Interpretation and Creativity, Individuation and Destiny: Spielrein and Jung on the Real and the Symbolic

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a presentation delivered at the national meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, New York, January 19, 2013, and at a colloquium of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, New York, November 16, 2012.

What interests most individuals about Sabina Spielrein is, as Bill Clinton might say, whether Jung had sexual relations with that woman. The film A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg includes an explicit sex scene between Spielrein and Jung. The episode is an egregiously sensationalistic example of cinematic license, for, in the documents that exist, there is no evidence that Spielrein and Jung ever had sexual intercourse. In the essay "Tender Love and Transference," an exquisite example of scholarly intelligence and integrity, Zvi Lothane concludes that the relationship between Spielrein and Jung, although romantic, was in all probability not sexual. As Lothane notes, both Spielrein and Jung stated, unequivocally, that "there was no sex" (2003: 221).

What interests me about Spielrein and Jung is not whether they were sexually intimate but that they were intellectually intimate. Intellectually, what interests me is not whether "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being," the famous essay by Spielrein (1994), was an anticipation of what Freud means by the "death instinct" or whether Spielrein, as a woman, was the inspiration for what Jung means by the "anima," the archetype of femininity that men tend to project onto women. What impress me are the diary of Spielrein and especially the letters between Spielrein and Jung. In those documents, Spielrein and Jung discuss issues of the utmost importance. These issues are the status of interpretation and the status of creativity. What does it mean for a psychoanalyst to interpret, and what does it mean for a woman — who, in this instance, is a psychoanalyst — to create?

An issue that especially interests me is what I call interpretative preferences. On what basis would a psychoanalyst prefer one interpretation to another interpretation? In letters to Jung, Spielrein poses just this question. She exhorts Jung to specify the criteria by which he would express an interpretative preference. In an essay from a quarter of a century ago, with the title "My Siegfried Problem - and Ours: Jungians, Freudians, Anti-Semitism, and the Psychology of Knowledge," I discuss how Spielrein and Jung address the issue of "theoretical differences and interpretative preferences" (Adams 1991: 244). This present occasion affords me an opportunity to elaborate on that initial effort

In the diary of Spielrein and in the letters of Spielrein to Jung, she fantasizes, in Wagnerian style, that, through either sexual intercourse or intellectual discourse she and Jung might produce what she calls an "Aryan-Semitic child" - a hero by the name of Siegfried. I have previously said of this fantasy that it poignantly epitomizes "the hope, before Hitler and the Holocaust, that a humane relationship between 'Aryans' and 'Semites' would produce heroic results" (Adams 1991: 246). The fantasy is an example of what Otto Rank calls "the myth of the birth of the hero." Rank compares the births of fifteen heroes, among them Siegfried (1952: 53-4).

Spielrein dreams recurrently of Siegfried over several years. Unfortunately, no verbatim account of this series of dreams exists. Spielrein first mentions Siegfried in 1910 in the diary. She fantasizes that she and Jung might have a real child by that name. Eventually, she births Siegfried but as a symbolic child, the essay "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being," which she proudly presents to Jung for publication as an article. In a letter to Jung in 1912, she says:

Receive now the product of our love, the project which is your little son Siegfried. It caused me tremendous difficulty, but nothing was too hard if it was done for Siegfried. If you decide to print this, I shall feel I have fulfilled my duty toward you. Only then shall I be free. This study means far more to me than my life. (Carotenuto 1982: 48)

Not until six years later does Spielrein again engage Jung about Siegfried. In letters between Spielrein and Jung in 1918 and 1919, the fantasy of an Aryan-Semitic child serves as the basis for a discussion of the issue of interpretative preferences. To me, this correspondence constitutes one of the most impressive exchanges on the theory and practice of interpretation in the history of psychoanalysis.

By 1918, Spielrein is a wife and mother. In 1912, she marries not an "Aryan" but a "Semite." In 1913, she births a child, not a symbolic child but a real child - not a son by the name of Siegfried but a daughter by the name of Renate. These experiences do not, however, mean that the fantasy of an Aryan-Semitic child by the name of Siegfried is no longer a problem for which she seeks a solution through interpretation.

