Otto Rank Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Otto Rank 1884-1939

(Born Otto Rosenfeld) Austrian psychotherapist.

An early follower of Sigmund Freud, Rank eventually broke with Freud and developed his own highly respected school of analysis that focused on developmental psychology and therapeutic technique. According to Rank, the human soul and will were essential aspects of the personality that were usually overlooked by traditional psychoanalysis; Rank sought to incorporate the study of these into his work and his treatment of patients.

Biographical Information

Rank was born in Vienna in 1884 to Simon Rosenfeld and Karoline Fleischner. His father was an emotionally distant alcoholic, which some biographers speculate contributed to Rank's later interest in parent-child relationships, but Rank was close to his mother. According to many accounts, Rank was desperately lonely and alienated as a child, and his diary entries confirm that he had bouts of depression and suicidal preoccupations. He began using the name Rank as an adolescent to symbolize the act of self-creation. Because the family could not afford to send both of their sons to college, Rank became a locksmith while his older brother studied law. Rank was raised as a Jew in predominantly Catholic Vienna, but he was at heart a religious skeptic, far more interested in philosophy and the secular arts. He spent much of his time writing poetry and reading, particularly the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. When Rank first read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, he was profoundly influenced. He wrote an essay applying Freud's theories to a study of artists, with which Freud was suitably impressed to hire Rank as a secretary at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1906. He became the group's expert on literature, philosophy, and myth. At Freud's urging and with his financial support, Rank entered the University of Vienna, earning his Ph.D. in 1912; his was the first psychoanalytic thesis in the history of the university. Even before he received his degree, Rank published several important works, including Der Künstler (1907; Art and Artist,) and Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden (1909; The Myth of the Birth of the Hero). Unlike the other members of Freud's group, Rank lived in Vienna and worked closely with the analyst on a daily basis. Together they ran a publishing company, edited journals, and trained other analysts. Rank served with the Austrian army in Poland during World War I. There he met Beata Mincer, whom he married in 1918. Mincer became a noted therapist in her own right after the couple separated. As Rank developed his own ideas, Freud cooled his support of his favorite student. Finally, Rank's belief in the essential role of the mother and the trauma of birth in psychological development caused an irreparable rift between Rank and Freud. Rank and his wife moved first to Paris in 1926 and then to New York City in 1935, where Rank found the intellectual atmosphere much more receptive to his new thoughts. After his break from Freud, Rank was widely maligned by members of the psychoanalytic community, but he continued his work and wrote some of the most important books of his career. In the United States his ideas were adopted at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work, where Rank taught when he first moved to America. Abroad, one of his best known patients was the French writer Anaïs Nin, who was also a personal friend to him. Near the end of his life, Rank divorced his wife and married Estelle Buel. He died in New York City in 1939.

Major Works

The turning point in Rank's career—and the event that caused his final break with Freud—was the development of his theory that all human anxiety can be traced back to the trauma of being torn from the mother at birth. Consequently, he created a form of analysis in which the patient attempted to relive the birth experience, which he explained in Das Trauma der Geburt und seine Bedeutung für die Psychoanalyse (1924; The Trauma of Birth). For Rank this particular trauma was a metaphor for the birth of a person's individuality, which Rank considered one of the most important steps in psychological development. He believed that the personality of the artist is the paradigm of a healthy psychological profile. Rank outlined this theory in his book Art and Artist, in which he argued that the human creative impulse—rather than the sexual impulse, which was Freud's assertion—is at the root of both artistic production and life experience. In artists, Rank believed, the will is strong enough to focus the impulses toward healthy, productive behavior that prevents the formation of neuroses. In Technik der Psychoanalyse 2: Die analytische Reaktion in ihren konstruktiven Elementen (1928; Will Therapy) Rank described his therapeutic technique, designed to help the patient focus on making conscious choices and developing the will to separate from others by pursuing individuality. The notion that will and soul are fundamental parts of human psychological formation was unique to Rank. While classical Freudian theory held that neurotics were people of weak will, Rank believed that neurotics were exceptionally strong-willed but that their wills were misdirected. Traditional Freudian therapy, he contended, either ignored or crippled the will; Rank sought to strengthen it by fostering creativity. Some of Rank's most important works were in the area of psychoanalysis and literature, particularly The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, Das Inzest-Motif (1912; The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend), and Die Don Juan-Gestalt (1924; The Don Juan Legend).

Critical Reception

When Rank broke off from Freud, he became embroiled for respect in the psychoanalytic community. Many of Freud's other followers had grown to resent Rank's position as Freud's personal favorite among them. At one point the American Psychoanalytic Association terminated Rank's membership because of his unorthodox methods, and at intervals from the 1930s to the 1960s his works were banned from some university reading lists. In the 1970s, however, Rank's reputation experienced a resurgence. More recently, many of Rank's theories and methods have come to be considered mainstream approaches that opened the door for important progress in the field.