A WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS
Selected Papers from
1930 to 1980
By Erik H. Erikson
Edited by Stephen P. Schlein
Norton. 782 pp. $29.95
ERIK ERIKSON began his professional career as a painter of children's portraits. A friend suggested that he might paint the four children of Dorothy Burlingham, Anna Freud's friend and collaborator, who was running a school in Vienna based on psychoanalytic principles. This led to Erikson's becoming a teacher at the school, and also to his undergoing a training analysis with Anna Freud. During the next 50 years, Erikson became one of the most influential and original psychoanalysts. He left Vienna for the United States in 1933, and joined the faculty of the Harvard Medical School. He later went to Yale and in 1938 began his studies of the Sioux and Yurok Indians. These studies led to his pioneering conclusions about the influence of cultural institutions upon personality development, and were recorded in Childhood and Society, first published in 1950, which is still his most famous book. Erikson postulated eight stages of human development from infancy to old age, each centering on a particular conflict or crisis: for example, "identity versus role confusion," "intimacy versus isolation," illustrating typical conflicts in adolescence and early adulthood.
Erikson became well-known for his writings on how individuals establish a secure identity, and introduced the term "identity crisis" to describe what he saw as the major conflict in adolescence: the difficulty which young people experience in becoming independent persons in their own right, without completely severing the ties which bind them to their own families and cultural backgrounds.
This preoccupation with identity no doubt reflects Erikson's own difficulties. He was born in Frankfurt of Danish parents but, as a child, was not told that his father had left his mother before his birth. His mother's family was Jewish. He grew up with the surname Homburger, which was that of his stepfather, and did not change it to Erikson until he became an American citizen in 1939. Erikson was therefore a Jewish Dane reared in Germany, trained in Austria, and an immigrant to the United States. Given such circumstances, it is not surprising that Erikson devoted his attention to problems of identity and the influence of different cultures upon ego development.
As a clinician, Erikson spent much of his professional life treating children. Some of the most rewarding papers in this book are concerned with his interpretations of play. Modern feminists may question some of his generalizations about sex differences in play constructions. For example, he says that "girls, on the whole, tend to build quiet scenes of everyday life, preferably within a home or in school." But no one will question Erikson's acute powers of observaton, compassionate understanding and ability to combine psychoanalytic scrutiny with common sense.
Erikson's interest in play has endured throughout his life. He rightly discerns that play is an essential part of creativity and considers that adults need to retain playfulness if they are to remain healthy and happy. He also sees play as the ego's way of mastering circumstances. By making original constructs of events, the child (or the adult) can regain some feeling of control over circumstances which threatened him with a sense of helplessness or incompetence.
THIS INTERPRETATION of play underlines how far Erikson has come from Freud's own conceptual scheme. Freud's writings on play and creativity were always unsatisfactory because he dismissed playing as childish and escapist, and failed to see its importance as a technique of coming to terms with reality. Reading these papers makes one wonder why Erikson still professes allegiance to psychoanalysis. His emphasis on how the ego copes with difficulties, and upon the symbolic resolution of conflict, is much more in line with Jung's thinking than with Freud's.
Erikson was also a pioneer in what is inelegantly called "psychobiography." His book Young Man Luther was published in 1958, and his study of Gandhi, Gandhi's Truth, in 1969. The first is concerned with how Luther's identity crisis enabled him to defy the Pope and become the rebel voice of half of Europe. The second examines how Gandhi, "by perfecting an active mode of nonviolence, transformed a divisive and negative identity (the 'passive' Indian) into an inclusive and militant claim on unified nationhood." Nehru himself said that Gandhi had given India an identity. When Erikson returned to Harvard in 1960, his class in which psychobiography was discussed was heavily over-subscribed.
This collection of papers is a welcome addition to Erikson's many published writings. Judicious selection has illuminated all the main areas of Erikson's thought. We must be grateful to the editor, Stephen P. Schlein, for disinterring materials not easily available or never before published. The only paper included which is outside the period 1930-1980 is Erikson's tribute to Anna Freud, who died in 1982. He reveals that she sometimes knitted during psychoanalytic sessions, a practice Erikson describes as "a somewhat chauvinistic prerogative of women analysts" that clearly annoyed him. However, some sessions after he had referred to this, Anna smilingly presented him with a sweater which she had knitted for his newborn son. Psychoanalytic institutes today would no doubt repudiate such a human gesture as "counter-transference." ::
qjAnthony Storr is a British psychiatrist and writer. His books include "The Dynamics of Creation" and "The Art of Psychotherapy."