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History Of The Freud Conference

Douglas Kirsner


The Freud Conference has been the longest running, broadest and arguably most important intellectual regular event in the psychoanalytic calendar in Australia. I want to tell something of its genesis and history. It began in 1977, the same time that Deakin University was founded. I had just been appointed as a lecturer in philosophy in the School of Humanities that Professor Max Charlesworth headed. Max was an inspiration and fired the enthusiasm of those around him. He wanted Deakin to become a centre for conferences and exchanges with many disciplines and other universities, and especially people from outside universities altogether.
Soon after my appointment at Deakin in 1976, I happened to meet Ed Harari, a psychiatrist at St Vincent’s Hospital, one Saturday morning in Lygon Street, Carlton, and we decided to have a cappuccino at Genevieve. There we hatched the idea of an interdisciplinary conference on psychoanalysis. This was an unusual idea fraught with potential landmines. The psychoanalytic context at the time did not seem that conducive to such a venture. True, Alan (‘Foo’) Davies, Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, had an abiding interest in psychoanalysis and its applications and had run itinerant seminars over a number of years for a loosely named ‘Biography group’. A number of members of that department were interested in psychoanalysis but there was no relationship with practitioners. The Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis at that time was, like many others, very much a closed shop with solid protective walls that effectively insulated them from the outside world, as well as the world from the analysts. They were very protective about their ownership of the term ‘psychoanalysis’, which they made clear applied only to what they did. It seemed very much an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. At that time other psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic institutions such as the Victorian Association of Psychotherapists and Lacanian institutes did not exist, and the choice for those interested in exploring psychoanalysis was very limited. Clinicians and academics rarely crossed each other’s paths in their psychoanalytic explorations, except in a very few individual cases.
I was centrally interested in psychoanalysis and realized that some great opportunities were being lost for communication and synergy between analysts, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and academics. I was friendly with some analysts at the time who were interested in philosophy, especially Frank Graham, Bill Blomfield and Rose Rothfield, and later Stan Gold. They all became stalwarts of the conference for many years.
So with much apprehension I wrote to about twenty-five people to ask them to come to a Freud Conference in Erskine House, Lorne. I had no conception at the time that we would have another one, certainly not more than twenty others. Because it was so sensitive, the conference was a political as well as an intellectual event and it was very much a carefully selected and invited affair. The aim was very much that the papers would act as a way of getting people from different backgrounds to meet and exchange ideas in an open space. And the idea was that this should all be fun. There was a lot of built-in unstructured time with a relaxed and informal format. With its croquet lawns, and some glimmerings of days of splendour of decades past (I don’t think it had ever been renovated), Erskine House provided the perfect venue for this to occur—provided we didn’t have all our meals there. Apart from breakfast, the quality of Erskine House cuisine provided the perfect incentive to rove in groups to explore the pubs and restaurants of Lorne. We did have our drinks in the very friendly lounges there normally well into the night.
The first conference was held in March, 1977 at Erskine House. The papers were Bill Blomfield, ‘Primary and secondary processes’, Douglas Kirsner, ‘Psychoanalysis and the birth experience’, Angus Macintyre, ‘Ned Kelly: character armour’, and Judith Brett, ‘Psychoanalysis and literature’. My paper on pre-birth experience, based around the recent work of R. D. Laing and others whom I had been involved with recently in London, stirred quite a hornet’s nest.
The formal and informal discussions were so interesting and animated that a number of people including Judy Brett thought it a good idea to meet more often in Melbourne. Thus was the Melbourne Psychosocial Group formed. That group, centered in the Political Science Department at the University of Melbourne, ran very successful monthly interdisciplinary meetings for a decade, quite an achievement. The Freud Conferences continued annually, becoming an institution in the psychoanalytic world. This neutral ground also set the stage for many other meetings outside usual groups, and for critical discussions where there were no overt axes to grind. Some of the intellectual meetings had more personal results in friendship, even marriage.
