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The Lichtenberg Knife: Freud, Jung, and the Early History of the Psychoanalytic Movement

A three part essay on Freud and his attempt to manage the early psychoanalytic movement and its official terminology.*

Freud & Jung posing for a photo during an ill-fated arctic expedition ca. 1912. One man and three dogs met their deaths during this endeavor. This traumatic episode put a great deal of strain on the two mens' relationship.

With David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method still fresh in my mind – it opened the Three Rivers Film Festival last month – I thought I would seize the opportunity to revisit the historical chronology of events to which the film rather closely adheres. Forming a kind of counterpoint to Freud’s own “History of the Psychoanalytic Movement,” the film begins and stays with Jung, a welcome and unorthodox approach for histories of psychoanalysis, as it charts its emergence as a practice and movement, beginning with a moment when even it’s name – a subject I return to below – is not yet established, and its credentials still largely questioned. The Jung the film begins with is moreover an almost pre-Freudian Jung, already deeply influenced by him but still somewhat independent and devoted to the methods of dream analysis he was practicing before Freud’s work took hold of him completely, if briefly as it turns out. In fact, so much of the film is devoted to charting Jung’s resistance to Freud’s “seductions,” as he puts it, which are proving more powerful and explanatory, it would seem, than Jung’s more elusive mystical and telepathic convictions. Even so, the film is more squarely aligned with Jung’s perspective than Freud’s, making it an interesting if fictional rejoinder to Freud’s version, published in 1914, the year in which the film ends, when the ‘movement’ was ostensibly established and a certain legitimacy obtained. In the film we do get some sense of Freud’s domineering control over the tenets and boundaries of psychoanalysis, if not one that quite corresponds to the zealousness of his introduction to the history, which begins with Freud articulating, as Paul Roazen puts it, “what sounds like a claim to his personal copyright”[1]: “For psycho-analysis is my creation; for ten years I was the only one occupied with it […] Even today, when I am no longer the only psychoanalyst, I feel myself justified in assuming that nobody knows better than I what psychoanalysis is, wherein it differs from other methods of investigating the psychic life, what its name should cover, or what might better be designated as something else.”[2] Freud’s text, which sets out at this early moment – when the “science” is just becoming renowned and accepted – to cement the borders of psychoanalysis once and for all, makes for a kind of case study in the managed reification of a discipline. In 1914, the year of the text’s publication, psychoanalysis was sufficiently established – as a movement, not a discourse or practice, we are reminded – to have developed certain rules of innovation, but was still not yet entrenched enough for these rules to be obvious or self-evident. That they needed to be stated and explained at all no doubt points to an underlying anxiety over the future of the ‘movement’ and the factions already forming within. The text is indeed distinguished by its obsession with nomenclature and designation, the full significance of which confronts Freud with questions not of psychoanalysis but politics – not the mind and its psychology, but the movement and its management. For instance, though use of the namepsychoanalysis demands, for Freud, a carefully defined criterion to protect it from abuses – there is actually a subtle moment early on in Cronenberg’s film where Freud corrects Jung’s “psych-analysis” with his own “psychoanalysis” – it must still be proclaimed and disseminated, by and through “the psychoanalytic movement,” to obtain its proper power and influence. And this, of course, requires the training of a legion of practitioners, each of whom must then be kept in line and habitually distracted from excessive innovation. To this effect, Freud persistently likens ‘his’ movement to, of all things, a disciplined military force seizing a land. “Hand in hand with its territorial expansion just described, psychoanalysis became enlarged with regard to its contents through its encroaching upon fields of knowledge outside the study of the neuroses and psychiatry” (Freud 921). The science’s greatest promulgators are described accordingly – as holding a post or protecting the doctrine, while also, presumably, resisting adding anything fundamental to it of their own. “James J. Putnam, teacher of neuropathology at Harvard University […] protected it [psychoanalysis] against the denunciations to which it might otherwise have early succumbed. […] Putnam has remained the chief prop of the psychoanalytic movement in his native land” (Freud 919); but at the same time, expanding militarily, “For diffusion of this movement, Brill and Jones deserve the greatest credit” (Freud 919). With its opponents (“not counting a few unworthy individuals”) likened to “fortune hunters and plunderers, such as in time of war are always found on both sides,” (Freud 924) “it is clear that the fight for psychoanalysis must be fought to a decisive end” (Freud 919). What is remarkable about this essay, in light of Freud’s other writings, is its negotiation or confusion of two different conceptions of language and two different forms of management: the one to control the official theoretical meaning and practice of psychoanalysis, and the other the practitioners’ use and dissemination of it. That is, beyond the more practical, scientific, or philosophical task of defining psychoanalysis is the more difficult one of controlling its mutations, which can only increase with its desired expansion. It is alone noteworthy that Freud seems to envision himself as a general or commander overseeing a vast imperial network of brigades and supply lines, which are moreover embattled on every side as well as from within.

Freud and Jung at an American billiards hall, 1908.

