Without self-reflection there will be repetition


"A society without self-reflection cannot elaborate, cannot work on its past."

Conversation with Ferenc Erős. 
Budapest, Hungary,  12 May 2014.

Emil Asbjörnsen (EA): You are not a psychoanalyst yourself, but you've been studying and working with psychoanalysis.

Ferenc ErősI've studied psychology, sociology and literature at the ELTE university of Budapest. I have been working as a research fellow at the Institute of Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I am also a teacher. I am now a professor  emeritus at the University of Pécs, a university town in the southwest of Hungary. Until 2017 I was the director of a PhD programme on psychoanalytic theory. I am still teaching in the programme, I have courses on history of psychoanalysis, on Frankfurt School psychoanalysis, and also on Lacan.

EA: And you have written about the history of psychoanalysis in Hungary.

Ferenc ErősI have written a few articles and some books, but it has not been my primary work. I started to work on the history of psychoanalysis about 20 years ago. In the mid-eighties together with some of my colleagues, we started to collect material on the history of psychoanalysis in Hungary. Prior to the late eighties very few people in Hungary had heard about psychoanalysis and it was, I would say, a primary work of gathering information. There was an international conference on psychoanalysis in Budapest in the autumn of 1988. It was the first conference on psychoanalysis behind the iron curtain. The atmosphere had changed and the Hungarian Psychoanalytic Association was refounded in this year. There was also another association founded, which still exists today, the Sándor Ferenczi Association. It is not a professional psychoanalytic association, anyone can be a member. The Hungarian Psychoanalytic Association, however, is only for practising psychoanalysts. 

Andreas Nordh (AN): How was the situation for psychoanalysis in Hungary during the communist regime? 

Ferenc Erős: Psychoanalysis was very restricted, but there were psychoanalysts and there was some psychoanalytic training, however, in the 1950s, it was only underground. But in the 1960s and 1970s quite a few psychoanalysts had been trained by Imre Hermann (1889-1984). Imre Hermann was a psychoanalyst and a student of Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), he was trained by Ferenczi in the 1920s. He continued to practise and teach psychoanalysis during the whole period, even if he did it underground in the 1950s. 


EA: Was there an official ban on psychoanalysis?

Ferenc Erős: There was no official ban that said that psychoanalysis is illegal or not allowed. It was a ban on the psychoanalytic association, so they could not form an association. Psychoanalysis as such was not banned. Psychotherapy was practised, and psychoanalysis acknowledged as one method of psychotherapy, but private practice was very restricted. So there were very few doctors who had a private practice. The communist government who drew the constitution at the time banned all private associations. There were hundreds of associations which ceased to exist. Some of them remained anyway, but only behind closed doors. This only changed in the 1980s when there was a new law which permitted the formation of civil associations. So there were limitations for all of civil society, not only psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was not that important. It is true that in the 1940s and 1950s there were some kind of ideological attacks against psychoanalysis, as a "bourgeois" science. This lasted until the early 1960s. But after that psychoanalysis was tolerated, I would say. Some books were even published on psychoanalysis from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ferenczi was published since the 1970s, even though only a very small part of his work. 

EA: How did you become interested in the history of psychoanalysis?

Ferenc Erős: For me it was a kind of excursion and a hobby. Not a professional activity. In fact I became interested through Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). In the seventies I spent a few months in the United States on a scholarship in social psychology. And I found some books by Wilhelm Reich in some bookstores in New York. 

EA: Wilhelm Reich’s books were burned in America, right? That’s quite shocking I think. 

Ferenc Erős: There are a few films on the story of Reich. There is an old film by an ex-Yugoslav director. His name is Dusan Makavejev. He made a film called WR or the mysteries of the organism. It is half-fiction, half-documentary made in the 1970s. And then there is a new one, which was made I think two years ago. An Austrian film titled The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich. It is also fiction and portrays the story of how Reich was treated by the Americans. That he was suspected of being a spy, that he had a CIA-file and that his books were burned, like the Nazis had been burning books. And that this special instrument he had was also burned. So, sure, the story of Wilhelm Reich was quite a shocking story!

But I was not only interested in Wilhelm Reich. He was just one person who was interesting for me. My main interest was in the Frankfurt school and critical theory, the relationship between psychoanalysis and Marxism. At that time it was a brand new and unknown field in Hungary and I was trying to combine social psychology with some kind of psychoanalytic ideas. That was my main interest at that time. Later I did some empirical research on the personality and the study of prejudice. A psycho-social approach to prejudice. So this was my starting point. In 1982 I completed my dissertation on Marxism and psychoanalysis. It had one chapter on Wilhelm Reich, one on Erich Fromm (1900-1980) and one on Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). I spent some time in Germany also, in Frankfurt, for this. My book was finally published in 1986, and in 2001 a corrected, improved edition came out. 