The next conference in April, 1978, featured Werner Pelz, ‘Psychoanalysis as a new way of listening’, Liz Fell, ‘Psychoanalysis and feminism’, Graham Little, ‘Psychoanalytic and psychosocial interpretations’, and Jocelyn Dunphy on ‘Ricoeur’s Freud’.
At the third conference in 1979 John Carroll delivered a truly memorable paper on ‘The soap fetish’ where he diagnosed the cleanliness obsessions of a range of people. At that conference we featured a panel on transference where Frank Graham, Helen Martin and I spoke. This was the first panel. Panels at later conferences included topics on Jeffrey Masson’s The Assault on Truth, Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis. Later panels featured child analysis, psychoanalysis and cinema, psychoanalysis and babies, Phyllis Grosskurth’s Melanie Klein, psychoanalysis and feminism, psychoanalysis around the world and psychoanalysis and politics. Speakers included Ed Harari, Brian Muir, Leonardo Rodriguez, Silvia Rodriguez, Phillipa Rothfield, Frank Graham, Inez Zentner, Campbell Paul, Bill Blomfield, Valli Kohon, Francis Thomson-Salo, Warren Osmond and Graham Little. During the 1980s it was a particular pleasure that leading Lacanian analysts were involved and there was some meaningful dialogue across schools.
The 1980s included a conference on unconscious phantasy, with Kim Lycos, Neil Martin, Ann Morgan Judy Brett and Oscar Zentner. There were papers from local people including Denis Altman, Michael Lapinsky, Rose Rothfield, Stan Gold, Gregorio Kohon, Neville Symington, Angus McIntyre, Sudhir Kakar and Alastair Bain.
The 1984 conference was even featured in the former Melbourne tabloid Truth. Next to a page 3 babe was the headline, ‘Yes minister, you’re so right!’ And then came a story about the Victorian Government Cabinet meeting in Erskine House where the Labor cabinet divided into its political factions playing ‘Trivial Pursuit’. The Freud Conference mixed with Victorian Government ministers throughout that very enjoyable evening, although I don’t think the Freud Conference delegates were as accomplished as the socialist left were at Trivial Pursuit—some things never change. Some of the medically qualified Freud Conference delegates seized the opportunity to have an impromptu town meeting with the Victorian Minister for Health, Tom Roper (to no avail).
Our first truly international visitor (unless we count Professor Peter Munz from New Zealand on Last year in Marienbad) was Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel from New York in 1985. He presented some fascinating papers on ‘Critical psychoanalysis’ and ‘Psychoanalysis and spirituality’. He returned to a conference in 1990 to tell us why he had become a lapsed psychoanalyst. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Juliet Mitchell from London addressed a large conference of 100 at Lorne in 1986 on Freud and Klein and gave us a case. And who could forget the artistry of Pyotr Patrushev translating Professor Aron Belkin’s addresses. Professor Belkin delivered the first address by a Soviet psychiatrist to an audience outside the USSR when he addressed the Freud Conference in 1989 on psychoanalysis in the USSR. Pyotr himself spoke about the psychoanalysis of Stalinism. That had to be the most astounding conference we have had!
1991 saw the last Freud Conference in Lorne. George Moraitis from the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis presented papers on psychoanalysis and novelty and the unconscious known and unknown. It was unknown at the time that we would need to shift from Lorne for the next conference which featured Professor Elliott Jaques. Unfortunately, Erskine House was unavailable when Elliott Jaques could come so we had to transfer it to the Hilton that year. We had well over 200 participants at that conference. The consensus was to stay in Melbourne, a difficult decision since much of the atmosphere of the Lorne conference was of course lost at the Hilton.
Nonetheless, many more people could come and financially it made it more possible to invite more overseas speakers. I personally had many regrets about leaving Lorne but, all things considered, I think it was a good move. 1993 saw a visit from Albert Mason, a Kleinian analyst from Los Angeles, who spoke on psychoanalysis and hypnotism and Freud’s ‘Irma’ dream. Louis Sass from Rutgers University spoke on madness and modernism. We also had papers in the early 1990s from Malcolm Macmillan, Neville Symington, Alan Large and David Tacey.
