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  • Homage to a Grande Dame
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

April 12, 2006
Peter L. Rudnytsky, Editor
American Imago

Dear Peter,

A cherished friend and colleague recently telephoned me from Paris to let me know, in case I had not yet heard, that Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel has passed away. In Paris she received many beautiful tributes, sad, eloquent, and deeply felt. After the death of her distinguished husband Béla Grunberger last year, the loss now of Janine (or Jeanne as many friends called her) comes as a heavy blow to the psychoanalytic community not only within France but the world over. Her ideas were stunningly original, her range widely interdisciplinary, her works translated into many languages and inspiring to countless readers, even to those who did not always concur with her ideas. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel was a powerful woman, possessed of temerity, grit, passion, generosity, pugnacity, and, always, an incredible elegance. Those who knew her will recall the little details—her scarves, her cloaks, her eloquent gestures. I write today not to offer a formal tribute to her legacy, a tribute she richly deserves, but merely to express my personal sorrow at the loss of a truly great lady.

Only a year and a half ago, at the Sixth Delphi International Psychoanalytic Symposium in Greece, where we both gave papers, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend casual time chatting and dining with Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, whom I had met only briefly in the past and with whom I had corresponded [End Page 219] only sporadically before. During those few days, she metamorphosed for me from a distantly admired writer of challenging psychoanalytic texts into a vital, vibrant human being. Over the course of the ensuing year, during which we spoke by telephone and corresponded by e-mail concerning an article she was publishing, among other topics, it seemed to me that she and I were in the early stages of a new friendship. Our last meetings took place at her exquisitely appointed apartment on the rue de l'Université in Paris, formerly the residence of the nineteenth-century Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and then at a splendid and interesting lunch this past January. Of course, I knew she was ill and even seriously so, but her frequent communications and responsiveness lulled me into a state of denial such that the phone message came as a terrible shock. Admirers and critics now mourn this eminent contributor to psychoanalysis, a woman whose fertile mind, fortitude, and ingenuity survive in her writings as well as in the memories of those fortunate enough to have known her personally.

My own fascination with the writing of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel and her rich, controversial ideas goes back more than two decades. It goes back to before 1989, when I published my own first words on her work—in an essay called "The World of Art and the Artful World: Some Common Fantasies in Creativity and Psychopathology" (The Arts in Psychotherapy, 15:243–51). I was taken first by a theme that pervades her oeuvre, namely, her fascination with what she terms the primal archaic mother, a fascination that, she claims, exists in the psyches of both sexes and entails a deep concomitant fear such that both sexes are in need of repressing this primitive maternal imago, a need, indeed, that leads in psychoanalysis itself to what she has called a "sexual phallic monism." She writes of the profound struggle between maternal and paternal law and shows how psychoanalysis itself is caught up in this struggle. Unlike many of her peers, Chasseguet-Smirgel acknowledges her intellectual debt to other thinkers, notably to Melanie Klein, whose work complements her own, and, of course, to Béla Grunberger. She draws judiciously on her own clinical practice in Paris for the illustration of her theories and on the art of literature, both ancient and modern, European and Asian; in Greece, the last paper I heard her give was replete with allusions to novels by modern Japanese authors, notably, Yukio Mishima. [End Page 220]

For myself, as a writer on the arts, Chasseguet-Smirgel's most brilliant and eye-opening essay has long remained "Perversion and the Universal...


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