Psychoanalysis of the war neuroses

Image: Soledad Seville


Commentary on the book with articles by Sigmund Freud, Sándor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Ernst Simmel, Ernest Jones

“It is at the same time true that the world is what we see and that, nevertheless, one must learn to see the world” (Merleau-Ponty. Le visible et l'invisible).

George Steiner, famous professor, polyglot, literary critic and man of rare erudition, referred, more or less like this, to the scope of the so-called humanities, including the arts. It is a peculiar kingdom, in which the recognition of titles of nobility would depend, to a large extent, on the up-to-date ability to save books from oblivion. Thus, in safeguarding maître à penser, youth (regardless of chronological age) would find help in the difficult task of inventing new eyes for themselves while learning to see. How, after all, to elaborate the present if not with the indispensable assistance of those who, generously, recorded in writing their own attempts in the past?

The first metaphor is perhaps not – especially currently – the best, due to the degree of commitment and inadequacy that the idea of ​​nobility has already suffered, but it still contains the sense of a less obvious position to be sought in relation to knowledge and reflection. Through the metaphor of vision, it is possible to identify the hypothesis that any recovery of our forgotten imaginative power – the art of seeing as an art of knowing – must necessarily go through a type of rediscovery and revaluation of ideas and practices, which, it seems, are archived today.

One of the most immediate results of this forgetting has been the lack of imagination buried by imagery hypnotism, on the one hand, and the depoliticization by the prevailing ideology of capitalism as the natural order of the world. How else to conceive answers to the question: what has enlightenment come to mean?, if not by learning to think concretely with someone who has already exercised it at some point?

Let us imagine, for a moment, that our subject of current interest could be – given the contingencies of our present – ​​how to understand suffering? Unless I'm mistaken, a kind of human and timeless inquiry. Underneath this, let's say, metaphysical question, hides the legitimate and concrete concern of, in principle, getting rid of all suffering. Between both, a tradition of thought and practice operates that ranges from religious perspectives (the punishment of original sin, for example) to metaphysical-philosophical elaborations (the history of humanity has been the history of cruelty) and juridical ones (justice depends on from the fear of suffering) to studies and formulations of a clinical nature (“all neurotics are pretenders, they pretend without knowing it and that is their illness”). About the latter, we can specify the sufferings caused by the so-called war neuroses.

The book Psychoanalysis of the war neuroses, recently published by Quina Editora, collects a series of studies and points of view on the etiology of these types of suffering. As the editorial note clarifies, this is the first edition in Portuguese of the book On the psychoanalysis of war neuroses [Zur Psychoanalyse der Krigsneurosen], 1919, result of the 5th. International Congress of Psychoanalysis, held in Budapest, between the 28th and 29th of September, 1918.

There are the texts of Sándor Ferenczi's lectures and the interventions of Karl Abraham and Ernst Simmel, during the congress. There is also, as in the first German edition, a text of a lecture by Ernest Jones on the subject, held in London, a few months after the congress. The Brazilian critical edition goes further and also constitutes a dossier on the subject (a meticulous critical edition, in the exact words of Renato Mezan). It included a presentation by the researcher, psychoanalyst and translator, Bruno Carvalho, who historically situates the texts and debates, as well as developing interesting hypotheses about the impact of the First War on Freud's work; there is still a part of the book that offers critical supports: an anonymous review from 1922 (signed only with the initials DB), based on the English edition of the book; two excerpts by Sándor Ferenczi and an opinion by Freud on “war neuroses, electrotherapy and psychoanalysis”. The afterword is authored by Professor José Brunner, from Tel Aviv University.

The texts gathered in the Brazilian edition deal with various psychoanalytic and political theses, among which I highlight: contrary to what those who rejected psychoanalysis thought, the cases of war neurosis confirmed Freud's theses; hysterics continued to suffer from reminiscences, also suffering from the aftershocks of war disasters; the experience and suffering of war neurotics led neurologists to discover something beyond the psyche (organism?), namely psychoanalysis itself and its field of investigation, the unconscious.

The book brings the discovery that the shock caused by explosions, landslides, and burials suffered during the war do not in themselves lead to neurosis. It is, rather, the sum of factors that can lead a soldier to illness, which, in general, includes the dynamics and hierarchy in the barracks; it is also discovered that the war neuroses are devices of security, of defense in the prevention of more serious evils; that the recognition of the meaning of the tendency of cure of the neurosis resides, in great part, in the symptom and the current conflict that the neurosis makes explicit can be in direct relation with older conflicts.

