Otto Rank, A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures/Separation, Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank

Reviewed Publisher: 
With a foreword by Rollo May. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-691-04470-8.
Reviewed Title: 
Otto Rank, A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures.
Reviewed Author: 

Separation, Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank by Esther Menaker. Edited by Claude Barbre. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996. ISBN 1-56-821-802-8.

The writings of Otto Rank (1884-1939) are in the midst of a rebirth. Rank-artist, poet, psychotherapist, philosopher, mythologist, and educator-was a leading disciple and confidant of Freud and the first lay psychoanalyst. Banished as a dissident from the inner circle of psychoanalysis in the 1920's, Rank was excommunicated like Adler and Jung before him. Though largely unacknowledged, Rank is a forerunner of ego psychology, object-relations theory, interpersonal psychotherapy, existential psychology, and Rogers' client-centered approach.

The break with Freud was Rank's great turning point. In 1924 Rank transcended Freudian ideology in two bodks-The Development of Psychoanalysis (Ferenczi & Rank, 1924/1956) and The Trauma of Birth (1924/1952). He left psychoanalysis in order to help clients, having become disillusioned by endless analyses and therapeutic ideology. Writing now as a philosopher and metaphysician, Rank emphasized each individual's struggle to become separate, whole, creative. Rank emigrated from Vienna to Paris in 1926, where he stayed until 1934 and treated artists such as Anais Nin and Henry Miller. He moved permanently to the U.S. in 1935. Rank's tragic death came in 1939 from an unexpected reaction to medication, only one month after Freud's physician-assisted death from morphine.

Rank's original writings, be forewarned, are notoriously difficult. Rollo May (1950/1977) cautioned that Rank's terminology and dualistic mode of thought are "uncongenial" (p. 132), while Ernest Becker (1973) characterized Rank's work as a confusion of insights, so rich and diffuse that "he is almost inaccessible to the general reader" (p. xii). Anais Nin (1967) insisted that these writings don't do justice to his ideas, and admitted that Rank himself had tried to persuade her to rewrite his books (p. 16). It is not surprising, then, that Irvin Yalom (1980) has decried the "wretched translations" that are now "almost mercifully" out of print (p. 293). So, given the considerable learning curve, why bother with these works? Because Rank's thought has deep implications for development of the social sciences (Becker, 1973, p. xii-xiv). Like travel guides in unfamiliar territory, capable interpreters like Menaker and Kramer help us on our way.

Fortunately, Esther Menaker's (1996) Separation, will, and creativity: The wisdom of Otto Rank makes this work approachable. Menaker, almost ninety, has nearly seventy years of experience as a psychotherapist and analyst. Having studied under professor Jesse Taft (the Rankian analysand, biographer, and translator), Menaker later traveled to Vienna in order to train with Anna Freud. For decades, Menaker has written and lectured about Rank, providing much-needed interpretation and explanation.

Separation, comprised of thirteeen chapters, is broad in scope, ranging from an impassioned pilgrimage to view Rank's teenage diary to thoughtful discussions of the philosophy of science. Also included are seven case histories from Menaker's own private practice, intended to illustrate Rankian principles. All this material, even the personal and anecdotal, assists the reader in embracing the ever-difficult Rank.

Rank was far ahead of his time, argues Menaker, and his thinking reflects the scientific ethos of our own time. She explains that Rank was a dialectic thinker, one who offered dualistic descriptions of psychological processes. Discussions are dedicated, therefore, to the life fear/death fear, the wish to differentiate/wish to merge, and the causality principle/will principle.

Menaker (1996) is at her best in sorting out thorny technical concepts. She describes psychoanalysis well, and her frequent intellectual comparisons of Rank and Freud are instructive. She also clarifies several of what I call "Rankianisms." The "ethical feeling," for example, is inherent in the human capacity for relatedness, attachment, and empathy (p. 57). A second example, "volitional affirmation of the obligatory"-at once a goal of therapy and a motto for living-is a positive act of will concerning the nature of life itself, including death; opportunities are created for the individual to say "yes" to the tragic nature of life, rather than neurotically hurling a Big No.

Therapy is discussed as well. Individuation is the goal of Rankian psychotherapy, which is "constructive" (as opposed to analytic) and "experiential" (rather than causal-historical). The therapeutic relationship is one of appreciation, acceptance, and affirmation. Recognizing that suffering and guilt are unavoidable, therapy is designed to reduce surplus neurotic guilt to its existential proportions, thus liberating creativity, which in turn ameliorates guilt. Therapy is meant to help the person to love and will in a balanced way.

Beyond therapy, Menaker discusses grander notions. Rank was aware that mortality is central to the human condition-that the fear of mortality and the wish for immortality are governing principles in the life of each individual, and that we play out our individual bids for immortality through creation, procreation, and identification. The wish for immortality, argued Rank, is ultimately responsible for the development of culture and civilization as well.

Otto Rank's (1996) A psychology of difference is his first "new" book in over fifty years. A compilation of twenty-two essays delivered in America between 1924 and 1938, it begins with a brief yet spirited foreword by Rollo May and a helpful and detailed chronology of Rank's life by Robert Kramer. Kramer, who selected, edited, and introduced these essays, offers indispensable scholarly guidance and clarification on 99 of the 275 pages.

