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Ferenczi, Elma, Freud: a story without end

On December 8, 1911, Ferenczi refers once again to the confusion in which he is sinking, along with his patient. Although his tone is humorous, he is vague and speaks of himself to Freud in the third person: “Patient spent yesterday in considerable turmoil [...] the awakening of mourning over the loss of Frau G. (that is to say, over the end of the relationship), clearer insight into his own intentions. Marriage with Elma seems to be decided.” Facing this confusing perspective, Ferenczi, or rather the lovesick child in him, appeals to the father in Freud: “What is still missing is the fatherly blessing.” Ferenczi is wrong, of course; what is missing in this situation is the accurate assessment of an analyst, or the vigilance of a supervising analyst who could point out to his young colleague his ambiguous involvement in a treatment undertaken on shaky ground.

In his answer to Ferenczi, Freud, who knows he went too far by playing the role of the good father or the older brother in this hopelessly tangled affair, chooses to step back and say no more: “I have no more to say, perhaps I have said more than was justified, and I don’t want to spoil your future completely.” He knows he committed a serious blunder by writing the long letter to Gizella and, with good reason, withdraws from the embroglio.

On December 30, Ferenczi still believes in a happy ending; he will many Elma, and although he does not have Freud’s benediction, he will have Gizel-la’s. On January 1, 1912, the situation has taken a dramatic turn. A comment made by her father planted doubt in Elma’s mind, plunging her into tonnent. Ferenczi, already disconcerted by Freud’s silence, is further destabilised, before regains his wits:

But the scales fell from my eyes, and when, even after this scene, her presence did not fail to arouse feelings of tenderness in me, I had to recognize that the issue here should be one not of marriage but of the treatment of an ilhiess.

He then proposes that Freud himself continue to treat Elma. The next day, January 2, 1912, Freud answers and accepts the proposition, with some reservations. “Now to the matter of the treatment! If you [...] demand of me that I undertake it, then I naturally have to assent.’’ He does so with no illusions, sensing the difficulties of an analysis undertaken, he fears, “with the vague desire for revenge against you, the one who is sending her into this treatment!” And something else is troubling him:

In addition, if things don’t go well, there is the silent ill will between us, or at least between the both of us and the noble woman, the superfluousness of my having to peer so deeply into your very own affairs without having accomplished anything for the effort.

Freud couldn’t be clearer: he agrees, through a third party he accepts as a patient, to show concern for his friend and give him the paternal advice he needs, but he firmly refuses to become entangled for good in the private affairs of his valued collaborator. He even admits avoiding this dangerous possibility: “It pains me that I can’t be with you now. I was depressed the whole time and anaesthetized myself with writing - writing - writing.” It is interesting to note that it never occurred to him that Ferenczi might have been able to talk to someone else about the difficult situation he was in.

As the year went on, this affair slowly resolved itself leaving Ferenczi both relieved and bitter: in mid-October, he wrote:

Nevertheless, the case of Elma has been completely settled. I politely but firmly rejected her attempted advances. Even though I long for youth and beauty, I still see very clearly what kinds of dangers I have to look forward to with her.

Was Freud happy to hear that Ferenczi was accepting the Freudian half-hearted solution? “So, the fact remains: intellectual and emotional union with Frau G., on which I can always build.”

In the fall of 1912, Ferenczi seems to have come to terms with the reality principle, which Freud certainly recommended, but he remains tom between his cautious distancing from Elma and his tender feelings for Gizella. In this new internal economy, the libido freed from investment in Elina can shift from the sphere of “love” to the sphere of “work.” He writes to Freud: “You and science will have to share the libido that is left over.” It is an odd formulation, but well-founded. In truth, the body of personal experiences of this first stage of his analytic career was to constitute the central object of the analytic research to which Ferenczi dedicated the next 20 years of Iris life, until his death. This object concerns the need for the analyst’s involvement and, naturally, the unavoidable dangers to which this exposes him. Ferenczi, who was probably aware of Jung’s love affair with Sabina Spielrein in early 1909, has now experienced, at his own expense, in the analysis conducted with Elma (his future daughter-in-law), the power of the deep layers of the unconscious which misdirected his own involvement in that analysis.

These difficulties - the Palermo incident, the Elma-Gizella embroglio - bring Ferenczi back to his troubled relations with Freud, to his symptomatic relationships with women and to the limitations of his self-analysis. At the same time, Ferenczi makes another discovery, concerning Freud’s involvement in his misadventures. As a result, he questions more or less openly the unconscious role played by Freud’s desire on his attitude towards him (Ferenczi) in Palermo, and then on his active intervention in the situation unfolding between him and Gizella and Elma.

It happened that in the fall of 1911, when there was an acute crisis in Elma’s analysis, another incident gave Ferenczi an excellent opportunity to attempt, once again, to incite Freud to greater analytic discernment. Now, their roles were reversed: Freud found himself in an awkward position vis-à-vis a woman who questioned him about his desire as none of his disciples dared to do so openly, while Ferenczi was now in the position of witness and third party consulted for advice. The woman in question was Emma, Jung’s wife. This brief incident between Emma Jung and Freud - lasting from the end of October to the middle of November 1911 - is worth recalling because it sheds light on the violent confrontation that took place a year later between Freud and Jung, in which Ferenczi was again involved as a witness.

In fact, it was by adopting a contrary attitude to Jung vis-à-vis Freud that Ferenczi was able to lead up to his unprecedented request for personal analysis. He was determined to shed light not only on his own unconscious role in the predicaments in which he found himself, but also on the unconscious role played by the father of psychoanalysis in creating the complications existing in his relations with his two spiritual sons, Jung and himself.

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