In a letter to Jung in 1918, Spielrein suddenly resumes discussion of the issue of the real versus the symbolic in interpretation. She notes that it was under the influence of Jung that she had initially "thought to find a solution to the Siegfried problem in the form of a real child." A real child through sexual intercourse with Jung proved, however, to be unrealistic. Spielrein says that, in this instance, the unconscious "was not taken in by this putative possibility for realization." As a result, the energy (or libido) that was originally invested in the real Siegfried, which she calls a "complex," had to be "drained" and then "channeled" into the symbolic "Siegfried," a name that she now surrounds with quotation marks to indicate that the complex was eventually converted into what she calls a "sublimated form." In this nomenclature, the "symbolic," in contrast to the "real," is a synonym for the "sublime." Spielrein regards the symbolic "Siegfried" as a sublimation of the real Siegfried. "What this new 'Siegfried' is - I do not know," Spielrein admits. In addition, she comments: "I no longer dream of 'Siegfried.'" Then, instantly, she qualifies that remark: "No - that is not quite true! He appeared to me once more in a dream during my pregnancy, when I was in danger of losing my baby. And this is of course why my reborn daughter is called 'Renate.'" Presumably, what Spielrein means is that she almost suffered a miscarriage. Apparently, when Spielrein originally dreamed about Siegfried, Jung had argued that she should interpret the dreams as a symbolic warning not to have a real child with him, for she says to Jung that, as a young woman in love for the first time, she was in no position "to follow your arguments and give heed to the symbols that the subconscious probably produced to warn me" (Carotenuto 1982: 77).

In reply to this letter, Jung attempts to explain why Spielrein should interpret Siegfried symbolically. "In relation to this world," he says, "you have to be real" - for example, "a wife and mother." Jung says, however, that such realities are "mere functions." For Spielrein to be functionally a wife and mother is not for her to become herself. "You have not thereby become yourself," Jung emphasizes. "You are something different from those functions" (2003: 54) - or, I might say, something more than those functions, which do not exhaustively define who Spielrein is or might become. Jung admonishes her not to be a reductive realist, not to reduce the symbolic to the real:

You are always trying to drag the Siegfried symbol back into reality, whereas in fact it is the bridge to your individual development. Human beings do not stand in one world only but between two worlds and must distinguish themselves from their functions in both worlds. That is individuation. You are rejecting dreams and seeking action. Then the dreams come and thwart your actions. The dreams are a world, and the real is a world. You have to stand between them and regulate the traffic in both worlds, just as Siegfried stands between the gods and men. (2003: 54)

When Jung defines the "Siegfried symbol," he does so in terms of another symbol - a "bridge" between the dream world and the real world. Spielrein should not stand in only one of these worlds, the real world, but, through a symbolic interpretation of Siegfried, she should stand between the dream world and the real world. If she were to do that, the Siegfried symbol would serve her as a bridge to "individual development," or "individuation." I should perhaps emphasize that Jung does not mean what Freudian psychoanalysts mean by individuation. For Jung, individuation means the process through which an individual "becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is" (1928, CW 7: par. 267) - or, I might say, the definite, unique being that the unconscious symbolically indicates is the destiny of that individual to become. If Spielrein were to interpret Siegfried symbolically, she might individuate. She might become actually who she is potentially. She might become herself.

In another letter in 1918, Spielrein asks Jung two very practical questions about the interpretation of the fantasy of an Aryan-Semitic child:

You say a symbol is a "bridge." Does this bridge show us anything? Do you mean that the Siegfried fantasy is an expression of my heroic attitude, so that this bridge or expression promptly vanishes when this attitude has found an application in real life?

If I have understood you correctly, a second question arises. My heroic attitude toward the world was never a secret to me, from earliest childhood on; I would have known it even without analysis. Without your instruction, I would have believed, like all laymen, that I was dreaming of Siegfried, since I am always dwelling on heroic fantasies, whether in conscious expressions or in the form of a "heroic psychic attitude." I am, and most especially always was, somewhat mystical in my leanings; I violently resisted the interpretation of Siegfried as a real child, and on the basis of my mystical tendencies I would have simply thought that a great and heroic destiny awaited me... How else could I interpret those dreams in which my father or grandfather blessed me and said, "A great destiny awaits you, my child"? (Carotenuto 1982: 79-80)

Spielrein then asks Jung a third question: does the unconscious "give any indication of the arena in which one should live out the 'heroic attitude' represented by the symbol?" Should she live it out in the arena of the real or the arena of the symbolic? "According to Freud, the Siegfried fantasy is merely wish fulfillment," Spielrein says. "I have always objected to this merely." If the Siegfried fantasy is more than merely the fulfillment of a wish, if it is, in fact, the fulfillment of a heroic destiny, then does the unconscious indicate the specific arena in which she should live out this heroic attitude? "The solution to this problem," Spielrein emphasizes, "is extraordinarily important to me" (Carotenuto 1982: 80).

Unfortunately, no letter exists in which Jung directly addresses the question that Spielrein asks - which is whether there is any indication, in the unconscious, as to why, between the real and the symbolic, there would be any interpretative preference. It is not Jung but Freud who directly addresses this question. He does so in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897. Freud declares that "there are no indications of reality in the unconscious." The unconscious, he says, gives no indication that would enable "one to distinguish between truth and fiction" (1985: 264). Although the distinction between truth and fiction is not exactly the same as the distinction between the real and the symbolic, it is similar, and the issue of interpretative preferences is exactly the same.

