Otto Rank Essay - Critical Essays

Rank, Otto


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.

Principal Works

Der Künstler [Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development] (nonfiction) 1907

Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden [The Myth of the Birth of the Hero] (nonfiction) 1909

Das Inzest-Motif in Dichtung und Sage [The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend] (nonfiction) 1912

Die Bedeutung der Psychoanalyse für die Geisteswissenschaften (nonfiction) 1913

Die Don Juan-Gestalt [The Don Juan Legend] (nonfiction) 1924

Das Trauma der Geburt und seine Bedeutung für die Psychoanalyse [The Trauma of Birth] (nonfiction) 1924

Der Doppelgänger: Eine psychoanalytische Studie [The Double] (nonfiction) 1925

Sexualitat und Schuldgefuhl (nonfiction) 1926

Technik der Psychoanalyse 1: Die Analytische Situation (nonfiction) 1926

Grundzüge einer Genetischen Psychologie 3 vols. (nonfiction) 1927-29

Technik der Psychoanalyse 2: Die analytische Reaktion in ihren konstruktiven Elementen [Will Therapy] (nonfiction) 1928

Seelenglaube und Psychologie [Psychology and the Soul] (nonfiction) 1930

Technik der Psychoanalyse 3: Die Analyse des Analytikers und seiner Rolle in der Gesamtsituation [Truth and Reality] (nonfiction) 1931

Beyond Psychology (nonfiction) 1958


Trigant Burrow (review date February 1939)

SOURCE: “The World as Will,” in Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 2, February, 1939, pp. 162-73.

[In the following review, Burrow praises Rank's artistic approach to psychoanalysis despite the flaws he finds in Truth and Reality and Will Therapy.]


The task of the reviewer is a precarious one. As with any social rôle to which one conforms, the pattern of performance is laid down for him in advance, so that before he knows it he is already off to a bad start. In reviewing a work on psychiatry, or a work that deals with the ineptitudes of human behavior, it is particularly salutary that one's own reactions be subsumed...

(The entire section is 4889 words.)

Fay B. Karpf (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “‘Art and Artist’—A Biographical Sketch,” in The Psychology and Psychotherapy of Otto Rank: An Historical and Comparative Introduction, Philosophical Library, 1953, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, Karpf discusses ways in which Rank deviated from the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis, focusing on Rank's emphasis on artistic creativity.]

Otto Rank was born in Vienna in 1884, the second of two sons in a comfortable middle-class family. His educational plans were originally directed toward an engineering career. But these plans were radically changed as a result of his first meeting with Freud. Recognizing an especially gifted student along...

(The entire section is 4685 words.)

Fay B. Karpf (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “Distinctive Aspects of Rank's Personality Theory1,” in The Psychology and Psychotherapy of Otto Rank: An Historical and Comparative Introduction, Philosophical Library, 1953, pp. 64-86.

[In the following essay, Karpf examines major differences in Rank's and Freud's terminologies used to discuss personality theory.]

Like all theory which developed as an offshoot of psychoanalytic doctrine, Rank's theory of personality appears upon the established background of psychoanalytic thought and is presented chiefly by contrast with and frequently criticism of the Freudian position. As in the case of other such developments, notably the theories of Jung...

(The entire section is 7722 words.)

Ernest Becker (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard,” in The Denial of Death, Free Press, 1973, pp. 159-75.

[In the following essay, Becker examines the evolution of Rank's ideas about the place of sexuality in psychoanalysis.]

It seems to be difficult for the individual to realize that there exists a division between one's spiritual and purely human needs, and that the satisfaction or fulfillment for each has to be found in different spheres. As a rule, we find the two aspects hopelessly confused in modern relationships, where one person is made the god-like judge over good and bad in the other person. In the long run, such...

(The entire section is 6285 words.)

David G. Winter (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Don Juan Legend by Otto Rank, edited and translated by David G. Winter, Princeton University Press, 1975, pp. 3-34.

[In the following essay, Winter providess background information on the Don Jaun Legend.]

Otto Rank was one of the most brilliant and imaginative, yet surely one of the most perplexing members of the group who were drawn to Freud and who participated in the early development of psychoanalysis. Rank analyzed myth and legend with an insight and a facility that approached that of the master; his energy and resourcefulness were essential to the survival of the early psychoanalytic publishing ventures; his wide reading and...

(The entire section is 9014 words.)

Esther Menaker (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Creativity as the Central Concept in the Psychology of Otto Rank,” in Psychoanalysis, Creativity, and Literature: A French-American Inquiry, edited by Alan Roland, Columbia University Press, 1978, pp. 162-77.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Menaker argues that Rank's own struggle to cultivate his creative personality led to his emphasis in his work on artistic ingenuity.]

It is unfortunate, yet probably inevitable, that Otto Rank, to the extent that he is known at all, is known primarily as a dissenter from Freudian psychoanalysis, and that his name is associated chiefly with his much misunderstood book, The Trauma of Birth....

