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Death strikes, “la séance continue”

Before Ferenczi could answer Freud’s first letter, another letter dated January 21, 1920, brings the sad news of Toni’s death. Not inclined to emotional displays, Freud simply describes the actual events:

Yesterday, Tuesday, January 20, 5:30 P.M., our good friend Toni died. I last saw him on Saturday; he was a painful sight. Lajos [the doctor] played the angel of death [... ] the postmortem examination showed how much good was done to him with that. The immediate cause of death was a sepsis proceeding from the kidneys [...]

Freud then speaks of the tasks now awaiting them: “Now we have to protect his legacy, Vera [his daughter] and The foundation.”

Ferenczi had not yet sent off his reply, started on January 17, in which he deplored the loss of a man he had “succeeded - (a rarity at my age) - in gaining [as] a friend in the most beautiful sense of the word,” when he learned, from a newspaper, about the death of Sophie, Freud’s daughter, carried off by the Spanish influenza on January 25, at the age of 26 and pregnant with her third child. On January 30, in an addendum to his letter, Ferenczi expresses his shock:

Two days have already passed since I know this, and I still seem to myself to be dumb and paralyzed when I am supposed to write down even a word of consolation or sympathy. I treasured and loved your Sophie, often had an almost paternal affection for her [...]

Ferenczi asks only one thing: “Please [...] at least reassure me about the fact that your strength of spirit is also a match for this misfortune.” On January

29, Freud sends some brief facts about Sophie’s death, but not about his own feelings: “And with us? My wife is very shaken. I think: La seance continue.” Still, he ends with an ironic understatement: “But it was a bit much for one week.”

On February 4, Freud reveals something about himself: “Don’t worry about me. I am the same except for somewhat more fatigue. The death, as painful as it is, does not overturn any attitude toward life.” He exposes the inner world from which he draws sustenance: “Since I am profoundly unbelieving, I have no one to blame, and I know there is no place where one can lodge a complaint.” Turning to literature, he finds support in Schiller’s injunction: “Think only of the duty of the hour!” and in Goethe’s “sweet habit of living.” While determined to live up to his own honourable demand, Freud does admit that something else is lurking under the surface: “Very deep within I perceive the feeling of a deep, insunnountable narcissistic insult.” Presumably to respect Freud’s wish not to dwell on personal matters, the letters which follow are dedicated to information about the affairs of the analytic movement.

But on March 20, Ferenczi allows himself to refer to his dismal and exhausting situation in Budapest: “The material situation is almost unbearable [...] my strength is beginning to fail.” He concedes that the past year has taken a heavy toll on him: “But the worst thing is that I obviously don’t possess that inexhaustible source of energy that I admire in you, so that in the evening I am completely exhausted and incapable of any intellectual work.” This is not a psychical failing, but a profound body-and-soul weariness:

I was absolutely unable to take care of the most pressing scientific tasks, to write the reviews, to conceive the paleo-biological paper, to realize two [moderately important projects] [...] Not a word has yet been brought to paper about all that.

He worries about a somatic breakdown: “I can still [consider myself happy] if my health stands up to the overwork.” Indeed, in 1920 Ferenczi only wrote a single article. To escape his unbearable situation, he is considering a radical solution -emigration to America: “Over there I would limit my work time and be able to dedicate myself much more to science.” But he is held back by the unbearable thought of separating from Freud: “We would be terribly far apart from each other, but - haven’t we for years been in the same predicament anyway? - and do we have hopes that this w'ill change?”

The next letter Ferenczi received from Freud had been written on March 15. The situation in Vienna is as catastrophic as that in Budapest, and it affects Freud as w'ell. He is sick and can’t pursue his scientific w'ork. He closes his letter with some good news, wdiich must have secretly caused Ferenczi a twinge of sorrow, as he learned that his project had been accomplished elsewhere, without him: “The most gratifying thing at this time [...] is the opening of the Berlin polyclinic [...] (February 14).”

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