Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Orpheus Myth, Part I

The Therapist as Musician: Ferenczi and His Use of the Orpheus Myth
by Zeev Leib, M.D. and Eric Moss, Ph.D.

Myths handed down over generations are many times universal and often echo historical events and social trends. They can serve as guides for the thinking and behavior of present and future generations (Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, 1812; Graves, Robert, 1992). It is to Freud and his followers - most particularly, perhaps, to Jung - that we have come to appreciate the value of legend and myth in our psychoanalytic work (Jung, C.G., 1993, 2009; Neuman, E., 1973; Shalit, E., 2011, 2013). Myths and legends can help us to better understand our patients and decide which clinical approaches are the most helpful.

Freud and the Oedipus Myth
The image below shows an agonized Oedipus, the protagonist in the Greek myth of that name. Ever since Freud, the Oedipus myth has been used by psychoanalysts to depict a particular way of understanding human development and of conducting clinical therapy. Freud drew upon the Oedipus story to illustrate a central pillar of his new theory (Freud, 1904; Brabant, Felzeder, Granpieri-Deutch, 1993; Armstrong, 1999), and indeed the expression Oedipus complex has entered into universal usage. This myth is bloody, incestuous and aggressive, and saturated with remorse and guilt. Young Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother and ultimately blinds himself in self-punishment. It was drawn upon by Freud to explain how young boys gradually grow into men. They challenge their father’s authority and out of the ensuing struggle come to develop their own identity.

The Myth of an Agonized Oedipus

Freud’s was a theory based on aggression, fear, confrontation and the attempt to overcome challenges. His reference to the Oedipus myth suggests that the therapist take the stance of warrior, a know-all, authority figure, who offers wise and correct interpretations of the patient’s inner repressed dilemmas. The patient listens to these interpretations as though they were pronouncements from the Oracle of Delphi. The patient’s struggle over whether to accept the analyst’s insights is one of the mutative factors leading to change and growth.

Ferenczi and the Orpheus Myth
Ferenczi, an early follower of Freud who had in fact been analyzed by him, came to a different line of thought and clinical practice from that of Freud. His therapeutic approach was softer, less-confrontational and based on equality and mutuality between patient and therapist. His work with severely traumatized people, some who had undergone physical and sexual abuse as youngsters, led him to think that his more gentle and empathic approach was the key to successful therapy. The tone of his voice and other non-verbal indications that the therapist was in “tune” with the patient were no less mutative than the content of what he said. The myth of Orpheus, with its emphasis on the power of music (see image below) to win the trust of a suffering loved one (Eurydice), was more appropriate than that of Oedipus for reflecting the approach he developed and advocated.

Orpheus, it will be recalled, lost his lover who had been sentenced by the Gods to Hades (Hell). .. He was reputed to be the most wonderful musician of his time (See last image in article) and begged the Gods to let him seek her out and use his extraordinary musical skills to win her trust and entice her to return with him. According to the myth he does find her and with his music, he woos her almost out of Hades. Unfortunately, he ruins their chances for happiness by disobeying the Gods and looking back at her, thereby losing her forever (Graves, ibid.).

The Myth of Musical Orpheus

Ferenczi found the Orpheus myth highly expressive of his personality, his life circumstances and his therapeutic approach. Indeed, he labeled as Orpha aspects of his clinical understanding and technique. With great sympathy and sensitivity, he would descend into the patients’ “hell” and in a non-intrusive way search out their split off, denied parts. Then, with a gentle and sensitive stance analogous to that of a fine musician, as reflected in the Orpheus myth, he would entice these parts out of “hiding”. With patients who had suffered a traumatic absence of good parenting, he would try and become aware of the pre-verbal communication in the consulting room. He would listen to himself as well as the patient and try to create a nurturing atmosphere. He would ask, what calms my patient down? He would occasionally expose his own feelings and experiences, reflecting his belief that “mutuality” was critical to successful therapy. It was a more satisfying and successful way of doing therapy than the authoritarian, warrior-like attitude implied in Freudian interpretations and the blank screen technique (Smith, N., 1998).

One problem with this approach is that the therapist as musician may fall into a seductive stance. The danger in the power of seduction is reflected in another famous myth, the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As seen in the image below, the Pied Piper was brought to the municipality of Hamelin in order to use his magic pipe to woo a plague of rats to follow him and abandon the town. He succeeded; but when he was not paid as promised, he took revenge by playing his flute for the children, seducing all of them with his wonderful music (except three – a lame child, a deaf child and a blind one) and leading them to an unknown place where they never saw their parents again (Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, 1812).

