Nacht, Sacha Emanoel (1901-1977)

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Sacha Nacht, French physician, neuropsychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, was born at Racacini in the department of Bacau, Romania, on September 23, 1901, and died in Paris on August 25, 1977.

The son of Samuel Nacht, who was ruined financially by a fire in his sawmill, and of Cécilia Bril, Sacha Nacht completed his secondary education and first year medical studies, then emigrated to France in 1920 in order to continue his studies there, because of a numerus clausus limiting Jewish enrollment in Romania. The influence of Charles Foix stimulated his interest in neurology and he presented his graduate thesis in 1926: Contributionà l'étude de l'anatomie pathologique des myélites syphilitiques en général et de leurs formes progressives en particulier (Contribution to the study of pathological anatomy in syphilitic myelitis in general and its progressive forms in particular).

In 1926 his success (as a foreigner) in the Internat des Asiles (a competitive examination for trainee physicians wishing to work in psychiatric asylums) nevertheless directed him into psychiatry. Legend has it that psychoanalysis was revealed to him while he was watching Henri-René Lenormand's play, Le Mangeur de rêve, which triumphed in Paris in 1922, but this underestimates the importance of psychoanalysis and the first French psychoanalysts working under Professor Henri Claude in the Sainte-Anne hospital where he was soon to work.

He was analyzed for two and half years by Rudolph Loewenstein before going to Vienna where Freud received him on the recommendation of Marie Bonaparte. Being unable to understand his German, Freud considered that it was impossible to continue the analysis and recommended that he continue his treatment with Heinz Hartmann in Vienna, a treatment they later continued in Paris when Hartmann emigrated there.

Nacht was invited to attend a conference on schizophrenia in 1927 and was elected a member of the Société Psychanalytique de Paris (SPP, Paris Psychoanalytic Society) on January 17, 1928, becoming a full member on October 21, 1929. In December 1931 he was appointed head of the psychotherapy and psychoanalysis laboratory under Henri Claude and in 1933 passed the Concours des Médecins des Asiles (a competitive examination for asylum physicians), though he never occupied a position as head of a hospital department. In 1935 Alcan published his first book, Psychanalyse des psychonévroses et des troubles de la sexualité (Psychoanalysis of the Psychoneuroses and Sexual Disorders), but he mainly made a name for himself at the tenth Conference of French-speaking Psychoanalysts in February 1938 with his report on Le masochisme, etude historique, clinique, psychogénétique, prophylactique et thérapeutique (Masochism, an historical, clinical, psychogenetic, prophylactic and therapeutic study). Challenging the notion of a death instinct, he stressed the aggressive instinct, one of its manifestations being fear, masochism representing an eroticized turning of this against the self. In 1935 he married Louise Lydie Farman and their son Marc was born the following year. They divorced in 1950 and in 1952 he married Edmée Tedesco-Chemla. Their witnesses, one year before the split in the SPP, were Jacques Lacan and Sylvia Bataille.

During World War II he joined the Resistance as "agent P1" in the Brick network of the Fighting French Forces from November 1, 1942 to September 30, 1944. He was arrested in 1943 while trying to make his way to London. He narrowly escaped deportation thanks to his wife, who used a false baptism certificate to conceal his activities and his origins from the Germans. He was continually harassed by the Militia and went into hiding at Gassin (in the Var department). After the Liberation he resumed his activities as a captain and psychiatrist before being demobilized.

It was at this time that he began to do training analyses with such figures as Serge Lebovici and Salem Shentoub. He also inaugurated the shortening of sessions to forty-five minutes. In 1947 he succeeded John Leuba as president of the SPP and proved to be particularly active in this role. Along with his friend Jacques Lacan he was one of the two reporters at the eleventh Conference of French-speaking Psychoanalysts, held in Brussels in May 1947, where he presented a paper on Les manifestations cliniques de l'agressivité et leur role dans le traitement psychanalytique (Clinical Manifestations of Aggression and their Role in Psychoanalytic Treatment). In 1956 he presented, along with Serge Lebovici, Les indications et contre-indications de cure psychanalytique (Indications and Counter Indications of the Psychoanalytic Cure); in 1955, with René Diatkine and Jean Favreau Le Moi dans la relation perverse (The Ego in Perverse Relations) and; in 1958, with Paul-Claude Racamier, La théorie psychanalytique des délires (The Psychoanalytic Theory of Delusions). At the first Congress of Psychosomatic Medicine in 1960 he demonstrated his constant interest in psychosomatic medicine in a report written with René Held: Maladies ou malade psychosomatique? (Psychosomatic Illness or Patient?).

