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“The Power that Beautifies and Destroys”: Sabina Spielrein and “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being”


Sabina Spielrein has mostly been known, if at all, as the patient with whom Carl Jung became romantically involved and who then turned to Freud for advice. While the boundary violation alarmed Freud and became the catalyst for his technical papers on transference, Spielrein’s own intellectual contributions have seldom been acknowledged. It is as if this early trauma in the history of psychoanalysis and analytic psychology created a dissociative erasure of Spielrein’s story and her work. This article offers a look into Spielrein’s own work as an analyst and theorist, with particular emphasis on her 1911 paper “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being,” which she read shortly after her admission to Freud’s circle—the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society—around the time of the “great divorce” between Jung and Freud. Included here is a summary of the paper, situating it in Spielrein’s biography, as well as a discussion of the reception of the paper in her own time and more recently. Spielrein’s little-known works—including an early conceptualization of the so-called “death instinct” later formulated by Freud—give evidence for Spielrein’s rightful place as a pioneer of psychoanalysis. The article ends with an exploration of how Spielrein’s fearless theoretical, religious, and mythological ideas enriched her creative work but at the same time may have blinded her to the deadly reality of the Holocaust, which cost Spielrein her life.

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  1. The Jahrbuch was founded in 1908 by Freud in a secret meeting with the Swiss analysts at the First International Congress for Psychoanalysis in Salzburg, with Freud and Eugen Bleuler as “co-directors” and Jung as editor. This meeting was an attempt on Freud’s part to recruit support from the Zürich psychoanalytic faction, in part to expand psychoanalysis beyond its Viennese and Jewish origins. The Viennese had been deliberately excluded for the time being—the only member of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society included in the founding of the Jahrbuch was Otto Rank. For more details, see Kerr 1994, p. 185.

  2. German term for dissertation advisor, but implying a stronger personal mentorship – literally, “doctoral father.”

  3. Term borrowed, out of context, from Lewis (2009).

  4. Revised by Jung in 1952 and translated in the Collected Works as Symbols of Transformation (Jung 1967a).

  5. Freud alluded to oedipal dynamics in 1909 with the case of “Little Hans” (Freud 1955b) and first used the term in Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men the following year. By 1913 he had applied the theory to the evolution of civilization in Totem and Taboo (Freud 1955c).

  6. Freud to Oskar Pfister, March 12, 1909 (Freud and Meng 1963, p. 20, cited in Kerr 1994, p. 321).

  7. Hans Sachs cited further examples in literature, including Milton’s Paradise Lost, Schnitzler’s Der Weg ins Freie (The Path to Freedom), and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to which Sadger added Schnitzler’s The Veil of Beatrice (Nunberg and Federn 1962, vol. 3, pp. 314–315).

  8. There is no consensus whether by “poetry” Spielrein is indicating sexual intercourse or a passionate intimacy that stopped short of that for both practical and romantically idealistic reasons. Spielrein’s own accounts in letters and diary entries (e.g., Carotenuto 1982, pp. 8–13, 33) suggest that it mostly consisted of passionate kissing and mutual expressions of longing. Kerr (1994) writes, “In short, ‘poetry’ was Spielrein’s word for what happens when a couple, both enamored of mysticism, move backward from it to sexual realization—and keep psychoanalyzing. Analysis and fantasy, incest and myth, had started to merge into each other” (p. 227). This code word appears several times in her diaries and letters, e.g., “My love for him transcended our affinity until he could stand it no longer and wanted ‘poetry.’ For many reasons I could not and did not want to resist. But when he asked me how I pictured what would happen next (because of the ‘consequences’), I said that first love has no desires, that I had nothing in mind and did not want to go beyond a kiss, which I could also do without, if need be. And now he claims that he was too kind to me, that I want sexual involvement with him because of that, something he, of course, never wanted, etc.” (Kerr 1994, p. 224).

  9. Nowhere in this formulation of Jung’s is the possibility (which Freud did recognize, fearing for the reputation of an already embattled profession) that passion could also lead to unprofessional behavior and the exploitation of a patient’s vulnerability—although later in his life Jung did repent, somewhat ambivalently, about his use of other people. In a now famous letter to Jung in June 1909 before he had fully absorbed the seriousness of Spielrein’s accusations, Freud wrote, “Such experiences, though painful, are necessary and hard to avoid. Without them we cannot really know life and what we are dealing with. I myself have never been taken in quite so badly, but I have come very close to it a number of times and had a narrow escape. I believe that only the grim necessities weighing on my work, and the fact that I was 10 years older than yourself when I came to A[nalysis], have saved me from similar experiences. But no lasting harm is done. They help us to develop the thick skin we need to dominate ‘countertransference,’ which is after all a permanent problem for us; they teach us to displace our own affects to best advantage. They are a “blessing in disguise” (quoted in Covington 2003, p. 2, emphasis in original.) There are several examples of Freud’s capacity to remain rational in intense transference-countertransference interactions, including his ironic report of a patient who “threw her arms around my neck. . . . I was modest enough not to attribute the event to my own irresistible personal attraction” (Freud 1959, p. 27), as well as his acknowledgement of errors in his disregard for the power of the transference in the case of “Dora” (Ida Bauer) (Freud 1953a; we may or may not agree with his particular interpretation of those errors). Another example is his memory of the pseudocyesis in Breuer’s case of “Anna O” (Bertha Pappenheim) that caused Freud’s early, revered colleague to abruptly terminate her treatment (Breuer 1955; Lothane 2003, p. 209).

