Today is the birthday (1884) of Otto Rank, Austrian psychoanalyst, writer, and teacher. Born in Vienna as Otto Rosenfeld, he was one of Sigmund Freud’s closest colleagues for 20 years, a prolific writer on psychoanalytic themes, an editor of the two most important analytic journals of his day, managing director of Freud’s publishing house and a creative theorist and therapist. In 1926, after a break with Freud, Rank left Vienna for Paris. For the remaining 14 years of his life, Rank had a successful career as a lecturer, writer and therapist in France and the United States. Unlike Freud, Rank’s is not a household name, but it ought to be. His work is arguably more influential nowadays than Freud’s is.
In 1905, at the age of 21, Otto Rank presented Freud with a short manuscript on the artist, a study that so impressed Freud he invited Rank to become Secretary of the emerging Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Rank thus became the first paid member of the psychoanalytic movement, and Freud’s general assistant for almost 20 years. Freud considered Rank, with whom he was more intimate intellectually than his own sons, to be the most brilliant of his Viennese disciples.
Encouraged and supported by Freud, Rank (who had attended a vocational high school), completed the “Gymnasium” (college-preparatory high school), attended the University of Vienna, and completed his Ph.D. in 1911. His thesis, on the Lohengrin Saga, was the first Freudian doctoral dissertation.
Rank was one of Freud’s six collaborators brought together in a secret “committee” or “ring” to defend the psychoanalytic mainstream as disputes with Adler and then Jung developed. Rank was the most prolific author in the “ring” besides Freud himself, extending psychoanalytic theory to the study of legend, myth, art, and other works of creativity. He worked closely with Freud, contributing two chapters on myth and legend to later editions of The Interpretation of Dreams. Rank’s name appeared underneath Freud’s on the title page for many years. Between 1915 and 1918, Rank served as Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association which Freud had founded in 1910. Everyone in the small psychoanalytic world understood how much Freud respected Rank and his prolific creativity in expanding psychoanalytic theory.
In 1924, Rank published Das Trauma der Geburt (translated into English as The Trauma of Birth in 1929), exploring how art, myth, religion, philosophy and therapy were illuminated by separation anxiety in the “phase before the development of the Oedipus complex..” But there was no such phase in Freud’s theories. For Freud the Oedipus complex was the nucleus of neurosis and the foundational source of all art, myth, religion, philosophy, therapy – indeed of all human culture and civilization. It was the first time that anyone in the inner circle had dared to suggest that the Oedipus complex might not be the supreme causal factor in psychoanalysis. Rank was the first to use the term “pre-Oedipal” in a public psychoanalytic forum in 1925.
After some hesitation, Freud distanced himself from The Trauma of Birth, signaling to other members of his inner circle that Rank was perilously close to anti-Oedipal heresy. “I am boiling with rage,” Freud told Sándor Ferenczi then Rank’s best friend. Confronted with Freud’s decisive opposition, Rank resigned in protest from his positions as Vice-President of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, director of Freud’s publishing house, and co-editor of Imago and Zeitschrift. Ferenczi, with whom Rank had collaborated from 1920 through 1924 on new experiential, object-relational and “here-and-now” approaches to therapy, vacillated on the significance of Rank’s pre-Oedipal theory but not on Rank’s objections to classical analytic technique.
Rank was the first to see therapy as a learning and unlearning experience. Rank saw the therapeutic relationship as allowing the patient to: (1) learn more creative ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now; and (2) unlearn self-destructive ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now. For him, patterns of self-destruction (“neurosis”) represent a failure of creativity not, as Freud assumed, a retreat from sexuality.
Rank’s psychology of creativity has recently been applied to action learning, an inquiry-based process of group problem solving, team building, leader development and organizational learning. Transformative action learning, synthesized by Robert Kramer from Rank’s writings on art and spirituality, involves real people, working on real problems in real time. Once a safe space is created by an executive coach, questions allow group members to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Rank wrote in Art and Artist, reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of “stepping out” of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before. The heart of transformative action learning, as developed by Kramer, is asking powerful questions to promote the unlearning or letting go of taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs.
Rank believed that the most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered.” Through the lens of Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, transformative action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.
Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and neuroses; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non for lifelong creativity. In a 1938 lecture, Rank said:
Life in itself is a mere succession of separations. Beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality, and finally culminating in death – which represents the final separation. At birth, the individual experiences the first shock of separation, which throughout his life he strives to overcome. In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments off his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use ….The ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present. The neurotic [who cannot unlearn, and, therefore, lacks creativity] is unable to accomplish this normal detachment process … Owing to fear and guilt generated in the assertion of his own autonomy, he is unable to free himself, and instead remains suspended upon some primitive level of his evolution.
I would, perhaps, be a little less optimistic in my view of the world because, in my experience, people don’t unlearn enough, often enough. Many people stay trapped in conventional modes of thought, and follow routines that are not productive, and do not make them happy, because they are afraid to let go. One of my common mantras in life is – “your comfort zone is your enemy.”
So let’s break out a little with the Viennese version of goulash. Goulash came to Austria from Hungary when Vienna was the cultural center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but was changed in the process. The Wiener Saftgulasch is now a fixture on Viennese menus. A variation of the Wiener Saftgulasch is the Fiakergulasch, which is served with a fried egg, fried or boiled sausage, pickle and either dumplings (Semmelknödel) or potatoes. This goulash is just meat and onions plus seasonings that have been cooked until the meat is very tender. It is best made the day before and then reheated. Sacher sausage is Vienna sausage, similar to frankfurters. Traditionally the recipe used lard or dripping for frying. You can vary the proportions of sweet and hot paprika to suit your taste. And . . . if you are a good student of Rank you will not make the dish the same way twice.
1 kg stewing beef, cut in cubes
4-6 pickled gherkins
2-3 pairs Sacher sausages
750 g onions, peeled and sliced coarsely
⅔ cup cooking oil
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp hot paprika
3 cloves garlic, bruised and minced
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp marjoram
2 bay leaves
1 tsp caraway seeds, chopped
¼ cup vinegar
freshly ground pepper
butter (for frying eggs)
Heat the oil in a deep oven-proof pot and fry the onions over medium heat until golden brown, stirring and turning regularly. Add the paprika powder and tomato paste, stir, and quickly pour in the vinegar and a little water. Add the cubed meat with salt and pepper to taste to the pot. Stir in the garlic, marjoram, bay leaves and caraway, and pour in enough water so that the meat is covered. Stir, and simmer on medium heat, semi-covered, for about 2 1/2 hours. Stir from time to time, and add water as needed. When the meat is very tender, take the pot off the stove and place it in a moderately-warm oven (120°C) for about 1 hour. Refrigerate overnight.
Next day, reheat the goulash and check the seasoning. Heat water for the sausages and simmer gently for about 5 minutes (or fry them in a little oil). Heat the butter in a pan, and fry the eggs. Slice the gherkins in the shape of a fan.
Serve the goulash on warmed plates. Place the fried eggs on top of the goulash, and one sausage on the side. Garnish with gherkins. Serve with dumplings or boiled potatoes and dark rye bread.