EA: For a short time Sándor Ferenczi held the first university appointment on psychoanalysis, a lectureship here in Budapest. Would you say that this has had any effect on the studies of psychoanalytic theory at the universities in Hungary?

Ferenc ErősNo, not at all. Ferenczi's university appointment was very short, it took only a few weeks. It was during the first Hungarian communist regime, in 1919, what was called the Hungarian Councils Republic. It was the first communist republic outside of the Soviet Union and came to power in April 1919. It lasted only a few months. Ferenczi was nominated as professor during this period, but in practice he couldn't work as a professor. I think he had a few lectures after very short period of a few weeks his position was cancelled. I mean, it was an important symbolic event for the psychoanalytic movement, he was the first professor of psychoanalysis. But it was nothing more than that. 

Do you know the story? Ferenczi wanted to be what in German is called a Privatdozent already in 1912, It was a university title by which you could teach, but not a professorship. He applied for this title before the first World War but it was rejected by the medical faculty. The majority of the professors were against his application so he didn't get the title. But for Ferenczi it was only about the title and this was quite usual in that time. Doctors that already had some authority they tried to get this title because it was good for the practice. When the first World War ended, in the autumn of 1918, Hungary became an independent state through a revolution. Radical university students demanded changes in the university. They invited famous people that had some authority or were well-known, but who were not allowed to be professors before the war. One of them was Ferenczi. The students demanded that the faculty invite him to teach but the university refused this again. What we know from the documents, his appointment was refused again. But then the new regime – this was actually before the communist take-over, but there was already a radical government – suspended the autonomy of the university, and the government could nominate and appoint anyone they wanted. So Ferenczi’s appointment in 1919 was an appointment by the government by demand of the students. It was not a decision by the university faculty.  There was actually a petition of the students, the students wrote hundreds of petitions to the minister of education. When the regime failed in August 1919, all these nominations, not only Ferenczi's – there were also several other people who got positions at the university – they were immediately cancelled. 

AN: Would you say that psychoanalysis is considered a relevant theory amongst academics in Hungary today?

Ferenc ErősNo. Not at all. The university thing with Ferenczi was a very isolated phenomenon. I would say that in general psychoanalysis is not a legitimate subject at the universities. Only very marginal. It does not have much representation in the academia. But it has a strong influence in psychotherapy.

EA: Are there many clinicians practising psychoanalysis in Budapest?

Ferenc ErősThere are those who are members of the psychoanalytical association. The association is growing fastly, there are about 100 members, including IPA members and candidates. There are many people working in various institutions who are not psychoanalysts per se but who use some parts of psychoanalytic method, psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists. Psychoanalysis has a strong practical impact in this way. But psychoanalysis as an academic discipline is very isolated. This PhD programme that I am head of is the only one in this country which has psychoanalysis as a main subject. But it is not a training programme, it is an academic programme. I think there are similar programmes in Britain and in the United States, but not in Hungary and not in central Europe. And this is not related to what happened with Ferenczi in 1919.

EA: Would you say that the impact of psychoanalysis has been stronger in Hungary compared to other places in Europe?

Ferenc ErősI cannot tell. I think that psychoanalysis has a tradition in Hungary because there is an old association, it was founded in 1913 and was one of the first associations in Europe. There was the association in Vienna in 1908, then Zürich and also in Berlin in this period. So it was one of the first associations. And Ferenczi was an important member and had a very close relationship to Freud. Even if he couldn't continue as a professor he remained influential in his circle in Hungary. He had several pupils and trained a few people, so it was a relatively strong movement. And there were several other people who came from Hungary but then went to other countries like Germany and then to America. Like Franz Alexander (1891-1964), who came from Hungary and went to United States and became the most important figure in psychosomatic studies. And Melanie Klein (1882-1960) – she was not Hungarian, but she was trained by Ferenczi nevertheless. 

EA: Michael Bálint, wasn't he Hungarian as well?

Ferenc ErősWell, yes, Michael Bálint (1896-1970), but that was a little bit later. There was a large emigration from Hungary because of Hitler’s war. People like Michael Bálint and his wife Alice Bálint (1898-1939) – who died soon in Britain – and a lot of other people. So many psychoanalysts fled the country to Britain or the United States. There is also one who became well-known in Sweden, Lajos Székely (1904-1995). So it was a massive emigration from Hungary. Some of the psychoanalysts were killed by the Nazis during the War, and there were very few left after the War. But the psychoanalytic association started again after the war, until it was banned by the communist power in 1948. Imre Hermann, whom I mentioned earlier, continued to work underground after the association was banned. And there was Lilly Hajdú (1890-1960) who was quite well-known, she was a psychiatrist but also a psychoanalyst, and who became director of the largest psychiatric institute in Hungary.

