Commentary Magazine


The (Freudian) Congress of Vienna

In July of 1971, the psychoanalysts returned to Vienna—thirty-three years after Freud had left his native city. They came for the 27th International Psychoanalytical Congress. Conflicting emotions dominated their return. Some came for the sole purpose of attending the Congress. Others wanted to take a tax-deductible vacation with or without their families. Some were on a pilgrimage to Freud’s workplace: the small apartment next to his residence, which had been dedicated as a museum shortly before the Congress. Some analysts came who wanted to forgive and could not, some who could forgive and would not, some were ex-Viennese who identified with Freud (and were struggling with their own past) in his alternating love and hatred for the city. One of the latter compared Vienna to a beautiful whore—lovely to behold, she said, but rotten beneath the surface.

Whatever their initial apprehensions or expectations, they all soon realized that what Freud had once declared to the Austrian government about both himself and psychoanalysis still held true: their reputation did not extend beyond Austria’s (then Austria-Hungary’s) borders, but first began at these borders. There were nearly 3,000 participants at the Congress, but only thirty of these were Austrian—and the number of fully-qualified analysts in Vienna itself has been variously estimated at seven to twenty-six. The Austrian government did encourage the local analysts to act as hosts to the Congress, and even extended an official welcome to it. The government’s interest in using the lavish architectural heritage of the Hapsburgs to make Vienna an international congress center (with accompanying gains in prestige, foreign currency, and tourism) was obvious. Yet the “poor communication” between the local organizers of the Congress and the visiting analysts was apparent from the very beginning. The badly organized registration procedures engendered chaos, irritation, and frustration. Some participants found that their registration papers, sent in long before, had not been processed; others, that hotel rooms they had paid for were not available; still others, told that they had never registered, produced cancelled checks to prove the contrary. The reception staff itself often seemed ignorant of the Congress procedures; lines, moving at a pace reminiscent of one of those longer analyses, formed, and visible quanta of anxiety were dissolved by the (practically therapeutic) sharing of these griefs among the analysts. Nevertheless, the Viennese analysts and the Viennese authorities persevered in their efforts to impress upon their European and American guests that psychoanalysis had indeed returned to Vienna.

The rest of the Viennese ignored the analysts as they previously had ignored Freud—although the ignorance was not quite innocent, and carried its own charge of panic, fear, and hostility. The ornate Rathaus—something either out of a fairy tale or a patient’s dream—was the site of a lavish mayoral reception, ostensibly to make amends to Vienna’s most famous son. (The Austrians were astonished, not very long ago, to learn that the rest of the world considered Freud a more distinguished Austrian than either Johann Strauss or Mozart.) At this reception Anna Freud danced a waltz; in her youth only the Kaiser and his guests could dance in these enormous rooms, beneath the huge crystal chandeliers and the ornate ceiling’s, between the baroque pillars and statues of Hapsburgs and their servitors. The analysts devoured mountains of food in record time (press reports made much of their orality in this respect, but overlooked their oral aggression in others) and then joined Miss Freud on the dance floor. Privileged tourists, invited for a night to something like Cinderella’s ball, they were apparently overawed by the Prunk (pompous decoration) of the setting, and may have missed a few points. For one thing, the Rathaus is a pseudo-baroque structure built late in the 19th century when the Hapsburg Empire was long past its peak. For another, the official welcoming committee did not include the Mayor of Vienna; and the Committee itself remained in one of the back rooms while most of the analysts were received by the guard at the gate. The Mayor did, however, send his deputy to address the official opening session of the Congress. The otherwise warm welcoming address was marred when the deputy referred twice to Freud as “Freund” (friend)—a two-edged “Freudian” slip, as some of us learned later, since one of the speaker’s political enemies was named Freund.

