Otto Rank

Psychologist, Philosopher, Art Critic, Cultural Anthropologist, Educator


Essays About Rank
The long out-of-print May 1984 issue of Columbia Library Columns magazine, the Otto Rank Centenary Issue, is available online. The magazine appeared regularly from 1951-1996 and is now fully digitized and available to all.

Vol XXXIII: 3 includes four articles with many illustrations in 21 pages; can be viewed/downloaded as PDF.

Otto Rank in America. Rank as therapist by Mary Butler (Mrs. Roger) Plowden] by E. J. Lieberman

Impressions of the Diaries by Esther Menaker

Diary Leaves of a Stillborn by Otto Rank

Two Early Poems by Otto Rank

Psychotherapy: Otto Rank's Philosophy of Helping

Freudian analysts sought to be blank screens on which patients would project what is hidden in the unconscious. Freud himself was more active and human ("blank" only with patients he didn't like). Otto Rank, his closest aide for 20 years, modified the analytic situation to acknowledge the therapist as a unique person. Rank addressed--and redressed--the absence of will in analysis, challenging the surgical coolness that Freud advocated (but didn't practice0. In 1923, Sandor Ferenczi and Otto Rank criticized analysts whose technique ritually pursued the Oedipus complex. Then Rank published The Trauma of Birth, emphasizing separation and union. In 1926 he left Vienna for Paris and ultimately New York. He focused on present encounter rather than memories and history, on conscious will rather than impulse (id), and on actual relationship rather than transference. He called himself a philosopher of helping, and said, "I need a different theory for every patient."

In later writings Rank referred to the ethical in therapy. This evokes Aristotle's Rhetoric, where "ethos" refers to the character of the influential person. Therapists may learn technique, but they do not lose their individuality. This challenges psychotherapy as science, but points the way to a greater understanding of therapeutic influence and effectiveness, as in Persuasion and Healing by Jerome Frank and the bedside manner of William Osler, the exemplary physician.

--E. James Lieberman, presentation at the American Psychological Assn., 2014.

Four Otto Rank books in one file
- The Trauma of Birth
The child and the mother, before and after birth

- Modern Education
A book for general readers, still relevant, hard to find.

- Will Therapy
Rank's unique contribution to psychology in its therapeutic application, with preface by Jessie Taft.

- Truth and Reality
The central statement of Rank’s ideas

Review: Freud Biography
Rank gets his due

Original Preface to Art and Artist, (Knopf, 1932) by L. Lewisohn (1882-1955) a well-known German-Amerian author. The Norton paperback (1989, in print) replaced it with an essay by Anais Nin.

by Ludwig Lewisohn

Critics and historians of the arts must, at least in recent years, have become increasingly and uneasily aware of the fact that they were not in very close contact with their subject. Except in so far as they created independent and personal works of art by choosing as their subject-matter a work of art rather than an experience of life, they must in their heart of hearts have known that their statements could always be reduced to the formula: A = A. Henry James went abroad because he was not happy at home … Hawthorne wrote about a sense of guilt because he had a New England conscience … Shakespere and Michelangelo addressed their sonnets to youths because they had homo-erotic tendencies.... In all these statements and in a thousand far more complicated and apparently subtle ones the conjunction is meaningless. The statements are all reducible to A = A. And similarly all impressionistic critical statements, from the paragraph of the callowest reviewer to the stylistic exercitations of a Pater, a Jules Lemaitre, or, if one likes, a Henry Mencken, could be reduced to the critic’s assertion: I am I....

From the days of Taine on, attempts have been made to remedy this state of affairs and to introduce into criticism a scientific element. But these attempts were foredoomed to failure. For they were all based upon the nineteenth-century notion of the universe as a machine. And this notion involved the supposition of the complete explicability of all phenomena. Yet it was observed that these mechanistic explanations always left Hamlet out of their play; that, in brief, like all merely mechanistic explanations, they left out the vital spark or soul or essence — the essential mark or quality or character that made the phenomenon what it was and differentiated it from others. Whatever well-formulated and even demonstrable “truth” these scientific explanations had, they had obviously no “reality” nor any profound relation to the living experience of any man in either the act of creation or that of appreciation. They told us many interesting superficial things. They never uttered the secret.

