Otto Gross — A Charming Anarchist

Otto Gross: minor character in David Cronenberg’s New Film, A Dangerous Method – major character in Eric Koch’s 2008 novel, Premonitions.

If you have seen the film, you will remember Otto Gross, a handsome character, played by Vincent Cassel, who gave the advice never to repress any sexual urges.

In Eric Koch’s novel – written without any reference to Jung’s love affair with Sabina Spielrein – he gives the same advice. Freud first welcomed him as an unusually gifted disciple, then rejected him because Gross turned out to be too radical for him, and too unethical.

Here are some extracts from the introduction:

“He was the nearest approach to the romantic idea of genius I have ever met, and he also illustrated the supposed resemblance of genius to madness.” Ernest Jones, Free Association, Memoirs of a Psychoanalyst, page 173.

“He is a man known to very few by name – apart from a handful of psychoanalysts and secret policemen – and among those few only to those who plucked his feathers to adorn their own posteriors.” Anton Kuh, Juden und Deutsche, 1912, page 16.

“He shared a railway compartment with Kafka travelling from Budapest to Vienna in 1917. What, one wonders, were the motions of conversation between Gross, a brilliant expositor and intuitive reader of other people, and the small, retiring Kafka?” Sam Whimster, preface to Martin Green’s “Otto Gross, Freudian Psychoanalyst,” page XI.

[Referring to the spread of Freud’s ideas in Berlin]: “There is a similar centre of infection in Munich and it seems to have affected the craziest artists and the like.” [Footnote: The central figure of this “infection” was Otto Gross, who publicly “analyzed” in coffee houses and pubs.] Freud to Karl Abraham in “The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham (1907–1925),” December 26, 1908, page 72.

“You really are the only one capable of making an original contribution except perhaps for O. Gross, but his health is poor.” Freud to Jung, “Freud–Jung Letters,” February 25, 1908, page 62.

“I feel great sympathy for his wife, one of the few Teutonic women I have ever liked.” Freud to Jung, “Freud–Jung Letters,” April 19, 1908, page 69.

“I think your diagnosis of Gross is correct. His earliest childhood memory (communicated in Salzburg) is of his father warning a visitor: ‘Watch out, he bites!’” Freud to Jung, “Freud–Jung Letters,” May 19, 1908, page 74.

“The psychoanalyst’s clinic can reveal all humanity’s suffering and all hopes that it may be different in the future.” Otto Gross, “Die Aktion,” June 25, 1913, page 632.

“The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of revolution.” Otto Gross, “Zur Ueberwindung der kulturellen Krise, die Aktion,” Vol. III, col. 1384.

“His life-long concern with ethical issues culminated in the concept of an ‘inborn instinct of mutual aid,’ which he described as a basic ethical instinct.” Gottfried Heuer, “The Devil Underneath the Couch, The Secret Story of Jung’s Twin Brother,” London 2003, Internet.

“Otto Gross was the man who constructed the theoretical foundation of the ‘sexual revolution.’” Nicolaus Sombart, “History of Political Thought,” Spring 1987, page 137.

“If repressed sexuality causes ill health, Gross reasoned, then health could be restored by complete freedom in sexual matters.” Jennifer E. Michaels, “Anarchy and Eros,” 1983, page 41.

From the end note:

Otto Gross finished his medical studies in 1899 at the age of twenty-two and a year later became a doctor on a ship that took him to South America where he became addicted to drugs. For the next two years, he worked as a psychiatrist and assistant doctor in Munich and Graz and had his first treatment for drug addiction at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zürich where he met Carl Gustav Jung who was a staff doctor.

Still in his early twenties, he published a number of articles in medical journals, which the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel later described as having revealed “a quality akin to genius.” In 1903, he became a Privatdozent in psychopathology at the University of Graz and married Frieda Schloffer. A year later their son Peter was born. In the same years, he had another son named Peter, from his relationship with Else Jaffé, née von Richthofen, the sister of Frieda, later the wife of D.H. Lawrence, with whom he also had an affair. Lawrence absorbed some of his ideas through her.

Otto Gross and his wife spent time in Munich and Ascona, a small town in the Italian part of Switzerland and the gathering place of advanced thinkers and artists who conducted experiments in communal living, which raised the eyebrows of the community. In 1906, he assisted the suicide of Lotte Chammerer to save her, so he said, from a painful death. His father, Professor Hans Gross, an internationally renowned professor of criminology at the University of Graz, used his influence to prevent a prosecution. Subsequently, Otto Gross wanted to form a school for anarchists in Ascona, but nothing came of it.

