Freud in the Pampas: The Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina (Book Review)

Author:  Plotkin, Mariano Ben
Publisher:  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001
Reviewed By:  Jon Mills, Winter 2004, pp. 68-70

Peter L. Rudnytsky’s Reading Psychoanalysis, and Mariano Ben Plotkin’s, Freud in the Pampas, are two recent exemplary renditions of critical scholarship that are concerned with tracing the history of psychoanalysis from two divergent yet complementary perspectives—Rudnytsky as literary critic, Plotkin as cultural historian. Rudnytsky’s book is particularly important and timely for revisiting several key issues that beset psychoanalysis today ranging from the scientific versus hermeneutic debate, the role of attachment theory, neuroscience and the psychodynamics of dreaming, and most notably the return to a close inspection of several key figures who were part of Freud’s secret committee designed in the early days of psychoanalysis to secure the promulgation and future of Freud’s movement. Rank, Ferenczi, and Groddeck are given special attention in the context of their burgeoning theoretical developments in response to their swaying relationship to Freud. What is particularly impressive about Rudnytsky’s work is that he reads these psychoanalytic figures in the original German texts and hence provides fresh interpretations against the backdrop of standard expositions that most psychoanalytic theoreticians and clinicians would have hitherto been exposed. Equally impressive is Plotkin’s achievement in providing the first comprehensive historical treatise in the literature on Argentina’s psychoanalytic culture and the exquisite sensitivity he gives to the social, political, and ideological contexts in which it arose. Taken together, both books are fascinating reads in their own right and are likely to appeal to broad audiences in the humanities and social sciences.

As an accomplished literary critic, Rudnytsky is more interested in examining Freud’s relatively early literary contributions to cultural anthropology rather than his mature theoretical and clinical works, focusing instead on the evolving (and deviating) theoretical paradigms of Freud’s contemporaries ending in a current engagement with the debate over the scientific versus hermeneutic status of psychoanalysis with the help of research ranging from phenomenology to physics. Rudnytsky begins by examining Freud’s 1907 analysis of Jensen’s Gradiva, a fitting introduction given that Rudnytsky’s book is the 2003 winner of the Gradiva Award, followed by two chapters that examine Freud’s 1909 case of Little Hans. What Rudnytsky primarily focuses upon is Freud’s tendency to read Jensen’s work of fiction like a real case history and how he presents Little Hans’ case history as a writer of fiction. Beneath the crust of the Oedipal themes that preoccupy Freud’s analyses, Rudnytsky offers a relational critique of the attachment and loss, developmental disruptions, and object relations pathology inherent in these texts that arguably find counterparts in the real life histories of Ferenczi, Rank, and Groddeck who were themselves victims of early abuse. I read these chapters as largely critical of Freud—hence pointing out his prejudicial views on women and gender, his phallocentrism, countertransference, and overidentification with his Jewish facticity, thus his tendency to project his own psychic agenda into the intrapsychic lives of his analysands—however a criticism tempered with praise and genuine appreciation for Freud’s genius as an astute clinical observer. For the most part, these criticisms are at times mired in the author’s self-serving (albeit legitimate) critique, hence being selectively attentive to Freud’s androcentrism and personal narcissistic vulnerabilities, apply present day knowledge retrospectively to historically antiquated paradigms, and seems to capitalize on politically correct sensibilities that would surely win the author brownie points amongst many contemporary circles. Notwithstanding, what is novel and noteworthy is Rudnytsky’s perspicacious critique of Freud’s clinical works as literary achievements, and for this reason invites a renewed appreciation of the diverse measure by which we may interpret clinical material.

From my perspective, what is more interesting is Rudnytsky’s explication of Rank, Ferenczi, and Groddeck, each of whom played a pivotal role in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, but for different reasons. As with Freud, he provides a specific critique highlighting a duality or double reading of each analyst he inspects, thus showing his commitment to a pursuit of reflexive truth with multiple shades of meaning. Rudnytsky traces the rise of Rank from his unwavering orthodoxy to Freud in the initial years to his renunciation of the primacy of the unconscious and the force of genetic explanation in human motivation for his own predilection for the will predicated on a philosophy of consciousness. What is rather tragic about Rank is how his early work was so innovative and noteworthy while his later work set out to devalue and repudiate his earlier psychoanalytic allegiances based in part on his embittered reaction to the narcissistic injuries he suffered from Freud and his fellow “brothers,” which eventually ended in Rank being expunged from Freud’s inner circle. The experience must have been sorely humiliating. Before he was excommunicated, whereby experiencing prolonged conflict with Jones, Abraham, Freud, and Ferenczi, he even sent a letters of apology to the members of the committee. In one such letter of December 20, 1924, he showed deference and groveled for their forgiveness with a shameful confession, only to be mistrusted and shunned even more. We get the impression that Rank ascends as the most promising young scholar of the humanities to devolve into a rather rueful and contemptuous, acting out adolescent who needed to rebel and defile Daddy because he himself was kicked out of the house.

