Raluca Soreanu, Jakob Staberg, Jenny Willner | Ferenczi Dialogues

28th February, 2023 in Author’s corner

Sándor Ferenczi was one of the very few who early on appreciated Freud’s notion of life and death drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle – and he took things further from there.

In Ferenczi Dialogues, the authors Raluca Soreanu, Jakob Staberg, and Jenny Willner present the contribution of Sándor Ferenczi to a psychoanalytic theory of trauma and discuss the philosophical, political and clinical implications of Ferenczi’s thinking. The authors situate the legacy of Ferenczi within the broad interdisciplinary landscape of the social sciences, literary theory, psychoanalytic theory, and clinical practice, and highlight Ferenczi’s relevance for contemporary philosophical discussions in poststructuralism, feminism and new materialism.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.

It is a book about the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933), who centred his psychoanalytic thought around trauma, on how the traumatic shock leads to radical forms of psychic splitting. He was one of the very few who early on appreciated Freud’s notion of life and death drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle – and he took things further from there. Our book discusses Ferenczi’s intense cooperation with Freud, and also the conflicts between and around them. Their final break took place in 1932; Ferenczi died in 1933. During the last year of his life, he outlined a metapsychology of fragments against the backdrop of both personal and political catastrophes. His unfinished theory contains clinical observations and metapsychological constructions; it draws from his work with severely traumatised patients. As a clinician he would work with cases deemed hopeless by other analysts. In his writings, he articulates different forms of survival, of the astonishing psychic life of fragments.

While taking up these different aspects, we try to situate the legacy of Ferenczi within an interdisciplinary landscape, to disentangle the implications of catastrophes in his work from our different points of view: clinical psychoanalysis, social sciences, literary theory, and critical theory. The result is also an experiment with form: we wanted to organise our material in a way that would mirror our way of cooperating, coming from different directions. To work with both the distances and encounters of our working process, we divided the book into three main sections, with a main chapter written by one of us, followed by responses from the other two. So the book begins with a co-written introduction, followed by three sets of triadic engagements.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

Before our collaboration began, each of us had been working on Ferenczi in different countries, from different perspectives, and with different questions in mind. Our paths crossed several times at conferences, workshops and panels dedicated to Ferenczi in 2018 and 2019. It was Philippe Van Haute who suggested we write a book together. Philippe was a Belgian philosopher and psychoanalyst, author and editor of several important books, professor of philosophical anthropology, and one of the editors-in-chief of the series Figures of the Unconscious at Leuven University Press. We strongly felt that his publication offer stemmed from a genuine intellectual curiosity, which was typical for his way of bringing people together. He really wanted to know what we would come up with. So it served as a benevolent interpellation: it set something in motion, and he gave us the space and the freedom to experiment with the dialogic form. While writing, we imagined Philippe as a reader: perhaps sometimes with lifted eyebrows, with astonishment, sceptical and critical questions too, and most certainly with many new associations. We imagined celebrating our book’s publication together with him. But he passed away in November 2022, around the time when we handed in the manuscript for typesetting. The book is now dedicated to his memory.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

Read the work of Sándor Ferenczi!

While a new edition of the Complete Psychoanalytic Writings of Sándor Ferenczi is underway, with new translations in English (Franco Borgogno and Peter L. Rudnitzky are the general editors), the reprints of his work offered by the Karnac publishing house are the easiest to access: First, Further, and Final Contributions. If you read German, and Ferenczi wrote mostly in German: Schriften zur Psychoanalyse in three volumes at Psychosozial Verlag. Ferenczi’s writings have a distinct style, many of the pieces are short, even essayistic. We suggest a rhizomatic approach: begin wherever a title appeals to you and continue from there in different directions. For instance, you could approach Ferenczi’s work through some of his texts on the creativity of hysteria, such as the 1919 text “The phenomena of hysterical materialization”, (in Further contributions, pp. 89–104), and two of his 1926 texts, “Organ neuroses and their treatment” (in Final contributions, pp. 22-28), and “The problem of acceptance of unpleasant ideas–Advances in knowledge of the sense of reality” (in Further contributions, pp. 366–379). Alternatively, you could start with one of his 1929 texts on regression and psychoanalytic technique, which has exceptional relevance for contemporary psychoanalytic practice, “The principle of relaxation and neocatharsis” (in Final contributions, pp. 108–125). Finally, a short and unusual 1913 writing, “Taming of a wild horse” (in Final contributions pp. 336–340), would offer a good entry into the themes of authority, submission and infantile obedience.

