by Federico Soldani – 10th June 2021
‘Freud of the Rings’ was the title of a temporary exhibition that took place between 2018 and 2019 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
“A ring that Freud had given to a psychoanalyst from his group of students found its way into the museum collection” – the museum website, accessed on the 10th of June 2021 (emphasis added), reports – “and sparked the exhibition curator’s imagination. Following an in-depth study, she managed to track down five sister-rings from around the world; all of them gifts from Freud to his inner circle of pupils. The rings are set with ancient gems engraved with images from Roman mythology, each one selected for a specific student. This is the first time the rings are displayed side by side. Next to Freud’s own ring, and those that he gave to his pupils, are objects from his antiquities collection, related to psychoanalytic theory and his personal life. A contemporary video work looking at how his personal possessions are invested with power accompanies the exhibition.”
“The publicity surrounding this exhibition has led so far to the discovery of six additional rings from around the world” – the exhibition webpage reports – “one of which is presented here. It apparently belonged to Ernest Jones, a member of the secret committee, one of the founders of the British Psychoanalytic Society, and author of a biography of Freud. Though a few sources report that his ring was stolen from his car, it is possible that it resurfaced after a period of time. Alternatively, this may be the ring that Freud presented to Katherine, Jones’s wife. Years later, the ring was given by Ernest and Katherine’s son Mervyn to his friend Irma Brenman Pick, a London psychoanalyst.
The figure on the gem – a bearded man with a wrinkled brow and hair falling over his temples – probably represents Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, regarded as the father of modern medicine. Among the topics he discussed was a female disease that manifested itself in a wide variety of symptoms and was attributed to the wandering of the womb within the body. The name of the disease – hysteria – is commonly ascribed to him. Though the first psychoanalysts viewed this condition as a psychological phenomenon resulting from trauma, it is not surprising to find Hippocrates’s figure on one of the rings bestowed by Freud upon the members of his close circle, since the topic of hysteria was of great interest to them.”
Ernest Jones, the last man standing on the right in the 1922 photo above, was also the psychoanalyst who obtained from Freud rights to the English translation of his works; Jones edited with others such as James Strachey the translations for the standard edition of Freud’s work.
About hysteria in the history of neurology and later of psychoanalysis, we have discussed in PsyPolitics how in Freud’s London studio the place of honor above the famous couch was reserved for one of the founding moments in the history of the ‘neuro’ and ‘psy’ disciplines, now part of the classic iconography of these fields: the famous Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, under whom Freud studied at the Salpêtrière hospital between 1885 and 1886, showed a case of hysterical paralysis. The patient was supported by Charcot’s favorite pupil, Joseph Babinski, while the master practiced the hypnosis technique.
According to Smithsonian Magazine online (emphasis added), “Freud began handing out signet rings, usually ancient carvings reset in modern bands, to his inner circle of students, friends and colleagues, which he called a “Secret Committee.”
In her book The Secret Ring: Freud’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis (1991), Phyllis Grosskurth explains that around 1912, Freud’s primary disciple and intellectual heir, Carl Jung, split with his mentor and began outlining his own theories which deviated from Freud’s work. Freud, hoping to keep a grip on the emerging field of study, brought together six prominent students and created a “Secret Committee” to propagate and defend his work against Jungian psychoanalysis. To seal the deal, Freud gifted each committee member a signet ring with a Greek or Roman god from antiquity taken from his collection. He later gifted other rings to friends and students, in total handing out about 20 of the signets during his life.
The exhibit of the rings at the Israel Museum is the brainchild of assistant curator Morag Wilhelm. AFP reports she found in the museum’s collections a small box with the words “Freud Nike” on it. Inside was a ring with an inset stone depicting the goddess of triumph. It had been gifted to Eva Rosenfeld, one of Freud’s patients and a psychoanalyst who collaborated with his daughter Anna Freud.
Wilhelm decided to investigate more, leading to the exhibit which includes six rings, including Rosenfeld’s ring, one given to Anna Freud as well as those owned by Hungarian disciple Sandor Ferenczi, German psychoanalyst Ernst Simmel, a ring given to an anonymous psychoanalyst and a ring owned by Freud himself.
Several of Freud’s ancient statues as well as one of his cigar boxes are on display in the exhibit. The curators hope that the exhibit will raise awareness of the rings and might help other rings to come to light.
According to the AFP, Freud was interested in making connections between different cultural fields. This exhibit embodies that idea, bringing together archaeology, art, history and psychoanalysis. It also fits the spirit of Freud’s work, which delved into a person’s past to understand their current ailments says Ido Bruno, director of the Israel Museum. “We look at the past but constantly see the present and fantasize, or seek sources of inspiration, for our future.”
Freud’s Secret Committee lasted until 1927, though its membership fluctuated in its last years. It was disbanded after Freudian psychoanalysis had won the day over its rivals to become a global phenomenon, according to Grosskurth.”
At the exhibition, several objects from Freud’s collection were on display as well. As previously discussed in PsyPolitics, quoting a 2010 article, Freud himself said that he had read more about archeology than about psychology – an instance that is actually highlighted at the Freud Museum London – and in fact his creation, psychoanalysis, can be understood with a parallelism – or a metaphor – as an archaeological exploration of the psyche.
The analyst, in the manner of the archaeologist, tries to find traces of the origins of psychopathological phenomena in the narration of past individual events. “The psychoanalyst – said Freud to one of his patients, influenced by the reading of Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer of the remains of the city of Troy – like the archaeologist in his excavations must discover layer by layer the patient’s psyche before being able to arrive to the deepest and most precious treasures“.
The first time I read about Freud’s habit of handing out rings to members of his inner circle was in 2017 in psychiatrist Mario Di Fiorino‘s book L’illusione comunitaria: La costruzione moderna delle comunità artificiali (1998).
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, wrote: “Ernest Jones, the last survivor of those to whom the seven rings of the master were given and who attested by his presence in the highest places of an international association that they were not reserved simply for bearers of relics.”
[In the photo at the top, as described on the website of the exhibition “The members of the secret committee at the Seventh International Psychoanalytic Congress held in Berlin in 1922. Standing (from left to right): Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones; seated: Sigmund Freud, Sándor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs.”]
Last Updated on June 17, 2021 by Federico Soldani