Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis

By Coline Covington; Barbara Wharton | Go to book overview
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Chapter 14

Sabina Spielrein, Jean Piaget—going their own ways

Fernando Vidal

(Translated by Pramila Bennett in collaboration with Fernando Vidal)

There is hardly any documentation on the relationship between Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942), who was his psychoanalyst in Geneva in the early 1920s. There are some indications of their mutual sympathy, as well as traces of a shared project. Spielrein and Piaget had common intellectual roots in the Zürich psychiatric and psychoanalytic school. Moreover, Spielrein had started to study child psychology before meeting Piaget. Yet the collaboration between them, which was to deal with the theory of symbolism, never came into being. This may be explained by the divergence in intellectual focuses: psychoanalysis for Spielrein and epistemology for Piaget. But it is perhaps their contrasting attitudes to symbolism that best account for the failure of the project. Piaget mistrusted symbolic thought for intellectual and personal reasons that can be traced to his adolescence, and considered it as a lower stage in the growth of intelligence. On the contrary, as is apparent in both the form and content of her writings, Spielrein emphasized and valued the unconscious roots of symbolism, in which she saw the 'sap' of all thinking.

Jean Piaget was analysed by Sabina Spielrein. Each has mentioned the other in their writings and there are traces of their intellectual understanding. Some chronological parallels have been established (Volkmann-Raue 1993), and Spielrein's works have been collected (Spielrein 1986, 1987). But nothing so far allows us to guess what their true relationship was, nor to go beyond what can be gleaned from a few memories and scientific publications. It would very interesting, were it possible, to reconstitute the meeting of these two exceptional persons in a city which was a centre of psychoanalysis, and which played a crucial role in introducing Freudian thought into France.

The production on Wednesday 11 January 1922, at the Theatre Pitoëff in Geneva, of a modern tragedy by Henri-René Lenormand entitled 'The Dream Eater' (Lenormand 1922), was indicative of the place psychoanalysis occupied in the city's cultural life at the beginning of the 1920s (on Lenormand, see Blanchart 1951; on the play, Cifali 1982:118-27). The dream eater is the psychoanalyst Luc de Bronte, a 'Don Juan in the guise of a healer' (Lenormand 1943:66). After revealing to his patient Jeannine the oedipal


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Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis


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