For Freud, the ‘psychoanalytic movement’, at least at this juncture, is less a methodology to improve and refresh than a status quo to maintain and defend. Thus, as any ruler might, Freud had to consider who would take over after him, who would decide what is and what isn’t psychoanalytic. “Two years after the first congress, the second private congress of psychoanalysts took place at Nuremberg, March, 1910. During the interval, whilst I was still under the impression of the favorable reception in America, the growing hostility in Germany and the unexpected support through the acquisition of the Zürich School, I had conceived a project which I was able to carry out at this second congress, with the help of my friend S. Ferenczi. I had in mind to organize the psychoanalytic movement, to transfer its center to Zürich and place it under a head who would take care of its future” (Freud 927). Finally, “I saw a long road before me and I felt oppressed by the idea that it had fallen to my lot to become a leader in my advanced age. Yet I felt that there must be a leader” (Freud 927). In this regard, from Freud’s perspective at least, the controversy with Jung can be considered a failed transfer of power. The “History” itself perhaps even closely observes the familiar plot of the ‘interrupted lineage’ – according to which Freud (presumably in the role of the sovereign who, to avoid the partitioning of the kingdom upon his death, prematurely names an heir) picks instead the one most capable of dissolution. “It was now my desire to transfer this authority to a younger man who would, quite naturally, take my place on my death. I felt that this person could be only C. G. Jung, for Bleuler was my own age” (Freud 927–928). But, as he knows we know, the plan did not turn out as intended. “I had no notion then that in spite of the advantages enumerated, this was a very unfortunate choice; that it concerned a person who, incapable of tolerating the authority of another, was still less fitted to be himself an authority, one whose energy was devoted to the unscrupulous pursuit of his own interests” (Freud 928). But if it was the act of preservation itself that provoked so much dissension, could a more appropriate heir have otherwise been found? When, at the second private congress (March 1910), the International Psychoanalytic Association was formed and Jung elected as its president, Adler and the Vienna group immediately opposed the decision, if only on account of the fear that “‘a censorship and limitation of scientific freedom’ was intended. The Viennese finally gave in, after having gained their point that Zürich should not be raised to the center of the association” (Freud 928). They therefore founded the Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse, “which caused a reconciliation between Adler and Stekel. It had originally been intended as an opposing tendency and was to win back for Vienna the hegemony threatened by the election of Jung” (Freud 928). It was not until September 1913, however, the year before Freud published the “History,” that Jung was found a traitor. That is, three years into Jung’s tenure as president, an abrupt change in character would appear to have become suddenly manifest. In “September, 1913, quite another picture was presented by the congress at Munich which is still vividly recalled by those who were present. It was presided over by Jung in an unamiable and incorrect fashion: the lecturers were limited as to time and the discussion dwarfed the lectures. […] The fatiguing and unedifying proceedings ended in the re-election of Jung as president of the International Psychoanalytic Association, which fact Jung accepted, although two-fifths of those present refused him their support. We took leave from one another without feeling the need to meet again!” (Freud 929–930) The imprecision of these objections notwithstanding, their articulation incited a review of Jung’s past work as less than integral to the development of psychoanalysis.

Freud & Jung with their sweethearts during a brief furlough, ca. 1907

Interestingly, the film does not choose to depict the broader intellectual disagreements, factions, and internal struggles brought out by these conventions. Instead, Jung’s personal psychology, which is gradually dissected through his relationship with his patient and later colleague Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), becomes the site and screen for a broader dissension within the movement, of which Jung was at this time representative. The film does however fixate, welcomely, on Jung’s early work on dream-interpretation, which Freud later criticized as infringing on his own, but which it would seem developed somewhat concomitantly. As Freud himself observed, in perhaps his only allusion to Sabina and her apparent importance to this conflict, “According to the testimony of a colleague who was a witness of the developments of Burghölzli, it may be asserted that psychoanalysis awakened interest there very early. In Jung’s work on occult phenomena, published in 1902, there was already an allusion to dream-interpretation. Ever since 1903 or 1904, according to my informant, psychoanalysis has stood in the foreground” (Freud 916). Whether or not, as the anonymous colleague would have us believe, Freud’s work awaited Jung in Burghölzli or Jung awaited it, the question serves to extenuate Jung’s independent interests. After all, it was “on the invitation of Dr. C. G. Jung, at that time still an assistant physician at Burghölzli,” that “the first meeting took place at Salzburg, in the spring of 1908, where the friends of psychoanalysis from Vienna, Zürich, and other places met together. The result of this first psychoanalytic congress was the founding of a periodical, which began to appear in 1909, under the name of ‘Jahrbuch für Psychoanalytische und Psychopatholgische Forschungen,’ published by Bleuler and Freud, and edited by Jung” (Freud 915). Likewise, when Freud was first invited to lecture publicly, the invitation extended to Jung (and to Jung alone, presumably), a fact that Freud was careful to omit from the historic lecture’s first mention, on the first page of the text, though he makes sure to note it elsewhere: “The introduction of psychoanalysis into North America took place under particularly glorious auspices. In the autumn of 1909, Jung and myself were invited by President Stanley Hall, of Clark University, to take part in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the opening of Clark University, by giving some lectures in German. […] Jung lectured on diagnostic association studies and on ‘conflicts in the psychic life of the child’” (Freud 918). Though the lecture at Clark University is for the most part known as Freud’s personal introduction to the United States, the event would perhaps be better described as an inaugural conference of psychoanalytic scholars and practitioners. “During this week of celebration at Worcester, psychoanalysis was represented by five persons. Besides Jung and myself, there were Ferenczi, who had joined me as travelling-companion, Ernest Jones, then of Toronto University (Canada), now in London, and A. A. Brill, who was already practicing psychoanalysis in New York” (Freud 918). Though the film does not tell us where they’re going, beyond reference to America, the inaugural lectures at Clark University are featured prominently in the film, and a brief, tense dream analysis, given by Freud of Jung, on the deck of the ship already en route is figured as the moment of their falling-out, as the dream is read as a thinly-disguised manifestation of Jung’s professional resentment of Freud.


  1. Paul Roazen, “An historical view,” in Who Owns Psychoanalysis? ed. Ann Casement, 137–154 (New York: Karnac Books, 2004), 143. []
  2. Sigmund Freud, “History of the Psychoanalytic Movement,” in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, tr. A. A. Brill, 899–945 (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 901. []

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