Since the English publication of Ferenczi’s Clinical Diary, Ferenczi’s insights have become more recognized and influential among contemporary circles, only with his atrocious boundary violations left out (one hopes). Ferenczi is given more generosity in Rudnytsky’s sympathetic critique than the other analysts, perhaps in part for his emphasis on preoedipal development and his relational turn away from Freud’s metapsychology, which Rudnytsky clearly favors, thus showing how Ferenczi anticipates many keys elements that preoccupy psychoanalysis today including the role of trauma, love, attachment, and loss, countertransference, mutual analytic co-construction, the primacy of intersubjectivity, empathic attunement, and a general warmth and respect for patients that are often omitted from the caricatures that accompany the staid, classical analyst. Rudnytsky’s analysis of Ferenczi’s Clinical Diary is a humanistic one, showing a vulnerable, emotionally maimed man pining for recognition from Herr Professor, secretly revealing his script of confessions, as well as the revolutionary ideas that Ferenczi developed with regard to theory and technique. It is no accident that Ferenczi placed so much emphasis on trauma and forgiveness since he was himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, as was Rank and Jung, as well as highlighting the nature of internalization and the role of internal objects on psychic development. Equally, Rudnytsky shows how Ferenczi suffered from his own developmental traumas only to theoretically champion the primacy of love as the proper avenue for analytic healing, a poignant wish that is embedded in his own self-analysis.

Now Enters Groddeck. Groddeck is an odd sort of bird in psychoanalysis: he was the director of a small sanitorium in Baden-Baden, Germany, but ironically had a psychotic break near the end of his life and was hospitalized in Medard Boss’ institution. Groddeck befriended Ferenczi and in fact treated him at his clinic where Ferenczi took extended annual visitations, thus influencing Ferenczi’s own shifting theoretical and technical innovations. We may not inappropriately say that Ferenczi found in Groddeck the maternal tenderness he did not receive from Freud. Once proclaiming to be a “wild analyst,” he is probably most famous for his theory of unconscious forces emanating from “The It” (Das Es), the term Freud appropriated for his mature tripartite theory of mind. The Book of the It is Groddeck’s treatise on unconscious processes; but what is most interesting about this work is that it is written as a novel. Written in epistolary form, Groddeck casts his autobiographical persona in the character of Patrik Troll who writes thirty-three letters to an unnamed lady friend, (mainly a composite of his second wife, a former patient he married, but Freud as well), discussing everything from masturbation to God. Not only does Rudnytsky herald Groddeck’s book to be “by far the most profound and important” (p. 143) counterweight to Freud’s The I and the It (Das Ich und das Es), he argues that it is the “greatest masterpiece of psychoanalytic literature” (p. 163), thus arguably providing the most elaborate reappraisal of Groddeck’s work in English.

Rudnytsky illuminates how Groddeck candidly propounds the centrality of masturbation in human life, the meaning of sexual symbolism in myth, social institutions, and Judeo-Christianity, reinforces the thesis of somatic conversion as compromise formation, offers a feminist critique of Freud’s phallocentrism, and privileges the role of the maternal object in psychic life over the Oedipal father. But in Rudnytsky’s enthusiasm, he furthermore, and in a slightly polemical fashion, professes The Book of the It to be superior to Freud’s The I and the It, and even compares its preeminence to The Interpretation of Dreams, an illegitimate, far stretching proclamation indeed. Groddeck’s work hardly comes close in comparison to these two pivotal texts based on Freud’s technical, logical precision wed to clinical observation and disciplined, scientific exactitude. The Book of the It completely lacks systematic rigor and, in my estimate, is more of a work of psychobiography based on self-analysis disguised as literary fiction rather than a formal psychoanalytic treatise, thus revealing Rudnytsky’s bias for the primary superiority of literature over scientific knowledge. Fair enough: we all have our preferred methods and cherished heroes. But if there is a criticism of this book, it lies in the nature of ambivalence and obfuscation the author, perhaps quite intentionally, designs to invoke in the reader. In a very Derridaian fashion, there are at certain times a preferred style of juxtaposing binary oppositions then undermining each side by negating its own position, thus leaving an aura of undecidability. This may confuse some readers because it appears that in certain places Rudnytsky does not take a stand, or when he does, he then sets out to undo his previous commitments. This is particularly evident when he vacillates in his arguments for and against psychoanalysis as science and hermeneutics, thus destabilizing the strengths and weaknesses of both discourses, when in the end he wants to champion a union or consilience between each respective discipline despite having favored particular hermeneutic critiques all along, which is what the book’s central methodology employs—an appeal to interpretation through a literary deconstruction of the text. Such oscillation builds a dialectical tension for the reader, which deserves an applause, but like a good but irresolute novel, leaves the reader pondering the paradox of ambiguity. Like others before him, Rudnytsky can’t help but analyze the analysts and their (unconscious) motives. Anyone interested in psychoanalytic gossip will surely perk up with enthusiasm or contempt when he takes little jabs at flaws in the character of all these men in what might not be inappropriately called a nihilistic hermeneutic critique, but one that is for the most part evenhanded. It is here that Rudnytsky deserves respect for his overall ability to remain neutral when assessing the merits and limitations of each analyst without showing dogmatic loyalties.

