Research at the RBML | Nathan Gorelick on Otto Rank

Nathan Gorelick, currently an Assistant Professor of English at Barnard, recently visited the RBML to explore the Otto Rank papers. Rank’s theories of the doppelgänger, leadership in the International Psychoanalytic Association, and long association (and then falling out) with Freud place him as both an important– and controversial– figure in the history of psychoanalysis. Below, Gorelick talks about how he uses Rank to think about science fiction and horror literature, as well as how the archives may play into an upcoming conference, titled “Rank Horror: An International Symposium.”


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

I came to study the Otto Rank archive, a large and priceless collection of records, correspondences, drafts, and ephemera owned by one of the most important and controversial figures in the history of psychoanalysis. Rank was one of Sigmund Freud’s closest associates for nearly fifteen years, the secretary of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and the first member of Freud’s inner circle seriously to challenge him on the primacy of the Oedipus complex. His theory of the doppelgänger was instrumental to Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” which remains profoundly influential in contemporary horror and science fiction. I wanted to learn more about their friendship, professional association, and eventual falling-out in order to understand what role Rank played, as both an influence and a foil, in Freud’s later writings. I also wondered what other relationships Rank developed after his break-up with Freud that might reveal more about his influence on psychology beyond or even against psychoanalysis.


How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

I first visited the archives for a separate project early in 2023 for a separate project. It was while I was leafing through a rare book from 1753, looking for an image to include in my forthcoming book on the Enlightenment unconscious, that the RBML director, Courtney Chartier, approached me about the possibility of organizing an event to showcase the Otto Rank collection. I leapt at the idea and was able to spend two weeks at the end of the semester digging through more than twenty boxes of materials. I plan to return occasionally throughout the next academic year in the lead-up to our international symposium in May, 2024.


What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

I had no idea I would find so much of Freud’s private, hand-written writing to Rank, often on postcards sent from his favorite vacation town, Bad Gastein. They really were dear friends. There are also dozens of letters from other members of the IPA’s central committee, including Sandor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, and Karl Abraham, providing a clear window into the everyday administrative workings, theoretical controversies, and big personalities of the early psychoanalytic movement. The correspondence files include typed transcripts from the original German as well as typed English translations. While the online catalog lists these materials, going through them gives one a sense of the emotional realities, the hurt feelings and wounded egos and paranoia and betrayal, surrounding Rank’s painful separation from psychoanalysis, reminding us why it is the most human of the human sciences.


What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you? 

Beyond the correspondences, most of the archive contains Rank’s hand-written drafts of his many books, as well as his preparatory notes for each manuscript, including piles of scraps of paper containing scribbles to himself. These little notes, sometimes written on the back of old advertisements for the Viennese theater, or on odd newspaper clippings, or on stationary from Rank’s apartments in Paris or New York, are like snapshots compressing the whole compositional process of an energetic, ranging mind into a single, indecipherable time-space, like a black hole of thought, infinitely dense with information but giving off no light.


What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

The RBML is truly a treasure trove, full of more material than an army of researchers could possibly explore in a dozen lifetimes. Get in there! Survey the catalog for anything that even tangentially brushes against your areas or topics of interest and go take a look. Leave your expectations at the door and explore with an open mind. Start with a wide view and then zoom in on the details you find most intriguing, but try not to determine in advance what those details might be. Prepare to be surprised.