Monday, 23 January 2012 00:32

Otto Rank: Men Of Ideas

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Otto Rank was a writer and artist; he tried to use psychoanalytic categories to understand the creative process. Later, he wrote that traumatic experiences in childhood contributed to the etiology of neurosis. His Will Therapy, however, concentrated in the here and now issues that contribute to the genesis of neurosis and how to deal with them realistically without wasting time talking about what is in the individual’s unconscious mind.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Otto Rank (1884-1939) was a very influential psychoanalyst. Initially, he was interested in art and artists and the process of creativity. What makes some persons creative and others not?  It would be nice if we know what creativity is and how it worked and therefore helped the run of humanity become creative. Our world would be an exciting place if many people are creative rather than be drab conformists to what already is.

In 1905, at age 21, Otto Rosenfeld (as he was then called) wrote a paper on this subject dear to his heart and showed it to Sigmund Freud.  Freud was impressed enough to ask him to join the psychoanalytic club despite his youth and non-medical doctor status.  Given his writing skills (he was an artist, a writer rather than a doctor) he became the secretary of the club, edited Freud’s papers and ran the publication wing of this new religious movement called psychoanalysis (and was the intimate of its prophet, Sigmund Freud).

Otto Rank was a prolific writer and wrote numerous articles for the various Journals of Psychoanalysis. In the main time he was Freud’s alter ego and for twenty years labored in the shadows for his master. That is to say that he propagated Freud’s hypothesis that man is reducible to his sexual issues, issues repressed into his ego unconscious and from whence they influenced his behaviors. To be a member of this new Jewish religion (as Christianity was) you must accept Freud’s thesis and find a rationale for it.

In 1924 Rank came up with a theory of human behavior that diverged, albeit slightly from his master’s hypothesis of sex as the driving force in people’s lives. For daring to doubt the so-called oedipal complex and its tangles of sexual overtones, Freud was furious at his protégé, Rank. The rage the old man showed his so-called most beloved disciple was enough for the disciple to fear for his life, quit his positions at the psychoanalytic club and leave town. He could not afford to be close to the raving lunatic called Freud. He, his life and young child fled to Paris, France, and later to America. In Paris and America, he wrote and lectured. In the 1930s he was the darling of American Ivy league universities (Harvard, Yale, Columbia) where he was a permanent fixture teaching the “new science of psychoanalysis”. Given his outstanding writing skills, surely he was as good as any instructor of creative writing!

Rank’s thesis is that there were forces in the individual that predated oedipal-complex in forming neurosis. As he saw it, the child’s manner of coming to the world, through the birth canal, is traumatic and causes the typical human child irreparable psychological damage and that this is more so on sensitive children, those who later become overt neurotics (what we now call anxiety disorder plus the group C personality disorders: avoidant, obsessive-compulsive and dependent).

Clearly, the process of birth is traumatic but whether it leads to neurosis has not been proved. Nevertheless, the point raised in Rank’s “The Trauma of Birth” book is worth noting. The point he made in that book led to efforts to make birth more humane than it was in the past. Many psychologists became preoccupied with trauma to children and what it does to their psyches. Arthur Janov, for example, built his primo-therapy on trauma to children. After the two world wars we learnt what trauma could do to people, and even invented a new diagnostic category for those who were damaged by past traumas: post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD (it used to be called shell shock, and believed to be self induced, a sort of malingering to avoid fighting at the battle front).

Now, we know that people can be paralyzed by exposure to traumatic experiences. Decades after Vietnam War some war traumatized American soldiers have not recovered.  Some women who, in childhood, were raped were so traumatized that they develop such devastating disorders as multiple personality disorder.

Rank went on to stress the here and now events in folk’s lives as causal of neurosis rather than past events. His therapeutic method, Will Therapy, emphasized helping people using their will to cope with the present, now events that affect them.

In his efforts to explain neurosis, Freud tended to emphasize what took place in the individual’s childhood (and, of course, his sex instincts) and ignored the present events in his life.

(Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts, it should be noted paid particular attention to neurosis rather than psychosis. Freud made only a few forays into psychosis. Without having seen the patient, Judge Schreber, he read his biography and from it inferred what caused his schizophrenia, paranoid type. He came up with the hypothesis that the learned judge, Schreiber’s paranoia was caused by repressed homosexual tendencies. Freud’s disciples, to the present, still believe that paranoia is caused by latent but denied homosexuality. Is homosexuality the cause of paranoia? Of course not. Freud does not know what the hell he was talking about.

This observer has dealt with many paranoid patients to know that for some reason, beginning in childhood, they felt totally weak and inadequate, rejected their inadequacy and posited a picture of themselves that wants to be over adequate. They then pursue that self concept and self image of exaggerated adequacy. Since in real life they are not that powerful they then feel like no one is recognizing their exaggerated sense of worth. They quarrel with other people for not accepting their imaginary sense of worth. Without going any deeper in explaining the origin of paranoia, let us say that paranoia has something to do with a sense of weakness and compensatory power and that in the final analysis there is a biological disorder that made the person to feel weak. This malady was not caused by homosexuality, as Freud said.

