Anthropologist and psychoanalyst Géza Róheim was born in Budapest on September 12, 1891, and died in New York on June 7, 1953.
Born to a prosperous family of Jewish merchants, as a child Géza had a passion for folk tales and while a high school student he delivered a paper before the Hungarian Ethnological Society. At the University of Budapest he studied geography, linguistics, philosophy, law, and literature; then, in Berlin and Leipzig, anthropology and the history of religion. Because anthropology was not yet a fully developed discipline, when he received his doctorate in 1914 his examination was in geography. As an assistant librarian in 1917 in the Széchenyi Library of the Hungarian National Museum, Róheim essentially specialized in folklore. In 1918 he married Ilona, who would become his partner in anthropological research.
Róheim had become acquainted with psychoanalysis while a student, and his first article "Dragons and Dragon Killers," published in 1911, brought a psychoanalytic perspective to the explanation of myths. In 1916 he began analysis, first with Sándor Ferenczi and later with Vilma Kovács. In Spiegelzauber (Mirror Magic), first published in 1919, Róheim made extensive use of Freud's recently developed theory of narcissism.
During Béla Kun's short-lived communist revolution in 1918, Róheim helped reorganize the Hungarian National Museum, where he held the first chair of anthropology at the University of Budapest. But when the regime failed after just three months, Róheim lost his academic position. Henceforth he made a living through analytic practice and by giving occasional courses in English.
In 1921, Róheim received the Freud Prize for his study "Das Selbst" ("The Self") and for his paper on Australian totemism delivered at The Hague Congress in 1920. In 1927, when Bronislaw Malinowski famously contested the existence of the Oedipus complex in matrilineal societies, Róheim had the task of gathering material to refute the ethnologist's arguments. Several expeditions, beginning in 1928 and sponsored by Marie Bonaparte, enabled Róheim to do field work in Central Australia, New Guinea, Normanby Island, and in Arizona among the Yuma.
From this work in the field Róheim developed his major themes. In 1932 he published "Psychoanalysis of Primitive Cultural Types" and arguably his central work, The Riddle of the Sphinx, appeared in 1934. He emphasized the significance of the primal scene and, relying on work in comparative anatomy by German physiologist Ludwig Bolk, attempted to demonstrate the role of fetal characteristics in human mental life, which he believed had important and to some extent pathogenic consequences.
In the autumn of 1938, after the rise of fascism and with war fast approaching, Róheim emigrated to the United States. He first settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he practiced as a psychoanalyst at the State Hospital for the Insane; he subsequently settled in New York. As a non-medical analyst, Róheim was not accepted into the New York Psychoanalytic Society, nor could he find an academic appointment. His work, based on a systematic human psychology, found little support among the functionalist ethnologists then predominant in the universities, while he himself remained critical of cultural anthropology. Ever creative and intrepid, Róheim organized a seminar in his home that brought together, among others, anthropologists Weston La Barre, Werner Münsterberger, and Georges Devereux. In 1947, he undertook a new expedition among the Navajo.
Róheim left a considerable body of work that includes some one hundred fifty studies and a dozen books on a host of topics in anthropology, sociology, history, mythology, folklore, and psychoanalysis. To him is owed a method of applied psychoanalysis buttressed by field investigation. He developed an ontogenetic theory of culture and, citing Ferenczi, he contended that a foundational trauma lies at the root of each culture. Also, influenced by Melanie Klein, Róheim offered an account of basic human activities, emphasizing the significance of fantasies of destruction and reparation. Marked by a deep cultural pessimism, Róheim always pointed to the cultural superiority of "primitive" people while viewing Western societies as dominated by anal retentiveness and reaction formations.
See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Ethnopsycho-analysis; Hungarian School; Hungary; Magical thinking; Myth; Oedipus complex; Primitive horde; Second World War: The effects on the development of psychoanalysis; Sociology and psychoanalysis/sociopsychoanalysis.
Róheim, Géza (1919). Spiegelzauber. Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.
. (1932). Psychoanalysis of primitive cultural types. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 13: 2-224.
. (1934). The riddle of the sphinx. London: Hogarth Press
. (1943). The origin and function of culture. New York: Nervous and mental disease monographs 3.
. (1955). Magic and schizophrenia. New York: International Universities Press.
. (1992). Fire in the dragon and other psychoanalytic essays on folklore (Alan Dundes, Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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