(The entire section is 6803 words.)

Robert D. Stolorow and George E. Atwood (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Otto Rank,” in Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory, Jason Aronson, 1979, pp. 132-71.

[In the following essay, Stolorow and Atwood examine Rank's theories on narcissism in psychoanalysis and the ways in which his work in this area prefigured later trends in the field.]

In recent years the problem of narcissism has increasingly moved into the limelight of psychoanalytic investigation. This is evidenced, for example, by the large number of articles on the subject appearing in psychoanalytic publications, and by the fact that in a recent poll Kohut's (1971) work on narcissism was rated among the most meaningful contributions to contemporary...

(The entire section is 12942 words.)

Esther Menaker (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Rank and Contemporary Social and Psychoanalytic Thought,” in Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy, Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 120-36.

[In the following essay, Menaker examines Rank's role in contemporary studies.]

Rank's profound philosophical intuition about the totality of human life, about man's dilemma over living with the consciousness of his mortality supersedes his psychology and his therapy. That intuition makes him, a man of our time—perhaps of all time. As the title of his last, posthumously published book, Beyond Psychology, suggests, he enlarged the framework of his concerns to include the very nature of...

(The entire section is 6676 words.)

Stephen Watt (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: “O'Neill and Otto Rank: Doubles, ‘Death Instincts,’ and the Trauma of Birth,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 211-30.

[In the following essay, Watt discusses Rank's version of psychoanalysis in relation to the dramas of Eugene O'Neill.]

“You were born afraid.”

Mary Tyrone to Edmund

“But he's dead now [Major Melody].
And I ain't tired a bit. I'm fresh
as a man new born.”

Con Melody

“She loves me. I'm not afraid! …
She is warmly around me! She is my
skin! She is my armor! Now I am
born—I—the I!—one and indivisible.”


(The entire section is 8003 words.)

Gerry Brenner (essay date Spring 1987)

SOURCE: “Song of Solomon: Morrison's Rejection of Rank's Monomyth and Feminism,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 13-24.

[In the following essay, Brenner examines ways in which Toni Morrison rejected the sexism in Rank's hero myth.]

Around Milkman, the hero of her much-admired Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison wraps various collective fictions: a riddling nursery rhyme that presages his birth and, later chanted by children, leads him to discover his heritage; fables, like the one his father, Macon Dead, tells of the man who rescues a baby snake only to be poisoned to death by its bite; fairytales, like...

(The entire section is 5467 words.)

Peter L. Rudnytsky (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introductory essay to The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend: Fundamentals of a Psychology of Literary Creation by Otto Rank, translated by Gregory C. Richter, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. xi-xxxv.

[In the following essay, Rudnytsky presents an overview of Rank's writings on the incest theme.]

The first three meetings of the Psychological Wednesday Society for which minutes are extant took place on October 10, October 17, and October 24, 1906. Viennese physicians and other intellectuals interested in Freud's ideas had begun gathering for weekly discussions in his apartment at Berggasse 19 as early as 1902, but not until 1906, with Otto...

(The entire section is 10909 words.)

Robert Kramer (essay date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: “The Birth of Client-Centered Therapy: Carl Rogers, Otto Rank, and ‘The Beyond’,” in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 54-110.

[In the following essay, Kramer presents a professional analysis of Rank's importance in the formation of psychoanalysis.]

Carl Rogers always acknowledged that the thought of Otto Rank inspired him more than any other, early on, when he was still doing therapy in the old-fashioned “directive” way. Scholars duly note a link between Rank and Rogers, usually with a perfunctory nod to one or another of Rank's ideas, such as “will” or “relationship therapy” (Gendlin, 1988; Raskin, 1948;...

(The entire section is 22246 words.)

Robert Kramer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Insight and Blindness: Visions of Rank,” in A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures by Otto Rank, edited by Robert Kramer, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 3-47.

[In the following essay, Kramer surveys Rank's career, including his shortcomings and his legacy to his field.]

At heart a poet and writer, Otto Rank took great pleasure in giving literary gifts to his beloved Professor, a past master of the German language. On May 6, 1923, as a gift for Freud's sixty-seventh birthday, Rank presented the father of psychoanalysis with his dreamy new manuscript, completed just days before: Das Trauma der Geburt. The manuscript was drawn from a...

(The entire section is 20249 words.)

Further Reading


Taft, Jessie. Otto Rank: A Biographical Study Based on Notebooks, Letters, Collected Writings, Therapeutic Achievements and Personal Associations. New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1958, 299 p.

Discusses Rank's life in terms of his attempts at self-actualization.


Klein, Dennis B. “The Psychology of the Follower: Otto Rank.” In Jewish Origins of the Psychoanalytic Movement, pp. 103-37. New York: Praeger, 1981.

Examines Rank's thoughts on the role of the “Jewish missionary consciousness” in the early development of the psychoanalytic movement.


(The entire section is 177 words.)