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Freud’s relationship with Vienna was ambivalent (safely installed in London at the end of his life, he pretended once to have forgotten the name of the city in which he had lived and worked for nearly eighty years) . The Viennese, for their part, still regard psychoanalysis with obsessive mistrust. Although the local newspapers and TV covered the Congress, and the thousands of participants with their gray Congress folders were hardly invisible, the populace (to judge by the reactions of those asked what they knew of the Congress) remained mired in a curious compound of ignorance and hostility. The conservatism which kept Freud’s contemporaries from appreciating psychoanalysis (or any of the intellectual innovations developed in their own city during their lifetime) is still rampant. It is easy to understand why the younger and more cosmopolitan Viennese leave to study and then to settle abroad. Many Congress participants concluded that Austrian anti-Semitism is as widespread as ever beneath the surface, and interpreted local opposition to psychoanalysis as an expression of anti-Semitism. Perhaps, but it may be just as true to point to the Viennese suspicion of anything or anyone intellectual. Vienna has UNESCO agencies, the Atomic Energy Commission, and, of course, a number of components of the Austrian version of the knowledge industry. All of these people, because they work with their minds “only,” are regarded as parasites by many of the Viennese. Insofar as Jews are thought to be intellectuals, the Viennese are anti-Semitic. In any event, they do not like psychoanalysis. The popular American acceptance of the unconscious may be an artifact of the domination of the media by the educated (or ostensibly educated) middle class. It may, again, represent what the Freudians term “defense by incorporation.” In any case, the Viennese attitude took us back to the early years of psychoanalysis in a way not quite intended by the local organizing committee—to the years in which it was an oppositional, even a subversive doctrine, and as such opposed by popular opinion.

Meanwhile, the Viennese and the Austrians enjoy their bureaucratic and unadventurous version of socialism. The Austrian Socialist party forms the government, and the Prime Minister is Jewish. Discussion of politics in the Gemütlichkeit of the cafés allows the Viennese in this situation to enjoy an unmatched complacency and self-righteousness about the rest of the world—and to forget their own dark past, with its profound anti-Semitic and Nazi episodes. Austria’s present aspiration is to become like Switzerland: neutral in war and politics, prosperous, and above all, safe—an attraction for foreign tourists and foreign money alike. But the country seems overshadowed by its past, with its monuments, palaces, art treasures, while its living traditions (like the theater) seem reenactments of past glory, and only half-alive. The setting of the Congress, then, underscored one of Freud’s favorite quotations from Goethe: “What you have inherited from your fathers, you must earn to make your own.” What of the analysts themselves, and their Freudian heritage? The citation, upon reflection, may apply to them as well.

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The theme of the Congress was “The Psychoanalytical Concept of Aggression: Theoretical, Clinical, and Applied Aspects.” The title proved a misnomer; the contributions and discussions were overwhelmingly, almost scholastically, theoretical. Erik Erikson, asked to speak at the insistence of the younger analysts (he had apparently not been invited to prepare a contribution), described the proceedings of the first days as “metaphysical.” The tone was set, initially, by innumerable references to Freud’s writings—more an exercise in piety than in critical thought, since concepts seemed derived from these rather mechanically. “Aggression,” as treated at the Congress, covered an extraordinary variety of phenomena: it was depicted as explicit or covert, as a mode of mastery or a form of motility, as an expression of hatred, as qualitatively distinct from anger, as successfully or unsuccessfully “discharged.” Some papers held that aggression was a partial aspect of Freud’s “death instinct,” others that it was one of the two basic instincts (or drives), others that it was a neurophysiological response, still others that it was a major or minor reaction to environmental stimuli. These descriptions and their accompanying explanations were often compounded, fused, and defused. The “aims” of aggression—a curious anthropomorphization of the concept—were occasionally adduced. In brief, no one concept of aggression served as the focal point of discussion.

Under the circumstances it was not surprising that many of the contributions seemed to represent long-standing differences among the Freudians. The conflict between the orthodox Freudians and the followers of the late Melanie Klein, with their emphasis on the decisive role of early infantile fantasy, broke out at a number of points—with the involvement of groups of partisans in the audience. Some speakers did not neglect to quote their earlier papers, even if in some cases the earlier references were simply elaborations of Freud’s thought. Not much new evidence or new insight was presented. Meanwhile, the organizational mechanisms of the Congress limited participation in the discussion to those who counted as more or less orthodox members of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA): those who worked with the ideas of Adler, Horney, Wilhelm Reich, and Sullivan could, and in some cases did, attend as guests, but could not speak. And although the “applied” aspects of the analysis of the phenomenon of aggression implied—as the President of the IPA himself said—collaboration between the analysts and other social scientists, almost none of the latter appeared on the program, or indeed, in the audience.

