Luis J. Martín Cabré (Madrid): The ”feminine principle” of Ferenczi

2009 márc 25 | Egyéb témák

It is a well known fact that the essence of femininity, for Freud, is founded
neither in biology nor in anatomy. Since his earliest works[1]
, he considered that the sexual activity in girls was centred on the clitoris,
that is to say, in a male type of activity. In “Three essays on the theory
of sexuality” (1905), he re-examines this idea and insist upon the difference
between sexes, not as some settled by nature fact, but as the final by-product
of a process stimulated by puberty, but uncertain in its outcome. In the girl,
this change coincides with the passage from an active sexual excitability centred
on the clitoris, to a passive sexual excitability centred in the vagina. This
process is slow, insecure and above all it is conditioned by the successful
repression of the girl’s infantile masculinity. It is susceptible to forgetting,
to neurosis and in particular to hysteria, through which woman maintains the
illusion of having a penis.


However, the hypothesis of a rigorous symmetry in the development of the Oedipus
Complex in both sexes becomes substantially modified from 1920 on. As early
as in 1919, both in “A child is being beaten” as in “The psychogenesis
of a case of homosexuality in a woman”, Freud alludes to a possible infantile
fixation on the part of the girl towards her mother, and in a note added in
1923 to Dora’s case, he recognizes having interpreted only the paternal
transference, veiling the maternal transference, that is, “Dora’s
homosexual erotic desire towards Mrs. K” stating that this desire came
from a precocious bond in the girl towards her mother, who was … the strongest
unconscious current in her mental life…”.

In “The infantile genital organization” (1923), he introduced a
new formulation of a phallic primacy for both sexes. In this perception of the
world, human beings are being differentiated in two groups: those possessing
a penis and others who have been castrated. This distinction precedes the polarity
between the masculine and the feminine, just as it is established in the anal
organization between activity and passivity. However, this last step, to go
beyond the phallic stage, becomes an extraordinarily problematic undertaking.

In Freudian theory, this difficulty is reflected in the question about how
the wish of having a penis can be constituted as a feminine goal. Freud suggests
that this step could be carried out not as the renunciation, but as the satisfaction
of a desire: a man is wished as the appendix of a penis or also the penis can
be achieved as the symbolic equivalence of a child. Thus, the most genuinely
feminine desire is sustained covering a masculine one. The feminine then is
nothing but a transformation of the masculine. At the same time, the phallus
is essential to introduce the key function of castration.

It is easily verifiable that since the formulation of the second topic and
the introduction of the “death instinct” concept, Freud not only
changed his conception of the psychic. The new notions of narcissism, masochism
and destructive impulses, as well as the development of the self through identification
processes, determined a conception much more complex about the conception of

In “The economic problem of masochism” (1924) Freud keeps on maintaining
a certain ambiguity about the nature of the feminine, as in frequent instances
he draws it close to masochism (“…masochism is a way of expression
of feminine nature…”) and otherwise, when speaking about masochism
within the frame of bisexuality theory, he defines the “feminine masochism”
as an immanent possibility for every human being. The introduction of the concept
of primary or erogenous masochism, apart from expanding the notion of masochism
beyond the actual perversion, underscores that every bond between sexual pleasure
and pain has as its primordial aim a reunion between the life instinct and death
instinct, and is constituted as a fundamental structure playing a custodian
role in our own existence.

Several years later, in “Female sexuality” (1931) Freud recognizes
not having been able to answer the essential queries posed by femininity, nor
being able to seize the primary maternal bond in analysis, “as if it had
been victim of a particularly inexorable repression”. However, he provides
a new fact, as revelating as the Minoic-Micenic civilization, in regard to the
Greek one: the unquestionable fact of a long pre-oedipal history in the girl,
to which he had not conferred any particular meaning before: “the oedipal
attachment to the father was preceded by a very long period of attachment to
the mother”. Thus, he is telling us about the prehistory of the subject,
and possibly about that of psychoanalysis itself. A prehistory that give us
an account of a knowledge which, at the same time as it sets itself up as a
knowledge, knows itself to be immeasurable. Is this not a characteristic feature
of our analytic identity? In any case, in his well known Lesson 33 about “The
femininity” (1932), Freud refers everyone wishing to know more about the
feminine essence to their own experience, to the poets or to the evolution of

The theoretical counterpoint to these Freudian postulates, epitomizing an alternative
formulation and an original vision of the feminine, came along with Ferenczi,
who for a long time was quite unfairly disparaged when in fact, , he was the
most stimulating and productive interlocutor Freud could count on.