EA: So people who were also psychoanalysts have held important positions in Hungary, for example in psychiatric care?

Ferenc ErősYes, but the psychoanalytic movement as such was re-established only in the late 1980s. Even though there were some kind of group since the 1970s, early 1980s. To understand the situation for psychoanalysis in Hungary during the communist regime you have to separate between the praxis and the theory. Psychoanalytic theory was officially more or less criticised or refused. But it was not totally banned. I mean when I published my book in 1986 it was not censored. I had more or less freedom to make research and do whatever I wanted. But it was already the last, more liberal period of the Kádár regime.


AN: When the iron curtain fell, how was that like? Was there a desire for psychoanalysis?

Ferenc ErősYou know for most people, psychoanalysis was still not attainable. It remained a privilege for the few. Partly because there were very few psychoanalysts and partly because it was very expensive. It was not for the average citizen. But there was of course a renewed interest in psychoanalysis in Hungary in the 1990s – a huge number of books came out and there were many conferences and sessions were psychoanalysis was discussed. There was a new wave of interest. But now – like everything in this country, with this regime – everything is going down. And there is not enough adaptation to the spirit of the age. 

EA: Would you say that psychoanalysis, in other ways, is marginalised even more today? 

Ferenc ErősWell, it is true in the sense that at the university today the cognitive sciences are very dominating. The students learn – and this is more or less the same everywhere in the world – cognitively oriented psychotherapy. The cognitive perspective dominates. I would say not so much the behaviouristic approach, but the perspective of the cognitive neurosciences. And the health services, the governments, prefer cheap and controllable psychotherapeutic techniques which can be measured, to find some criteria for healing. This is of course not favourable for psychoanalysis, which is expensive, difficult to measure and consumes a lot of time and so on. 

But on the other hand I think that there are also some other tendencies in the contemporary world today, especially within the academic world. One thing is the significance of psychoanalysis as a social science, and as an important branch of philosophy as well. And I would say this has been made possible trough the work of  Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). It's not only Lacan of course, but the space, the creative and intellectual space that he created was a renewal of psychoanalysis. Lacan was a psychoanalyst that can be criticised from many sides, some of his concepts can be criticised, but he was still a person who created a Freud for the 21th century. And his influence have been strong in philosophy, art theory, literature critique, film theory. Especially with his concept of vision, of the gaze. I'm not a Lacanian but I've translated some of his texts into Hungarian. Another thing is that among cognitive scientists, and in the neurosciences, there is today a rediscovery of psychoanalysis. They have the approach that somehow there is a way to interpret those basic ideas of Freud.

EA: Would you say that there is a risk that psychoanalysis might disappear?

Ferenc ErősNo I don't think so. But there will always be these fluctuations and renewals. I think Freud used this quotation from Virgil’s Aeneis in one of his very autobiographical works, fluctuat nec mergiturmeaning something like "she is tossed but not sunk". I think that is the case.  

We had a PhD course that just finished; the title was "Tradition and Renewal in Psychoanalysis". Starting with the classic psychoanalysis, there have been several renewals already. As mentioned earlier we have Wilhelm Reich, and for example the object relations theory in Britain with Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). And then Jacques Lacan of course, and there are also other French contributions. So I think psychoanalysis will continue but with certain renewals. But I don’t think it will ever be the main or leading psychological orientation. One of the reasons is that cognitive psychology can be more easily sold in the market. Another thing is that cognitive psychology can be better controlled scientifically, it is more suitable for empirical and statistical methods. With psychoanalysis it's very difficult to make experiments. Some people have tried but it's difficult to use statistic measurements or to use these kinds of objectivistic scientific techniques. You know, Elisabeth Roudinesco (1944-) has written some interesting books about how cognitive behavioural therapy is mainly subjugated to business interests, and that she thinks psychoanalysis – as an independent enterprise – will survive. But maybe not psychoanalysis as we know it from Freud’s time.  

EA: There is a book by Elisabeth Roudinesco with the English title Why Psychoanalysis? What would be your answer to that question? Why do we need psychoanalysis? 