The Freudian psychology created the first revolution, the first radical change. Whatever its methodological limitations, to it belongs the undying credit of having revealed the structure of the human psyche, the character, at least, of the forces of which that psyche is the battle-field, and, finally and triumphantly, the identity of these forces with those in myth, in ritual; above all, in religion and in that whole congeries of qualities which differentiates man from the other primates and is at the root of the possibility of human culture. The limitation of the Freudian psychology was its general unwillingness to draw the ultimate conclusions inherent within itself. Like its great founder (cf. The Future of an Illusion) it was itself “sold” to nineteenth century mechanistic doctrine; it, too, insisted on an unbroken chain of causality, of which all the links were to be the same in kind. It had the nineteenth-century passion for “reducing” all phenomena to a common denominator. And it had antecedently made up its mind as to the character of this denominator. Since man was “only” an animal by the general consent of a “scientific” age, it followed very smoothly that art should be “only” the sublimation of repressed sex-wishes. Hence the pure Freudian teaching gradually assumed a character of rigidity. Its brilliant beginnings were followed by no adequate developments. The OEdipus complex was used like an overdriven horse. If a man was an artist or a warrior or a neurotic or a tramp, he was convicted of having an OEdipus complex. But, as Dr. Rank admirably and convincingly points out, since all men have an OEdipus complex, since this relation and its difficulties are universal, the artist is still one who, by virtue of what he is in his own nature, reacts in a special way to this as to all other human experiences. And thus this so-called explanation leaves the mystery of genius exactly where it was before. Thus Freud and his original doctrine never quite transcended certain limitations of the century in which both were born.

It is the brilliant and memorable achievement of Dr. Otto Rank to have transcended these precise limitations. In a long series of works, culminating in recent years in Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit [Truth and Reality] and, pre-eminently, in Psychologie und Seelenglaube [Psychology and the Soul] he has gradually and at last triumphantly brought the psychological interpretation of cultural phenomena from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Precisely as the new physics, in its analysis of the atom, has come upon a dynamic element in a universe now no longer like a machine, so Dr. Rank, again like the physicists rejecting causality in its rigidly and hopelessly deterministic sense, has come upon a dynamic element in the human psyche and has reinstated in its proper place and function the psychology of the will. This revolutionary conclusion, derived from a quarter of a century of psycho-analytic practice, he has used in the interpretation of a vast mass of anthropological material and of material drawn from the history of the arts and of religion. He has descended to the centre from which all cultural phenomena radiate. He has intuitively grasped the realities of human processes by being at that centre and core of things. Much that he says is not either “demonstrated” or perhaps “demonstrable”; his arguments have no syllogistic structure. But anyone who has the creative experience will, like myself, read and ponder with a kind of awe the revelations concerning the character of that experience, especially in the opening and closing chapters of the work before us. The free creative and self-representative character of all art, its tendency of liberation from the biological, its self-justificatory and immortalizing urge, its need of and yet resistance to the collective culture of its age, the artist’s conflict within the dualism of creativity and experience, his need of Muse and mate and the difficulty of combining the two, his resistance to his art itself, his desire for fame and his fear of being depersonalized by that essentially myth-making process — all these explanations and revelations made by Dr. Rank I cannot conscientiously call otherwise than literally epoch-making. They should and will open a new period in the study of the soul of the artist. They have, it is almost needless to say, this mark of all truths of the first order, that, once grasped, one can no longer imagine the landscape of the mind without them.

How, it may be asked, has Dr. Rank been able to arrive alone and uniquely — at least from the point of view of the English-speaking world — at this knowledge of the artist’s soul and of the creative process? Because he has seen this process as a phase in that larger creative activity by which man, being man, has built up the totality of civilization. Thus, specifically, he has been able to interpret the development of creature to self-conscious creator in the course of the ages and, above all, the process whereby art gradually becomes differentiated from religion and tends finally to take religion’s place. Thus he offers the first adequate explanation of that enormous preoccupation with art and with the artist which characterizes recent ages and, above all, the present age. He justifies and grounds both the artist’s representative and his prophetic function, and will, I trust, free us, especially, again, in the English-speaking world, from that supremely silly and vicious notion that ranges art a little below flirting, a little — by courtesy — above baseball — among the pleasant ways of killing time. For he makes it abundantly and permanently clear that the emptiest-headed reader absorbed in an Edgar Wallace yarn is functioning in a manner basic to myth and religion, to all human psychology, to the entire civilizatory process.

In the natural and necessary course of his treatise, moreover, Dr. Rank solves a number of problems that have long vexed students of life and art and of the relations between them. Thus, for instance, he destroys the too facile notion of art as a product of the sexual instinct, and points out the right and inextricable interrelations between these two urges. And thus, to take an example from a different province, he solves the old riddle of “imitation” in art, proving that the creative activity is always a free and by intention a transcendent one, of which “imitation” is but a cultural mood and method. I may finally call the reader’s attention to the extraordinary method of historical and psychological reasoning by which Dr. Rank reinterprets what the Romantics called “acceptance of the universe,” and good and wise men of many ages “submission to the will of God,” as “volitional affirmation of the obligatory” and thus shows us that the newest knowledge does but confirm the most ancient wisdom of mankind.