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

This legend serves to remind the Orpheus-oriented therapist not to cross boundaries, become seductive and thereby cause repetition of earlier traumas.

A (Very) Brief History of Sandor Ferenczi
Perhaps the difficulty in making the distinction between empathic attempts to enter the patient’s agonized inner world and the malign effects of seduction was one of the factors that caused Freud and his followers to become suspicious of their once-trusted colleague. Ferenczi’s increasingly radical (at the time) ideas and techniques diverted from the path of Freud, who was then trying to consolidate his new psychoanalytic approach. In addition, Freud himself never underwent therapy, as did Ferenczi. Perhaps, because Freud himself had never been an analytic patient, he and his followers had trouble understanding and integrating Ferenczi’s emphasis on what came to be called empathy and mutuality. Instead, Freud gave more importance to cognitive understanding as the way to help bring about change in patients (Smith, ibid.)

Sandor Ferenczi

When Ferenczi wanted to present his ideas in a paper at the 12th World Psychoanalytic Conference in 1932 in Wiesbaden, Germany, Freud and some of his followers tried to get him to withdraw. At the conference, Freud refused to shake his hand. A rumor spread that Ferenzci was psychotic. Many colleagues distanced themselves from him, and to the loss of psychoanalysis, he who had been so much a loyal part of Freud’s early group of followers, became an anathema for nearly a century. Unlike Jung and Adler who broke away from Freud’s “rule” and founded their own “schools” of psychoanalysis, Ferenczi continued to struggle for the latter’s approval. He died a psychoanalytic outcast, tragically maligned and rejected by many of his former friends and colleagues.

In the last few decades there has been a resurge of interest in Ferenczi and his contribution (Rogers, C., 1961; Mitchell, S. and Greenberg, J., 1983; Mitchell, S., 1988; Dupont, Balint, M., Jackson, N.Z.,1988; Haynol, 1988; Aaron and Harris, 1993; Hoffer, 1996). His ideas are echoed in those proposed by Winnicott in the latter’s focus on “Primary Maternal Preoccupation” and a “Holding Environment” (Winnicott, 1960). They can also be seen in the currently fashionable inter-subjective therapists, who espouse a mutual, egalitarian, self-exposing approach to psychotherapy ( Mitchell, 1988). These theorists have wittingly or unwittingly picked up where Ferenzci left off.

To explore the relevance of Ferenzci’s ideas today and the difference between his approach and that of Freud, an international Ferenzci conference, sponsored by the Israel Association of Psychotherapy, was held in 2000 and well-attended by interested participants from all over the world. The conference was entitled: Freud: the Father of Psychoanalysis, Ferenzci: the Mother of Psychoanalysis (Moss, 2000).

To summarize, as Jung and other analysts emphasize, legend can play a major role in reflecting and guiding our psychotherapeutic attitudes and techniques. The myths of Oedipus and of Orpheus reflect two very different attitudes towards treatment: that of the therapist as warrior and that of the therapist as musician. Whatever, the choice of which myth chosen as a guide for clinical understanding and technique depends on many factors, including the personality and disorder of the patient and the personality and professional predilection of the therapist.

Clinical Vignettes

We would now like to bring two clinical vignettes which demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of Ferenzci’s approach.

Vignette #1:
The patient was a 38 year old, single woman, who had had two boyfriends in her life. In both cases, the men had taken advantage of her goodwill and non-assertiveness. As a result, she had ceased dating, made work the focus of her life, remained at home in the evenings and was sure there was something terribly wrong with her. She felt helpless, hopeless and depressed.

The family atmosphere in which she had grown up had been heavy, critical and totally lacking in expressions of love and support. It was heavily influenced by an affair the father had started years before. As far as the patient knew, her father had never confessed to this relationship, and both she and the therapist suspected he had a secret, second family. The mother remained highly suspicious of him and bitter over the years. She took out part of her wrath on the patient, blaming her for anything and everything. The father continued to be a distant, mysterious figure, barely available to anyone in the family, including the patient. In short, the patient had grown up suffering verbal abuse from mother and the abuse of negligence and abandonment by the father. At age 17, not surprisingly, she left home and tried to begin a separate and independent life.

