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Spleen and Nostalgia: A Life and Work in Psychoanalysis,; by John Gedo,

Jason Aronson, New York, 1997, 309 pp., $A73. Hardcover

Douglas Kirsner

Spleen and NostalgiaPsychoanalysis excites the passions of psychoanalysts. As in the arts and religion, psychoanalysis is an area in which practitioners often get emotionally involved in a very lively way. Many have followed Freud in identifying not only their work but their lives with psychoanalysis.

John Gedo’s recent fascinating memoir, Spleen and Nostalgia: A Life and Work in Psychoanalysis, exemplifies the passionate and forthright approach of one of the most prolific living thinkers in the psychoanalytic field. The list of Gedo’s books and articles runs to eight pages as an appendix to the book. John Gedo shares Freud’s passion for the psychoanalytic field but does not romanticize it. Although psychoanalysis has many contributions to make, Gedo does not think it contains the central keys to unlocking our human universe. Throughout his long life in psychoanalysis, Gedo, like a few of his Chicago colleagues, has welcomed the contributions of advances in other fields such as biology, artistic creativity and systems theory. He never regarded psychoanalysis as embodying a boundless and exclusive world view and has viewed collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines as occurring on equal terms.

Those who have read any of his work will have notedhis uncanny ability for both straight-talking and going right to the heart of the issues he addresses. It will not surprise anyone who knows him that Gedo is remarkably candid and unsparing with both spleen and nostalgia.

Although the book focuses on his professional life, Gedo provides a glimpse of his Central European childhood because it was so crucial in accounting for his professional choice. ‘I was raised in a scholarly hothouse to be intellectually ambitious and fanatically diligent’ (p. 23). This background had him hold himself and others to ‘uncommonly high standards’. It nurtured his talent of perseverance, which resulted in an output of more than one hundred pages a year over three decades (p. 68).

Gedo sees his account as psychoanalytic both because it tries to speak the truth and because it proceeds in an associative manner. Any suspicion that analysts display far more than their share of hubris is vindicated in this memoir. His experience with the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute from when he trained there (1956-1961—Gedo graduated comparatively early at the age of 33) to the present time, together with his involvement with the American Psychoanalytic Association, brought him into contact with many other prominent psychoanalysts. In particular, Gedo explores his close relationship with Heinz Kohut in detail.

Gedo emigrated from Hungary with his parents, arriving in the USA in 1941. He found his analytic training at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, during the golden age of psychoanalysis in the fifties, to be mostly very pleasurable. Gedo was taught how to fight by his combative training analyst, Max Gitelson, who became prominent in the politics of American psychoanalysis (p. 7). Gedo was caught in the crossfire of Gitelson’s feuds with Franz Alexander at the Chicago Institute and with Roy Grinker at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. His first supervisory experience with Therese Benedek was decisive for his development as a clinician. Just before she died, he plucked up the courage to ask Benedek, who had been analyzed by Ferenzci, how it was possible for her to have completed her analysis in just a few months with Ferenczi just after World War I. She replied that before 1920 the insights of psychoanalysis were so startling and novel that they impacted more greatly on an unprepared person (p. 27). Gedo describes his training in an engaging and detailed way, including his unhappy experiences in supervision with Joan Fleming who, as Dean, was able to blackball Gedo for some years, making Gedo an ‘internal exile’ (p. 58). This was partly because of his disposition which disapproved of the self-satisfied psychoanalytic community. His dissatisfaction with the scientific complacency and imperialism that he saw as endemic, not only in the Chicago Institute but in American psychoanalysis in general meant that he did not fit well in an institute that he likened to a Papacy corrupted by worldly ambition, a charge he levelled at American psychoanalysis in general (p. 49). The titles of two of the book’s chapters, ‘Cosa Nostra’ and ‘Machine Politics’, convey the flavour of Gedo’s view of American psychoanalysis and ofthe Chicago Institute in particular. Under George Pollock as director, in Gedo’s view the Chicago Institute ’deteriorated into a political machine’ (p. 101). Unfortunately, he is not far off the mark. From my own research on American psychoanalysis (Kirsner, in press), I can only confirm the accuracy of Gedo’s perspective on these matters and that we see eye to eye here (seeSpleen, p. 303). Gedo describes his experiences as a longtime member of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Committee on Institutes, and concludes that the educational standard of the American institutes is ‘shamefully poor’, on the level of community colleges rather than research universities (p. 123). But Gedo clearly found his involvement with The American Psychoanalytic Association’s research organisation of analysts, The Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies, which meets annually at Princeton very valuable.

Notwithstanding the institutional problems, Gedo was able to learn from the many analyses he conducted and this ƒresulted in his many papers and books on psychoanalytic technique. Between 1955 and 1994 when he retired, Gedo had a full analytic practice, which for much of that period was not unusual in Chicago. His hierarchical theory of psychoanalysis, adumbrated with Arnold Goldberg in their Models of the Mind (Gedo and Goldberg, 1973), was to form the nub of much of his intellectual development thereafter. In Gedo’s opinion, ‘The future of psychoanalysis will be based on the hierarchical model of mental functions, that is on the simultaneous legacies of all previous developmental phases’. This should include ‘the progressive hierarchical organization of cerebral functions’. Gedo argues that therapeutic psychoanalysis should aim at the expansion of psychological skills. This implies that previously missing procedural (apraxic) skills should be acquired in treatment. This is ‘beyond interpretation‘ since the elucidation of mental contents is not sufficient and biology needs to be integrated into psychoanalysis (pp. 178-80). Although there is some explication of Gedo’s scientific contributions in this memoir based on his recollections and observations about psychoanalytic institutions, readers must study some of his major books to understand them.