In fact, this volume was all but co-authored by Kramer, a lecturer at George Washington University and former member of the board of directors of the Otto Rank Center in Washington, DC. Kramer's own introduction, "Insight and Blindness: Visions of Rank," is a valuable essay in its own right. Kramer is our intellectual docent, addressing many Rankian notions-how we are thrown into the world at birth; how this primal catastrophe and our painful awareness of difference impact later life and therapy; how we experience a lifelong tension between surrender and assertion, union and separation; how the longing to restore Oneness is the primary stimulus for love and art; and how we are thrown out of the world at death.

Rank's (1924/1952) classic contribution, of course, concerns the power of perinatal psychology. Intrauterine ecstasy is interrupted by the agony of biological birth. The results are threefold. First, we are born with Angst, an unconscious pain of difference between existence and nonexistence. second, the trauma of birth undergoes a fundamental, primal repression. Third, our unconscious perpetually pushes us in a lifelong desire to return to primal paradise lost. "Just as the anxiety at birth forms the basis of every anxiety or fear," noted Rank, "so every pleasure has as its final aim the re-establishment of the intrauterine primal pleasure" (p. 17).

But why did Kramer select the title "A Psychology of Difference?" Rank, in his posthumous Beyond Psychology, had advocated a "psychology of difference" beyond Freud's "psychology of likeness." Freud's was just one among many possible psychologies. Difference is the dim awareness of our momentary and meaningless lives, and the source of our deepest pain. The perception of difference is a painful awareness of separation. In every case of suffering is the feeling of being different. The universal human search for the beloved is an attempt to project one's own will onto another in order to unburden existential guilt, to transform our painful difference into likeness.

The neurotic is the failed artist-what the French call the artist manque-who has failed to affirm and accept this inescapable burden of difference. Neurotic guilt is the penalty, the throwback of responsibility, for failing to accept this difference. How to accept the experience of difference without being overwhelmed by Angst or guilt? The tragedy for both the classical hysteric (who needs to become conscious of truth), and for the modern neurotic (who needs illusions and emotional experiences intense enough to lighten a tormenting self-consciousness), is that neither can bear their individual difference from others. The neurotic is unable to accept this difference positively, but rather is compelled to interpret it negatively, as inferiority. Difference remains a problem unless and until it is transformed into creativity.

Rankian therapy was designed to release clients from primal repression, and to allow them to endure separation and difference. Rank presented three new therapeutic tools: the use of the analytic situation as a present experience rather than a reliving of the past, the recognition that the transference is fundamentally a re-establishment of the biological tie to the mother, and the setting of an end to treatment as the key to the entire therapeutic process (cf. Taft, 1936, p. xiii). Real therapy has to be centered around the client, insisted Rank (1996), and "every case has its own technique, its own analysis, and its own solution" (p. 175). "What can be done therapeutically, in essence, is chiefly one thing: to enable the patient free expression of his emotions" (p. 172).

Living psychology occurs in relationship, argued Rank, not in individuality. So the "free expression of emotions" in therapy must serve to unite rather than disunite; there must be union rather than isolation, identity rather than difference. In treatment, the therapist and client merge into one; both parties momentarily surrender their painful isolation in spiritual union. This healing encounter of I and Thou leads to a feeling of unity with the other, with the self, and with the Cosmos. Such a meeting paradoxically affirms one's difference while simultaneously releasing one from the pain of being different.

Rank (1996) believed that the mysteries and the problems of life and death cannot be removed but can only be alleviated. Man's true self expresses itself only in the love beyond sexuality (p. 177), and it is this love that connects the "tragically separated individual" again with cosmic life. Love, will, and creativity are partial answers to the problems of life. How best to summarize Rank's contribution? Here is his own summary statement from a dialogue with Anais Nin

I believe analysis has become the worst ememy of the soul. It killed what it analyzed I saw too much psychoanalysis with Freud and his disciples which became pontifical, dogmatic. That was why I was ostracized from the original group. I became interested in the artist. I became interested in literature, in the magic of language. I disliked medical language, which was sterile, studied mythology, archeology, drama, painting, sculpture, history. What restores to scientific phenomenon its life, is art (Rank, in Nin, 1966, p. 277).

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press/Macmillan.

Ferenczi, S., and Rank, O (1956). The development of psychoanalysis. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1924)

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.

Kramer, R. (1996). Insight and blindness: Visions of Rank. In Otto Rank, A psychology of difference: The American lectures. Selected, Edited, and Introduced by Robert Kramer with a foreword by Rollo May. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

May, R. (1977). The meaning of anxiety. New York: Pocket Books. (Original work published 1950).

Menaker, E. (1996). Separation, will, and creativity: The wisdom of Otto Rank. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.Nin, A. (1966). The Diary of Anais Nin: Vol. I.: 1931-1934. New York: Swallow Press/Harcourt, Brace & World.

Rank, O. (1996). A psychology of difference: The American lectures. Selected, Edited, and Introduced by Robert Kramer, with a foreword by Rollo May. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rank, O. (1952). The trauma of birth. New York: Robert Brunner. (Originalwork published 1924)

Taft, J. (1936). Translator's introduction: The discovery of the analyticsituation. In O.Rank. Will therapy. New York: Norton.

Yalom, I.D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Publication Date: 
10/1997