Viktor Tausk: The short-lived influence of the machine man

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The troubled life of Viktor Tausk, an extraordinary psychoanalyst


In July 1919 a man with only a singular intention stood on a chair, put a noose around his neck and fired a pistol into his head. With this suicide came the end of the troubled life of Viktor Tausk, an extraordinary psychoanalyst

When Freud established his movement in Vienna, it attracted a group of talented, creative and unusual followers. Some were innovative and made important contributions. Others were more anodyne with distinctly variable personalities and clashes were frequent. It was a turbulent mix and the outcomes were often disastrous. There were 17 suicides among his first followers. To many they were like the apostles of a new faith that was going to change the world; to others it was a solution to the problems they had in their lives. Freud was often in despair about the Vienna group and looked to places like Zurich and Budapest to attract more able disciples.

Viktor Tausk, from a Jewish background, came from Croatia, where he worked as a lawyer and judge. After a personal crisis, he moved to Berlin where he did journalism before shifting to Vienna in 1912. He took up psychoanalysis and qualified in medicine.

Tausk was a star in the analytic circle. He was the only one, aside from Freud, who lectured on psychoanalysis and psychiatry. He was innovative, coming up with new ideas and seeming to anticipate the thinking of the Master. This was a risky course. Freud, intensely protective of his discovery, was always alert for signs of apostasy. He was equally defensive about any challenges to his authority as Adler, Stekel, Rank and Jung found out to their cost.

Tausk was charming, good looking and very appealing to women. His seductions included Lou Andreas-Salomé, a leading light among the psychoanalytic women with whom Freud had an intense platonic relationship. This added to the waves of discontent he was spreading in the direction of the leader.

During the war, he served in the Imperial Austrian army where his experiences had a lasting impact. He was not alone. Otto Rank, previously considered to be somewhat wimpish, came back flourishing a large pistol.

By 1919, his need for analysis could not be deferred but first he came up with a tour de force. Tausk was the only analyst to write about war psychosis, rather than neurosis. This led to his most famous paper, On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia, about a common delusion in paranoid schizophrenic patients that a malignant and remote alien device influenced their thoughts and their behaviour.

Machines of a mystical nature”, working by means of radio-waves, telepathy, x-rays, invisible wires or other mysterious forces, are believed to be operated by enemies (usually doctors treating the patient) as instruments of torture and mind-control who implant and remove ideas and feelings, and inflict pain from a distance. Constructed of “boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries and the like” these devices transcend attempts at a coherent account of their function: “All the discoveries of mankind,” Tausk stated, “are regarded as inadequate to explain the marvellous powers of this machine.” ?The paper attracted considerable attention and is his lasting contribution to the literature.

Tausk wanted to be analysed by Freud. This was the ultimate seal of approval for any budding analyst but the hope that it would solve his problems must have been foremost. Freud refused – a severe blow – recommending Helene Deutsch, whom he was already analysing, instead. Thus commenced the incestuous triangle that was to have such fatal consequences. To no great surprise, Tausk spent all his time during the sessions talking about Freud; in her analysis, Deutsch then relayed this back to him. The situation was clearly untenable.

After three months, Freud put his foot down in a peremptory fashion. If Deutsch did not stop seeing Tausk, he would not continue her analysis. Deutsch had little option. Had she continued with Tausk, she would also face the fate of the other heretics. Tausk therefore had to deal with a double rejection. His initial response was to plunge into a new relationship, becoming engaged to Hilda Loewy, a concert pianist 16 years younger whom he had previously treated. He rapidly impregnated her and had to arrange an abortion.

When it was all over although he gave no indication to anyone of his intentions, seeming to remain cheerful and optimistic. His mental state, if not his motives, were revealed in his suicide note to Freud “I have no melancholy,” he wrote. “My suicide is the healthiest, most decent deed of my unsuccessful life.”

Freud wrote a glowing three-page obituary – his longest – and consoled Tausk’s two sons. In his private comments, he was less sanguine, displaying some of the ruthless disdain that was to soil his future reputation. To Lou Salomé he said “I confess that I do not really miss him; I had long realised that he could be of no further service; indeed that he constituted a threat to the future.”

After this Tausk was effectively written out of the story of psychoanalysis until Paul Roazen disinterred the scandal in his book Brother Animal. After the expected defensiveness, there was grudging acknowledgement of Tausk’s work and Freud’s inexcusable callousness. Deutsch later admitted that Freud had behaved badly in the whole business.

Tausk’s story is revealing. Freud had all the characteristics of a charismatic leader, if not prophet. This created impossible expectations among his apostolic followers. At the same time, they had to propagate the leader’s message; any deviance invariably led to expulsion. We still see the same process in modern cults.

Tausk’s brilliance was no inoculation against his inner turmoil. The suspicion is that his war experiences were impossible to contain but it was the incestuous analytic triangulation that did him in. The irony is that this was the basis of what Freud considered his greatest discovery: the Oedipal Complex.

Tausk deserved better.

Robert M Kaplan is writing about Viktor Tausk in his latest book The King who Strangled his Psychiatrist and Other Dark Tales.

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