Book Review: Sex Versus Survival–The Story of Sabina Spielrein

A good while back, I saw the film A Dangerous Method. I was enthralled. Depicting the budding relationship and subsequent falling out between Freud and Jung, and hanging it on the larger story of Sabina Spielrein, it introduced me to a history that I did not know.

Freud and Jung as played by Mortensen and Fassbender

Freud and Jung as played by Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in the film A Dangerous Method.

Like most people, I knew about Freud and Jung to varying degrees, and probably a little more than the average reader. An avocation of sorts, I had read much more of Freud than of Jung: I had read several volumes of his works, different collections of his letters and several biographies and was more conversant with Freud’s vocabulary than with Jung’s. (Though I once had read a fascinating collection of letters between Jung and Herman Hesse that I remember mostly because upon finishing it, I had a startling–and still remembered–dream featuring the floating head of an exotic woman repeating the Sanskrit term, kamakeli. I would love to find those letters now–or a psychoanalyst to help me through the dream.)

But what I hadn’t known about until the film A Dangerous Method (based on the book of the same name by John Kerr) was the existence–or the importance–of Sabina Spielrein. And so I began reading. First, I read  the Kerr book on which the film was based. Then I read Jung–a relative hole in my reading. And this week I read a small book entitled Sex versus Survival: The Story of Sabina Spielrein–Her life, her ideas, her genius by John Launer. Launer is a senior staff member at the Tavistock Clinic–the preeminent institute in the U.K. for psychological training and a senior lecturer at the medical school of the University of London.

The stated purpose of his book is to give due to Spielrein, whom he believes should be ranked among the major figures in the history of psychoanalysis–and who is not because of injustice, malfeasance, and patriarchal insecurities, particularly at the hands of Freud and Jung.  He divides his book into three sections: Spielrein’s biography, Spielrein’s work, and Spielrein’s influence on 21st-century evolutionary psychoanalysis.

Her Life

In 1904, Spielrein was brought to Switzerland–having been turned away from various clinics–to be treated for severe psychic disorders. There she was first treated by Eugen Bleuler, head of the clinic, and later by his protege, Carl Jung.  In fact, Spielrein would be the first patient to be psychoanalyzed by Jung.  She would also soon become his lover.

Sabina Spielrein

Sabina Spielrein

Within a year, Spielrein’s symptoms had abated so that she had entered medical school in Zurich–while still being treated by Jung and entagled romantically with him. Together, the two debated and discussed the psychoanalytic topics of the day–with Spielrein progressively formulating and stating her own views.

However, before long, Jung saw her as a liability. (He was married and a respected figure in the early days of psychoanalysis. And he had certainly crossed a line with a damaged patient’s understandable “transference.”) He wrote to his mentor–and idol–Freud about the situation, though not naming names. She at the same time wrote to Freud. Freud wrote to Jung and the two discussed her as if she were nothing more than a case study. And so we have the two giants of psychoanalysis trying to quell a female colleague (and former patient and former lover) and cover up what would have certainly have been a professional and personal scandal.  This would go on for a long time–a power play mixed with antisemitism (was the Christian Jung attracted to her “otherness”?), patriarchy, chauvinism, and professional insecurity.

When Spielrein read her paper–“Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being”– to the bearded Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, (she was only the second woman to belong to the Society and a mere 26 years old), she focused on the biological factors at play in the sexual life of humans. Freud adamantly wanted psychoanalysis to have no connection whatsoever with biology (although he started out as a talented neurologist) and dismissed this major–and prescient–part of her paper. And when she brought mythology in to support her argument, Freud saw traces of Jung, with whom by now he was becoming completely disenchanted.

The two wrote about her–crudely at times–and patronizingly discussed her views. And then they buried her:  Jung–the editor of the Society’s journal–held her paper for a year before publishing it. Freud, in a snit about Jung, associated her too closely with him and gave her views barely a glance. When he did correspond with her, it was to analyze why she fell for Jung in the first place. As Launer writes, the two dealt with Spielrein by “pathologising the victim, and ignoring her ground-breaking ideas.” (p. 99)

And yet, her views influenced both men significantly.  For Jung, she was instrumental in developing his theory of the anima and animus; for Freud, she brought the thanatos to his eros, the “death wish” to his “pleasure principle.”