Early on, the therapist began questioning the fact that no one in the family, including the patient, had ever confronted the father about his “secret”, other life. He also focused on the fact that the patient had never confronted mother about her deprecating behavior. It appeared to him that the situation indicated a kind of family-wide, Oedipal failure. Early on he began making strong suggestions that she confront father and mother and her two siblings. When she avoided taking up the therapist on these suggestions, he became annoyed and his suggestions became even more firm. He pointed out the clear opportunities for confronting them and thereby uncovering the father’s secret, with which they’d all been living for so many years. At a certain point, the therapy started to look like assertiveness training, a confrontational strategy that was not working. The patient seemed to continue feeling helpless and hopeless.

Eventually, he took his case to a supervision group. There he told his colleagues he felt extremely frustrated and that he wasn’t succeeding in helping his patient. To his surprise, they disagreed, pointing out that she continued to come week after week, and her affect seemed to be improving. They suggested that the patient experienced him as making genuine efforts to help her. Despite all her negativity, pessimism and the obstacles she kept putting in his way, he hadn’t abandoned her and seemed to be genuinely trying to help her. This was perhaps the first time in her life that someone actually supported her in an active way. The supervisor and members of the supervision group urged him to continue, suggesting that though he may not have realized it, she was slowly responding to his outreaching approach.

Strengthened by their support, he put aside his feelings of despair and continued to explore, with warmth, her present-day life, her relationship with him and with other people, both today and when she was a child and adolescent. He also let himself be more open about sharing his feelings and even disclosed certain events in his life when he thought this would be relevant to her.

Eventually, she began to change. She took a much needed vacation, going to Europe with a man who was a long-time friend. She initiated and carried out several family events and celebrations. She decided to join a Triathlon team and began practicing regularly. Her whole appearance became more positive, alert and outgoing. It seemed that the strategic change from an Oedipus approach (the warrior) to an Orpheus one (the musician) was the mutative element that enabled the patient to change.

Vignette #2
A. was a 46 year old man, married with two children. He came to therapy explaining that there were some “weeds in his garden” he wanted to take care of. He had been in therapy 15 years before, and his experience then had been very positive. He came to the present therapist without skepticism and with much hope and expectation.

He was born the third child of Holocaust parents. His mother was a dynamic personality, who worked very hard and moved up in her career as seamstress, bringing in more income than the father. She was tough and unemotional and saw her role as limited to providing material needs to her children. A’s older siblings were boys, and the mother and father had wanted a girl. He was a disappointment from the day he came into the world. Subsequently, they did have a little girl, and they were finally very happy. But A. felt that in their happiness, they had forgotten him. Early on he felt washed in their disappointment, and developed a highly provocative interpersonal style in order to gain their love and attention and that of his peers.

His feelings that he was a disappointment, failure and outsider was enhanced by two difficulties. He was a terrible student, and only much later – too late - was diagnosed as having a learning disorder. In addition, during his teen-age years he had felt sexual attraction to boys and experienced many homosexual encounters. Though in his twenties he gave up any homosexual activity, choosing to marry and have children, he always felt this aspect of his sexual identity was something to be ashamed of and about which he had to keep secret.

On beginning therapy, the therapist was tempted to relate to him through the prism of the Oedipal complex. He discussed with A. the implications of having had a strong, domineering mother, to whom he was much attached, and a weak, soft father, who was dismissed by his children as being nice but not someone to lean on. This somewhat investigative approach seemed only to raise A’s resistance. At the same time, the therapist noticed that despite some clear successes in his life, he was very “down” on himself. The therapist tried firmly to get him to examine this Jungian shadow, but A. clearly did not want to. He. told the therapist in no uncertain terms that he did not like to think of these things. When the therapist challenged him to talk more about these matters, A. became angry.

Then the therapist decided to “change his tune”. He was familiar with the Orpheus theme, and also with Ferenczi’s attempt to use it as a guide for achieving clinical understanding and personal change with people traumatized as youngsters. Indeed, the patient had himself used the word “trauma” to describe the period of his youth, the trauma of not being accepted and loved. Even today, if he suspects that others don’t get what he’s all about and are critical of him, he becomes rageful and panicky. Therefore, he explained, the therapist’s original confrontational stance had made him defensive and aggressive. Perhaps there should be new tune introduced into the therapy, a more gentle one, sweet and reflective, that would entice rather than force those repressed feelings of childhood shame out of their locked-up, inner hell, where he could cope with them more directly.

At first he reacted to the change in the therapists “tune” with skepticism. “Well, you have to support me. You’re a therapist.”, he would hurl back suspiciously. Fortunately the therapist genuinely liked him, and it was easy to point out with respect the many times the patient put himself down. He would gently say (without fawning, it must be emphasized) he didn’t see things in quite the negative way the patient did. Gradually, A. began to respond positively, talking more and more about his severe negative self-image.

