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Book Forum: FREUD AND ERIKSON   |    
A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers From 1930 to 1980 by Erik H. Erikson
Lloyd Sederer, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:147-149.
View Author and Article Information
Belmont, Mass.

edited by Stephen Schlein, Ph.D. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1987, 755 pp., $29.95; $17.95 (paper published in 1995).

Book Forum

"I have nothing to offer except a way of looking at things," wrote Erik Erikson in 1950 when he published what may be his best-known work, Childhood and Society (1). Despite his humble preamble, Erikson's ways of looking at human nature, development, and society have provided remarkable vision and new meaning for lay and professional audiences throughout the latter part of this century. Consider, for example, terms he coined such as "identity," "identity crisis," "generativity," and the "life cycle." Consider his innovative works on psychohistory and on Native American culture. Recall that he was instrumental in extending psychoanalytic thinking beyond the grim determinism of Freud to a vast, culturally appreciative, postwar readership that sought a psychology of hope in a world of diversity. Erikson was a visionary of our century; his work remains vital, modern, and worthy of empirical research and conceptual debate.

Erik Homburger Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902 and died in Harwich, Mass., in 1994. As a young man he studied art and began his career as a portrait painter. In 1927 he was invited by his childhood friend, Peter Blos, to come to Vienna to draw portraits of children in an experimental school established by Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud and run by Blos. It was not long before Erikson was a member of the teaching staff, observing children and immersed in the psychoanalytic world of Vienna and the Freuds. He became an analytic candidate, and his training analysis was with Anna Freud (author of Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense [2]). With the eye of an artist and the mind of a psychoanalyst, Erikson proceeded to study and offer creative wisdom on human development, from infancy to old age.

Stephen Schlein has collected 47 of Erikson's papers that were published between 1930 and 1980. None of these papers has ever been published in a book (or if they were, it was in a substantially different form). There are also 13 wonderful portraits drawn by Erikson. The writings are remarkably diverse and clustered thematically, rather than chronologically: Psychoanalysis and Enlightenment; Configurations in Play and Dreams; War Memoranda; Cross-Cultural Observations: The Communal Environment; Thoughts on the Life Cycle; Reflections on Identity, Youth, and Young Adulthood; Portrait Sketches; and Configurations of Human Potential. The works themselves range from speeches Erikson gave when receiving awards or at ceremonial events, lectures at professional and political gatherings, and scholarly publications.

Let me illustrate each section with a brief description of one (or more) of its chapters. In the section on Psychoanalysis and Enlightenment, Schlein publishes Erikson's tribute to Anna Freud. In a special 1983 issue of the Bulletin of the Hampstead Clinic to honor her after her death, Erikson contributed a piece that recognizes Miss Freud's unique psychoanalytic contributions, offers a description of the intellectual life of Vienna and of the Freudian circle, and demonstrates the influence of these remarkable people and circumstances on a young and gifted Erikson. This piece is also characteristic of the sweep of his writing in which person, historical and cultural context, and theory are wonderfully interwoven. In the section on Configurations in Play and Dreams, there is a chapter entitled "The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis." In this 1954 piece, we are offered Erikson's respectful interpretation of perhaps the most famous dream in psychoanalysis, namely, Sigmund Freud's Irma dream. Erikson approached the dream from his developmental perspective and drew upon Professor Freud's correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess to understand what was to become the birth of the interpretation of dreams. Freud was 39 and at the edge of a personal, professional, and intellectual crisis. For Erikson, "this dream may, in fact, carry the historical burden of being dreamed in order to be analyzed, and analyzed in order to fulfill a very special fate" (p. 239). From Erikson's perspective, Freud the revolutionary needed to fulfill what he believed to be his historical destiny; the dream was dreamed not to help him resolve past conflicts per se, but to provide Freud with the material he needed to offer an interpretative view of the unconscious and thereby establish a future for Freud and his creation, psychoanalysis.