Spielrein moved on, becoming a leading figure in child psychology. (She was Jean Piaget’s psychoanalysist.) When she returned to her native Russia, she introduced psychology and psychoanalysis to the Russian medical system. But history was moving too fast.  First the communists closed down the psychology departments, then forbade psychoanalysis, then came down heavy on all the sciences. Her brothers– a physicist and a biologist– were sent to labor camps and never heard from again.

And then came the Nazis. In the summer of 1942, Nazi soldiers marched into the town of Rostov. They gathered the people and marched them to the Zmeyevsky gully–a mass grave at the edge of town where mass executions took place. Sabina Spielrein was among those killed.

Plaque in front of the Berlin House where Sabina Spielrein once lived.

Plaque in front of the Berlin house where Sabina Spielrein once lived.

Her Work and Influence

Launer spends the second half of the book describing the text of her initial paper to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. She began by equating the “invasion” of a sperm fertilizing an egg with the sex act itself and stated that in sex–both personal and genetic–something is loss (or killed) in the evolutionary drive to replicate itself.  Launer then goes on to say, that despite her mistakes and misdirections, that she was greatly prescient and anticipated some of the major theories of 21st century biology and evolutionary psychology. Three of his final chapters take her three main positions and reword them as a modern evolutionary biologist would put them. Here is how he pairs them:

According to Speilrein’s first principle, ˆReproduction predominates over survival”

Speilrein wrote: “The individual must strongly hunger for this new creation in order to place its own destruction in its service.”

Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “The imperative of all living organisms is the replication of their genes by direct or indirect means in the face of individual extinction.”

According to Speilrein’s second principle, ˆSex is a form of invasion, leading to the destruction of genes from both partners to the reconstitution of new life.”

Speilrein described sex as a process of destruction and reconstruction at every level : “a union in which one forces its way into another.”

Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “As well as co-operation, sexual reproduction involves inherent conflict at every level between male and female genetic interests.

According to Speilrein’s third principle, “Human feelings correspond with the biological facts of reproduction.”

Speilrein wrote: “It would be highly unlikely if the individual did not at least surmise, through corresponding feelings, these internal deconstructive-reconstructive events.”

Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “Our feelings correspond to the way we balance opportunities for genetic continuation against the risks of extinction.

In her writings, Spielrein anticipated the “selfish gene” of Richard Dawkins; she anticipated a needed convergence of Darwin and Freud; and she brought biology onto the psychoanalyst’s couch. Perhaps, she was so far ahead of her time that her theories could not be proven, tested, or validated, but she was also stymied by forces more powerful than she.

The story of Sabina Spielrein is fascinating, a story of love and passion, of intelligence and perseverance, of betrayal and destruction.  It is Launer’s contention that Spielrein’s name should be as familiar to us as the name of her two more famous male colleagues. The depth of her influence is still be discovered–her papers were not found until the 1970s–and it is certain that her contributions to psychology and evolutionary biology is still yet to be fully appreciated.

Book Review: The Twenty-Four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright

The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

My reading list these days is erratic and wide. I am picking up things that pique my interest without any plan, without any connection to what I previously had been reading. But that’s okay for these summer days.

A colleague had forwarded an article from Maria Popova’s brain pickings blog. It was a review of Rosalind D. Cartwright’s book on the role of sleeping and bookdreaming in our lives. The review (like nearly everything on “brain pickings”) was intriguing and interesting. So of course, I had to find it in our library.

Cartwright is one of the preeminent scientists studying sleep–a relatively new area in scientific research. Her thesis is that sleep is essential to our health, particularly to our emotional health, and that the modern penchant (and desire) for sleeping less is damaging both physically and psychically.

Indeed, the mind does not sleep when we sleep–it goes into over-drive, cataloging memories, cementing new knowledge, mapping neural pathways. Cartwright states:

We can now begin to answer the question, “Where do we go when we got to sleep?” Clearly we do not sink into a void, but instead into a mental workshop where emotionally important information is kept active until it is saved in neural networks. When the highly activated REM sleep comes along, perceptual dreams reveal the matching of new information to old… . Through the night, from REM to REM, new information is integrated, drawing together more and more remote associations.

