Otto Rank

Psychologist, Philosopher, Art Critic, Cultural Anthropologist, Educator

About Otto Rank

Ernest Becker is the best interpreter of Otto Rank's writings. Becker dedicated Escape from Evil: "In memory of Otto Rank, whose thought may well prove to be the rarest gift of Freud's disciples to the work." In his Pulitzer-prize winning The Denial of Death, Becker said: "You cannot merely praise much of his work because of its stunning brilliance it is often fantastic, gratuitous, superlative; the insights seem like a gift, beyond what is necessary ... One thing my confrontation of Rank will do is send the reader directly to his books. My personal copies of his books are marked in the covers with an uncommon abundance of notes, underlinings, double exclamation points; he is a mine for years of insights."

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Rank, Otto (1884-1939), psychologist and psychoanalyst, first Secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, member of Freud's Committee, or "Ring" of 7 and his closest associate (1906-1925). Honorary member, American Psychoanalytic Association (1924-130). Lecturer: Sorbonne, Pennsylvania School of Social Work, etc. He was born in Vienna, Austria, son of Simon Rosenfeld, an artisan jeweler, and Karoline Fleischner. His older brother studied law while Otto became a locksmith: the family could not afford higher education for both. Close to his mother but alienated from his alcoholic father, Otto adopted "Rank" in adolescence and formalized it a few years later, symbolizing self-creation, a central theme of his life and work.

Of Jewish background, growing up in Catholic Vienna, Rank was a religious skeptic who wrote his own Ten Commandments, among them "Thou shalt not give birth reluctantly". He read deeply in philosophy and literature, loved music, and considered himself an artist, writing poetry and a literary diary. Before he was 21 he read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900). He applied psychoanalytic ideas in an essay on the artist; the manuscript came to Freud (probably from Alfred Adler, Rank's physician) which led to Rank's appointment as secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1906. With Freud's financial and moral support, Rank obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1912, the first candidate to do so with a psychoanalytic thesis subject.

Rank became the acknowledged expert on philosophy, literature, and myth in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and kept the Minutes (1906-1918; now published in four volumes). Otto Rank became the most prolific psychoanalytic writer after Freud, with Der Künstler (1907; expanded eds. 1918 and 1925), Der Mythus der Geburt des Heldens (1909), Die Lohengrin Sage [his doctoral thesis] (1911), and Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (1912, 2nd ed. 1926), a 700-page survey of world literature. Except for the posthumous Beyond Psychology (1941), Rank's books were written in his native German. Translations, mostly of his early psychoanalytic works, exist in English, French, Italian, and Spanish.

Of the founders of the International Psychoanalytic Association, Rank was closest to Freud geographically, professionally and personally. He helped edit and contributed two chapters to Freud's Die Traumdeutung (eds. 4-7, 1914-1922; "Traum und Dichtung" and "Traum und Mythus"). He and Hanns Sachs edited the journal Imago beginning in 1912; with Freud and Sandor Ferenczi he edited Die Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse beginning in 1913. Rank witnessed the vicissitudes and bitter endings of Freud's relationships with Wilhelm Stekel, Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung; Rank's tenure with Freud lasted much longer - two decades, exceeded only by that of his friend Sandor Ferenczi and his foe Ernest Jones.

Other works important in Rank's Freudian period include "Ein Beitrag zum Narcissismus," (Jarbuch, 1911), Die Bedeutung der Psychoanalyse für die Geisteswissenschaften (1912, with H. Sachs), Psychoanalytische Beitrage zur Mythenforschung (1919), Die Don Juan Gestalt (1922), Der Doppelgänger (1925), Eine Neurosenanalyse in Traumen (1924), Sexualität und Schuldgefühl (1926), Technik der Psychoanalyse (I. Die Analytische Situation 1926; II. Die Analytische Reaktion 1929; III. Die Analyse Des Analytikers 1931; II and III translated as Will Therapy 1936), Grundzüge einer genetischen Psychologie (I. Genetische Psychologie 1927, II. Gestaltung und Ausdruck der Personlichkeit 1928; III. Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit 1929, translated as Truth and Reality 1936).

Freud discouraged young Rank from pursuing a medical career. After 1912 Freud always addressed the new Ph.D as "Dr. Rank" and eventually referred patients to him. This was consistent with his support of non-medical or "lay" analysis. Freud and Rank agreed on another controversial issue: the eligibility of homosexual candidates for analytic training. Rank served in the Austrian army in Poland during World War I, where he met and married Beata "Tola" Mincer in 1918; she became a noted lay analyst and practiced in Boston after their separation in 1934. The birth of their only child, Helene (1919) enhanced Rank's interest in the pre-Oedipal phase of development (birth to age 3) and the mother-child relationship, which in Freud's theory was mainly taken up with the Oedipus complex. Rank's companion in the last four years of his life was Estelle Buel, an American of Swiss descent whom he married just three months before his death. Rank had applied for U.S. citizenship when a kidney infection led to fatal septicemia; he died in New York City at 55.

