Erik Erikson

Robert Coles,


He lived in Vienna in the 1920s, was analyzed by Anna Freud. In the early 1930s, what he began to see of Hitler's Germany persuaded him to migrate to the United States: he was one of the first of the wave of political refugees from Central Europe. His name was Erik Homberger --- which he changed to Erik Erikson, making him a doppelganger.

Reading through the nineteen essays collected here, there is a doubling, a man who specializes in working with people who are alive and functioning (or, more typically, not functioning); and, at the same time, a student of masters, such as Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Sigmund Freud. Erikson is thus an analyst of patients, and, too, an analyst of geniuses out of the past.

Although he never finished college, his case studies --- several of which are presented here --- give us a chance to see a supremely educated clinician at work. He uses basic psychoanalytic theory (ego, superego, id, dream analysis) to understand those who come to him for help, but he adds something above and beyond bare-bones Freudian theory. It is perhaps best described as what the master would have created, had he lived in 1960.

There is also the matter of Erikson's excellent writing style: like his primary teacher, he knows how to manipulate the words. Freud and Erikson are detectives, and historians. They seek in the history of their patients the clues that will tell them why someone is in pain. The question they --- and all analysts --- must ask is, What happened in your past to create such misery; where did you get stuck?

Erikson presents, from a lecture given at MIT, 1957 ("The Nature of Clinical Evidence"), the case history of a divinity student who, in the parlance of the times, is "falling apart." "To introduce such evidence," he writes, "I need a specimen. This will consist of my reporting to you what a patient said to me, how he behaved in doing so and what I, in turn, thought and did...

    A young man in his early twenties comes to his therapeutic hour about midway during his first year of treatment in a psychiatric hospital and reports that he has had the most disturbing dream of his life.

In this way, Erikson takes us along with him in his course of treatment. Each step of the way, he tells us what he thinks, what he does. We are allowed to see what part of his expertise he brings to bear on this patient. He's an adept, one who knows his field --- but one who must be infinitely variable, to deal with the infinitude of types who come to him.

All have one thing in common: they are hurting. As Salvadore Minuchin once said, "When someone comes to you for therapeutic help, you know that you are the last resort. And you have to deal with that person with great care." Erikson writes, in another context (in his text on Gandhi) "The only test of truth is action based on the refusal to do harm... a determination not to violate another person's essence."

For those of us who have studied psychoanalytic theory, and who have been through the psychoanalytic experience, Erikson's methodology --- plodding, careful, generous, sometimes steeped in tradition, sometime brilliantly original --- harkens back to another time, before the coming of the dreaded HMOs, when one could spend a year or two making it possible for a patient to begin to recapture life.

§     §     §

Erikson is a therapist, a historian, and a Renaissance Man. He writes convincingly on early Christianity, 19th Century Vienna, 15th Century Germany, turn-of-the-century India. As well, he gives us the lives of Maxim Gorky, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, Freud. These personal histories have none of the psychological biographical nonsense so beloved of bad writers from fifty years ago. Erikson presents us with interpretations of master's lives that honor the subjects, rather than degrade them.

For instance, with Martin Luther, he tells us what it must have been like to live in Europe six hundred years ago --- what it would be like to walk, as Luther did, for 70 days, in rain and snow, to get to Rome, which was a shambles, never having been rebuilt after the Norman sacking of 1084.

What was going on in Luther's head, that man, living in that particularly powerful age of the beginning of escape from the Middle Ages? What did Martin Luther, constipated in thought and, legendarily so, in body, find, see, report, remember? For one thing, Erikson sees him as a man who, in his writings, apparently ignored all the stunning new art growing out of Renaissance Italy. (Go to Erikson's Rome to get a feel for his style, his ability to immerse us in the times.)

Best of all, Erikson offers us a mix. We not only get the history of the prophet Luther from 500 years ago, we get a fine mix of contemporary psychological thought:

    Psychotherapists, professional listeners and talkers in the sphere of affectivity and morality know only too well that man seldom really knows what he really means; he as often lies by telling the truth as he reveals the truth when he tries to lie. This is a psychological statement; and the psychoanalytic method, when it does not pretend to deliver complete honesty, over a period of time reveals approximately what somebody really means.

    But the center of the problem is simply this: in truly significant matters people, and especially children, have a devastatingly clear if mostly unconscious perception of what other people really mean, and sooner or later royally reward real love or take well-aimed revenge for implicit hate.

    Families in which each member is separated from the others by asbestos walls of verbal propriety, overt sweetness, cheap frankness, and rectitude tell one another off and talk back to each other with minute and unconscious displays of affect --- not to mention physical complaints and bodily ailments --- with which they worry, accuse, undermine, and murder one another.

Erikson, as we have said, was a Freudian; of he were still alive today, would yet be one. Poor old Freud. He has been much beset recently. Accused of plagiarism, lying, cheating on statistics. It is typical of his noisy critics that they ignore what the world was like a hundred years ago, especially in stuffy Victorian Vienna. I recommend Erikson's chapter entitled "The First Psychoanalyst" as an appropriate emetic for these rewriters of history. There you will find a respectful account of the development and theories of the master with, perhaps, the first account of Freud's own analyst.

Freud's autobiographical notes have led us to believe that he was his own analyst, that his theory came from his brain with no antecedents. Erikson is the first we have read to claim that there's a good chance that Freud began his own analysis in long country walks with his friend Wilhelm Fliess and --- as proof --- tells us of the "transference" that caused Freud to disown his old friend. He wrote to Fliess, "It is more probable now I shall avoid you... I should unburden my woes to you and come back dissatisfied." He then called him "my one audience."

--- Carlos Amantea

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