In 1994 with the change to the structure of Deakin University, the conference moved to Deakin’s new Toorak Campus. Harold Bridger from the Tavistock, a great supporter of the conference for many years, was our keynote speaker and spoke about the history of the Tavistock Institute. Harold and Graham Little shared some work in a discussion about sharing work. The Toorak Campus regained a little of the Lorne feeling after the Hilton. Harold Bridger rightly viewed my approach to the Freud Conference was like having a party, and at times conferences here can approach that.
1995 saw a dynamic conference with John and Mary Gedo from Chicago together with Elizabeth Grosz, Ron Spielman and Neville Symington, and the 1996 conference was most absorbing with Mike Thompson from Berkeley speaking about Freud’s concept of neutrality and ‘Deception, mystification and trauma in Freud and Laing’ as well as Denis Brown from London speaking about psychoanalysis and group analysis together with Luisa Brunori from Bologna, Gerald Wooster and Estela Weldon from London.. That year marked the first year of cosponsorship with the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists since we cosponsored Denis Brown together.
Still, after 20 years of a lot of continuous work, I decided to stop organizing the conference and move on to other things such as my research which blossomed after I gave up running the conference. I was delighted that a number of organizations took up the challenge to continue the conference, the Australian Psychoanalytic Society, the Psychotherapy Association of Australia, the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists together with Deakin. The ball was particularly taken up by Chris Hill from the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists who is now Freud Conference Coordinator. I want particularly to mention the significant role played by my then Deakin colleague, Ron Gilbert, as deputy director of the conference over many years.
1997 was the last year I ran the conference. Zvi Lothane from New York was our keynote speaker with Lyndall Jones doing her exhibit here, ‘Freud’s Couch’ which was part of the Penetralia exhibit at RMIT in 2004. From then on it has been run in an excellent way by the quartet of sponsors. It didn’t as we had wished resulted in much input from the organizations under the umbrella of which the Freud Conference is run. It is the constant work of a few people, a situation scarcely unknown in human affairs.
At any rate the new arrangement for the conference worked splendidly due to the dedicated work of these few people from the organizations. Recent conferences have included keynote speakers Horst Kachele from Ulm on ‘Testing Psychoanalysis’, Professor Stuart Twemlow from Austin Riggs on ‘The roots of violence’, Professor Nancy Chodorow from Berkeley on ‘The Non-reproduction of Mothering’, Professor Robert McIvaine from Mississippi on ‘Eve’s Seed’. It’s an enthusiastic group that runs the conference, with Chris Hill as coordinator together with Ann Kantor and Joan Fordyce (Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Association of Australia), Eve Steel (Australian Psychoanalytic Society). Oliver Larkin (Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists) and myself from Deakin. Ken Heyward was a member of the committee on behalf of the Australian Psychoanalytic Society for some years.
There’s much, much more to be said about the Freud Conference, but its longevity and appeal demonstrate what an exciting and valuable field psychoanalysis can and should be. The details I have given demonstrate the overarching enthusiasm and interest in an open field. My own research on psychoanalytic institutions around the world certainly testifies to the fact that psychoanalysis thrives best where and when the field is open, is not owned by anybody, and is seen by society as a cultural asset, as an intrinsic part of cultural discourse. I have always emphasized how essential a critical approach to psychoanalysis is to the furtherance of the field. Things have changed, partly because of the influence of the Freud Conference and the Psychosocial Group and partly for other reasons. In Australia, there is less need for it now that there are more organizations in the psychoanalytic field, university courses, and ongoing international visitors and other conferences and lectures. The Freud Conference has played a significant role in bringing these issues into the cultural arena and it continues to provide opportunities for interesting and exciting contributions to the field in its varied and significant aspects.