For Spielrein, the problem is an "either/or" question, while, for Jung, the solution is a "both/and" answer. Jung says that even if, in the real world, Spielrein is functionally real - as, for example, a real wife and mother, with a real husband and real child - that functional reality does not exhaustively define what it means, symbolically, for her to become herself. As he says, to individuate is to stand on a symbolic bridge between the dream world and the real world, as the symbolic Siegfried stands between gods and men. Symbolically, the issue is not "either" the dream world "or" the real world, but "both" the dream world "and" the real world.

In yet another letter in 1918, Spielrein again asks Jung whether there is any indication - or, as she says on this occasion, "a clue" - in the unconscious as to why, between the real and the symbolic, there would be any interpretative preference. "My Siegfried problem, for instance, might just as well yield a real child," she says, "as a symbolic Aryan-Semitic child - for instance, a child that resulted from the union of your and Freud's theories" (Carotenuto 1982: 86). Spielrein entertains the possibility that she might birth a symbolic Aryan-Semitic child that would be a Jungian-Freudian theoretical child, a "Siegfried" that would unite Jungian theory and Freudian theory as special cases in a general theory of psychoanalysis. "But where, in the course of analysis," she asks Jung, "does one find support for the assumption that Siegfried is supposed to be not a real but an ideal child"? (Carotenuto 1982: 87).

Spielrein then asks Jung another, very serious question - in this instance, a life or death question:

As you know, I have already written to you that during my pregnancy I almost lost my daughter, simultaneously with or as a result of the appearance of a powerful Siegfried dream. Finally my child proved victorious in reality, and I called her Renate, as another dream instructed me. Siegfried was vanquished. But is he dead? (Carotenuto 1982: 87)

A dream can be so powerful that, apparently, it can almost cause a miscarriage. In this instance, a dream of the symbolic child Siegfried almost causes the death of the real child Renate, but the birth of the real child vanquishes the symbolic child, and another dream then instructs Spielrein to call the real child Renate, or "reborn." Does the birth of the real child cause the death of the symbolic child? Is Siegfried dead or alive? Does Renate, in effect, kill Siegfried?

In a final letter in 1918, Spielrein answers the question that she asks Jung. She informs him that she now realizes that "one cannot eliminate a psychic element by killing it." Spielrein then mentions an experience that amazes her:

I awakened as from a dream with the words "So he is alive after all, her Siegfried!" What is this, and what does it want of me? Thereupon I wrote you, to obtain clarification as to how this "symbol" should be interpreted. Now I am anxious to know the following: since I consider it a "higher achievement" of equal merit to create "Siegfried" as either a physical or a spiritual child, and since as a result of various considerations and decisions he is now becoming a spiritual child - I should like to know whether indications can be found that I view Siegfried as a spiritual child? (Carotenuto 1982: 88)

Evidently, as a result of the decision to have a physical child, there is now no viable alternative but for Siegfried to become a spiritual child. Again, Spielrein asks Jung whether the unconscious indicates that she should preferentially interpret Siegfried as either a real child or a symbolic child.

In a letter in 1919, Jung says to Spielrein that what she calls "'killing Siegfried' is to me a rationalistic and materialistic razing to the ground." That is, for Spielrein to kill Siegfried would be for the real, rationalistically and materialistically, utterly to annihilate the symbolic. Jung reassures Spielrein that, if she does not kill the symbol, Siegfried will be no danger to Renate. "Your little daughter," he says, "is quite safe when you do not want to kill the 'strange being' whom you call Siegfried" (2003: 56). Jung says that he has only good wishes for Renate:

I wish your child everything that is good. But I wish too that you would learn to accept 'Siegfried' for what he is. This is important as much for your child's sake as for your own. How you must accept Siegfried I cannot tell you. That is a secret. Your dream can help. Dreams are compensatory to the conscious attitude. Reality and the unconscious are primary. They are two forces that work simultaneously but are different. The hero unites them in a symbolic figure. He is the centre and the resolution. The dream contributes to life, as does reality. The human being stands between two worlds. (2003: 56)

Although, in this instance, Jung does not employ the symbol of the bridge, he again emphasizes that there are two worlds, the real world and the dream world, and that, as a human being, Spielrein should stand between those two worlds - between reality and the unconscious, both of which are primary, neither of which is secondary - and not privilege the one over the other. She should not kill Siegfried but should accept him "for what he is" - a symbol that stands, as she should, between the two worlds.

