As seems inevitable in the history of ideas, a tide of revisionism is now encroaching upon the august figure of Sigmund Freud and his creation, psychoanalysis. Though hampered by the impenetrability of the Freud archives and its treasure trove of researchable materials, a number of books and articles have cast a light on Freud and his associates different from that portrayed in the idolatrous biography by Ernest Jones.
In "Acts of Will," certainly the definitive biography of Otto Rank, we now have another vantage point from which to look at the early days of Freud and his movement. But this is not the only value of the biography. It also portrays in detail and in context the life and works of a man who was present at the creation of psychoanalysis and later became an outcast, abominably treated by the psychoanalytic establishment. Nonetheless, with an admirable lack of rancor, he stuck to his guns and produced a body of work that, in Lieberman's judgment, approaches in importance that of Freud himself.
One may regard this as an overestimation but still be convinced by Lieberman's book of the notable contribution of Otto Rank of psychotherapy, social work, education and the understanding of artistic creation.
Born in 1884, the second son in a lower middle class family, Rank, after a sparse and cold childhood, was destined to a career no more glamorous than that of a locksmith when remarkably, at the age of 20, he produced a work on art based on Freud's ideas. This came to the attention of Alfred Adler, then Freud's close associate, and Rank was introduced to Freud and quickly became ensconced within both the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement in Vienna and Freud's household.
At first little more than a glorified gofer, his intelligence, imagination and industry gradually propelled him into the center of psychoanalysis as it developed both intellectually and organizationally. The final accolade was a ring from Freud, marking him as a member of the now legendary "Committee," responsible for the control and dissemination of psychoanalysis under Freud's tutelage.
Rank's defection in 1926, although it may have been foreshadowed by what Lieberman sees as previous evidences of independence, came as a shock and a surprise to all concerned.
Ostensibly two events caused the break -- Rank's book, "The Trauma of Birth," and another book, co-written with Freud's then favorite, the Hungarian Sandor Ferenczi, on active therapy.
The traumatic impact of the birth experience (an idea, incidentally, which Rank later repudiated) was given primary importance in dethroning Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex and thus infantile sexuality as the ruling cause of neurosis. Active therapy was anathema in the eyes of Freud and his group because they felt that it substituted "suggestion" for analysis.
These new ideas of Rank were certainly instrumental in the events leading to the break, but they are not the whole story, which also must include the struggles for power within a competitive court where Freud was the monarch. Apparently not a particularly perceptive "menschen kenner" (judge of men), Freud's actions at the time appear confused and vacillating.
The picture of Freud that emerges in this book does not minimize his genius and his personal force, but it also does not ignore Freud's human frailties, one of which was a tendency to dismiss adversaries by diagnosing them (Rank was a subject) and to excuse himself for less than admirable behavior by acknowledging his base motives. Freud considered himself a good man, and certainly he was in many ways. He was also tough and capable of ruthlessly putting behind him those who had fallen from his favor.
After the break with Freud, Rank spent his time largely in Paris and in the United States, where he finally settled. As news spread about his fall from grace he gradually lost his reputation among psychoanalysts, coming to be treated as a heretic, not a scientific dissenter. In 1930, Rank was castigated by A.A. Brill, the doyen of American psychoanalysts, and attributed Rank's deviations to "deep emotional upset."
The notion that Rank's defection was caused by serious and chronic mental illness hounded his later career. The chief disseminator of this falsehood seems to have been Ernest Jones, whose villainy, in Lieberman's eyes, not only undermined Rank, but also stultified the free development of psychoanalysis. Lieberman quotes documents testifying to a vein of anti-Semitism in Jones.
However, it seems to me that Lieberman has not fully tackled the question of Rank's mental status. Certainly he was creative and productive and was regarded by those who came into contact with him as a kind and warm friend and therapist (although he was also personally reserved and revealed little about his feelings and relationships except in the form of pyschoanalytic cliches). But he was significantly depressed at least twice, and occasionally there was a mild manic element in his behavior. Although not negatively affecting his work or thinking, it is possible that a diagnosis of mild manic depressive disease (now primary affective disorder) would not be out of place.
Rank gradually became acclimated to the United States (a devotee of Mark Twain, he sometimes signed his letters Huck), and his career in this country, although limited by the enmity of the Freudian establishment, was rewarding and influential.
In a rather comic episode he became enamored of that femme fatale, Anais Nin, whose affair with him is described in her diary. Through Nin, he met Henry Miller. For a short time Nin and Miller proclaimed themselves "psychoanalysts" in the Rankian mode but soon became bored.
Rank's distance from Freud increased and became profound. In therapy and in his thinking he espoused emotion over reason, the present over the past, art over science, activity over passivity, the importance of the mother over the father, and above all, of will over determinism.
His theories are described in his books, written in a difficult style unlike his clear and simple verbal presentations. In his dealings with his patients, however, he denied the influence of theory -- every patient deserved a new theory. Lieberman emphasizes that though largely unacknowledged, Rank's ideas and practices have foreshadowed and influenced many psychoanalytic theorists who received the credit.
Through his interest in artistry and creativity, there evolved finally his most definitive treatment contribution -- will therapy, an attempt to break out of the ultimate therapeutic nihilism of Freud's conviction that behavior is largely determined by unconscious forces.
He regarded "normality" somewhat contemptuously, and saw the neurotic as superior to the normal. To loosen the bonds of neurosis, Rank spoke of a "willing affirmation of the must," in which the neurotic was encouraged to express in spirited combat with the therapist the will which had been turned against himself.
In view of the wavering distinction between "normal" and "neurotic" and the wide variety of behaviors subsumed under neuroticism, this rather romantic view of disturbed people seems questionable. But there is no doubt that Rank's openness had positive effect on many of those who came to him for help.
Otto Rank died in 1939 only a month after the death of Sigmund Freud, a coincidence that can be taken as symbolic of the binding importance of his early tie to Freud. From humble origins, and a man who so despised his small and homely physical being that he would not give anyone pictures of himself, Otto Rank deserves the attention given him in this interesting biography, not only as a prism through which to look at Freud and psychoanalysis, but for the very considerable value of his contribution.