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Otto Fenichel started studying medicine in 1915 in Vienna. Already as a very young man, when still in school, he was attracted by the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud. During the years 1915 and 1919, he attended lectures by Freud, and as early as 1920, aged 23, he became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
In 1922 Fenichel moved to Berlin. During his Berlin time, until 1934, he was a member of a group of Socialist and/or Marxist psychoanalysts (with Siegfried Bernfeld, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Simmel and others). After his emigration – 1934 to Oslo, 1935 to Prague, 1938 to Los Angeles – he organized the contact between the worldwide scattered Marxist psychoanalysts by means of top secret "Rundbriefe", i.e. circular letters. Those Rundbriefe, which became publicly known only in 1998, can be counted among the most important documents pertaining to the problematic history of psychoanalysis between 1934 and 1945, especially in regard to the problem of the expulsion of Wilhelm Reich from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934.
Fenichel was a prolific writer on psychoanalysis, and published some forty articles between "Introjektion und Kastrationkomplex" (1925) and "Neurotic Acting Out" (1945). In the interwar debate on female sexuality, "three long, carefully reasoned, and thoroughly documented papers by the brilliant young analyst Otto Fenichel" formed his main contribution. Of the first, Freud wrote: "Fenichel (1930) rightly emphasizes the difficulty of recognizing in the material produced in analysis what parts of it represent the unchanged content of the pre-Oedipus phase and what parts have been distorted by regression. [...] He also rejects the 'displacement backwards' of the Oedipus complex proposed by Melanie Klein."
He continued his study of sexuality in a further article, of 1936. For Jacques Lacan, "the symbolic parity Madchen = Phallus, or in English the equation Girl = Phallus, in the words of M. Fenichel, to whom he gives the theme of an essay of some merit," was a useful building-block for his comprehension of the Imaginary and Symbolic orders. In the essay Fenichel examined a man's "female identification [...] with a 'little girl' - for example with a (real or imaginary) little sister and, on a deeper level, with one's own penis."
Three years later, in his article "Trophy and Triumph", Fenichel pointed out, that the feeling of triumph "results from the removal of anxiety and inhibition by the winning of a trophy. [...] The trophy is a super-ego derivative since it is a symbol of parental authority. [...] it threatens the ego in the same way that the super-ego threatens the ego where unresolved Oedipus phantasies are at work."
Building on such works, and upon countless others by his peers and predecessors, Fenichel produced his textbook of 1945. "For countless students and professionals Fenichel is synonymous with his Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis; and this text is regarded as synonymous with reliable and comprehensive psychoanalytic knowledge."
Under its objectivist surface, Fenichel in fact took a firm line on many of the controversies of the day, characterizing the "clinical material of British analysts [...] as doubtful"; attacking the neo-Freudian's "insight into the formative power of social forces upon individual minds does not require any change in Freud's concepts of instincts, as certain authors believe"; and repeatedly sideswiping "Alexander's opinion. [...] This thesis, however, does not seem very convincing".
He was also not shy of hinting at his continuing Marxist millennial hopes for "other social conditions. [...] Would it not be a first task of such a mental hygiene to provide work, bread, and satisfaction of the basic needs for everybody?"
It was however the encyclopedic aspects of his work which aroused most criticism, Lacan leading the charge in the name of his "return to Freud": "the idea that reading Freud in order to understand Freud is preferable to reading Mr. Fenichel." Lacan considered that it was "no contribution to the theoretical status of psycho-analysis for a writer like Fenichel to reduce, by an enumeration of the 'main sewer' type, the accumulated material of the psycho-analytic experience to the level of platitude [...] everything is explained in advance." More moderate criticism in the same vein was that in "his great compendium on the interpretation of neurotic behaviour [...] Fenichel tended, in his categorical taxonomy, to cling to symptomatic descriptions of neurotic activity, perhaps oversimplifying complex procedures."
Fenichel himself had warned from the start: "All the examples tend only to illustrate mechanisms; thus they are illustrations but not case histories." Nevertheless his work may have inevitably reinforced "the temptation, rooted in the acquired knowledge of psychoanalytic theory [...] to try to mastermind the analytic process, rather than to follow it."
No account of Fenichel's work would be complete without a mention of his "Problems of Psychoanalytic Technique", on "how psychoanalysis actually is done, the questions of psychoanalytic technique and of special technical problems". #Of [classic] treatises on the subject [...] those by Otto Fenichel (1941), Edward Glover (1955) and Ralph R. Greenson (1967) are perhaps the best known."
- Otto Fenichel: Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialistic Psychology (1934). In: American Imago, Vol. 24. (1967), pp. 290–311
- Otto Fenichel: The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. 3 vols, 1945
- Otto Fenichel: 119 Rundbriefe. Hg. Johannes Reichmayr und Elke Mühlleitner, 2 Bände, Frankfurt: Stroemfeld 1998
- Otto Fenichel et al. eds., Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel (1987).
- Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 610–611.
- Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Times (London 1988) p. 521.
- Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (London 1991) p. 390.
- Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 207.
- Fenichel, Neurosis, p. 344.
- Ralph R. Greenson, "On Gambling" in Jon Halliday and Peter Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974), p. 210.
- Gay, Freud, p. 336 n.
- Russell Jacoby, The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians (Chicago 1986). p. 24.
- Fenichel, Neurosis p. 64, p. 588 and p. 507.
- Fenichel, Neurosis p. 588–589.
- Lacan, Ecrits, p. 51.
- Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London 1994) p. 11.
- Peter Fuller, "Introduction" in Halliday/Fuller, Gambling p. 28.
- Fenichel, Neurosis, p. 8
- Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 220.
- Fenichel, Neurosis, p. 573.
- Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Reading Freud (London 2005), p. 109.
- Otto Fenichel: 119 Rundbriefe (German)
- Otto Fenichel: Über die Psychoanalyse als Keim einer zukünftigen dialektisch-materialistischen Psychologie (German)