Thalassa. A Theory of Genitality

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Freud described Ferenczi's Thalassa. A Theory of Genitality as "the boldest application of psycho-analysis that was ever attempted" (1933a, p. 228). It is worth noting that the Hungarian edition of the work (Buda-pest, 1929) bore a different title: "Catastrophes in the Development of the Genital Function: A Psychoanalytic Study."

Ferenczi takes as his first axis of reference the parallelism between catastrophic moments in the development of the embryo (or ontogenesis) on the one hand, and in the evolution of the species (or phylogenesis) on the other. Proposing a vast fresco, summarized in a synoptic table of presumed parallels (p. 69) and based on Lamarck's evolutionary theories and on Haeckel's fundamental rule of recapitulation, which it rounds out, he brings together two seemingly distinct temporal perspectives: the time of the germ cell, when the human was a mere monoblast destined by fertilization to become an egg, then an embryo, and after birth to continue living in an extended dependency on the environment; and the time that begins with the emergence of organic life on earth, and which can be described by reference to the various ice ages of the Quaternary era. How many tens of thousands of years were thus recapitulated in the transformation of the ovum into the newborn? As Nicolas Abraham (1962) notes, this "cosmogonic epic seeks its meaning in the automatism of repetition itself."

The second yardstick introduced by Ferenczi in his interpretation of the erotic meaning of reality, of coitus, of sleep, or of sexual impotence is regression. For the adult man, coitus embodies a striving on the part of the ego toward a threefold identification: a symbolic identification of the whole organism with the phallic function; a hallucinatory (or specular) identification with the feminine partner; and a real identification, effected as "the genital secretion [does] in very truth penetrate into the uterus" (p. 74), as the biology of pleasure makes the regeneration of the human being into a material reality. Ferenczi ascribes a traumatolytic function to the orgasm. To buttress these analogies, he takes as a model the fusion of sexual cells familiar to embryology, extrapolating the notion of "amphimixis" to account for the partial erotisms of different organs. By analogy with disturbances of language, he describes erectile dysfunction as "a kind of genital stuttering" (p. 9). He dubs his working method "utraquism," meaning that a single phenomenon may be viewed in two complementary perspectives, so that technique and theory have a recursive relationship.

The ramifications of this text of Ferenczi's were considerable. In Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), Freud had constructed a myth of the origin of civilization on the basis of an animal, human, and/or divine parricide, reparation for which was due "out of love for the father" and not just "in the name of the father" (fraternal alliances, codification of the prohibition against incest); in Thalassa, Ferenczi evokes a carnival of bodily organs whose regressions serve to actualize symbolic remnants (marriage bonds, the search for the child within the adult after post-traumatic fragmentation, and so on). With respect to later psychoanalysts, it is clear that Thalassa is an anticipation of Jacques Lacan's thinking on the logic of the unconscious and of his topography of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The work also foreshadows future psychosomatic studies (which Ferenczi calls bioanalysis ). It is worth noting that such authors as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, André Leroi-Gourhan, Konrad Lorenz, Yves Coppens, and René Thom have arrived in this connection at equally original hypotheses.

Pierre Sabourin

See also: Amphimixia/amphimixis; Archaic mother; Ferenczi, Sándor; Psychic causality.

Source Citation

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1924). Thalassa. Versuch einer Genitaltheorie. Leipzig and Vienna: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag. Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality (Henry Alden Bunker, Trans.). Albany, NY: Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1938.


Abraham, Nicolas. (1962). Preface to Sándor Ferenczi, Thalassa. Psychanalyse des origines de la vie sexuelle. (Translated into French by J. Dupont and S. Samama). Paris: Payot.

Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and Taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1933c). Sándor Ferenczi. SE, 22: 225-229.

Pragier, Georges. (1955). Un Inédit de Ferenczi. In Sándor Ferenczi. Monographies of the Revue Française de Psychanalyse. Paris: PUF.

Sabourin, Pierre. (1985). Ferenczi. Paladin et grand vizir secret. Paris:Éditions Universitaires.