Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Death Instinct and the Mental Dimension beyond the Pleasure Principle in the Works of Spielrein and Freud

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Death Instinct and the Mental Dimension beyond the Pleasure Principle in the Works of Spielrein and Freud

Article excerpt

Sabina NikolaevnaSpielrein was born on 25 October 1885, in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. She developed neurotic disturbances during puberty and in August 1904 was admitted to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Zurich, where she was diagnosed with hysterical psychosis. Her treatment lasted nine and a half months and was supervised by Carl Gustav Jung, with whom she would become emotionally involved in 1908. They both wrote letters to Freud in which they discussed their relationship. At the time of Spielrein's admission to the Burghölzli, the hospital was under the direction of Eugen Bleuler. He had created a propitious climate for psychoanalysis within the hospital, encouraging collaborators and practitioners to read Freud's writings and to try out new psychoanalytic ideas. Spielrein was the first patient to be treated by Jung using the psychoanalytic method. In the first semester of 1905 she enrolled on the medicine course at the University of Zurich, obtaining a doctorate in 1911 having specialized in psychiatry (Richebacher, 2012). She attended meetings with the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society between October 1911 and March 1912 (Balsam, 2003). Her medical dissertation, entitled 'On the Psychological Content of a Case of Schizophrenia (Dementia praecox)', was developed under Bleuler's supervision and published in 1911 in the Jahrbuchfürpsychoanalytische und psychopathologischeForschungen. Her first theoretical article, 'Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being', was published in 1912, also in the Jahrbuch. In the years that followed she went on to publish other psychoanalytic articles. Cifali (2001) comments that Spielrein was the youngest woman writing on psychoanalysis at the time.1 Jung and Freud encouraged her to write; a remarkable fact given that although women were accepted as psychoanalysts, they were generally known to be clinical rather than theoretical practitioners (Cifali, 2001). In 1923 Spielrein left Switzerland, and after a year spent in Moscow she returned to Rostov in 1924. She would remain there until her death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942.2

In October 1977, the Italian Jungian analyst Aldo Carotenuto published the letters sent by Sabina Spielrein to Jung and Freud, along with her diaries, which had been kept in a box in the cellars of the Psychology Institute Library at the University of Geneva since her departure for the Soviet Union in 1923. Since then, a growing interest has developed around Spielrein's life. Her historical importance has been emphasized by many; as Carl Gustav Jung's first patient to be treated with psychoanalysis and, shortly after her treatment ended, as his lover, as well as in the role she played in the break between Freud and Jung. However, her role as an innovative clinician and originator of unprecedented ideas in the field of psychoanalysis has remained, for the most part, in the background (Cromberg, 2012).

In her paper 'Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being' (1912), Spielrein defends the necessity for the supposition of a 'death instinct' (Todesinstinkt) in psychic functioning. In the 1943 edition of 'On the Psychology of the Unconscious' (Jung, 1943) Carl Jung asserts that the Freudian concept of the death drive was originally put forward by Spielrein in her 1912 text on destruction. We frequently encounter this same assertion in texts from commentators on Freud's and Spielrein's thinking, claiming she had anticipated the Freudian hypothesis of the death drive (Robert, 1966; Carotenuto, 1980; Van Waning, 1992; Britton, 2003; Lothane, 2003; Peres, 2012).Yet very few of these commentators discuss the meaning of Spielrein's hypothesis, or to what extent it would be possible to say that she anticipated the concept of the death drive proposed by Freud in 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (1920). Some authors (Witt, 1995; Orellana and Ruiz, 2003; Richebacher, 2012) point out the presence of significant differences between the hypotheses of these two authors, but they fail to discuss these either systematically or in depth. …

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