Freud and Jung: Mimetic Rivals

By Mark Anspach

Did a woman come between Freud and Jung? That was the irresistible pitch for the 2011 David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method. Following the lead of a provocative book by John Kerr, the movie zooms in on Carl Jung’s fling with a female patient. It’s an absorbing side story, but it doesn’t explain the rift between Sigmund Freud and his star disciple.

What really drove the two apart was the same thing that had drawn them together: Jung’s worshipful emulation of the master, which concealed a fateful urge to take the other man’s place. No woman needed to come between them; their friendship had been on thin ice from the start. This is the conclusion that emerges from a careful reading of Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method.

“The devil made me do it”

An early episode recorded by Kerr already foretells the way the relationship would end. In the period before he met Freud, Jung and a Zurich colleague conducted landmark word association tests that produced key experimental evidence for the existence of repressed sexual complexes.

The tests were administered with a stopwatch in hand. A complex would betray itself through a delayed reaction to a certain stimulus word, as though the subject hesitated to tread on perilous ground. The association could not be haphazard. The same word would elicit the same response when the test was repeated.

Yet, if asked to go through the list again and recall the responses previously given, the subject would draw a blank when faced with the complex-related word, thus confirming the existence of repression. In a majority of cases, the repressed complex had to do with sexuality.

The test results had Freud’s name written all over them. But when they were published in successive issues of a prestigious psychology journal, Freud’s name was almost nowhere to be found. Many years later, Jung blamed the devil for his reluctance to give Freud proper credit:

Once, while I was in my laboratory and reflecting again upon these questions, the devil whispered to me that I would be justified in publishing the results of my experiments and my conclusions without mentioning Freud. After all, I had worked out my experiments long before I understood his work.

Despite repeating the word “my” like a mantra—my experiments, my conclusions—Jung does not claim to have reached his conclusions independently. He only says he didn’t understand Freud’s work at the time he designed the experiments, when the real point is that he used Freud to interpret the results.

By Jung’s account, his better angel convinced him to ignore the devil’s blandishments:

“If you do a thing like that, as if you had no knowledge of Freud, it would be a piece of trickery. You cannot build your life upon a lie.” With that, the question was settled. From then on I became an open partisan of Freud’s and fought for him.

Jung did enlist under Freud’s banner, but not until after the 1904 publication of the word association experiments. The text “ran to nearly two hundred pages and four installments before Freud’s priority on the idea of repression was belatedly acknowledged in a footnote,” Kerr remarks. “The devil was doing more than whispering in Jung’s ear; he was guiding his pen.”

A devil named mimetic desire

Who is this devil that beguiled Jung into taking Freud’s ideas as his own? René Girard can help us make sense of Jung’s behavior without invoking supernatural forces. Behind talk about the devil, Girard finds something real.

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, he suggests that the diabolical tempter of folklore and Scripture represents what he calls mimetic desire: a desire copied from a model who will soon be perceived as a rival and obstacle to the fulfillment of that same desire. At the deepest level, what the imitator wishes to appropriate is not just the model’s objects, but the model’s very being.

Jung’s relationship to Freud is a case study in Girardian psychology. It wasn’t just Freud’s ideas that Jung copied, but the desire to be their author. Jung would dearly have liked to be the father of psychoanalysis himself. Freud had thwarted him by getting there first. The devil whispering in Jung’s ear was the voice of mimetic desire enticing him to usurp the position occupied by his model.

Did Jung feel guilty about giving in to the devil? The next year he published a magazine article on the topic of unconscious plagiarism. Consciously or not, he had been repressing the source of his ideas on repression. His reluctance to cite Freud’s name was the symptom of an underlying condition that would soon explode into view. The diagnosis was clear: Jung had a Freud complex!

When he finally made the pilgrimage to Vienna in 1907, Freud swept him off his feet. Jung found the master “extremely intelligent, shrewd, and altogether remarkable.” Of all the men he had yet met, “no one else could compare.” Not even in looks: years later, Jung still raved about how “handsome” Freud was.

Six months after their first meeting, Jung screwed up his courage and wrote Freud to express “a long cherished and constantly repressed wish”: could he have a photo of the great man? To his delight, Freud obliged. Jung saw only one flaw in the portrait: it was too small! “I have a sin to confess,” he wrote Freud a few months later. “I have had your photograph enlarged.”