Ferenczi’s most famous and perhaps also most difficult paper is “Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child” from 1932. Here he coined the famous notion of an identification with the aggressor, and our book takes up several other implications of this paper as well.

Another piece of particular importance for our book is Thalassa, Ferenczi’s theory of genitality. It is a speculative little book about the evolutionary history of genital organs, drafted in 1914-15 and published in 1924. We read it as Ferenczi’s counternarrative to the popular Darwinisms of his time. It also implies a programmatic idea of how psychoanalysis should approach biology and what the natural sciences may learn from psychoanalytic methodology.

And finally, if you are prepared for an extensive, shattering reading that goes beyond what Freud thought of as the limits of psychoanalysis in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: read The Clinical Diary of 1932, written the year before Ferenczi passed away.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?

Raluca Soreanu, Jakob Staberg, and Jenny Willner

Everything in this writing process was surprising, amusing, and strange. We had been postponing the project for a while when we explicitly decided to prioritise it in order to mentally and intellectually survive another pandemic winter. This meant: insisting on research and exchange on our own terms, beyond any strategic considerations. It above all meant committing ourselves to staying in touch, to sending each other drafts and giving each other feedback. The book is the result of a dialogue between three talking heads and gesticulating pairs of hands in the windows of our digital group meetings between London, Munich, and Stockholm, often late in the evenings, and despite exhaustion, interruptions and disturbances, for each of us in different combinations of clinical work or parenting, academic teaching and administrative duties under pandemic conditions.

It may sound almost terribly ambitious to embark upon yet another project in such a situation – all three of us would have been more than busy enough without. But preparing this book felt like a glimpse of real utopia. Each of us wrote with the other two as eager readers in mind. The most important part was perhaps the generous patience we offered each other each time one of us needed more time. Every now and then, one of the three would simply disappear from the radar, no questions asked – there are always reasons – and the other two would continue. Of course we had several postponements in the process. But what remains is an experience of a fruitful mode of cooperation that really takes into account that a working process often means alternating between high performance and a breakdown of the practical possibility or ability to write. In a way, this is in line with how Ferenczi thinks about such processes.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?

Remember Ferenczi; remember to read Ferenczi! And by the way, his work is very much structured around what it may mean to remember, to relive or to regress. So we should remember that it is not clear what it means to remember – for instance when a popular Darwinist around 1900 euphorically claims that we can remember the life form of a fish or a reptile.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?

Raluca is working on a monograph called The Psychic Life of Fragments: On Splitting and the Experience of Time in Psychoanalysis. The book is an exploration of Ferenczi’s metapsychology of fragmented psyches, and the construction of a new clinical-theoretical vocabulary on splitting, as well as a phenomenological journey into scenes of fragmentation, as they emerge from the consulting room.

Jakob is working on a Swedish language monograph on Freud and his representational art understood as formative for the psychoanalytic theory. In particular, the book approaches the representation of the dream process and centers around the seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

Jenny is working on a German language monograph about Freud and Ferenczi’s biological speculation, understood as a critical intervention into popular Darwinist discourses. It raises epistemological questions regarding the relation between psychoanalysis and biology and underlines the political relevance of Freud and Ferenczi’s pursuit, its radical difference to theories of development and of degeneration in the tradition of eugenicist thought.


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