Panel IAAP/IPA: Symbols and Symbolisation in Clinical Practice and in Elisabeth Márton’s Film

Sabina Spielrein and the Use of Symbols: Reflections of a Jungian Psychoanalyst

Gert Sauer
Freiburg, Germany
Association of Graduate Analytical Psychologists / IAAP

Sabina Spielrein has become herself a symbol. At the end of the last century some people explained that she was a victim of Jung and Freud, depending on whether these people were in Jung‘s party or Freud‘s. After hearing the discussions, it is easy to see that the inner necessity of the writers needed a female victim as symbol for patriarchal abuse, or a victim to bring psychoanalysis into total disrepute. Or a victim to show how famous and esteemed research scientists used her ideas. Inner processes were projected into researching the truth of outer history, but also expressed inner truths and processes. Jung demonstrated by his own experiences that objectivity is not possible in psychological research, and he and Sabina Spielrein and Sigmund Freud were suffering that. But he demonstrated also that symbolically expressed truth is understandable as symbolic of inner processes. So it is possible to ask what kind of symbolisation was worked out by using Sabina as symbol. I am happy that the documents found in Geneva are giving us more personal approaches to Sabina than we had before. But the history of science shows in the example of Sabina that every real symbol has multiple ways of understanding it.

Let us speak of languages. I like languages. Especially languages using symbols and pictures. It’s one of the reasons I am a Jungian analyst. I am thinking in pictures. Rational formulas are coming only as a second step. Therefore people who use rational formulas first are often disturbed by my writing and speaking. But I can give them some consolation: I am also disturbed by them. Rational thinking aloneis boring for me. It is very interesting to me that C.G. Jung, in March, 1913, was writing to R. Loy that he understands libido in the same way as the ancient Greeks understood it, as the cosmogonic principle of Eros. (Collected Works [German], Vol. 4, §661) And it’s also interesting for me that on the 10th of November, 1929, he points out in a letter to Richard Wilhelm that the “anima” in a woman would suitably be called Eros. (Letters, Vol. 1, p. 96) – interesting for the reason that Elisabeth Márton shows that the experiences of C.G. Jung and Sabine Spielrein with transference, countertransference, and Eros were the fundaments for describing phenomena by the name of “Anima.” I was saying that I like languages. Symbols are the language of the Eros, because they unify separated contents of the unconscious and consciousness. (Not necessarily better to express, but challenge to investigate.) In the same letter to Wilhelm, Jung mentions that he understood the Chinese Tao as a method or conscious way to unify separated structures. To unify is the nature of Eros.

Reflecting on the symbolic language of the unconscious, which expresses itself in symbolic sequences in dreams, active imaginations, creative works, or in projections that cause conflicts and love, in which the protagonists are the symbolic expression of the symbolised, I am thinking of my experience that the unconscious chooses every time such symbols which are to be understood by the dreamer as well as psychoanalysts. Evidently in such symbols something unknown wants to be understood. And mostly it is speaking in a pre-rational way with pictures and acts which are symbols. Seldom is it speaking in direct sentences. Pictures and acts mean, here, all kinds of sensuous and sensual experience like art or music. For me it’s the healing function, or transcendent function, which constructs a bridge for consciousness to amplify it’s own view and give impulses for the possible change of attitude and life.

For me it was remarkable when a dreamer dreamed that he is moving forward in a queue laying on the ground naked. And then a snake is biting him in his right foot. On the morning that he comes to work at school, a pupil gives him a gift: a self-fabricated snake. In his social life, on the same day, he decided he had to begin in a new way, and to present himself with his own decisions as a new man. He did not know that I once was writing a little book on the symbolism of snakes. In his psychological structure he is a conservative man. Changes endure a long time. His association was: Snakes are healing snakes; its poison in small quantities bring healing, in big quantities, death. It was not necessary to say anything concerning the different meanings of this synchronicity. He knew what he had to do.

Elements of the Film

With this point of view, let us look at the film of Elisabeth Márton, My name was Sabina Spielrein.

Reflecting on the film, I remarked how unsatisfied I have always been by the commentaries concerning the meeting of Sabina Spielrein, Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud. Now the film is telling the story by reflecting the unconscious as the consciousness of the three protagonists. This gave me the idea of considering the story from the point of view of individuation. And I remembered that Alexander Etkind chose as title of his work concerning the history of psychoanalysis in Russia, the words: The Eros of The Impossible. (Etkind, Eros njevosmojnjevo, Gnosis, Moskwa, 1994)

Each person ion the Spielrein story has a personal work to do with his own psyche encountering and dealing with the other. My hypothesis is that Sabina Spielrein had to discover her therapeutic spirit and her medical and psychiatric vocation. Carl Gustav Jung had to differentiate his capacity for relationship from his scientific convictions and purposes, as well as from his collectively male convictions. Sigmund Freud had to work with his protectiveness concerning his friend and hoped-for successor, and after that with his rage, his deception and hate concerning Jung, and even with his rivalry concerning Sabina Spielrein.

Elisabeth Márton describes all this in a very delicate and careful way. She describes the three as being on the road, grounded in the Geneva documents.