Jung knew that his Freud obsession bordered on the pathological. It threatened to submerge his own identity. When Freud complained that Jung took too long to answer his letters, Jung invoked his instinct for self-preservation. Admitting “with a struggle” that his admiration for Freud was “boundless,” he stressed that he bore him “no conscious grudge”:

So the self-preservation complex does not come from there; it is rather that my veneration for you has something of the character of a “religious” crush. Though it does not really bother me, I still feel it is disgusting and ridiculous because of its undeniable erotic undertone.

By painting his obsession as libidinal, Jung gamely tried to put a Freudian spin on it. That was just another way of denying reality. There was nothing erotic about his “crush” on the man whose photo he revered. He did not lust after Freud the way a teenage boy lusts after a pinup model; he worshipped him just as the same teenager might worship the guitar god pictured on a concert poster.

In short, Freud was the younger man’s idol. That is why Jung described his crush as “religious” in nature. In a letter written a few months after their first meeting, he did not hesitate to equate Freud with the God of Genesis: “Anyone who knows your science has veritably eaten of the tree of paradise and become clairvoyant.”

Jung was not clairvoyant enough to foresee that he might one day be expelled from Eden. His devotion was destined to end badly. Jung idolized Freud because he wanted to be him. This could only lead to frustration and conflict. What began as a mutual admiration society ultimately degenerated into a psychoanalytic game of thrones.

From master and disciple to mimetic rivals

At first Freud gave the younger man all he could. He made Jung editor of the first journal of psychoanalysis, then president of the International Psychoanalytic Association. One might say he did everything possible to encourage his disciple’s Freud complex. As John Kerr astutely observes, Freud “sought to build his movement on the strength of Jung’s endeavor to become one with himself.”

Freud was now playing the devil’s part, tempting Jung to copy him and become his clone. Yet as soon as Jung threatened to become the new Freud, Freud’s own instinct for self-preservation would kick in, prompting him to banish the usurper. René Girard describes just this pattern of behavior in Violence and the Sacred:

The model, even when he has openly encouraged imitation, is surprised to find himself engaged in competition. He concludes that the disciple has betrayed his confidence by following in his footsteps.

Of course, real differences emerged. While accepting the existence of sexual complexes, Jung had always been skeptical about using them to explain everything. But when the final clash came, it turned on Freud’s anxiety that Jung would try to supplant him.

After their first meeting in 1907, when they had talked feverishly until two in the morning, Jung went to bed and had a dream that Freud interpreted the next day as revealing the younger man’s desire to “dethrone him and take his place.” That had not stopped Freud from recognizing in Jung his scientific “son and heir.”

But late in 1912, Freud’s fear of being dethroned flared up irretrievably during a lunchtime conversation about Egyptian kings. Amenhotep, founder of the first monotheistic cult, had erased from public monuments the name of his father. Jung argued that since the father had been regarded as divine, suppressing the earlier god’s name was necessary to establish the new religion.

Freud said he was reminded of Jung’s Swiss colleagues—like his old lab partner in the word association experiments—who were writing about psychoanalysis without mentioning his name. Jung retorted that there was no need to cite Freud because he was so well known. Then, returning to ancient Egypt, he said “the father already has a name, whereas the son must go out and make one for himself.” Shortly after, as seen in Cronenberg’s film, Freud collapsed in a dead faint.

Their relationship had entered free fall. Within weeks, Jung petulantly accused Freud of wanting to “remain on top as the father, sitting pretty.” Freud soon proposed they break off all personal contact. By April 1914, Jung felt compelled to renounce the presidency of the International Psychoanalytic Association. At the bottom of Freud’s copy of the resignation letter, Jung inscribed an arcane symbol: “+ + +”.

Painting three crosses on the side of a farmhouse was an old custom meant to ward off the devil. But where did Jung’s use of this symbolism come from? He had copied it—from an earlier letter written by Freud himself!

Even as Jung tried desperately to exorcize him, the mimetic devil was still guiding his pen…

Copyright © 2020 by Mark R. Anspach