A pervasive undercurrent of self-criticism, almost a sense of crisis, marked the Congress—and not only among the younger analysts. Even before he spoke, Erikson received a round of spontaneous applause, a tribute, perhaps, to a thinker and clinician who has remained within the orthodox camp while altering a good many of its precepts. Erikson struck a chord with his colleagues when he suggested that they stop discussing the established theories and instead turn to clinical evidence. This, he said, could best be found in the direct observation of children and childhood. There, anger, hostility, and rage could be observed in their original form. Regression to these earlier stages could then be connected to observation of the interaction between adult experience and life history. Adult, or ostensibly adult, concepts of reality had been formed differently from infantile or early ones—yet men continued to annihilate one another in accordance with their sense of “reality.” Erikson wondered to what extent a “good” adjustment serves man’s necessity to have enemies.

Erikson’s work, of course, has been devoted to analyzing the conflict and fusion of character with history—a modification of Freud’s concepts of nature and culture. A European analyst working in the same vein is Alexander Mitscherlich of Frankfurt. Mitscherlich is an interesting figure: a German anti-Nazi who outraged German official medicine after the war with a book entitled Medicine without Humanity which dealt with the collaboration of sectors of German medicine with the infamous Nazi “experiments.” He had the courage—for it took precisely that in the narrow and restorative West German climate of the 1950′s—to reintroduce psychoanalysis to a new German generation. His present academic affiliation is not with German medicine, but with the social scientists of the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, that bridge between Weimar (or Jewish) Germany, and its distant successor state, the Federal Republic. Mitscherlich, in a much-discussed paper, held that it was the task of psychoanalysis and the other social sciences to examine how men’s ever-present aggressivity could be transformed into sensible activity. His paper was not an exercise in callow optimism: he insisted on the fact of mankind’s pervasive denial of its own destructiveness. Psychoanalysts, however, could not content themselves with diagnosing that destructiveness and leaving the solutions to others—the more so as their diagnosis had as yet to distinguish between innate aggression and culturally-induced aggression. The examination of our social institutions was a precondition for a return to Freud’s hopes for psychoanalysis, that it would constitute a reservoir of ideas for a new and humane education.

Mitscherlich’s criticism of his fellow analysts for abdicating their intellectual responsibilities for interdisciplinary work found implicit confirmation in the Congress sessions: I heard one contributor rebuked for borrowing from neurophysiology. Others in the audience criticized Mitscherlich to each other, and dismissed him as a “sociologist.”

Psychoanalytic tradition dominated the Congress—in the person of Anna Freud. Returning herself to Vienna for the first time since 1938—after having approved of Vienna as the location for the 1971 Congress—she was the central figure of the Congress. Much has been written about Freud and the Viennese (there were some good papers on the theme at the Congress itself). The Freuds, father and daughter (as well as the Freudians), have universalized a doctrine once alleged to be localized in origin. Orthodox psychoanalysis returned to its birthplace, and except for Miss Freud’s introductory phrases, spoke English predominantly (and, in many cases, American).

Miss Freud had in recent writings held that innovation was not necessarily progress in psychoanalysis. She had also characterized the present younger generation as more interested in the struggle of man against man (or society) than with himself. Her closing address, however, went beyond a narrowly defined orthodoxy. She synthesized the Congress papers, presented new insights about the sequence and stages of aggression, and proposed new avenues of inquiry. Like her father, she seemed to possess an ability to speculate in educated or disciplined fashion, a readiness to discard fixed beliefs. She seemed more open to the ideas of the “deviants” than her orthodox followers, who treated her during the Congress as a totem-like figure.

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Freudian psychoanalysis is in a crisis today, not least because of the insistence of some analysts on concentrating on minutiae divorced from larger and more critical reflection on their work. Their theory, at times, has an overly abstract quality, as if it were a defense against reality rather than a description of it. The striking minimization of clinical evidence during the discussions reflected this tendency. One of those who opposed it was the Los Angeles analyst Ralph Greenson, who criticized his colleagues for stereotyping all relationships to patients as “transference” or “counter-transference,” and insisted on the direct, human intervention of the therapist as a healer of suffering. His voice was not lost, but notes of this kind were difficult to hear in a cacophony of concepts. The orthodox analysts keep on winning theoretical battles with deviant colleagues (insofar as they talk to them at all), but they may well lose the war, since vulgarization may follow their own failure to communicate with the educated public.