One must, however, point out that many homosexual men tend to be paranoid and narcissistic in personality structure. This is probably because they feel that people persecute their chosen lifestyle. Their narcissism is probably because of their over admiration of their bodies. One must admire the human body to do what these people do, put their penises into anuses and call it enjoyable! These people are probably stuck at pure animal level of evolution, for truly evolved human beings find the human body repulsive and turn their attention to spiritual matters.

Whereas the past clearly influences folk’s present life, Rank called attention to the present as relevant in producing and maintaining neurosis. This is true but hardly explanatory of the genesis of neurosis. Rank did not explain neurosis. Neurosis or anxiety disorder is biological in etiology. As Hans Eysenck pointed out, some people inherited a more arousable body and tend to be more anxious than others.

The point that Rank made that I find particularly interesting is his hypothesis that neurosis is a product of thwarted creativity. As it were, certain events in the neurotic to be person’s life prevent his creative energy from flowing outwards. Instead of feeling free to express himself he is preoccupied with the past (the neurotic lives in the past). May be he was not loved and accepted by what Harry Stack Sullivan called his significant others in the past, in childhood. Now he craves other peoples love and attention and does whatever he does to gain their attention and acceptance. He twists his thinking to make them acceptable to the proverbial “they”.

What would they (other people) think of his behavior, would they accept it or not? He is afraid to permit himself to think and act independently. He is afraid that if he were to say something that would alienate other people that they would reject him.

To be rejected by other people is to be abandoned and feel alone. Aloneness makes people feel primordial anxiety.

To avert social rejection the neurotic censors his thinking and says only what he thinks that other people would accept and behaves as he thinks that society would approve. (The avoidant personality actually panics at the prospect of other people’s rejection and to avert rejection avoids other people hence his creativity does not flower.)

I believe that Rank has a good point in stating that neurosis has something to do with thwarted creative energy. When human beings feel free to say what is in their minds they tend to be creative, but if their societies prevent them from expressing independent ideas and they have to twist their thinking to be accepted by others, conform to social expectations, conform to group think, they feel stifled. The energy that could have gone in creative ends is redirected to ones self in the form of anger at ones self and at other people.

As noted, Rank was interested in the psychology of artists who are nominally creative people. So, why are some people artistic, that is, creative and others not (the not ones being neurotics)? In his book Art and Artists Rank explored this phenomenon. Although Rank developed what he called Will Therapy, a sort of post Freudian psychoanalysis to enable folk to live fully in the present here and now and remove the blocks to the flow of their creative energy, clearly, he did not explain creativity.

Creativity is like intelligence. Some human beings are very intelligent while the majority of the people are average and some dumb. Those who are very bright do not know why they are bright. This writer, for example, can recite the history of any part of the world without looking at books and cannot tell you why he is able to do so. Say a date in history and he tells you what happened on that date in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. I do not think that any one has explained genius or creativity. Therefore, we have not figured out ways to make the less intelligent and or less creative to become so. Rank’s efforts, however, were useful.

Rank lectured extensively in North America. He influenced the thinking of many American psychologists, such as Carl Roger, Stanislaw Gowel, and existential psychologists like Rollo May.

The process of coming into the world is certainly traumatic, living in the world is traumatic and the best we can do is find ways to make our traumatized lives a bit pleasant.

Rank wrote many articles and books and had tremendous influence on art and artists. At present, his influence seems to have waned. Indeed, few persons now remember that in the 1930s he was all over the place as the psychotherapist to be listened to.

I believe that the one seminal point Rank contributed to psychological discourse is his insight into the fact that neurosis has something to do with thwarted creativity. I do not believe that he understood why the neurotic is afraid to express himself and therefore had no healing for the neurotic.

The neurotic, as I have pointed out in my writings, is afraid to express himself because he is pursuing an idealized self concept and its self image. The neurotic posited an apriori self that he wants to become. He speaks and behaves from that imaginary ideal self and is afraid of not being that false self.

Anxiety disorder largely has to do with fear of disappointing the ideal self. If the individual lets go of his ideal self and does not pursue it and does not use its ideal standards to judge himself and other people he tends to be calm, peaceful and happy. Give up the ideal self and you are free.

What is neurosis? Neurosis is the human tendency to seeking to become a fictional ideal self, defending that imaginary ideal self with the various ego defense mechanisms,  and using the false ideal self’s standard to judge ones self and other people, and in the process making ones life miserable and making other peoples lives, those judged with false ideal standards miserable.

The neurotic, as Karen Horney pointed out, does not love his real self (his body) and, therefore, does not love other peoples real selves (bodies); he rejected the real self and posited idealized selves for himself and other people and seek to actualize them.  He does not love his spouse and children’s real selves. He does not love anything real. He desires the impossible, the unreal, ideal self. He therefore lives in misery and since misery loves company, makes other people miserable by expecting them to become like his impossible ideal selves.

Neurosis is healed when the individual ignores the ideal self and its false morality and lives his real self.  Be your real self and you are peaceful and happy.

The problem is: what exactly is the individual’s real self? Is it spirit, or body; is the real self the ego idea of separated self?   Exploration of the nature of the real self is this writer’s life task, a task that is beyond the scope of this brief review.

I greatly admire Rank and urge folk to tread him. He was an excellent writer but a scientist he was not.


Rank, Otto. (1924) The Trauma of Birth. New York: Dover, 1994

Rank, Otto. (1930) Will Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176