Ferenc ErősIt is of course difficult to answer this question. But I think that human beings are very complex beings and that our unconscious is an important part of the human existence. And you cannot eliminate the unconscious. You have to deal with it. And I think that not only individuals and persons have an unconscious – unconscious memories and unconscious motivations – but also, similar to individuals, societies. Psychoanalysis is basically a form self-reflection with the help of a psychotherapist, and as in the case of individuals, a society without self-reflection cannot elaborate, cannot work on its past. Without self-reflection there will be repetition instead of an elaboration. Just as Freud wrote in his papers in 1914, repetition comes instead of mourning and working through. 

AN: Would you say that is what is happening in Hungarian society today? A repetition without mourning and working through?

Ferenc ErősYes. It is a repetition. Hungary is not learning from the past and it is not working through. Hungary is not facing the traumas that happened during the second World War and the Holocaust. But also not facing what happened in the 1950s and in 1956 during the Hungarian revolution. 

I wouldn't say that you can just apply any individual psychoanalytic concept to society. But there are some examples which I think are very important. Like the German psychoanalysts who did a fantastic job, for example Alexander Mitscherlich (1908-1982), who in the 1960s wrote a famous book with his wife Margarete Nielsen (1917-2012): Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, The Inability to Mourn. Which was a kind of milestone in the history of psychoanalysis as well as in the German process of working through its history. 

I also think that Ferenczi's most important contribution to psychoanalysis was that he showed what happens with traumatised people when their trauma is denied. The refusal to acknowledge a trauma, the complete silence, can be really traumatising itself – not only the traumatic event, but what happens afterwards. As a symptom it is often described with the diagnose PTSD – which is a very broad concept. But trauma is not only these psychophysiological symptoms associated with PTSD, it is also a state of mind.

EA: In Hungary today, with the rise of right-wing nationalist ideology. How would you say this affects psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic thinking? 

Ferenc Erős: What do you mean? There is no more ideology! No governments today have ideology. I don't see any. I would say only the use of some rhetorics, words, clichés. But no elaborated ideology in the sense that for example the communist movement had an ideology. There is no more ideology. There are combinations of some left wing ideas and some extreme right wing ideas. But let's say "populism" is today sort of an ideology everywhere in Europe. Anti-EU populism. Like in Britain with UKIP. And you have the same in Sweden?

AN: Yes, the Sweden Democrats. 

Ferenc Erős: And you have the same movement in Denmark. But even the left-wing has no ideology in Hungary, at all. It is some mixture of socialist clichés and liberal welfare state clichés. But it is only clichés and not ideology. 

AN: If one were to analyse this right-wing wind that seems to be blowing, why is that?

Ferenc Erős: That is also an interesting question for psychoanalysis. How and why can these right wing movements gain so much momentum? But I don't think that psychoanalysts seem particularly interested in working with these questions. I think they are afraid, more or less. Though there have been several attempts to conceptualise why these things have happened, why so many people feel frustrated for example. One thing is that 20-25 years ago people had an expectation of a quick transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, that they soon would be happy and would live like in Sweden or Switzerland. And it didn't work out like that at all, and so the result is frustration. What I also think is that there is a strong need to create new borders alongside the abolition of former borders. A need for new categories.

In the conference yesterday we had discussions on "The chosen trauma", a concept originally by Vamik Volkan (1932–), an American psychoanalyst of Cypriote origin. How groups, when they experience strong fear, instability and anxiety, tend to choose a trauma and keep it alive in order to publicise it into their own wounds and own sufferings. And Hungary very characteristically perceives and represents its history as a victimisation. We were always victims, we were always suppressed by big powers. 

EA: So this victimisation is part of the identity of the Hungarian, and also in a way cherished as an identity?

Ferenc Erős: Yes, always the victim I would say. My colleagues in the university did some interesting studies in social psychology, how young people perceived Hungarian history mainly as a history of sufferings and victimisation. And they also think that in different conflicts, with other nations and other people, it was always the Hungarians who were the big victims. The Hungarians suffered and the others were perpetrators. Like the Holocaust was committed only by the Germans. And the Russians, the Germans and the European Union are responsible for everything else, and "we are innocent". I think this type of thinking is characteristic for other nations as well. But in Hungary the feeling of victimhood is strong. It is "the chosen trauma".

There was a Hungarian political scientist and historian, Istvan Bibó (1911-1979). He described this kind of phenomena already in the 1940s. He called it hysteria, in a metaphorical sense. When a national group loses its orientation, it always tries to find scapegoats and starts believing in conspiracy theories, that some alien elements, high powers or groups are threatening. This is deeply embedded in national consciousness in Hungary. Even the national anthem from the 19th century – “Himnusz” – is about all the suffering of the nation. It even contains the idea of the death of the nation, almost like a death instinct. 


