Otto Rank was born on April 22, 1884 in Vienna.
Otto Rank was born on April 22, 1884 in Vienna.
In 1905, at the age of 21, Otto Rank presented Freud with a short manuscript on the artist, a study that so impressed Freud he invited Rank to become Secretary of the emerging Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Rank thus became the first paid member of the psychoanalytic movement, and Freud's "right-hand man" for almost 20 years. Freud considered Rank, with whom he was more intimate intellectually than his own sons, to be the most brilliant of his Viennese disciples.
Encouraged and supported by Freud, Rank (who had attended a vocational high school), completed the "Gymnasium" or college-preparatory high school, attended the University of Vienna, and completed his PhD in 1912. His thesis, on the Lohengrin Saga, was published as a book in 1911, the first Freudian doctoral dissertation to be published as a book.
Rank came from a poor family and attended trade school, working in a machine shop while trying to write at night. His reading of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams inspired him to write Der Künstler (1907; “The Artist”), an attempt to explain art by using psychoanalytic principles. This work brought him to the attention of Freud, who helped arrange his entry to the University of Vienna, from which he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1912. While studying at the university, he legally adopted his pen name of Otto Rank and published two more works, Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden (1909; The Myth of the Birth of the Hero) and Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (1912; “The Incest Motif in Poetry and Saga”), in which he attempted to show how the Oedipus complex supplies abundant themes for poetry and myth.
Rank served as secretary to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and as editor of its minutes, and from 1912 to 1924 he edited the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse (“International Journal of Psychoanalysis”). In 1919 he founded a publishing house devoted to the publication of psychoanalytic works and directed it until 1924.
Publication of Das Trauma der Geburt und seine Bedeutung für die Psychoanalyse (1924; The Trauma of Birth) caused Rank’s break with Freud and other members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which expelled him from its membership. The book, which argued that the transition from the womb to the outside world causes tremendous anxiety in the infant that may persist as anxiety neurosis into adulthood, was seen by many members of the Viennese society as conflicting with the concepts of psychoanalysis. Following the break, which became complete in the mid-1920s, Rank taught and practiced in the United States and Europe (chiefly Paris) for about 10 years, settling in New York City in 1936.
During the 1930s Rank developed a concept of the will as the guiding force in personality development. The will could be a positive force for controlling and using a person’s instinctual drives, which were seen by Freud as the motivating factors in human behaviour. Thus, in Rank’s view, resistance by a patient during psychoanalysis was a manifestation of this will and not inherently a negative factor; instead of wearing down such resistance, as a Freudian analyst would attempt, Rank would use it to direct self-discovery and development.
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Rank was the first to see therapy as a learning and unlearning experience. The therapeutic relationship allows the patient to: (1) learn more creative ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now; and (2) unlearn self-destructive ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now. Patterns of self-destruction ("neurosis") represent a failure of creativity not, as Freud assumed, a retreat from sexuality.
Rank's psychology of creativity has recently been applied to action learning, an inquiry-based process of group problem solving, team building, leader development and organizational learning (Kramer 2007; 2008). Transformative action learning, synthesized by Robert Kramer from Rank's writings on art and spirituality, involves real people, working on real problems in real time. Once a safe container is created by a learning coach, questions allow group members to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 70), reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of “stepping out” of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before. The heart of transformative action learning, as developed by Kramer, is asking powerful questions to promote the unlearning or letting go of taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs.
The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, transformative action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.
Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and neuroses; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non for lifelong creativity.
In a 1938 lecture, Rank said: "Life in itself is a mere succession of separations. Beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality, and finally culminating in death – which represents the final separation. At birth, the individual experiences the first shock of separation, which throughout his life he strives to overcome. In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments off his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use ….The ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present. The neurotic [who cannot unlearn, and, therefore, lacks creativity] is unable to accomplish this normal detachment process … Owing to fear and guilt generated in the assertion of his own autonomy, he is unable to free himself, and instead remains suspended upon some primitive level of his evolution"(Rank, 1996, p. 270).
Rank also redefined the concept of counterwill as a positive trait that defends the integrity of the self and helps in individuation, unlearning and the discovery of willing.
Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self-concept, as it has been culturally conditioned to conform to familial, group, occupational or organizational allegiances. According to Rank (1932/1989), unlearning or breaking out of our shell from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375).
In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity. We refer to the identity of an individual as a “mindset.” We refer to the identity of an organizational group as a “culture.” Action learners learn how to question, probe and separate from, both kinds of identity—i.e., their “individual” selves and their “social” selves. By opening themselves to critical inquiry, they begin to learn how to emancipate themselves from what they "know" – they learn how to unlearn.
According to Rank (1929–31), "Birth fear remains always more universal, cosmic as it were, loss of a connection with a greater whole [einen größeren Ganzen], in the last analysis with the 'All' [dem All] ... The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear [Urangst] corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole [vom All], therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole [ins All]. Between these two fear possibilities these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life, which accounts for the fact that we have not been able to trace fear back to a single root, or to overcome it therapeutically".
On a microcosmic level, therapy is a process of learning how to give and take, surrender and assert, merge and individuate, unite and separate—without being trapped in a whipsaw of opposites. Therapist and client, like everyone else, seek to find a constructive balance between separation and union. In psychological health, the contact boundary that links I and Thou "harmoniously [fuses] the edges of each without confusing them," Rank wrote in Art and Artist. Joining together in feeling, therapist and client do not lose themselves but, rather, re-discover and re-create themselves. In the simultaneous dissolution of their difference in a greater whole, therapist and client surrender their painful isolation for a moment, only to have individuality returned to them in the next, re-energized and enriched by the experience of "loss."
"The love feeling," Rank observes in a lecture delivered in 1927 at the University of Pennsylvania, "unites our I with the other, with the Thou [dem Du], with men, with the world, and so does away with fear. What is unique in love is that—beyond the fact of uniting—it rebounds on the I. Not only, I love the other as my I, as part of my I, but the other also makes my I worthy of love. The love of the Thou [des Liebe des Du] thus places a value on one's own I. Love abolishes egoism, it merges the self in the other to find it again enriched in one's own I. This unique projection and introjection of feeling rests on the fact that one can really only love the one who accepts our own self [unser eigene Selbst] as it is, indeed will not have it otherwise than it is, and whose self we accept as it is."
In one of his most poetic passages, Rank suggests that this transcendent feeling implies not only a "spiritual unity" between artist and enjoyer, I and Thou, but also "with a Cosmos floating in mystic vapors in which present, past, and future are dissolved" an identity with "the ALL" that once was but is no more. The healing nature of artistic experience, Rank believed, affirms difference but, paradoxically, also "leads to the release from difference, to the feeling of unity with the self, with the other, with the cosmos". In art, microcosm meets macrocosm. Of the uncanny feeling of emotional unity we experience in surrendering ourselves—giving up temporarily the burden of our difference—to the Other in art, Rank writes in Art and Artist: "It produces a satisfaction which suggests that it is more than a matter of the passing identification of two individuals, that it is the potential restoration of a union with the Cosmos, which once existed and was then lost. The individual psychological root of this sense of unity I discovered (at the time of writing The Trauma of Birth, 1924) in the prenatal condition, which the individual in his yearning for immortality strives to restore. Already, in that earliest stage of individualization, the child is not only factually one with the mother but beyond that, one with the world, with a Cosmos floating in mystic vapors in which present, past, and future are dissolved. The individual urge to restore this lost unity is (as I have formerly pointed out) an essential factor in the production of human cultural values".