In his fascinating essay about the theory of genitality “Thalassa”
(1924), which is a brilliant psychoanalytic construction of key meta-psychological
reflections, Ferenczi suggests that a part of the human being is dominated by
“a permanent regressive trend” which go after the primordial wish
of “reinstating the intrauterine situation” (“Wiederherstellung
der Mutterleibssituation”). This part, opposed to “the principle
of the acceptance of displeasure” and to the access to the reality principle,
dominates dreaming, sexual life and fantasies. Ferenczi introduces in this text
the concept of “passive object love, one that would later serve as the
‘antechamber’ for some of the most outstanding developments by Balint,
Winnicott and Margaret Mahler, all of them opposing the Freudian conception
of primary narcissism.

The essential idea in this work, contemporary with Freud’s “The
economic problem of masochism” (1924), is the prepuce “vaginal”
theory, allowing for a formidable series of equivalences between fish, penis
and child. “…The envelope of the glans inside a mucosal membrane
(prepuce)…”, he states, “…constitutes a reproduction
of child’s intrauterine life, reproducing in turn the life of the fish,
phylogenetic ancestor of man, inside the “great mother-ocean”. The
penis, living monument of past events, contains the memory of the primordial
catastrophe (the draining of the oceans) in which the fish was expelled from
the mother-ocean. This catastrophic situation is rerun at the moment of birth,
when the child leaves the maternal womb and is commemorated in the erection.

The erection, in which the glans leans out of the prepuce as if trying to detach
from it, resembling a self-castration in which the penis is separated from the
body, configures a tendency to autotomie. While in different varieties of animals
the sexual act is concluded with the loss of the genitalia or even with death,
in the human being the loss of part of the organism is confined to ejaculation.
However, paradoxically enough, erection represents also the tendency towards
regression, a regression traversing the phylogenetic and perigenetic developments
as long as the penis, in coitus, is the symbol of the child who tends to return
to the maternal uterus and for the fish that tends to return, in turn, to the
ocean from which it had been expelled. To Ferenczi, this mother-ocean-uterus
embracement also represents death. It goes without saying that Freudian echoes
of the death drive conception, the second topic, the primary masochism, the
importance of repetition not as a resistance but as an expression of a first
order psychic production and, obviously, of his whole conception of “Beyond
the Pleasure Principle” traverse all along and go deeply through all the
theoretical production of Thalassa.

Years later, Ferenczi added several interesting intuitions to Thalassa, in
a paper entitled “Masculine and Feminine (1929), articulating with remarkable
modernity the feminine position problem in both sexes through phylogenetic as
well as ontogenetic argumnts. In this text the greater evolutionary complexity,
sensibility and subtleness of the feminine regarding the masculine are prominent,
manifested through a superior adaptation ability to pain and suffering, a sounder
“common sense” and a greater richness, sentimental as well as moral.

But his most original contributions to the feminine issue show up in some passages
of his “Clinical Diary”. While in his later writings the traumatic
distress appears under the guise of its destructive effects – namely,
dissociation, fragmentation and atomization of personality, in the “Diary”,
the feminine turns itself into an occasion to think the possible place of reconciliation,
the displeasure acceptance[2]. This place, non existent in
Freud’s thinking, is identified with a “feminine principle”
that passes through nature. The ability to suffer, to accept, to endure, juxtaposed
with the egocentric and masculine tendency to release tension, that is to say
the pleasure principle, are the essential features of that “feminine principle”
theorized by Ferenczi as something elemental andimpulsive, but at the same time
endowed with intelligence and associated to the reality principle. This instinctual
element is configured as the feminine version of death drive. In this sense,
in the notes on April 26th, he states: “…In any case, a quite different
solution remains open, which says that not all masochism originates in fear,
but also that kindness and self-sacrifice exist as instincts in their own right
and are perhaps a natural force, keeping selfish impulses in balance. (S.I.)…Or
should the death instinct be posited as an instinct of kindness and self-sacrifice,
something maternal-feminine in opposition to the masculine…”