Mariano Ben Plotkin’s book, Freud in the Pampas, is an entirely different historical exegesis of the rise of psychoanalysis in Argentina, one concerned with illuminating a western audience on the rich breadth and vibrant existence of psychoanalytic sensibility in Argentine culture. Many North American audiences may be surprised to know that Argentina has one of the largest societies—if not the single largest culture supporting a psychoanalytic Weltanschauung—next to cosmopolitan Britain and bourgeois Europe. Unlike the shriveling interest in psychoanalytic treatment among the American public for the lure of psychotropics, superficiality, self-help fads, and solution-focused therapies that boast symptom relief under the illusion of a quick fix cure, Argentinians appear to be a people deeply immersed in the value of self-exploration, insight, and personal development within cultural and political reform.

Plotkin shows in fascinating and comprehensive ways one of the world’s largest psychoanalytic movements that has saturated all forms of Argentine society from the medical, psychological, and mental health communities, to education, institutional politics, and popular culture augmented by a permanent presence in the media including regular newspaper stories and television shows. In fact, psychoanalysis is such a part of Argentina’s identity that it has not only spread through the middle class, but has infiltrated all vectors of society. Plotkin gives a marvelous account of how average citizens prioritize receiving formal psychoanalytic treatment to such a degree that they budget their income, barter their services, and/or incur debt in order to lie on the couch. A colleague of mine recently told me that even an Argentine taxi driver will be able to converse in psychoanalytic discourse. The “psy” universe that dominates Argentine culture is an overdetermined phenomenon that may be attributed to various social, political, and economic contingencies including the history of European immigration and exiles maintaining the retention of various cultural identifications and valuation practices, the lack of autonomous psychiatric and psychological traditions that typically mold disciplinary receptivity, and the multinational and political sensibilities that consolidated within the shifting cultural fabric of the times. Moreover, unlike the Swiss Jungians, British Kleinians, or French Lacanians, Argentine psychoanalysis has not produced a distinctly national psychoanalytic school; and for this reason alone perhaps commands more general appreciation and respect.

Plotkin brilliantly shows how psy culture emerged from the beginning of psychoanalysis as a foreign idea to the convergence of social, political, economic, gendered, and scientific institutions in part motivated by the anxieties generated from rapid modernization, thus bringing disruptions to a sense of community with unimpeded social interactions, further brought on by secularization and the emergence of a new sense of subjectivity. Plotkin also explores the politicalization of psychoanalysis itself, the inception and spread of Lacanianism since the ultra-orthodox Kleinian influence of the 1960s, examines the consequences of Argentine psychoanalysis since the 1976 establishment of military dictatorship, and explores how psychoanalysis is practiced in a highly authoritarian political context. He further argues how Argentine society used psychoanalysis as a form of liberation in the face of a highly politically volatile and violent culture, became a secular substitute for religion, and is read, understood, and practiced in many divergent fashions to satisfy diverse aims by competing social groups culminating in the diffusion and dissemination of psychoanalysis as a general cultural belief system having its origins and derivatives from Freudian theory.

This book was a very informative read and is likely to be appreciated by all psychoanalytic traditions. Plotkin makes his mark as an astute psychoanalytic historian and unequivocally shows how past researchers who have focused on the international development of psychoanalysis have virtually ignored Argentina as a world capital of psychoanalysis. What is particularly convincing about this work is how Plotkin illuminates how cultural forces radically shape the receptivity and propagation of ideas, institutional practices, and most importantly, social values. Whether the reader concludes that Argentine society is hopelessly neurotic or profoundly enlightened, one acquires a deep respect for the Argentine psy climate because it largely approximates an intellectual and emotional sensibility that North American popular culture largely lacks—namely, a sensitivity to self-actualization, appreciation for the value of interiority, and the cultivated rewards of pursuing self-reflective psychosocial life.

Taken together, Reading Psychoanalysis and Freud in the Pampas are ambitious, sound, and evocative: each delivers an edifying piece of first-rate scholarship. In my opinion, Rudnysky’s book is more engaging, controversial, and novel due to its critical scope and interdisciplinary focus, while Plotkin provides a purely expository project, avoids polemics, and is not that overtly contentious. Although both books are appealing in their own right, neither work is oriented toward a practitioner audience despite having practical relevance for contemporary theory and ensuing shifts in conceptualization by revisiting early psychoanalytic history. Both will appeal to psychoanalytic historians and scholars in the humanities, while Rudnytsky’s work may have special interest among relational analysts.

Reviewer Note

Jon Mills is President of the Section on Psychoanalysis of the Canadian Psychological Association, Editor of Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies book series, and the author and/or editor of nine books including his most recent forthcoming work, Treating Attachment Pathology.


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