It felt to the therapist that his change to a more accepting and mutual way of relating to the patient, sharing with him some aspects of his own inner world, had the effect of making the patient see him as more human. This led to more and more self-awareness and cooperation on the patient’s part. The Orpheus myth, with its emphasis on the power of magically beautiful music to lure a loved one out of hell, suggested a treatment approach that felt much more appropriate than the warrior approach implied in the Oedipus tale.


Greek Vase Depicting Orpheus Playing to Entranced Thracians, 440 BC

In this paper, we have tried to show the power of legend and myth to mold and reflect our clinical thinking and technique. The above-mentioned vignettes demonstrate the usefulness of the Orpheus myth associated with Ferenczi as a helpful clinical guide. This is particularly so with patients who have been traumatized physically, sexually or by the absence of “good enough” parenting. We have also tried to show how another famous myth, that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, can serve to warn us of potential dangers in this approach, suggesting that the therapist be careful to avoid becoming a seducer and thereby reactivating old traumas.

Zeev Leib, M.D., Senior Psychiatrist, Macabbee Health Organization, individual and group psychotherapist, Kfar Saba, Israel. Dr. Leib is an amateur sculptor, whose works reflect his interpretation of Biblical myths.

Eric Moss, PhD., Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, individual and group psychotherapist, Kfar Saba, Israel. Dr.Moss is an amateur story-teller.


Aaron, L. and Harris, A. eds (1993). The Legacy of Sandor Ferenczi. Hillside, N.J.: The Analytic Press

Armstrong, R. (1999): Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex

Brabant, E., Falzeder, E. and Giampieri-Deutch, eds. (1993) The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi. Vol.1, 1908 - 1914

Browning, R. (1998) The Pied Piper of Hamelin, London: Frederick Warne Co.

Dupont (ed), Balint, M. and Jackson, N.Z.. (1988) The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

Freud, S. (1904) The Interpretation of Dreams

Graves, R. (1992) The Greek Myths, Complete Edition, New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm (1812), Kinder –and Hausmarchen (in English, Grimms Fairy Tales

Haynal, A. (1988) Controversies in Psychoanalytic Method, From Freud to Ferenczi to Michael Balent, New York: New York University Press

Hoffer, A. Introduction, in E. Falzeider and E. Brabant, eds. (1996) The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi, Vol.2, Cambridge MA, Belnap Press of Harvard University.

Jung, C.G., (2009) The Red Book, W.W.Norton.

Jung, C.G., (1993) The Practice of Psychotherapy.

Mitchell, S. and Greenberg, J. (1983) Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory.

Mitchell, S. (1988) Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis.

Moss, E. (2000): Introduction to Conference Catalogue, International Conference on Sandor Ferenczi: Freud: the Father of Psychoanalysis; Ferenczi: the Mother of Psychoanalysis.

Neuman, E. (1990) Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, Shambhala.

Neuman, E. (1973) The Child, Todder and Stoughten.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Shalit, E. (2013) The Dream and its Amplification, Fisher King Press.

Shalit, E. (2011) The Cycle of Life: Themes and Tales of the Journey, Fisher King Press.

Smith, N.(1998) Orpha reviving: toward an honorable recognition of Elizabeth Severn, International Forum of Psychoanalysis 7 (4): 241 -246.

Winnicott, D. (1960) “True and false self: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

The Therapist as Musician: Ferenczi and His Use of the Orpheus Myth @ The authors. For correct reference to this article, please contact the authors.

1 comment:

Dr. Mark Winborn said...

I'm not sure the authors of this paper adequately support their hypothesis - either mythologically or with their clinical examples. They state it as a given that Freud's clinical technique, in particular his interpretive style, directly derives from the Oedipus myth which strikes me as inaccurate. Certainly Freud did associate significant aspects of his model of psychological development of the mind to the Oedipus myth but I don't believe this can then be generalized to his technical approaches, nor did the authors establish this in my opinion. My second point is about the clinical vignettes, particularly the first one where the therapist is caught up in countertransference enactments - like actively promoting a confrontation with the patients father and the encouragement to develop assertiveness skills. The directive actions this therapist is engaging in have nothing to do with a strong interpretative stance from a Freudian perspective and to portray it as such, even by implication, is misleading. In summary, it feels that the authors have set up the traditional Freudian perspective as a straw man to contrast their preferred mode of therapeutic interaction.