With the texts presented in the form of a communication for a congress, we also learned that there was an ethical and political orientation in the treatment of war wounded and that such measures were not just an alternative scientific conception to the medicine of the time. From there it is possible to verify, once again, the topicality of the discussions.

Being psychoanalytical lessons of sensitivity, knowledge and training, the book is also, in the Brazilian edition, a model of editorial zeal, because they fulfill so much the ideal of nobility referred to by George Steiner of “saving this book from oblivion” (and with that, evidently, the issues and their ethical and clinical consequences) and, moreover, the still very current debate, with the concern of maître à penser to offer a more secure (or perhaps less fragmented) base in the elaboration that the present asks of us.

I mean, the essential task of any teacher is to honestly offer reliable bibliography that increases the chances of guidance in thought. The reader's attention is also drawn to the very form of discussion practiced during the congress, at least from the record in the book presented, because the interventions of Ferenczi, Abraham and Simmel and even that of Jones and Freud (albeit at another time) are so diplomatic , circumstantial and are in such a way in tune that the hypothesis of a collective elaboration of psychoanalysis is reinforced, in which the significant differences between them only strengthen it.

Under the inconvenient and persistent truth that we live in a type of society whose trait, among the most outstanding, is that of being in permanent war, flagrantly explained by the current vocabulary that ranges from target audiences, the struggle for life, survival at work, from backfires, from stray bullets, and ends up in reserve armies, in strategies, tactics and maneuvers, in which the approach of companies and public policies is no longer distinguished, all suffering tends to be, largely measure, also a kind of war neurosis.

For the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi, in an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Economic, “the end of society was proclaimed and the beginning of an infinite war: competition is the economic dimension of war. When competition is the only relationship that exists between people, war becomes the 'arrival point', the apex of the process. […] If we are not able to feel empathy, the future will not exist.”

Therefore, nothing is more urgent and everyday than having to deal with shrapnel from grenades, literally and figuratively; therefore, the urgency to understand the causes and effects of this recurrent suffering on social life. A new way of seeing what appears to be a tragedy is in nuce in the very exhaustion that suffering reinforces, hence the tormenting and opportune timeliness of the Psychoanalysis of the war neuroses.

From the sample of authors gathered in the book, psychoanalysis united what the war separated in terms of critical power and culture, because, after all, they are authors who represent, let's say, the two sides of the war, but defend the same causes. It is clear from reading that there was no strict consensus or even great acceptance of the theses of psychoanalysis among psychiatrists, even less among other medical specialties, as the text of the presentation highlights, but what stands out for today's readers is what was (and still seems to be) ) at stake in the disputes that psychoanalytic treatment faces in relation to medical practices.

On the one hand, the State's technique, protocols, finances and military power; on the other, concern for health, living conditions and the patient. While the former aimed at returning soldiers to the front, psychoanalysts remained firm in restoring people's health conditions and dignity.

Freud's mastery of writing seems to reach his colleagues, because the composition of their texts follows the clarity, objectivity, informative and committed character with which Freud practiced his research and formulations on psychoanalysis with scientific rigor and demands. The inclusion of annexes helped to clarify the exposition of the first part and, fortunately, allowed Freud to appear in another perspective and, once again, to demonstrate intelligence and elegance even in the debate and combat of clinical atrocities committed in military hospitals (such as, for example, the practices of electroshock, cold baths and threats).

The divergences presented in the choice of texts (I am referring to DB's review, saying that it is "unfortunate" that Simmel's text was included in the book) confirm the impression of seriousness of the publication, more attentive to disagreements as a factor of refinement, constitution and intellectual honesty with the subject rather than merely the empty celebration of publication.

I am sure that it will be of great value to anyone interested in, reading, studying and researching psychoanalysis; training courses, university disciplines, free courses, free thinkers and word of mouth will find in this book a strong ally of learning and knowledge, both strictly to psychoanalysis and in relation to ethically consequent postures in defense of psychoanalysis. dignity and, therefore, of humanity.

The book confirms that the present has had much more of a past – the less noble, in Steiner's sense – than we would be willing to see and recognize. It is important, therefore, to take a stand and have the courage to think with whom you act, in the noble and ancient sense of thought, then, who knows, we can claim the conception of a present that is in fact up to date with the rehumanized dynamics of time.

Denilson Cordeiro Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Exact and Earth Sciences at Unifesp, Diadema campus.


Sigmund Freud, Sándor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Ernst Simmel, Ernest Jores. Psychoanalysis of the war neuroses. Translation: Bruno Carvalho. São Paulo, 2023, 240 pages. Quina Editora

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