She continues that there is short-term functionality to these rhythms– “down-regulation of negative mood” –and long-term functionality. The long-term benefits, she lists as “continuously test[ing] and modify[ing] those non-conscious habitual schemas that make up our self-system and influence our behavior choices, based on our emotional evaluation of whether the new experience supports or challenges our present self-definition.”

This is a lot of responsibility thrown onto a good night sleep, and Cartwright’s argument is that we, as modern human beings, are sabotaging that essential need.

Aside from emotional turmoil–and Cartwright’s expertise is on sleep disorders, particular sleepwalking–Cartwright points out physical dangers as well. Those with long-term insomnia are more prone to obesity and diabetes. A famous study by the American Cancer Society was done over a 10-year period and found a puzzling pattern. Those who slept less than six hours a night AND those who slept more than nine hours a night had a higher mortality rate for their age. The conclusion is that we humans are built to sleep about 1/3 of our 24 hour cycles, that magic 7 to 9 hour range.

“We speak prose while awake and poetry when asleep.”

"The Dream," 1932 Pablo Picasso

“The Dream,” 1932 Pablo Picasso

Yet, for Cartwright’s thesis, it is not merely sleep that is essential to human health, but dreaming as well. In her profession, Cartwright is known as “the Queen of Dreams,” and dream-research is what she is interested in and battles for. Here is how Cartwright explains the symbiotic functioning of the waking and dreaming life.

“…[T]he mind is continuously active, although in different modes of expression, during the two major alterating states of waking and sleep. … In waking, there is a wider lens open to receive and respond more to the external world, while in sleep we are mostly confined to a narrower base of internal information both new and old.”

It is this “internal” information that sets us dreaming, that allows us to fit old information with new information, to anticipate new situations and reconcile old. Cartwright firmly believes that our emotions are greatly tied to the functioning of our dreaming, and of our sleeping.

While Cartwright acknowledges the contributions of Freud to dream-analysis and the understanding of the unconscious, she moves decidedly apart from him. (The technological abilities for brain-image mapping, sleep studies, etc. give her a great advantage.) The Freudian concept of the preconscious, unconscious and conscious mind is much too simplistic for what Cartwright sees happening. Here is her take on dreaming:

“So in good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a contining act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.”

It all is a lot to digest. But it is something to sleep upon.

Book Review: Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories by Adam Phillips

2013 jpbohannon

2013 jpbohannon

Adam Phillips begins his small book Darwin’s Worms with a story about the composer John Cage. Cage had attended a concert by a friend. In the program notes to the concert the friend had written that he hoped in some small way that his music helps to ease some of the suffering in our modern world. When Cage criticized this desire, the friend asked him if he didn’t think there was too much suffering in the world. “No,” replied Cage. “I think there is just the right amount.”

And so, Phillips writes, it is to remind us of and reconcile us to the fact that the amount of suffering in life is just the right amount that we turn to Darwin and Freud.

Darwin was very aware of the suffering in the natural world. Anticipating Freud on one level, he saw all organisms in a war for survival, thrust forward by an instinct to regenerate, adapting continually to a constantly changing environments. While the rest of his society were arguing, debating, proselytizing what it believed were the weightier implications of Darwin’s observations, Darwin studied the lowly earthworm, understanding its importance in the life of nature and, in turn, our own, (which he would argue is part of nature and not separate from). Flipping the usual symbolism on its head, removing the lowly worm from man’s symbolic last meal (“not where he eats, but where he is eaten”) and placing it at the continual meal that is life, Darwin points out that worms function in nature like plows, turning over soil and creating the soft and germinating loam that we take as the earth’s surface. As they struggle to survive (and “struggle” and “survival” are both key words in Darwin and Freud’s lexicon), worms leave behind shards of the past–that which they cannot digest–and form suitable soil for the plants that will provide for their future. Darwin states that:

“…it would be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms.” That is a very large contribution to life on earth, powered simply by the worm’s instinctual drive to survive.

Later, Freud elaborated this drive, this instinct to survive and coupled it with its antithesis, the death instinct. At first, he termed them simply, the life instinct and the death instinct. Ultimately, he gave it the poetic designation of “Eros and Thanatos.” The life instinct is easy to understand. Man is driven to survive and to propagate. (“To be or not to be” becomes “to survive or not to be.”) The latter, however, the death instinct is a bit more difficult to get one’s head around. Freud believes that in the struggle to survive man also has a desire to cease that struggle–to stop the pain, if you will. However, the desire, says Freud, is also to be in control of that death. To make it part of one’s life story.

