Freud in Calcutta

by Antje Stiebitz

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)


From the very first pages it is clear that this book, How the Couch Came to Calcutta - A Global History of Early Psychoanalysis, is a story with many threads: The historical development of early psychoanalysis, its global spread and the intertwined connections that ensued. Historian Uffa Jensen thoroughly dissects the origins of psychoanalysis and clearly articulates the chaos that came afterwards.

What laid the groundwork for Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques at the end of the 19th century? And how did this method spread around the world? How did the movement adapt itself to the different cultures in which it caught on? Jensen describes psychoanalysis as a kind of mobile cultural phenomenon, which wandered continents as though tucked away in travellers’ suitcases; a global history of psychoanalysis anchored in the cities of Berlin, London and Calcutta.

His entry into the subject is Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic practice in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. From there, Jensen divides his book into four parts. He looks first at the development of psychoanalytic practice in terms of its use in institutions. Then he focuses on methods of treatment, asking how the technique and knowledge was actually used. In the third part of the book, he begins to examine the emotions that analysts were confronted with: What emotional impact did treatment have, and what did both patients and therapists learn from this? In the final part of the book, Jensen looks at the global picture, investigating the influence of psychoanalysis on politics.

An introductory text precedes each of the four parts of the book that allows readers to peek through the keyhole of psychoanalytic practice. These case studies, woven with theoretical information, really helps the reader. If you haven’t had significant contact with psychoanalysis it’s quite easy to get confused, with numerous kinds of therapies, different approaches and their multiple connections.

Jensen chooses the locations of Berlin, London and Calcutta because he sees them as inflexion points, places where psychotherapeutic practice really crystallised. It was there that psychoanalysis met suggestion, hypnosis, mesmerism and catharsis and he goes into rich detail about these organic connections. Even before the first World War, the psychoanalysis movement already had 162 members.

In Europe, psychoanalysts’ practices were sprouting up like mushrooms but in India Jensen can only find one, and that was in Calcutta. There was lively interest in the practice there, which is why, in 1922, a society for psychoanalysis was formed in Calcutta. By 1940 there was even a hospital there that used psychoanalysis. However, according to Jensen’s sources, the European “centre” never took these Indian practitioners seriously and tried to restrict and control them - as one might expect, this mirrored existing colonial power asymmetries.

As you’re reading all about this, you are moved to ask: Why did the psychoanalysts of the time have so little regard for a country that already had a lot of experience with introspection? Jensen gives a partial answer to this, suggesting that the work of (cultural) translation threw up some serious hurdles and took a lot of time. At the same time, India’s intellectual and linguistic history had great depth and did not recognize the European dualism of body and soul. Jensen recognises the special work that Indian psychoanalyst, Girindrasekhar Bose, did even while Euro-centric practitioners refused to.

It is Bose, among others, who supports Jensen’s thesis that psychoanalysis was not invented by Sigmund Freud alone. In fact, Jensen argues that Bose, Juliusburger, Jones, Groddeck and Freud all invented psychoanalysis in parallel, although they didn’t all do this at the same time. That is why psychoanalysis can be rediscovered anew, over and over again, in different places, You can say that Freud was one of the first,  but he was not the sole inventor, Jensen writes.

When Jensen says that there was no treatment option in Calcutta for psychological illness at the time, that is true if one is expecting a Western-style clinical approach. But what about if you take into account traditional religious methods of dealing with disturbances in the psycho-physical balance? Did this even come to the attention of psychoanalysts?

Comparing the differences between Europe and India, Jensen suggests that there are similarities between the Hindu understanding of emotion and the psychoanalytical understanding of it – that is, both see psychological processes as the drivers of human behaviour, and believe that the psyche is in a constant pursuit of balance. Jensen thinks that humanity’s ideal - a balanced psyche – is a global commonality. At the same time though, there were some cultural differences: For example, a particularly vital part of Bose’s psychoanalytical system was the idea of identification – a kind of radical form of empathy – but this was not the same for European practitioners. Thanks to experiences he had had with his Indian patients, Bose also believed that the Oedipus complex did not play such an important role – this was contrary to Freud’s beliefs. Somewhat later on, the Indian psychiatrist Ajita Chakraborty would argue that while European psychoanalysis always began with the individual, the Indian variant was more closely connected to the country’s family-based social system.

Jensen also attributes a political character to psychoanalysis because it makes recognisable, the contrary structure of every psyche – that is the rational self versus the emotional self, masculine versus feminine, universal and open versus indigenous and localised, west against east and cosmopolitan versus nationalistic.

Psychoanalysis also trickled into political debates. It played a decisive role in discussions about feminism, nationalism and colonialism because it questioned power balances. Indeed, the first psychoanalysis made clear that “normal” was actually based on masculine personalities. In a similar way, colonialist thinking in Freud’s theories became apparent when it became clear that the sensible pysche was male, whereas anything neurotic belonged to the wild native, the child, the woman or the lower classes.

In India, the nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose wanted to use psychoanalytical findings to promote an independent and modern India. With the help of psychoanalysis, the spirituality of India would be rediscovered, as would its superiority when compared to the West – or at least, that is what the hope was in Calcutta.

It is with the rise of German nationalism that Jensen’s global history of the roots of early psychoanalysis comes to a slow close. Many of the psychoanalysts practising were forced to migrate to London or to the USA, because of their Jewish backgrounds.

Jensen has created a thoroughly readable book, one that plumbs the depths of spirituality, both global and local, and emphasises the power of psychological processes. Most noteworthy though is how he explores the exchange of ideas between the continents, and how this forged psychoanalysis as we know it today.



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