A Secret Symmetry

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Sabina Spielrein was born in Russia in 1885 into a wealthy Jewish family in the city of Rostov-on-Don. In 1904, suffering from an extreme case of hysteria, she entered Dr. Carl Jung’s Zurich clinic as his patient. In 1905, in the midst of analysis, she entered medical school. Aldo Carotenuto speculates that her analysis with Jung ended in 1906, but by that time, she had also become his lover. Despite a tempestuous affair that deeply anguished both parties as well as Jung’s long-suffering wife, Spielrein managed to complete her medical studies in 1911 and soon after gained admission to the International Psychoanalytic Association. By 1909, however, she had turned to Sigmund Freud for help, though she was never his analysand. She was still corresponding with Freud in 1913, the year of his bitter break with Jung. In 1923, she returned to Russia, but during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, as Soviet society fell increasingly under Stalinist domination, she found it more and more difficult to practice her profession. The Russian Psychoanalytic Association was officially disbanded in 1936, and, after 1937, no further trace of Spielrein can be found. As a Jew and as a psychoanalyst, she would have been doubly vulnerable during the years of the Great Purge, but her fate remains unknown.

Late in 1977, Aldo Carotenuto, a professor of the theory of personality at the University of Rome and a Jungian training analyst for the Associazione Internazionale de Psicologia Analitica, obtained Spielrein’s extraordinary diaries and letters upon which this book, first published in 1980 as Diario di una segreta simmetria by Casa Editrice Astrolabio, is based. Carotenuto is a historian of the psychoanalytic movement, which, during Freud’s lifetime and after, has been marked by intense factionalism. One of the most profound splits to occur in the history of psychoanalysis was the irrevocable breaking of the professional and personal ties between Freud and Jung. As is well known, their relationship had been affectionately close, with Jung revealing to Freud his tendency to regard the older man as a father. Once they had broken with each other, this “father-son” aspect of their friendship and collaboration made their quarrel all the more acrimonious.

Carotenuto’s book introduces an important third party in the Freud-Jung episode, one who emerges as every bit as compelling and complex a personality and intellect as the more famous principals: Sabina Spielrein. One turns to A Secret Symmetry hoping therefore to find the full story of someone who, at the very least, must have played a key supporting role in the drama that was the early history of psychoanalysis. For a number of reasons, however, Carotenuto’s book does no more than whet one’s appetite for more of the particulars of Spielrein’s life, career, and theoretical contributions to psychoanalysis.

Prior to the publication of A Secret Symmetry, someone interested in the history of psychoanalysis might have known Spielrein as the author of some thirty-odd papers published in leading psychoanalytic journals, and as one mentioned by Freud in a significant footnote in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (1920; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1922), in which Freud credits her with influencing him in the direction of the formulation of the “death instinct.” Yet, as Carotenuto makes clear, she also deserves credit for the introduction of other concepts. She appears in particular to have inspired Jung to develop his themes of animus/anima, which refer to the existence of a male counterpart within the female psyche, and vice versa. Generally speaking, she played a key role in the development of depth psychology. One can appreciate the development of her ideas in her letters to Jung, particularly after their separation, when she begins to illustrate her comments with diagrams that exemplify a rigorous intellectual effort to “map” the unconscious.

These contributions alone would more than solidify her place among the founders of...

(The entire section is 1663 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, June, 1982, p. 100.

Choice. XX, September, 1982, p. 182.

Library Journal. CVII, May 15, 1982, p. 999.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 4, 1982, p. 9.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, May 13, 1982, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 16, 1982, p. 1.

Newsweek. XCIX, June 21, 1982, p. 67A.

Times Literary Supplement. December 10, 1982, p. 1351.