Later in the book, Phillips gives us passages from two separate biographies (“life stories”) of Freud. Both describe the same scene, Freud’s death (“death stories”). The scenes themselves are poignant, but what Phillips does with the passages is telling. In it, he shows Freud “controlling his death” the way that he thought all humans desired. In a way, it is a heroic portrait and an affirmation of Freud’s theories.

As Phillips concludes, in their work, both Freud and Darwin “ask us to believe in the permanence only of change and uncertainty… . to describe ourselves from nature’s point of view; but in the full knowledge that nature, by (their) definition, doesn’t have one.” In an work that analyzes mortality, death, and loss, Darwin’s Worms is a surprisingly upbeat and reassuring view of the world.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Freud famously said that there are no such things as coincidences. But today as I opened my computer to begin writing this post about Darwin and Freud, the homepage on my computer opened to this New York Times article revealing the discovery of the fossil of a nearly complete skeleton of what is the earliest primate known, changing scientists’ time-line for the appearance of primates on earth by 8 million years, and giving credence to the growing theory that primates emerged first in Asia rather than Africa.

Xijun Ni/Chinese Academy of Sciences An artist's interpretation of a tiny primate that is thought to be the earliest known ancestor of nocturnal primates living today in Southeast Asia. from NYTimes 06/06/2013

Xijun Ni/Chinese Academy of Sciences An artist’s interpretation of a tiny primate that is thought to be the earliest known ancestor of nocturnal primates living today in Southeast Asia. from NYTimes 06/06/2013

How appropriate. Darwin would have been excited, for he saw great value in studying the simplest and earliest of life-forms, plankton, barnacles, and earthworms.

Adam Phillips: Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

illustration by jpbohannon

illustration by jpbohannon, 2013

In the office of a colleague a while back I noticed a towering pile of books on the desk, as if he were re-arranging his book shelves or carting out old titles to a different location.  But no,  it was his “to read” pile, and it was impressive and imposing.

Among the authors gathered, there was one whom I had not heard of–Adam Phillips. A psychoanalyst by trade–specifically a children’s clinical psychotherapist–Phillips read literature at Oxford, specializing in the 19th century British romantics.  And as the “science” of psychoanalysis has always been symbiotically tied to literature,  a degree in literature seemed the perfect training ground.
Adam Phillips photo: Andy Hall

Adam Phillips
photo: Andy Hall

And so I decided to dive in.

Of Phillips’ seven or so titles, Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature seemed a reasonable starting point. And, the frantic busyness at the end of the school term made a collection of independent essays more attractive and less of a task.
 

“As poets struggle to find a place in contemporary cultural reality, psychoanalysts, implicitly or explicitly,  are still promoting the poets as ego-ideals.”

Philips, “Poetry and Psychoanalysis”

The crux of Phillips’ essays is the mutual relationship between literature and psychoanalysis…and psychoanalysts’  established reverence for creative writers. Literature, according to Freud, gave birth to psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis often gives resonance to literature.

And so go his essays.

He begins with the essay “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” and brings in the young poet Keats–a former medical student–who famously stated that science ruined poetry when Newton reduced the rainbow to a prism.  Not so, Phillips says, for poetry (and you can read “creative writing” where Phillips says “poetry”) can do what the sciences cannot.  Indeed, much of his argument is that the science of psychoanalysis is bringing understanding to the vision of poetry.  Freud said, Phillips tells us, that the poets had long before discovered the unconscious, and that he only had devised a way to study it.

Phillips graciously gives way to “poetry” saying that the short history of psychoanalysis has been an attempt to study the unconscious that poetry reveals. And since both poetry and psychoanalysis–the “talking cure”–depend on language, and often, coded language, the two are intrinsically welded together.

And so he is off.

There are marvelous literary essays on Hamlet, Hart Crane, Martin Amis,  A.E. Housman and Frederick Seidel, all informed by an accessible shading of psychoanalytic theory, as well as masterful psychoanalytic pieces on Narcissism, Jokes, Anorexia and Clutter, informed by a broad knowledge of literature/poetry.  It is Phillips’ contention–his modus operandi, if you will–that the two disciplines can or should depend on each other for clarity.