Freud and Rank established the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag in 1919, which became Rank's major responsibility along with training psychoanalytic candidates from around the world. In 1924 Rank published Das Trauma der Geburt, emphasizing the importance of separation and individuation, with their attendant and inevitable anxiety in the pre-Oedipal period. Until then psychoanalysis had been father-centered. Rank meant only to balance and extend Freud's work but this book, and one co-authored with Sandor Ferenczi on active therapy - Entzwicklungsziele der Psychoanalyse (1924) - led to a final break with his mentor. In 1924 Rank turned 40 and visited the United States for the first time where he was received and honored as Freud's emissary, although his ideas had begun to challenge Freudian doctrine.

Over the next decade Rank lectured, taught, wrote, and practiced a briefer form of psychoanalytic therapy with a more egalitarian relationship between therapist and patient. Rank modified the open-ended analytic process by using termination as the focus for separation and independent development. In this respect his work anticipated the innovations of Franz Alexander (brief analytic therapy, and the corrective emotional experience).

Orthodox Freudians condemned Rank as a deviant. The American Psychoanalytic Association expelled him and required his former analysands to undergo re-analysis. Although Rank suffered from poor physical health and episodes of both mania and depression, assertions that his departure from the psychoanalytic fold were a result of mental instability (by E. Jones and A. A. Brill) are not supportable. As Taft points out in her biography, he had 13 years of productive and happy life after the break with Freud. The Ferenczi-Rank book on active therapy has been reprinted and is studied much more now as a pioneering work for contemporary therapists.

Rank's creativity continued to flourish in his post-Freudian period. Between 1926 and 1931 he wrote major works on developmental psychology and therapeutic technique which are considered a forerunner of object relations theory and ego psychology (Rudnytsky, 1991). He emphasized conscious experience, the present, choice, responsibility, and action in contrast with the (classical Freudian) unconscious, past history, drives, determinism, and intellectual insight. Seelenglaube und Psychologie (1930) [Psychology and the Soul, 1998], Art and Artist and Modern Education (1932) are works of social psychology and cultural history addressing psychology and religion, creativity, and education, respectively.

Otto Rank's emphasis on will, relationship and creativity appealed to psychologists Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Esther Menaker, Paul Goodman, and Henry Murray. Noted psychiatrists influenced by Rank include Frederick Allen, Marion Kenworthy, Robert Jay Lifton, Carl Whitaker, and Irvin Yalom; writers and critics include Ernest Becker, Maxwell Geismar, Max Lerner, Ludwig Lewisohn, Anais Nin, Carl Rakosi, and Miriam Waddington.

Some of Rank's ideas which seemed radical in his time are now in the mainstream of psychoanalytic thought: the importance of the early mother-child relationship; the ego, consciousness, the here-and-now, and the actual relationship - as opposed to transference - in therapy. He anticipated and influenced interpersonal, existential, client-centered, Gestalt, and relationship therapies. As social psychologist he contributed to our understanding of myth, religion, art, education, ethics, and organizational behavior.

The Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, holds the Otto Rank papers in its rare book and manuscript collections. The Journal of the Otto Rank Association appeared twice annually from 1966-1983, publishing works by Rank and many others who knew him and/​or his writings. A collection of his American lectures (1924-1938) has been published as A Psychology of Difference (Robert Kramer, ed., 1996). New light on the subject comes from The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank:  Inside Psychoanalysis (2012).

Bibl: Lieberman, E.J., 1985/​1993; Menaker, E., 1982; Rudnytsky, P., 1991; Taft J., 1958; Zottl, A., 1982.

Lieberman, E. James (1985), Acts of Will: the Life and Work of Otto Rank, New York, Free Press, 517 p. French tr. (1991), La volonté en acte: La vie et l'œvre d'Otto Rank, Paris, PUF, 531 pp. German tr. (1997), Otto Rank: Leben und Werk, Giessen, PsychoSocial Verlag.

Menaker, Esther (1982), Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy, New York, Columbia University Press, 190 p.

Rudnytsky, Peter (1991), The Psychoanalytic Vocation: The Legacy of Otto Rank and Donald Winnicott, New Haven, Yale University Press, 245 p.

Taft, Jessie (1958), Otto Rank, New York, Julian, 299 p.

Zottl, Anton (1982), Otto Rank: Das Lebenswerk eines Dissidenten der Psychoanalyse, München, Kindler Verlag, 316 p.

An out-of-print collection of essays for the Otto Rank centennial
Chronology of Rank's life and work by Robert Kramer
A collection of brief comments by a variety of observers.