Gedo’s relationship with fellow Chicagoan Heinz Kohut caused the most stress in his professional life. The relationship came about when Kohut reciprocated the help that Gedo’s analyst, Max Gitelson, gave him towards becoming president of the American Psychoanalytic Association by actively supporting Gedo (p. 54). Such is psychoanalytic politics. Nevertheless, Gedo was wary of Kohut’s interest in a more socially intimate relationship since he never felt Kohut valued Gedo for himself. Gedo felt he was used as a pawn by Kohut, as one of what Kohut would have called ‘selfobjects’. ’When he decided to become my patron, he was playing me the way one moves a rook in a chess game. More often than not I was pleased by the position into which I got pushed, but I never felt gratitude, the way I do when people show they care for me’ (p. 54). Nonetheless, the relationship with Kohut, a powerful figure in American psychoanalysis during the 1960s and a considerable theoretician, offered Gedo many narcissistic gratifications. ‘My inability to resist these temptations is the most serious mistake I have thus far made in life’ (p. 55). Gedo was more important to Kohut than anybody other than his wife and son (p. 61). Even in 1979, considerably after Gedo’s break with Kohut, Kohut spoke of his frustrated longings for Gedo when Kohut was in hospital following a coronary bypass operation (p. 135). Nevertheless, Gedo felt that Kohut stole a number of his ideas and then acted vengefully towards him (p. 134). In particular, Gedo maintains that Kohut took his idea of ‘self concept’ when he demanded that Gedo and Goldberg eliminate that concept from their Models of the Mind on the grounds that the psychology of the self was his domain. Goldberg agreed that this was an outrageous demand but felt they had to accede to it. After this Gedo felt he had repaid any debt he may have owed Kohut (p. 148).

In the middle and arguably the most controversial section of his book, Gedo details his side of the problems in the relationship with Kohut which culminated in a difficult break with the Self Psychology group over the Casebook. Gedo had initiated this book but later withdrew from it after a major fight with another member of the group that wasworking on the book (Goldberg, 1978). Kohut told Gedo that his withdrawal over the crisis amounted to his ‘declaration of independence’ (p. 170). ’My rupture with Kohut’, Gedo writes, ‘was the most difficult contingency of my adult life, there was no turning back to a pre-Kohutian safe haven and I felt my intellectual isolation keenly’ (p. 173). Thereafter, Gedo took a ‘solitary path’ (p. 174) and saw himself, in the terms of his much respected Boston colleague Arnold Modell, as ’a school of one’, a position adopted by every serious contributor to contemporary psychoanalysis, in Modell’s view (p. 173).

Gedo’s ’internal exile’ at the Chicago Institute did not finish with Fleming’s departure for Denver in 1970. Much as he desired a scientific atmosphere at the Chicago institute, he constantly lamented the lack of notice his colleagues took of his work. Indeed, in his view they resented him and could not even bear to read it (p. 87). Although he presented in one out of eight society presentations for the three decades following 1963, he ‘felt exploited because I was simultaneously surrounded by envy and malice’. Arnold Goldberg was hardly alone in seeing Gedo as ‘a very difficult person’ (pp. 206-7). However, as Gedo remarks, ‘I attract transference reactions like a candle does moths’ (p. 77). But just when he reached the time when he was able to give vent to his spleen in this autobiography, the Chicago Society honoured him with a special meeting to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Now he says, ‘I’ll have to forgive them all. It was much simpler to feel like an internal exile’ (p. 207).

There is some nostalgia as well as spleen. Gedo describes his relations with a number of analytic friends such as George Moraitis, Bob Gardner and Arnold Modell. He also enjoys travelling to other parts of the world to present and discuss his ideas. It is certainly a ‘warts and all’ memoir which is an accurate expression of Gedo’s passion, intelligence and wit. This is a controversial book; there is much that many would disagree with in it, especially with Gedo’s accounts of Kohut and Self Psychology. For example, Kohut’s scrupulous biographer, Charles Strozier, recently wrote to me that he has serious disagreements with the book. Nevertheless, anybody who knows John Gedo appreciates the unique combination of passion and brilliance that makes him someone worth listening to no matter how much one might disagree with him. There are clearly other sides to the story but Gedo has had the courage to put it all down, saving no-one, not even himself. There is far more to the book than I can explore in this brief review. It comprises rich and engrossing slices of the last fifty years of American psychoanalytic politics and history, of institutional and professional analytic life, by one of the leading theorists and dissidents in American psychoanalysis.



Gedo, J. and A. Goldberg, (1973).Models of the Mind , University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Goldberg A., (1978).The Psychology of the Self: A Casebook. International Universities Press, New York.

Kirsner, D., (In press).Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes, Process Press, London.


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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