What this acceptance of Siegfried might mean specifically for Spielrein, Jung is unable to say. He cannot help her in this respect. What "can help," however, he says, are dreams, which are "compensatory to the conscious attitude." In contrast to Freud, who asserts that all dreams are wish-fulfillments, Jung contends that most, if not all, dreams are attitude-compensations. This is what he calls the "compensatory function" of the unconscious (1916/1948, CW 8: par. 483). The dreams of Siegfried are a series of dreams. Jung says that the compensatory function of the unconscious in a series of dreams may cumulatively constitute a "developmental process" that he calls the "individuation process" (1945/1948, CW 8: par. 550). This process is what I call "compensation in the service of individuation" (Adams 2004: 20-39).

"When we set out to interpret a dream," Jung says, "it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?" (1934, CW 16: par. 330). For Jung, the conscious attitude of the individual, is invariably partial, prejudicial, and - at the extreme, defective. In dreams, the unconscious functions to compensate the conscious attitude. It does so with symbols, which in dreams emerge spontaneously, autonomously, and purposively from the unconscious in an effort to compensate - and transform - the conscious attitude. These are what Jung calls "symbols of transformation" (1911-12/1952, CW 5). In the dreams of Spielrein, the symbolic value of Siegfried is transformative in precisely this respect. It compensates the conscious attitude that would immediately - and facilely - reduce the symbolic to the real. As a symbol, Siegfried mediates between the real world and the dream world, between realities as mere functions and dreams as aspirations - in this instance, aspirations to individuate and, in the process, to fulfill a heroic destiny. Not to kill Siegfried but to accept him and keep him alive is to keep "dreams," in the most expansive, aspirational, even visionary sense, alive for the sake not only of her but also of Renate.

In another letter in 1919, Jung expresses just how much he values the relationship with Spielrein:

The love of S. [Spielrein] for J. [Jung] made the latter aware of something he had previously only vaguely surmised, namely of a power in the unconscious which shapes our destiny, a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance. The relationship had to be 'sublimated', because otherwise it would have led him to delusion and madness (a concretization of the unconscious). (2003: 57)

For Jung and Spielrein to have interpreted the fantasy of an Aryan-Semitic child as a real, rather than a symbolic child - for them, through sexual intercourse, to have had a real child by the name of Siegfried would have been a concretization of the unconscious, rather than a sublimation of it. For Jung, the result would have been sheer "delusion and madness." It would have been not only scandalous but also insane.

Traditionally, for women, creativity meant, almost exclusively, procreativity. For the vast majority of women, to create was for them to procreate, to birth real children. The traditional function of women was to be a real wife and mother. The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a radical expansion in the opportunities for women to consider what it might mean for them to individuate, to be themselves, to fulfill a heroic destiny. In that period, psychoanalysis provided women with alternative or additional ways to be creative. Spielrein was procreative - she had a real husband and, eventually, not just one real child but two real children, both daughters - but she was also creative in other important ways. Psychoanalysis - and, more specifically, the relationship she had with Jung - afforded her an opportunity seriously to entertain what it might mean for her also to have a symbolic child.

What does Jung say about the symbol of the child? "One of the essential features of the child motif is its futurity," he says. "The child is potential future." Jung says that "the occurrence of the child motif in the psychology of the individual signifies as a rule an anticipation of future developments." In what he calls the "individuation process," the child is "a symbol which unites the opposites" - it is a "mediator" between the conscious and the unconscious. Jung says that, in this respect, the symbol of the child has a capacity for "numerous transformations" (1940, CW 9,1: par. 278). In this sense, for Spielrein to have a symbolic child would be for her to be herself - that is, to birth herself - to become, in the future, actually all that potentially she is and, in that sense, to fulfill a truly heroic destiny, to become, as she does, not only a wife and mother but also a psychoanalyst, an author, and a theoretician. Ultimately, from this perspective, Siegfried is, symbolically, Spielrein.

Jung acknowledges, appreciatively, that the love of Spielrein for him enabled him to become conscious of "a power in the unconscious which shapes our destiny" and that "later led him to things of the greatest importance." In an article with the title "The Destiny Concept in Psychotherapy," the Jungian psychoanalyst Edward C. Whitmont says that "the acceptance of the idea of a personal destiny" enables individuals to engage "life as a creative experience, a search for fulfillment." That is, personally to accept a destiny is an opportunity creatively to experience life. "A destined identity," Whitmont says, "offers a potential which at any point in time and space wants to be made actual by our efforts" - among them, "our creative improvisation" (1971: 196).

The relationship between Spielrein and Jung was an occasion for them to address the issues of interpretation and creativity, individuation and destiny. They did so mutually, in one of the most impressive psychoanalytic dialogues in history.


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