Gross’s first contact with Freud took place not later than 1904. In 1906, he settled in Schwabing and became research assistant at Dr. Emil Kraepelin’s Psychiatric Clinic. In 1908, Gross met Freud at the Salzburg Conference of Psychoanalysts where he delivered a paper, “Cultural Perspectives,” to which Freud took exception and told him “that they were doctors and doctors they were to remain.” In the same year, 1908, Gross had a second treatment at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zürich. In the meantime, Freud had referred him to Jung. Gross and Jung psychoanalyzed each other. One of their sessions lasted for twenty-four hours, until – so Jung told the Freud biographer Ernest Jones – “their heads were nodding like mandarins.” Gross terminated this exercise by jumping across the wall.

In the same year, his daughter Camilla was born. The mother was Regine Ullmann who later became a close friend of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1909, Jung published an article on “The Significance of the Father in the Fate of the Individual,” which showed the impact Otto Gross had had on him. So did some of Jung’s other writings.

In 1911, Gross was forcibly interned in a psychiatric institution. After his release, he moved to Berlin and joined the anarchist group Aktion. In November 1913, his father began a series of legal moves against him. He had him arrested by the German police as a dangerous anarchist and taken to the Austrian border where he was delivered to Austrian officials who took him to the private mental institution of Tulln near Vienna. He was declared a “lunatic in the eyes of the law,” legally incompetent and a menace the public. He was placed in the custody [Kuratel] of his father.

At the same time, Professor Hans Gross tried but failed to assume the guardianship of Otto and Frieda Gross’s son, Peter, and have him removed from his mother’s care. Frieda Gross was living at the time in Switzerland with the painter and anarchist Ernst Frick. Conflict between fathers and sons had become a favorite theme in contemporary literature. It was not surprising, therefore, that the father’s proceedings against his son triggered an international press campaign in which a number of leading anti-establishment figures participated, among others Maximilian Harden, Arnold Zweig, Else Lasker-Schüler, René Schickele and Guillaume Appollinaire in Paris. This campaign was so effective – the case was even mentioned in the Reichstag – that it was feared that force would be used to liberate Otto Gross from Tulln. Before he was transferred to Troppau in Silesia, he managed to smuggle out a letter that was published in Maximilian Harden’s Zukunft.

On July 8, 1914, he was released as “cured.” Three weeks after the outbreak of war, he volunteered to serve as doctor of infectious diseases in the Franz-Josef Krankenhaus in Vienna, and subsequently in other hospitals in Hungary and what is now Croatia. In Temesvar, Rumania, he became head of a typhus hospital. In 1916, his father died. His will, which he challenged, provided for the continuation of his legal restrictions.

A period of renewed creativity, interrupted by another attempt to cure his addition, followed. In Prague, he met Franz Kafka. They jointly planned to launch Blätter gegen den Machtwillen [a journal against the Will to Power]. This plan failed but another periodical, Die Freie Strasse [The Free Street], edited with two other friends, was published. It was described as a “preparatory work for the revolution,” a logical prelude to his final period in revolutionary Berlin where he played an influential role in expressionist, dadaist and communist circles. The writers Leonhard Frank, Johannes Becher, Franz Jung and Franz Werfel modeled characters in their novels on him.

His last chaotic weeks were spent in a state of acute destitution, anguish and failing health, in desperate need of drugs. A day or two after a group of friends had said they were unable to help him any more, and he had left them in anger, he was found in the entrance to a warehouse suffering from pneumonia, starved and frozen. He was taken to a sanatorium in Pankow where he died on February 13, 1920, at the age of forty-three. By mistake, he was buried in a Jewish cemetery.

In the month of his death, the Bonn publisher Marcus und Weber released his Three Essays about Inner Conflict.

4 responses to “Otto Gross — A Charming Anarchist

  1. David Schatzky

    At first I wasn’t sure why, but now that you’ve provided the context, it’s not surprising that in his dark and magnificent A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg chose to shine the spotlight (albeit briefly) on Gross, one among many significant and fascinating people in the Jung-Freud circle. Thanks for giving us a fuller picture of him, Eric.

  2. Gross is reminiscent of another secondary actor in the Freud Scenarios – Wilhelm Reich. Like Gross, Reich also conflated sex and politics, and similarly died abandoned and in prison in the United States. Myron Sharaf, Reich’s son-in-law wrote an amazing biography “Fury on Earth.” Worth (re-) reading.

  3. Reblogged this on Kenny Wilson's Blog and commented:
    A rather good article about Otto Gross!

  4. Excellent post that I have reblogged (hope you don’t mind!). I recently watched the film “A Dangerous Method” and decided to research into Otto Gross who I had never heard of before. Very interesting.