His staunch support for the training criteria laid down by the International Psychoanalytic Associationhe was vice-president of the Association from 1957 to 1969led him, on the occasion of the foundation of the Paris Institute of Psychoanalysis, to adopt a radical position in favor of a more rigorous, medical-style teaching. In this he found himself opposed to Daniel Lagache and Jacques Lacan. This opposition resulted in a definitive break in relations when the split took place on June 16, 1953. In 1951 he was appointed director of the institute, which was inaugurated on June 1, 1954, and ruled it with an iron fist until the revolt of the full members resulted in Serge Lebovici being elected to his position in 1962. There is no doubt that the serious riding accident that plunged him into a coma in 1956 and left him with an embarrassing diplopia also modified his character and limited his activity. During his directorship he nevertheless created the Diagnostics and Treatment Center in 1954 and the Advanced Training Seminar in 1958.

It was essentially at these annual Seminars that Sacha Nacht continued his teaching activity and his activities within the SPP, refusing all other positions from this point onward. As a testimony to his services he was awarded as a parting gift the title of "director-founder in charge of relations with psychoanalysts in the provinces and abroad."His influence over the general public began to wane before the rising star of the man who became his main adversary, Jacques Lacan.

We can see the beginning of his decline in the relative failure of the collection "La psychanalyse d'aujourd'hui " (Psychoanalysis Today)the eponymous volume, published in 1957, which gave a fairly exhaustive outline of the conception of psychoanalysis that was behind it, followed by the equal relative failure of the Traité du psychanalyse (Treatise on Psychoanalysis), which was a personal project that he had earlier discussed with Ernest Jones (in a letter dated April 24, 1938, in which Nacht insisted "above all [on] the 'didactic' character I would like to see it have"). Only the first volume of Traité appeared in 1964. Although suffering from cancer, he nevertheless continued until the end in the considerable practice that his therapeutic reputation had won him.

In addition to his institutional work, and the mark it left on the French psychoanalytic movement for several decades, it is important to stress the no less negligible influence of his theoretical stances. For nearly thirty years they were a fairly constant if not a mandatory reference for the leading members of the SPP, almost all of whom had spent some length of time on his couch.

He was nevertheless a clinician rather than a theorist, his influence being manifested in the sphere of psychoanalytic practice, as he commented on it to his listeners at his famous Technical Seminar. He also outlined it in the books that documented his many, religiously attended contributions at the SPP symposia, among them La Présence du psychanalyste (The Presence of the Psychoanalyst; 1963), Guérir avec Freud (Healing with Freud; 1971). His comments on "non-verbal communication" were in response to Lacan's assertions, as was his assertion that the psychoanalyst acts more "through what he is than through what he says." Nacht also stressed the distinction to be made between "transference reactions" and "transference neurosis," just as he stressed, in relation to the counter-transference, the necessary "goodness" of the psychoanalyst, as manifested in his/her "presence," ideas that are quite close to Sándor Ferenczi's position on tact. He even went so far as to advocate silence as a factor of vital integration, maintaining that words separate just as much as they lift the repression.

Little by little, although he had stressed the Freudian notion of "conflict" and the "cycle of frustration-aggression-fear" as opposed to the "autonomous Ego," repeating that "the energy sources of the Ego always derive from the aggressive and sexual instincts,", toward the end of his life he nevertheless drew closer to the Ego-Psychology of his former analysts, declaring this publicly on the occasion of Rudolph Loewenstein's last visit to France in 1967.

Though not devoid of a sense of humor, Sacha Nacht affected a brusque manner and was often criticized for his authoritarianism, which earned him the nickname "satrap." And although his work is not much read today, he nevertheless remains an important figure for psychoanalysis in France, both for the institutional role he played and for the influence that his theoretical and technical conceptions exercised over the psychoanalysts of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society for some thirty years.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Centre de consultations et de traitements psychanalytiques Jean-Favreau; Congrès des psychanalystes de langue française des pays romans; Cure; Death instinct (Thanatos); France; Indications and countraindications for psychoanalysis in an adult; Lay analysis; Loewenstein, Rudolph M.; Neutrality/benevolent neutrality; Terminatioon; Second World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; Société psychanalytique de Paris et Institut de psychanalyse de Paris; Splits in psychoanalysis; Tact; Training analysis.


Mijolla, Alain de. (2001). Splits in the French psychoanalytic movement between 1953 and 1964. In R. Steiner and J. Johns (Eds.), Within Time and Beyond Time, A festschrift for Pearl King (pp. 1-24). London: Karnac. (Original work published 1995)

Nacht, Sacha. (1938). Le Masochisme.Étude historique, clinique, psychogénétique et thérapeutique. Paris, Denoël.

. (1950). De la pratiqueà la théorie psychanalytique. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

. (1963). La Présence du psychanalyste. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

. (1971). Guérir avec Freud. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Saada, Denise. (1972). Sacha Nacht. Paris, Payot.