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It is quite true that a scientific congress is not primarily an occasion for addressing the public, but it is a public event nevertheless. The esoteric discourse of the analysts showed itself in a particularly painful light in the vague generalities uttered by many of them as a substitute for serious social discourse. The gap between psychoanalytic theory, clinical practice, and social practice remains immense—most contributions gave no indication of how psychoanalysis could be applied to general social thought, much less to purposive institutional alteration. The contributions, as Erikson said, were meta-psychological and metaphysical. Even Mitscherlich’s demand for interdisciplinary work was programmatic rather than concrete. And Mitscherlich’s demand for “implementation” of the findings of the clinical and social sciences of man raises the classical question of social thought, the question of power. By whom and for whom are the findings to be “implemented”? On this, the analysts were silent.

Yet, among themselves, the analysts’ struggle for power was important—so important that they ostensibly ignored any psychoanalytic study of the Congress proceedings or of their own behavior during the week. The adulation of Miss Freud was at times embarrassing to an outside observer (a constant clicking of cameras followed her)—although it seemed that this was not entirely a case of a schoolboy’s crush on a teacher. The older analysts, in this class, were more stricken than the young. They had known Miss Freud personally for years, of course, but they were also members of a hierarchic organization of which she was the spiritual head. There was much speculation during the Congress about who would or could succeed her in this function after her death, and some suggestions that a power struggle among the older and most respected analysts might ensue. A struggle of this sort would have roots in other matters than psychoanalytic theory: in the vexed question of the status of non-medical analysts as members of the IPA (Miss Freud herself is not a physician, and she, the French, and the Dutch have encouraged lay analysis); in the domination of the IPA by its American members; in the varying theoretical composition and rigor of the different national member groups; in differences on the nature and process of training and on admission to the status of full member. The IPA seems in fact to be faced with a routine social crisis. The charismatic founder and his immediate disciples are dead, the heiress to the holy office will not long be with us, and the problems of routinization entail conflict. However “accepting” or “understanding” the individual analysts may be in their healing roles, as members of the organization they display all the characteristics of self-righteousness, in-fighting, and political amorality we usually associate with less exalted persons.

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All of this did not escape the younger analysts and the candidates, who formed a rather adult and disciplined version of what in other scholarly organizations is known as a “radical caucus.” The candidates asked for standardized criteria for admission to training and in the training programs themselves, and less secrecy and arbitrariness in the decisions of their senior colleagues. They proposed the formation of an international student organization, a curious duplicate of the IPA, although the vigor of their overall attack was blunted somewhat by a political fact: their careers, after all, depend upon the older analysts. But these cannot without embarrassment claim that all is peaceful in their kingdom: the mixture of applause and occasional boos which greeted the contributions, the social striving, and the hierarchy of deference and attention which marked the extracurricular dimensions of the Congress, all showed quite clearly that conflict is there.

The future of psychoanalysis depends upon the solution of these problems. The discipline is at a crossroads. If it continues as it is at present, a dogmatized routine may come to prevail, and reduce a movement and a system of thought which once had historical dimensions to the status of a small sect. But another alternative is possible: the acute insights and profound techniques of psychoanalysis can serve as an area of preparation for younger psychiatrists and psychotherapists who will do other, shorter, and shallower types of therapy. Still another possibility remains, in accordance with Freud’s belief in the educational mission of psychoanalysis: enlarged cooperation with the social sciences. As a byproduct, this might alter psychoanalytic orthodoxy, since the social scientists can hardly be expected to accept the anathemas, excommunications, and heresy-hunting of a rigid orthodoxy. Anna Freud herself touched upon this possibility at the Congress, in calling for more openness toward opinions hitherto deemed “deviant.”

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Perhaps, after all, the Congress’s concentration on the theme of aggression was justified. Quite possibly, aggression’s ultimate roots will never be found—or dissolved. But in collaboration with the other social sciences, psychoanalysis may contribute to deepening our understanding of the phenomenon. Some analysts think that aggression can be neutralized: their views ought to be confronted with Mitscherlich’s notion of the dual, instinctual, and cultural sources of aggression. Miss Freud recommended that the analysts, for a time, return to clinical studies, and let theory rest: at first glance ostensibly a-theoretical, the suggestion may open the way for a new kind of theoretical realignment with the social sciences. Freud thought that the truth would set men free. Liberation remains an impossibly distant goal, but new knowledge may give us new dimensions of freedom. The very constrictions of the International Psychoanalytical Congress were, in this respect, instructive.

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