Photograph of Heinrich Racker

Heinrich Racker

“To be able to alleviate the suffering of other human beings and to contribute a little to the knowledge of how to do this, was what I desired since a long time ago and with particular intensity.”

Heinrich Racker was born in 1910 in a small town in Poland to Jewish parents, Naphtali Meyer Racker and Ella Spiegel, the second of three children. At the outbreak of the First World War his family moved to Vienna where, from a young age, Heinrich learned the piano, developing a deep passion and talent for music. He became a professor at the Vienna Conservatory at the age of only 18. At university he studied psychology and musicology, and quickly grew fascinated by psychoanalytic theory. This intense interest led him to begin training at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, and to enter into analysis with Dutch analyst Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, who had studied with Sigmund Freud. He also started medical training but was forced to flee Vienna the following year when the Nazis invaded Austria.

In 1939, at the age of 29, Racker moved to Buenos Aires, forced to flee the Nazi regime in Europe. Arriving in Argentina speaking very little Spanish, he had to teach and perform piano to earn enough money to re-enter analysis. Initially this was with Spanish-born analyst and co-founder of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association (APA), Ángel Garma, while his later training analysis was with Marie Langer, a fellow refugee from Nazi persecution and another of the APA’s founders. While visiting Uruguay in 1944, Racker met Noune Tronquoy and they married later that year. They had two children and remained together until Racker’s early death on 28 January 1961. In 1946, at the age of 36, he completed his analytic training, becoming an associate member of the APA the following year. A vibrant thinker and prolific writer throughout his relatively brief career, he gave his first paper, ‘On the jealousy of Othello’, to the APA in 1945.

Transference and countertransference

In 1948 Racker read a paper to the APA on the subject of countertransference, ‘Observaciones sobre la contratransferencia como instrumento técnico’ [Observations on the countertransference as a technical tool], the first in a series of bold, original works on the nature of countertransference. In this important contribution, he describes the transference and countertransference as engaged in an intense ongoing dialogue, one which plays a central role in the progress of an analytic treatment. He flatly rejects the notion of the analyst as in any sense neutral or free from neurosis; indeed, for him, the countertransference acts as a kind of guide or compass, alerting the analyst to what is taking place, both within the patient and in the analysis as a whole.

In the same year he presented a second paper exploring this difficult yet crucial component of analytic work. ‘Contribución al problema de la contratransferencia’ [A contribution to the problem of counter-transference] was equally well received as his ‘Observations’, and later published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (IJP). His elucidation of the theory of countertransference was highly influential, and arguably among the most important developments in clinical theory in the Kleinian tradition (although Klein herself had largely ignored the role of countertransference, as had Freud before her). Many analysts, both at the time and since, have considered his ideas on countertransference to be quite radical, in that they opened up the thorny, charged subject of the analyst’s emotional response to the patient in a way that was honest about the challenges it posed, and yet found in it a valuable clinical tool. His emphasis on the central role of the countertransference, and his illumination of the transference-countertransference interplay, continue to inform post-Kleinian theory and practice today. Indeed, Horacio Etchegoyen, once Racker’s analysand and a distinguished thinker in his own right, described him as, ‘one of the most original and creative analysts in the history of our discipline.’

It is notable that, at the same time as Racker was working on his theory of countertransference, Paula Heimann was thinking along very similar lines, though they were not then aware of one another’s work. In 1949 Heimann presented a paper to the IPA Congress in Zurich, asserting that, ‘the analyst’s emotional response to his patient within the analytic situation represents one of the most important tools for his work. The analyst’s counter-transference is an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious (‘On counter-transference’, 1950). This mirrors Racker’s approach – and language – to a striking degree, and suggests that, in the years following the end of the Second World War, the moment was ripe for examining this conflicted, challenging, yet vital area of analytic work.

Another stage of Racker’s investigation entailed the delineation of two distinct types of ‘countertransference identifications’: ‘concordant’ and ‘complementary’ identifications. In a concordant identification, the analyst’s ego, id and superego align empathically with those of the patient. In a complementary identification, the analyst identifies with the patient’s treatment of him/her, as though the analyst were one of the patient’s internal objects, which then leads to the analyst’s enactment of this imposed role.

Teaching, spirituality and the arts

Alongside his particular talent and passion for music, Racker was generally highly cultivated and interested in the arts. In addition to several papers on music and musicians, he wrote about literature, art, spirituality and religion, collected in Psicoanálisis del espiritu [Psychoanalysis of the Spirit] in 1957. Another subject that he explored was the relationship between ethics and psychoanalysis, about which he wrote the paper, ‘Ethics and psycho-analysis and the psycho-analysis of ethics’. Here he presents ethics and psychoanalysis as fundamentally and indivisibly connected, and locates this connection at the very origins of psychoanalytic enquiry. Indeed, he describes Freud’s earliest theoretical developments as both defined and driven by the problem of reconciling ethical and instinctual pressures within the individual.

As well as writing, Racker devoted considerable time and energy to teaching. This aspect of his work was very important to him, and his skill as a teacher led to his being offered a Sloan Visiting Professorship at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Kansas. (He was never able to take up the role, as he died unexpectedly before it was due to start.) By 1960 he was director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Argentina and in the process of founding a clinic within the APA. Around this time, he was also invited to contribute to the 22nd International Psychoanalytical Congress, to take place in Edinburgh in 1961. However, he never attended the congress: he discovered he had cancer in November of 1960, and died just two months later at the age of 50. Despite dying so prematurely – as Etchegoyen said, ‘at the height of his creativity’ – Racker left behind a significant and creative contribution to psychoanalytic theory. His theoretical developments have been a gift to subsequent analysts, and pay testament to his belief in the far-reaching potential of analytic work to understand and enrich the human experience.

Eleanor Sawbridge Burton, 2018

Key publications

1968 Racker, H. Transference and Countertransference. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work in Spanish, published 1960.)

1965 Racker, H. ‘Psychoanalytic considerations on music and the musician‘. Psychoanalytic Review, 52C(3):75-94.

1958 Racker, H. ‘Counterresistance and interpretation‘. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 6:215-221.

1957 Racker. Psicoanálisis del espíritu [Psychoanalysis of the Spirit]. Buenos Aires: Nova. A.P.A.

1957 Racker, H. ‘Contribution to the problem of psycho-pathological stratification‘. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 38:223-239.

1957 Racker, H. ‘The Meanings and uses of countertransference‘. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 26 (3), 303-357.

1953 Racker. ‘A Contribution to the problem of counter-transference‘. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34 (4), 313-324.

1951 Racker, H. ‘Contribution to psychoanalysis of music‘. American Imago, 8(2):129-163.

1951 Racker, H. ‘Observaciones sobre la contratransferencia como instrumento técnico‘ [Observations on the countertransference as a technical tool; first translated into English by Robert Oelsner, 2013].