This book does not need my commendation to psychologists. Dr. Rank’s reputation suffices. I am writing as one who has, among other things, been engaged for many years in the art and practice of criticism, who has seen all current methods fail and all established techniques end in babble. As such I would have this book gradually find its way into the hands of all who “profess” literature, of all critics and reviewers and students. It is calculated to create a revolution, to bring in a time of deeper insight and of a more fruitful dealing with art as an organic portion of that whole process and activity by virtue of which man is human.

About Otto Rank
Narrative of Rank's development from Freud's secretary (1906, age 21) to member of the secret Committee (1913 to 1924) and his emergence with Sandor Ferenczi as a thoughtful reformer of psychoanalysis from intellectual pseudoscience to humanistic practice.

Quotes about Rank
People who knew Rank and his work had very different reactions and ideas. Here are some outstanding examples.

Rank's books in English

Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909, English 1914) is a youthful work rewritten and enlarged in 1922. The early English version is the opening chapter of Philip Freund's anthology of that name (Vintage 1959, o.p.). This paperback (pb) contains chapters from 4 other Rank works: Art and Artist, Modern Education,Will Therapy and Truth and Reality The English translation of the big 1922 edition of Myth... (2004) includes Rank’s 1915 essay on Hamlet. (Johns Hopkins University Press).

The Trauma of Birth
This work, published as Rank turned 40, in 1924, turned the psychoanalytic spotlight, for the first time, on the feelings of neonate and its mother. Giving birth is traumatic for the mother as is experiencing birth by the infant. This book is Rank's first attempt at writing about fear of life, and does not emphasize fear of death, as he later did in Will Therapy. Freud praised Trauma of Birth initially as "the greatest advance since the discovery of psychoanalysis" but Rank fell out of favor and by 1926 left Vienna for Paris and, later, New York. Trauma of Birth is virtually a first draft of Rank's greatest work, Art and Artist, which he was writing at the same time as he was writing Trauma.

Psychology and the Soul (1930; tr. W. D. Turner, 1950; new translation 1998, JHUP. In this book, Rank elucidates, in clear language, his dazzling theory of history as a series of immortality ideologies, which Ernest Becker later drew on in Denial of Death and Escape From Evil.

Art and Artist (Knopf 1932/​Norton pb 1989): supersedes The Artist (1907), revised and enlarged twice (1918, 1925). The Norton edition substitutes an essay by Anais Nin for the original introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn; his essay, as good as or better than Nin's, is posted on this site.

Modern Education: A Critique of its Fundamental Ideas
Originally published in 1932. Chapter topics: Therapy; Sex; Will and Emotion; community and the individual; Leadership; Vocation and Talent; Family; Self Discipline; 247 pages including index.

Will Therapy and Truth and Reality (1935) tr. by Jessie Taft of Rank’s post-Freudian volumes, Technik der Psychoanalyse, 1926, 1929, 1931. Reprinted in one volume, 1945. Reprinted in separate paperbacks later, now out of print. The three founders of humanistic and existential psychology, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and Irvin Yalom, could not praise Will Therapy highly enough.

Beyond Psychology (1941, cloth, posthumous, limited edition of 1,000). Dover pb is in print, $11--a very good buy. A book that powerfully influenced Ernest Becker's Escape from Evil.

A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures Robert Kramer, ed., preface by Rollo May (Princeton, 1996). The 21 lectures were given in the US by Rank between 1924 and 1935; an accessible, valuable collection of essays. Rank speaks in simple English.

The Incest Motif (1912; English tr. JHUP). This first version was updated in 1926 (untranslated) and is far better than the first one. Worthy of translation.

The Double (essay, 1914, book 1925), tr. Harry Tucker, U.N.C. pb 1971, Meridian 1975; Karnac 1989.) Rank's most lasting influence on literary theory, cited many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times since its publication. Updated through a post-Freudian lens in a brilliant chapter in Rank's Beyond Psychology (1941), a chapter that is virtually unknown by literary theorists.

The Don Juan Legend, (5 versions 1924-1932) tr. David G. Winter, Princeton, 1975.
About Otto Rank
Jessie Taft, American psychologist, who knew Rank from 1924-1939, wrote the first biography, a memoir, Otto Rank (1959, cloth, 300 pp.). Still harboring resent against Rank, Martin Freud, son of Sigmund, denied her permission to use letters from his father. This beautifully written biography is indispensable as a feelingful portrait by a woman who admired Rank as a human being, a therapist, a theorist and an educator. Openly lesbian, and fully accepted in her "difference" by Rank, Taft was one of the most influential women in American social work in the 20th century.

E. James Lieberman, Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank, (Free Press, 1985; pb U. Massachusets with new introduction, 1993 o.p.; French tr. 1993; German tr. 1997).

The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis, ed. E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer (JHUP 2012)

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"Why Oedipus Really Loved His Father" is now at E James Lieberman (Authors Guild) site.

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.