Hamlet-and-skull-on-stampThe collection ends with the title piece, “Promises, Promises.”  In it, Phillips examines the “promise” that both literature and psychoanalysis offer. He writes:

“If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field.”

What does reading literature promise us?  What does analysis promise us?  Phillips contends that both promise us, to a degree, “the experience of a relationship in silence, the unusual experience of a relationship in which no one speaks.”  Of course, ultimately, the analyst must speak.  But it is in that silence that often we become “true to ourselves.”

Reading psychoanalytic theory can often be dry and dusty, but Phillips’ writing never is. Bringing in an encyclopedic knowledge of both creative literature and psychoanalytic literature (and, at times, arguing that there might not be a difference),  Phillips imaginatively and wittily plumbs past and current trends, canonical and esoteric literatures, clinical practice and private correspondence to bring to light his vision of psychoanalysis and literature’s potential and promise.

Sunday Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

For ninety-percent of the novel Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, I was enthralled.

Vienna before the first World War, London on the eve of war, the no-man’s land between the trenches, neutral Geneva at the height of hostilities, London during zeppelin bombing raids. The settings are dramatic and richly drawn.

As was the plot: A young actor, following his famous father’s footsteps (if that’s not Oedipal enough for him, his mother catches him at his first experience at masturbation to boot), goes to Vienna to find a cure for a sexual condition–to Vienna, the center of the burgeoning new concept of psychoanalysis. Although he meets Freud himself, it is Freud’s English speaking neighbor who takes Lysander Rief on–and who successfully cures him.  And we know he is cured because his four month affair with the English bohemian Hettie Bull ends in a pregnancy and his arrest for rape by the Viennese authorities.

When two British diplomats arrange for Rief’s escape, they also arrange for his indenture to British intelligence.

Soon after Rief returns to London, his rescuers called in his debt and he is asked to enter Geneva via  the front lines. He is successful at his mission, survives seven bullet wounds, and completes the assignment that he had been ordered to finish.  And then he is given a second mission.

The action–of both the military and intelligence escapades and Rief’s romantic life–is riveting, fast paced and cleverly intertwined. Each character seems to be connected to another and no one is entirely innocent. And Rief’s inner-life is subtly and intelligently revealed. One learns much about military ordinance, psychoanalytic practices, the British class system and the early 20th-century British world of theater. And the information is never pedantic or overwhelming but richly woven into the plot.

Yet the solution of Rief’s intelligence mission and the resolution of his own personal quests seems to be lacking.  As the Novel wraps up and the various strands are pulled together, the story begins to limp rather than gain strength.  By the end, I felt I was reading a Hardy Boys’ Adventure. The solution was pat and somewhat anti-climactic.

I had been look forward to Waiting for Sunrise for several months and to be quite honest I enjoyed reading it very, very much. Until the end that is.  I was disappointed. It seemed that Boyd had simply decided to quit.

William Boyd

I like William Boyd very much. I feel he is greatly underrated among his contemporaries and is a wonderful stylist with a perfect ear for the nuances of an age.

I had previously read several Boyd novels and do not remember this falling off, this disappointment before. The novels all successfully re-create historic eras, describing its people, its culture, its ethos, its fears, all braced by an intelligent understanding and description of the scientific theories and advancements that are at that moment being born. For instance, Brazzaville Beach deals with mathematical chaos theory and the sociology of chimpanzees.  The New Confessions (modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions) also deals with World War I–as with Waiting for Sunrise–moves through Hollywood and Berlin, treats the horrors of World War II and then ends with the Hollywood Communist  trials, the whole while treating  us to the internal workings of the Hollywood film industry.  The Blue Afternoon (my personal favorite) is centered on the United States invasion of Manilla and its ultimate acquisition of the Philippines through the Treaty of Versaille and travels from Lisbon, Manilla and Los Angeles, from 1902 through the 1930s, while leading the reader through advancements in surgery and trends in architecture.

All of Boyd’s novels are rich with fascinating information, realistic period details, and memorable human stories. And all are vastly enjoyable and worthwhile.  Waiting for Sunrise, however, for me, ends a little too quickly and a little too weakly.