EA: If we return to the political climate of today, does it affect psychoanalysis?

Ferenc Erős: I don't see any particular effect of the political climate. When it comes to the psychoanalytical association I don't know exactly what they would say, or what their position is. Basically, they want to keep a distance to politics. For example, they did not want to take part in this conference [Psychoanalysis and Politics], at least not as an organisation. They have always kept three steps distance to politics, except perhaps in 1919 when Ferenczi became a professor. There is a conference every year in October and sometimes there are good discussions and topics that can be related to the present political situation. This has a certain impact on the profession of psychotherapy. 

In the late 1970's when the psychoanalytic movement was still not officially permitted, but was already there, the first important event in the new history of psychoanalysis was the organising of “Psychotherapeutical weekends”. Officially it was for introducing new methods of psychotherapy, especially group methods. They were very successful, extremely successful. Many people went there and many of these people later became psychoanalysts. This was at the time the most important training institution and in practice a way to elevate psychoanalysis. And this movement recently started again. Just a few weeks ago, under the name “Civil weekends”. The idea is to bring together people of various views to discuss conflicts and social tensions. It is not a psychoanalytic movement as such but there are some psychoanalysts there that are a strong influence. It is not a part of any psychoanalytic, psychotherapeutic or psychiatric association so it is outside of these kinds of official structures, but they have been very popular and successful. So I think there are always new forms and new channels.

EA: Psychoanalytic ideas renews itself somehow, even if there is no institution or official structure?

Ferenc Erős: Yes. There is of course a psychoanalytic association today but it is quite conservative. And there are many people who are very interested in psychoanalysis today that are not a part of the association. 

EA: What would you say are the most important issues for psychoanalysis for the future? In what areas does psychoanalysis need to produce new thought, new theory? 

Ferenc Erős: I think when it comes to the unconscious side of social processes, to understand contemporary society and contemporary events, and in this to understand the unspoken, the denied aspects. The politics is most important to understand. For example why people are going to vote for Jobbik. A more general problem is to defend human sciences. Psychology, not only psychoanalysis, but psychology as such seem to disappear in favour of cognitive neurosciences. So an important issue is to defend sciences which does not regard human beings as a kind of consequence of physiological or biological processes. The human being as a social being.

EA: Why would you say it is that human sciences has become devalued? 

Ferenc Erős: Well, because they don't produce profit. Because they cannot be measured, cannot be controlled.

EA: And why this contemporary fascination with controlling and measuring? 

Ferenc Erős: Because it gives a feeling of security. I think it is a political question. There is today a fascination of numbers that is a sort of a fetishism. It is also a question of allocation of money. It is for example very difficult to get grants for research and in social sciences there is a trend towards a more statistical approach. There is today even an expectation to use statistics in dissertations so it would be very difficult for a student to go against this, to not use statistics. But there are always counter attacks on the side of the humanities and maybe someday somebody will recognise that social sciences are also important and that they may even produce some profit. In Hungary this shift is also related to the dying out of the old intelligentsia. People who were very well educated in different branches of social sciences, philosophy and sociology. They were not simply scholars but part of the intellectual elite and working on the transformation of the country, taking part in the opposition movement in the eighties. But now these people are retiring, dying out. This classic intellectual elite is disappearing. 

EA: Is this also related to the disappearing of ideology you spoke of earlier? Perhaps a fetishism of numbers is replacing ideology? 

Ferenc Erős: Yes, absolutely. 

AN: And what would be the cure? Does psychoanalysts need to come out in the world and speak for some political change? 

Ferenc Erős: Yes I think so. But not as a psychoanalytic utopia. Ferenczi for example had some very idealistic thoughts on how society should be organised. But psychoanalysis has a strong position in supporting the abilities of societies to face and deal with trauma, shame and fear. This is one example. And it is important that psychoanalysts clarify their positions, as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) noted in his famous essay on Argentina in the eighties. Psychoanalysts has not always been on the progressive side in history. 

Ferenc Erős (Budapest, Hungary, 1946) is professor emeritus of Social Psychology at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Pécs, where he is director of a doctoral programme in psychoanalytic studies. He edited the Hungarian translation of the Freud-Ferenczi correspondence, and edited (with Judit Szekacs) Sándor Ferenczi – Ernest Jones: Letters 1911-1933 (London: Karnac 2013). He founded Thalassa, the journal of the Sándor Ferenczi Society in Budapest, which he edited from 1990–2010. Until 2016 , he edited Imágó Budapest, the journal of the Hungarian Imago Association.