The founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud is undeniably an important historical figure. His discovery of or rather focus on the unconscious and its hidden processes brought a new understanding of human psychology and behavior. It is akin to Galileo’s act of turning binoculars upward to gaze at the sky, Darwin’s looking back into our common evolutionary past, or Einstein’s forward positioning of the relativity of time: it was a game-changer that like any important and relevant insights not only need time to be fully processed but also will find stubborn and persistent resistance along the way.
Yet often we tend to idolize the founders, and this leads not only to very high if not impossible standards and expectations, but we assume that they are infallible. Being a genius does not make you infallible and even someone as "bullet-proof" as Einstein can, given time and space, demonstrate occasional blunders. This does not make them wrong but only reminds us that they are human and hence fallible and not perfect.
In Freud’s case, we may also add a relatively big ego, which confounds things a bit more. But he certainly did not lack in ambition. For his brand and branch of psychology to succeed, he tried to legitimize it by putting it on or raising it to the field of science. This is yet a seemingly impossible if not misguided task not because of his views being wrong (for the most part, he is spot on) but rather because science is lagging in this respect. The scientific conception is by choice and design limited as it is too narrowly focused on logic and rationality, which makes the job of psychology much more cumbersome as human beings tend to be irrational and not rational beings driven predominantly by unconscious motives, desires, and processes.
Enter Otto Rank who attempts to bring in a fresh and soulful perspective to psychoanalysis and psychology as a whole. In fact, the word psyche refers to that concept and reality precisely. At the inception of psychoanalysis, Jung tried a similar feat that led to major disagreements between him and Freud. The problem with Jung was that he might have ventured a bit too far into the spiritual and the occult and that did not please Herr Freud much, especially considering his preoccupation with being accepted and embraced (in other words legitimized) by science. This alongside other factors, perhaps Jung’s free sexual entanglements with some of his female patients (including the influential and to this day underrated Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein), led to their ideological rupture.
Since Jung started to disappoint him with what was seen or interpreted as extreme or radical, Freud had his eyes on Otto Rank, Freud’s promising secretary as his potential successor. This turned out to be a classic case or a textbook example of the student exceeding his master. Rank was a fan of Freud, but he was also very ambitious and fortunately, Alfred Adler noticed this passion and fire within the young Rank and introduced him to the great Freud. Seeing great potential in him, Freud took Rank under his wing making him his secretary, a duty that the latter performed diligently and dutifully for various years.
Yet Rank noticed that while Jung was admittedly giving too much weight and ponderance to the spiritual realm, Freud had done the same when it came to the issue of sexuality. Through Freud, psychoanalysis started off on a mechanical and deterministic note and was too much guided by biology, again the attempt to embed and tie and ground it closely and firmly within the field of science. Marx would try a similar feat by trying to see human behavior and existence predominantly through the lens of economic struggles and necessities to build his own version of political science.
Rank saw that all these perspectives lacked soul or life’s essence. Humanity was not driven and run merely by sexual or economic instincts but there was a quest for immortality that was embedded into our genetic code and psyche from the moment we came to life and breathed our first breath. For instance, birth itself creates unspeakable (preverbal and not able to communicate) trauma that becomes deeply woven into our existence from the get-go. Each of us leaves the warmth of the womb to be suddenly, unexpectedly, and inexplicably thrust into the world and exposed to lights, sounds, and scents that are truly overwhelming to human psychology.
This trauma becomes so much part of human nature that we find ourselves in a fetal position in moments of extreme distress, and we often tend to lose our breath when faced with fear, the same way, we entered the world out of breath until we announce and mark our entrance with a piercing long-lasting cry. And with our birth, the looming shadow of death will haunt and follow us for the rest of our days until death separates us from life as we know it. These two often unspoken, unacknowledged, and unprocessed traumas are essentially the root of many of our irrational acts and behaviors. Then, there are other traumatic experiences that add to it to make the human condition even worse than it already is.
It is Damocles’ sword dangling above our heads, and while he was consciously aware of it, we try to push it deeper into our unconscious preferring not to deal with it. And yet, it leads us to both beneficial and harmful acts to ensure our existence beyond our ordinary and limited lives. Religion was created not merely because of an infantile wish to have a father figure protect and guide us but also a need for our existence to continue after our lives.
In a similar sense, culture ensures the confirmation and continuation of our specific rituals and traditions into the beyond. The same thought process could be applied to the creation of states and nations so that we can ensure our unique differences, stand out so-to-speak from the others. By doing so, we preserve our identity and see our heritage pass on to the subsequent lives even if we may or may not exist afterwards.