Following Ferenczi, a woman is provided with a greater physiologic and psychological
intricacy with respect to the man. This fact results in her higher differentiation,
that is to say, better adaptation capacity to every kind of circumstances. In
the last analysis, this adaptation faculty is determined by something regarded
by Ferenczi as insufficiently explored in psychoanalytical theory: the principle
of affirmation of displeasure (“Unlustbejahung”) – the ability
to suffer. Consequently, he ties the “feminine principle” with a
specific principle in nature and in the psychical and with an instinct designated
by him as “conciliation” which, contrasting with the egotism and
the drive of self-affirmation, typically masculine, can be interpreted as a
wishing and a being able to suffer[3]. This ability to suffer, to wait and to
undergo and tolerate frustration makes, among other things, maternity and altruism
possible. And -let’s not leave it unstated- the ability to be an analyst.
Because, in fact, to a considerable extent some of the most descisive features
in the psychoanalytical endeavour, such as neutrality, abstinence rule, permanent
contact with the psychic pain in patients, the office loneliness, etc, bring
psychoanalytical identity closer to the feminine principle portrayed by Ferenczi.

Some of his ideas about the feminine were present in his clinical attitude
and in his technical handling of analytical relationships. One of the points
in which Ferenczi (1928) insisted most forcefully was the analyst’s relativity
of knowledge and the necessity of being able to endure the anxiety of not knowing
and even of knowing that one does not know in counter transference.. He insisted
upon the dangers in certain omniscient technical attitudes reproducing an infantile
traumatic situation of the patient and he proposed a humble listening to the
patient which allows an empathic “feeling with him” (“Einfühlung”)
his deep affective movements.

Ferenczi’s idea conveyed not only the willingness to sacrifice one’s
own theories and interpretative convictions when they turn out to be clinically
ineffective – contrasting “interpretative fanaticism” -, but also
the readiness to give away the initiative to the patient and to be able to endure
remaining in the sideline, consequently accepting to adopt the role of someone
willing to be “constructed”, “deconstructed” and even
“destructed” by patient in order to be able to acquire the tact,
the empathic skill, the aptitude to “feel with” and to “put
oneself in other’s shoes” or, as suggested by Speziale-Bagliacca
(1997), the ability to develop a receptive-active attitude characterized by
a “letting the other to get into us and speak to us”.

And here resides, in my opinion, a most important point, or may be even more,
the kernel of the question. Psychoanalytical interpretation, understood from
the perspective suggested by Ferenczi, is not an intrapsychic and solipsist
mental event, but it is necessarily verified on the grounds of reciprocal concordance
and thus in the midst of a relationship. In the analytical process, psychic
truths is the consequence of a “textual cooperation” and in a special
way of an interminable interpretative process in which analyst and patient messages
and interpretations follow one to another. Interpretation, thus, and in this
sense seems to be pointed the intuition of Ferenczi, is an interpsychic process
in which both the analyst and the patient are reciprocally interrelated without
break of continuity. As he stated in that wonderful paragraph of his annotations
in 20th March in his Diary: “Should it even occur, as it does occasionally
to me, that experiencing another’s and my own suffering brings a tear to my
eye (and one should not conceal this emotion from the patient), then the tears
of the doctor and of the patient mingle in a sublimated communion, which perhaps
finds its analogy only in the mother-child relationship”.

Miskolc, 26 November 2008

[1] Sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses (1897).

[2] FERENCZI, S. (1933): “Clinical Diary”. See notes on February

[3] Some years later, Winnicott (1966) postulates in “The Splitt-off
Male and Male Elements to be found in Men and Women”, for both sexes,
“a pure feminine element” of early identification with the mother,
and a later, essentially instinctual, masculine element.


Ferenczi, S. (1924), Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality. New York, Psycho-analytic
Quarterly, 1938, 2nd imp. Q. 1933-1934.
Ferenczi, S. (1928), The Elasticity of Psycho-Analytical Technique, Karnac Books,
Ferenczi, S. (1929), Male and female, Karnac Books, London.
Ferenczi, S. (1932) The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press
Freud, S. (1896), Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses, S.E. 3.
Freud, S. (1905), Three Essays on the Theory of Sessuality, S.E. 7
Freud, S. (1905), Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. S. E. 7
Freud, S. (1919), A child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the
Origin of Sexual Perversions, S.E. 17.
Freud, S. (1920), The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman, S.E.
Freud, S. (1920), Beyond the Pleasure Principle, S.E. 18.
Freud, S. (1923), The Infantile Genital Organization. S.E. 19.
Freud, S. (1924), The Economic Problem of Masochism, S.E. 19.
Freud, S. (1932), Female Sexuality. S.E. 21.
Speziale-Bagliacca, R. (1997), Colpa. Considerazioni su rimorso, vendetta e
responsabilità, Astrolabio, Roma.

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