Music is at the beginning, accompanys the development of the story, and returns at the end. We can find elements of Richard Wagner as well as of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but over all, and surely at the beginning, are elements of Russian folk music. Intuitively, the sound of the Troika came to me. The Troika. The famous Troika gives Sabina the impulse to think of her Russian-Jewish culture. She was a woman with a double culture, Russian and Jewish. Her language is Russian and she thinks and reacts first as a young woman, and later as a somewhat older woman thinks and reacts in the cultural frame of Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. What a possibility there is for mistakes through unconsciousness about the reactions of a suffering person coming from Rostow on the Don, if the psychiatrist isn’t aware that he is a bourgeois of central Europe and Switzerland. The idea that people everywhere do not think and react in the same way was not yet formulated. And Jung had not yet learned that the method must be adapted to the cultural frame and the possibilities of the patient. But in Sabina Spielrein he found the way.

The other elements are visible symbols, some from the diary of Sabina Spielrein, some from the fantasy of Elisabeth Márton. Let us speak about the oak. Sabina wants to plant an oak on her tomb. Her picture shows her leaning against the oak, like a child against the mother. Is it the biographical grandmother or is it the great mother archetype? I think both, and so it becomes a living expression of that power in her psyche. But its also a symbol of loneliness. The lonely oak on the field where the ashes of Sabina Spielrein should be scattered. Perhaps Heinrich Heine gave the idea: he wrote a famous poem about a lonely oak which is longing for a palm of the south. It was translated by Affanassi A. Fet and was well known in Russia. (Afanassi A. Fet, 1820-1892)

The game of pieces of glass was added, which give me the idea of discussing thisfrom the point of view of individuation. Individuation means the whole – the game of pieces which is the splitting which happens in crisis. We may look on the two trees as symbol of a fantasy of a pair, on the windows as possibility to look outward; the water, the rain – and loneliness is growing.

In the story, the troika, the triangle, appears often. Sabina Spielrein, Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud. Sure. But there is also the triangle of Sabina Spielrein, her mother and Carl Gustav Jung. In this case, he is fully in a crisis and falls into his medical thinking and speaking about Sabina with her mother, as before with Freud. It was an attempt to save himself through the parental position. But Sabina Spielrein, Marie Curie as the symbol of scientific importance, and her grandfather are a triangle. These are related to the idea of giving birth to the hero Siegfried, who liberates Brünhild. She is imagined to give birth to a important man, not to give birth to her own scientific importance.


Let us speak about individuation, which is symbolised by the game of glass pieces. I think it is the attempt to unite the different parts of the psyche. How I can see the story of the three in this way?

Sabina Spielrein: Passionate Russian-Jewish woman. She does not know the battle in herself between the traditional role of woman which is creative by giving birth to children, and her scientific spirit, which wanted to be remarked, recognised, accepted and combined with the other parts of her psyche. This spirit was projected onto C.G. Jung. This battle created the symptoms and led her from Rostow to Zürich, like the Russian fairy tale of the clear falcon in which the girl has to go outside her country to wonder about her beloved sweetheart. Jung is the symbol – and it is an Eros of the impossible, because he is only the symbol and not this spirit. The suffering forces Sabina to step forward. She is working out her theory of destruction which is fertilising Freud and Jung. She becomes a mother, founding with the others psychoanalysis in Soviet Russia. She is working with children, withstanding the Stalinist situation and dying under the boots of the Germans, who she had never thought of as a cultivated people …

Carl Gustav Jung: Passionate medical doctor. Passionate in encountering the unconscious, passionate in his ideas, and not aware of the power with which he was dealing. Full of conviction that his ideas and the ideas of Sigmund Freud were compatible. In the beginning it is not clear if he is passionate in his method of healing or about his patients, especially Sabina Spielrein. He has to learn to not be fascinated by the phenomena of disorders, but to be in relationship with his patients to help them to find their own way. And the process of his individuation is involving him in fascination with a young woman until he is able to differentiate between his love for science, his love for this woman, and his love for himself. Imagine that the treatment asks him to engage himself personally, but at the same time to hold the boundaries and understand – that’s a long and painful way, in which today also many people have to work hard. He told later of his understanding of power: how Anima was worked out by careless errors in which the Ego of Carl Gustav Jung tried to save his own image until the moment of humble sincerity: I failed. In that defeat his human quality was becoming victorious.

Sigmund Freud: He also wanted to be loved. By Jung, for example. But the Eros for his science, which is most understandable, was also great. And the complication of love was the loyalty to his thinking and to his work. The arena in which the two friends encountered each other was the scientific discussion. In his Olympian view, Freud was irritated when “the gods” discussed the bad behaviour of a passionate woman. It was irritating when the behaviour would not fit into the concept. But he is honest: he knew the same difficulties as Jung. But he is further fom the passion, not so much in it. But Sabina, totally on the relational level, sees to it that “the gods” may no longer discuss without her. With her intervention she becomes a member of a real triangle and so the process of individuation of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein is connected by her own psychic structures and necessities.

I do not think that the individuation of the three failed. All the processes, with added transference and countertransference, was what everybody needed. Sabina Spielrein discovered her value and Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung learned to be vulnerable, and also smaller, which is always also a part of the Self.