  10. This may at first seem ironic, since Freud is often accused of a biological reductionism of his own, in his insistence on the centrality of sexuality in human motivation. However, Freud was clearly attempting to distinguish himself from his contemporaries who believed all mental phenomena were the products of genetic or physiological “degeneracy.” For Freud, the libido was a psycho-physiological drive, which was better treated verbally in an appeal to the patient’s mental contents and not purely through electromagnetic or other physiological means used at the time. Thanks to Hermann Westerink (2014) for this clarification.

  11. Covington (2003) suggests that this line of thought “seems to predict here what might be considered an object relations approach to instinct, in that the ‘nurturing instinct’ necessarily entails and is reliant upon the primary relationship between mother and infant. In this formulation, Spielrein locates the destructive drive not simply within the reproductive drive but more fundamentally within the ‘nurturing instinct’ as the first experience of pleasure. In this sense, the destructive drive is traced to its pre-Oedipal roots. The regressive pull towards loss of self within the other, as can be experienced within the sexual act, is therefore present in its precursor image of the suckling of the infant at the breast, i.e., of the experience of being at one with the world” (p. 8). Covington also interprets Spielrein’s Brünhilde-Siegfried fantasy about Jung as an intensely pre-oedipal erotic transference, and the theory of a destructive drive as a sublimation of “the destructive impulses and phantasies that arose as a result of the intolerable frustration she seems to have continued to experience in her love relations” (pp. 11–12).

  12. Kerr asserts: “There was indeed a personal, and quite contemporary, reason why Jung’s reverie [in Part 2 of Transformations and Symbols of the Libido (i.e., Jung 1967a, Symbols of Transformation)] did not escape the overexcited Underworld ruled by the ‘destructive mother.’ Let us look at that reverie one last time. He descends into an Underworld of fantasy and there finds himself confronted by a woman who would hold him fast if she could, a woman who confronts him maliciously with exquisitely regressive temptations, a woman with ready access to his own fantasy life, a woman who is as comfortable being his fantasied mother as being his eternal consort, a woman who can experience him both as lover and as the son he would sire in her, a woman who tells him that all sexual attraction involves destruction, a woman who in the end positively dares him to be ‘Siegfried.’ Behind the image of the ‘destructive mother’ of Jung’s reverie, I submit, stands the unabashed authoress of ‘Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being’” (1994, p. 333).

  13. For a discussion of the similarities and differences among these theories, and their interlocking historical development, see Chambrier (2006).

  14. This is Jung’s term both for retreat into fantasy and regression into “primitive” human experience as symbolized in mythology, introduced in Transformations and Symbols of Libido, Part 2 [i.e., Jung 1967a, Symbols of Transformation] (Kerr, pp. 327–328).

  15. Ironically, even as Spielrein and Jung had played out a mother-son fantasy of mythical proportions, Freud and Jung were enacting an increasingly toxic oedipal struggle of father vs. son and king vs. rebellious crown prince.

  16. For more on Jung’s struggle with this paper, see Homans (1979, pp. 27–28, 58–73, et passim); and regarding its connection to Spielrein’s work, see also Kerr 1994, pp. 322–334. For Jung, the death instinct belonged to the domain of introversion (fantasy and dreams) and was not inherent in all sexuality as Spielrein was proposing.

  17. Ironically, this conflict included their own mutual suspicions of plagiarism and a race to preempt one another’s theories, played out in their race to publish alternative versions of two modes of thought—Jung’s (1967b) “two ways of thinking” as rational and symbolic, vs. Freud’s (1958) “two principles of mental functioning” as the pleasure principle and the reality principle. For more on this rivalry, see Kerr (1994, pp. 276, 336).


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Cooper-White, P. “The Power that Beautifies and Destroys”: Sabina Spielrein and “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being”. Pastoral Psychol 64, 259–278 (2015).

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  • Sabina Spielrein
  • C. G. Jung
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Psychoanalysis
  • History of psychoanalysis
  • A Dangerous Method
  • Death instinct
  • Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being
  • Archetype
  • Resurrection
  • Savior pattern
  • Eternal life
  • Richard Wagner
  • Jewish
  • Vienna Psychoanalytic Society
  • Holocaust