The War Memoranda section contains a brief but passionate set of papers and comments offered during World War II, with a particular focus on the German mentality. Although Erikson likens the Nazis to adolescents who have become delinquent, he does not propose treatment as a solution. Rather, he calls for a merciless fight and total victory against the Germans and their propaganda. In the next section, Cross-Cultural Observations, Erikson is the social anthropologist as he demonstrates the interplay among history, environment, family, village, and myth in the construction of meaning and behavior in the Native American Yurok of the coastal Northwest United States and the Sioux of the North Central Plains. Erikson depicts the Sioux as "belligerent nomads.[whose] economic life was dominated by the conviction that `you can't take it with you'" (p. 446), whereas the Yurok "were peaceful and sedentary.preparing themselves spiritually for the annual miracle of the salmon run" (p. 446). He draws on geographical setting and society to explain their remarkable differences. Erikson's broadening of our understanding of character and development to include the influence of culture is perhaps one of his most important, and enduring, contributions. Unlike Freud, who cast culture as a set of prohibitions, however civilizing, Erikson depicted culture as a vital and invigorating milieu that is essential for identity and personal fulfillment.

Thoughts on the Life Cycle brings the reader to perhaps the most recognized theoretical aspect of Erikson's work. His eight stages of development are found in every textbook of psychology in the Western world. Although dispute about the precision of these stages is prevalent today, Erikson's vision of development throughout our cycle of life enabled psychoanalysis to move beyond Freud's more fatalistic view that character is established by age 5 and offers every one of us the perennial hope, now well established, that development is continuous (life after Oedipus), with its challenges, failures, and triumphs. Reflections on Identity, Youth, and Young Adulthood provides works from 1945 through 1972. Erikson's trademark attention to youth and identity is well represented in this section. The chapter on late adolescence reminds clinicians that the turmoil of an adolescent identity crisis should not be confused with psychotic illness or sociopathy and that the capacity for intimacy is reliant on the reasonably successful resolution of this phase and the establishment of a firm identity. For Erikson, opposition was not necessarily "neurotic" but could represent active engagement, even playful interchange, with one's family and society and a constructive means of identity formation. This section also contains a contribution to the early feminist literature ("On the Potential of Women," written in 1965).

Portrait Sketches contains eight short pieces and five drawings. These are personal reminiscences and memorials of Erikson's friends, many of whom have made their own indelible mark on our civilization. Paul Tillich, Peter Blos, Ruth Benedict, and Robert Knight are among the fortunate beneficiaries of Erikson's literary and artistic portraits. Erikson was a master at recognizing and describing the fortunate collisions of creative individuals and the crises of their respective times: historical greatness occurs when individual solutions are successfully applied universally. The final section, Configurations of Human Potential, is full of optimism, wonder, and concern. "Landing on the Moon," presented at Harvard University in 1969, lauds mankind's conquest of space yet cautions that unless "each child born.be brought up to feel at home in his body, mind, and senses.all landings elsewhere remain footless" (p. 746).

This collection of Erikson's writings is for the advanced student of his work. Those without graduate status as an Erikson scholar will be better rewarded by reading Childhood and Society (1) (remarkably prescient in 1950) and Insight and Responsibility (3); by relishing the psychohistorical biographies Young Man Luther (4) and Gandhi's Truth (5); or by selecting some of Erikson's groundbreaking essays on identity and the life cycle.

In reading Erikson today, with our emphasis on quantitative research, we are best reminded that it was his intuitive genius and artistic vision that led other investigators to the frontiers we are now exploring empirically. He was a great observer of human nature and culture, and he was a theory builder. Erik H. Erikson's gifts as painter, psychologist, analyst, writer, anthropologist, and social philosopher know few equals. He was a brilliant spokesperson for ego psychology, for the concept of identity, and for development throughout the seasons of our lives. We have him to thank for a spirit of optimism that encourages us all to believe that existence is not fated, that it is ours to remake throughout life's journey.

Erikson EH: Childhood and Society (1950). New York, WW Norton, 1993
Freud A: Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1937). Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1967
Erikson EH: Insight and Responsibility (1965). New York, WW Norton, 1994
Erikson EH: Young Man Luther (1958). Magnolia, Mass, Peter Smith, 1994
Erikson EH: Gandhi's Truth (1969). Magnolia, Mass, Peter Smith, 1994


Erikson EH: Childhood and Society (1950). New York, WW Norton, 1993
Freud A: Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1937). Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1967
Erikson EH: Insight and Responsibility (1965). New York, WW Norton, 1994
Erikson EH: Young Man Luther (1958). Magnolia, Mass, Peter Smith, 1994
Erikson EH: Gandhi's Truth (1969). Magnolia, Mass, Peter Smith, 1994

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