In either case and at any rate, death is the motivation factor and the Ursprung, inception, and foundation of our fears and actions. Once we notice this and bring it into our consciousness, we can better understand and shed light upon our (seemingly) irrational actions and behaviors. This switch from Freud's insistence on sexuality, which is no doubt a necessary and vital part of our existence to the focus on death, our looming and potential non-existence, can lead to not only a better explanation and understanding of ourselves but also a better management of our underlying existential fear and dread.
Why is it that we relish in bad news, that we are glued to the screen watching footage from the latest natural disaster, the mass shooting, or even going close to a scene of an accident to get a better glimpse of its repercussions and bloody aftermath? Some may see it as a form of morbidity, our often denied and neglected obsession with the dark side, and this is certainly partially true, but it comes also with an unspoken element of relief if not glee as we reflect that thank goodness it was them, and not us and that we find ourselves unharmed and alive in the safety of our home or our vehicle.
This can also explain the "drive" to kill others, whether physically or symbolically, as it ensures our own survival and the survival of our kind, be it family, nation, or political affiliation. On the other hand, we see their attacks as trying to uproot us and steal our existence and immortality from us. These ideological narratives that guide us both on a conscious but even more so on an unconscious level can lead some people to a willingness to sacrifice their lives for a cause or a motive deemed important.
From this perspective, we may lay down our lives to protect our nation in a war, we may sacrifice ourselves to protect our family, or we may die for an ideology, whether it is a Buddhist monk immolating himself as a form of protest, a soldier dying in a war, or suicidal bombers killing themselves in a terrorist act. These are of course different contexts with different moralities and justifications, but in essence, they are driven by our fear of death and non-existence with the willingness to die in order to live on in one form or another.
This has its roots in the totem in which the existence of the clan or tribe was superseded by any personal worries, concerns, or preoccupations. At this point, the given individuals give less importance to their own personal safety and survival but rather the collective survival and well-being of their people by adding to the already existing chain built of, from, and by their ancestors continuing the lifeline and accomplishments of their predecessors.
To sacrifice one’s needs and at times existence for the common good are often emblematic themes of totalitarian regimes and ideologies, be it fascism or communism. As Rank himself puts it, “both fascism and communism are the results of unfulfilled promises of democracy”. Interestingly, while communism forces people to be and become equal, fascism has its sights on forcing freedom onto people and both are two faces of the same impossible coin.
As a matter of fact, whether they accept it or not, they all have their ties with religion and even culture cannot be spelled without the word cult, an agreement based on conformity and universality of old “spiritual life values”, which is generally intolerant towards difference as it attempts to express the irrational and immortal in its own seemingly rational terms.
This maintenance of traditions and values is to be presented as a form of preserving one’s nation or the common good, but it may often have dangerous unperceived repercussions for us and our surroundings. This rather common (both in terms of prevalent and simplistic) morality builds upon the segregation of an Us versus Them mentality (essentially an extension of the “I” and “not-I” way of perceiving the world) fueled by a misguided and dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. To be “good” is less a moral question or issue but would simply mean to be bigger than oneself, with this extension, to reach if not individual then collective immortality.
This type and genre of absolutist thinking has been the underlying driving force of various misdeeds and evil actions throughout history and continues to be perpetuated to this day while at the same time underscoring humankind’s eternal conflict between a need for likeness (conformity) and a desire for difference (individuality, i.e., rebellion). Yet the given group, be it a family, a tribe, a culture, a religion, a nation, or a political party needs to carve itself out and distance itself from others hence the indifference and intolerance towards others in terms of appearance, thoughts, lifestyles, and behaviors.
I believe that Rank’s focus on birth and death as the starting and end point of life on this planet filled with an individual life in between provides a much more complete picture and explanation of human psychology and how and why it can go so awry at times. The injection of the soul into psychology incorporates the desire for immortality and has its roots in the beginning of culture and traditions.
It seems that Rank did not personally believe in a soul per se and much less in a divinity, but he understood the necessity for wanting to do so. More than many others, especially of his own times, he noted the irrational forces at work and the incapacity for therapy to fully reach and address them in a constructive and healing manner. The aim of therapy should not be the adjustment to the social environment, which may be incomplete or questionable at different times, but the strengthening of the individual will.
Rank’s views on the chosen and more empathic mode and manner of therapy, which was also at odds with Freud’s more clinical and almost sterile approach, have had influences throughout the field of psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychotherapy. Combined, his influence and legacy are undeniable but unfortunately even up to this day, he has not received the credit and recognition he should have had, and he would have deserved.
In fact, the opposite has been true as he was maligned, demonized, and excommunicated from the psychoanalytic circles because he dared to object to and disagree with the reigning master of the times, his teacher Freud. And yet, that is what has made Otto Rank not only highly influential but immortal in many forms and aspects to this day - and beyond.