, he recommends the « tact » and empathy. “No analysis can be successful if we fail to truly love the patient during it. Each patient has the right to be considered and cared for as an abused and unhappy child ”, he wrote in his clinical journal, adding: “Only sympathy heals. Understanding is necessary in order to be able to use sympathy at the right time and in the right way. “

Forgetting and rehabilitation

Freud will judge these theses too affective and will consider them as a betrayal. “Magnificent loser”, according to the beautiful expression of Peeters, Ferenczi will succeed neither in being happy in love nor in saving his friendship with Freud. After his death, the American psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, Freud’s first biographer, will organize his forgetting.

However, the time for rehabilitation will come, thanks to the loyalty of psychoanalyst Michael Balint. In 1953, Lacan saw in Ferenczi “The most authentic interrogator of the responsibility of the therapist”. In 1961, Wladimir Granoff, figure of French psychoanalysis, wrote: “If Freud invented psychoanalysis, Ferenczi did psychoanalysis. More so, he made the analysis in so far as it is living pulsation. “ Sándor Ferenczi still needed to be made known to a wider audience. With this captivating and elegant biography, it is now done.


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