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American Imago 61.1 (2004) 108-119
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Karl Abraham was born in Bremen, Germany, on May 3, 1877, and died on Christmas Day, 1925, at the age of forty-eight of a lung infection and possibly lung cancer. He was twenty-one years younger than Freud, while Sándor Ferenczi, Carl Gustav Jung, and Ernest Jones were seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-three years younger respectively. I mention these men and their ages because Freud's extensive contemporaneous correspondence with all four invites interesting comparisons.
In their excellent introduction to this complete edition of the Freud-Abraham correspondence, André Haynal and Ernst Falzeder wonder, in the light of Abraham's central role in the development of psychoanalysis, why his life has aroused so little interest (xix). There is no full-scale account of his life, though an "unfinished biography" by his widow Hilda appeared in 1974, and an expanded German translation followed two years later. They continue:
Abraham may not have the appeal of the enigmatic Max Eitingon, the charming, original, generous character of Sándor Ferenczi, Otto Rank's deep humanistic culture and immense dedication to the chores of "the Cause" [die Sache], or the masterful proficiency in institutional matters of Ernest Jones. But he impressed his colleagues with his rigor, his earnestness, his precision in scientific matters, his unrelenting work, and his deep conviction of the truth and the importance of the Freudian theory and Cause.
They further note that the correspondence shows him to be "a precise and rather dry writer . . . striving for exactitude and precision" (xxviii). [End Page 108]
Jones described Abraham as "certainly the most normal member of the group" (1955, 158) around Freud. He praised his attributes of "steadfastness, common sense, shrewdness and a perfect self-control. However stormy or difficult the situation he always retained his unshakeable calm" (159). Jones found him to be, if "not exactly the most reserved, the least expansive of the group. He lacked Ferenczi's sparkle and engaging manner." Jones concluded: "One would scarcely use the word 'charm' in describing him; in fact Freud used sometimes to tell me he found him 'too Prussian.' But Freud had the greatest respect for him. Intellectually independent, he was also emotionally self-contained, and appeared to have no need for any specially warm friendship." Finally, in agreement with Freud, Jones observed, "If Abraham had any failing it was his invariable optimism. This made him a little insensitive to the effect certain actions might have on the feelings of other people; he always hoped and expected they would respond as objectively as he did."
Freud was keenly aware that Abraham was disliked by Jung, who saw him as a self-serving opportunist. Writing on August 27, 1907, before he had met Abraham, Freud told Jung: "You make him out to be something of an 'uninspired plodder' [ein trockener Schleicher]" (McGuire 1974, 79). Although Schleicher is translated in The Freud/Jung Letters by "plodder," the term properly refers to someone sneaky, insincere, or hypocritical, which I think fits better with Jung's view.
In contrast to the neurological background from which Freud, Jones, and Ferenczi came to psychoanalysis, Abraham was trained in psychiatry. In 1904, he left the Berlin Municipal Mental Hospital in Dalldorf to work in Zurich under Jung at the renowned Burghölzli Clinic, which was then under the direction of Eugen Bleuler. The Burghölzli was a center for dynamic psychiatry, and Bleuler showed some early—albeit short-lived—interest in psychoanalysis. It was Bleuler, not Jung, as commonly believed, who introduced Abraham to Freud's work, though Jung was Abraham's direct superior at the hospital. Even before they met, Abraham wrote to Freud on October 13, 1907:
Your letter gave me great pleasure and was, at the same time, the best encouragement...