The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland1

By Vermorel, Henri | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland1

Vermorel, Henri, International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Although Freud recognized his profound affinity with Spinoza, we seldom find explicit and direct references to the philosopher in his works. The correspondence between Romain Rolland, the 'Christian without a church', and Freud, the 'atheist Jew', is full of Spinozian reminiscences that nourish their works of this period and are underpinned by their mutual transference. The Future of an Illusion is written according to a Spinozian blueprint and aims at replacing religion, qualified as superstition, by psychoanalysis. A quotation from Heine, 'brother in unbelief', is a direct reference to Spinoza. Concurring with Freud's critiques of dogmas and churches, Rolland proposes an analysis of the 'oceanic feeling' as a basis of the religious sentiment. Freud replies with Civilization and Its Discontents. In 1936, on the occasion of Rolland's 70th birthday, Freud sends him an open letter, A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis, where the strange feeling that he has experienced in front of the Parthenon refers inter alia to his double culture: Jewish and German. In the light of this correspondence, the creation of psychoanalysis turns out to be a quest for the sacred that has disappeared in modernity; Freud, though, was able to find it inside man's unconscious.

Keywords: history of psychoanalysis, metapsychology, research


Between 1923 and 1936, Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud exchanged twenty letters or so and met each other on one occasion only. And yet they formed an intense relationship, echoes of which can be heard in their respective works.

It was André Bourguignon who allowed this correspondence to be divulged for the first time in Colette Comubert's (1966) doctoral thesis, after Marie Romain Rolland had entrusted her with her husband's hitherto unpublished letters. Many studies followed, especially by psychoanalysts, due to the impact of these exchanges on the genesis of Freud's work, including those by Roger Dadoun (1976, 1984) and our own (Vermorel and Vermorel, 1986, 1993, 1995). Mention should also be made of those psychoanalysts from the United States who have devoted many studies to Freud's (1936) text A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis, an open letter to Romain Rolland that has become a classic in psychoanalysis: including Mark Kanzer (1969), Harry Slochower (1971), Martin Wangh (1988), and David James Fisher, a fine connoisseur of Romain Rolland's intellectual engagement (1976, 1988, 1991).

Resonances and dissonances between Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud

At a first approach, Rolland2 and Freud are very different characters. The first was a novelist but also musician, musicologist, historian, dramatist, art critic, essayist, political moralist, and poet, as he is described by one of his friends, Jean-Richard Bloch (cited by Doisy, 1945, p.145). On the other hand, Freud's essential centre of interest was psychoanalysis, which might be described as a hybrid genre between medicine, philosophy and literature.

While Freud is famous today, and Romain Rolland is in an ongoing state of purgatory, the latter was at the time a very well-known personality, notably for winning the Nobel Prize3 of 1915, awarded for his novel Jean- Christophe. As an engaged intellectual, Romain Rolland was attentive to the dangers that weighed upon civilization at the time of the First World War; condemning the belligerents on both sides and placing himself 'above the fray', he protested against the destruction of the mind which war represents and embodied a moment of European conscience. In the period leading up to the Second World War, he was one of those who, with lucidity, alerted world opinion about the dangers of Nazism.

It was in this capacity as a man of peace and culture that he was the interlocutor of many renowned intellectuals of the time - amongst them, Sigmund Freud, ten years his elder. The latter was more reserved in expressing himself publicly, restricting himself apparently to the domain of psychoanalysis which, as it was concerned with treating the mental suffering of individuals, necessarily involved adopting an intrinsic position with regard to both inner freedom and political freedom.

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The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland1


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