E.M. Jellinek’s Essay on Drinking’s Symbolism: Another Look

Whatever’s written in your heart,

that’s all that matters.

You’ll find a way to say it all someday.

 — Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011)

This is a heart-warming story.  You’ll see!

As a young man, in Budapest, E.M. Jellinek (1890-1963) became involved in the then-blossoming psychoanalytic movement.  He seems to have had a particular fascination with the interpretation of symbols, in relation to both culture and the human psyche.  Jellinek knew Sandor Ferenczi, leader of the Budapest School of Psychoanalysis, and was analyzed by him.  Jellinek was also friends with Geza Roheim – an ethnographer and analyst, Jellinek’s contemporary, and, in due course, a leader in the application of psychoanalytic concepts to cultural interpretation.(1)  Jellinek even reportedly preceded Sigmund Freud to the lectern at the 5th International Psychoanalytical Congress in Budapest in September, 1918.(2)

Psychoanalytic A-Team, 1922. Seated, left to right, Freud, Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs; standing, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones

Ferenczi’s correspondence with Sigmund Freud included a couple of mentions of Jellinek’s early stabs at symbolic interpretation.  In a letter dated June 13, 1917 – in which, incidentally, Ferenczi referred to Jellinek as an ethnologist – Ferenczi wrote: 

Etymologists are supposed to be of the opinion that the Latin word amicus is derived from the [word] umbilicus.  Now, Jellinek says that Australian tribes seal their blood friendship by exchanging their churingas (i.e., the preserved dried remnants of their umbilical cords). 

Then, again, in the same letter:

Jellinek also promised me a collection of interesting ancient dream interpretations.  (I recall one:  “In a dream a woman is sealed by means of a signet ring.”  The ancient author’s interpretation:  The woman has been impregnated, for only a full vessel is sealed.  I find that very good.  Incidentally, the colloquial expression “to seal” [petschieren] agrees with that.)

Unfortunately, Jellinek seems to have had little opportunity for symbolic analysis over the course of his subsequent career.  At Worcester State Hospital, in the 1930s, he was employed chiefly as a statistician and methodologist — not much symbolic interpretation was required in that capacity.  Jellinek addressed many different questions in the alcohol-studies phase of his career, from 1939 onward, but symbolic interpretation wasn’t among his major focuses in that phase either  – not, at least, until the early 1960s and, later on, with the publication of his seminal essay titled “The Symbolism of Drinking: A Cultural-Historical Approach” in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol  in 1977.(3)

Did I say 1977?

Jellinek died in 1963, while working at his desk at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. How might he have managed to assemble and publish his landmark symbolism essay 14 years afterward?

E.M. Jellinek

The answer appears in an “Editors’ Foreword” to Jellinek’s article written by Robert E. Popham and Carole D. Yawney.  They compiled and edited Jellinek’s 1977 essay from tape recordings and notes taken by a number of students and staff who attended Jellinek’s presentations on this subject.  Incidentally, Popham and Yawney highlighted one tape recording in particular:  “The most comprehensive source of Jellinek’s views on the subject known to us,” they wrote, “is a tape recording of two lectures (and subsequent discussion) which he gave to the staff of the Institute for the Study of Human Problems, Stanford University, on 21 and 28 May, 1963; this recording was made available through the courtesy of the Cooperative Commission on the Study of Alcoholism.”(4)

Popham and Yawney began their foreword thus:  “Among the projects which engaged the attention of the late Dr. E.M. Jellinek in the last few years of his life was the development of a theory of the symbolic function of drinking.”(5)  They further elaborated, later in their text:

Jellinek’s interest in the symbolism of drinking was evidently long-standing.  He offered some preliminary observations on the matter in a little known lecture published more than 20 years ago.(6)  In any case, shortly before his death, he wrote of his intention to prepare an article on the topic for an Encyclopedia of Alcohol Problems, to which he was then devoting much of his time.  Furthermore, it is evident from various lectures which he gave during the years 1961 to 1963, inclusive, that his thinking on the subject had begun to crystallize; and he remarked on one occasion that, if he could settle the amount of documentation necessary, he would be ready to write up his material.  But he did not do so.  In the period mentioned, he lectured at least six times on the symbolism of drinking.  This was always done from memory aided by sketchy notes.  The latter do not appear to have survived.  On the other hand, either a tape recording or notes made by persons who attended the lecture are available in each instance.  These were the sources employed to prepare the version offered here.(6)

I’m not going to summarize Jellinek’s essay here.  Suffice it to say that he offered an excellent discussion of its subject matter; it also provided a window on the breadth of Jellinek’s cross-cultural and historical erudition.  I highly recommend it.  However, one passage in Jellinek’s text does, I think, deserve special attention.  In a discussion of “the fear of the stranger” in nonliterate societies, Jellinek brought up an old preoccupation:

With the attitude that everybody is a stranger who is not of the same ancestry, a barrier to social intercourse exists.  In nonliterate cultures this is solved by the creation of an artificial bond, perhaps by symbolically bringing about a common navel cord.  I heard again and again when I lived inWest Africa—from the Kono, the Pymanies and the Mandingos—the saying: “A friend is coming, I can feel it in my navel.” (7)

There’s the umbilical cord as friendship symbol making an appearance once again, now some six decades after its first mention in Ferenczi’s correspondence.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is a great, feel-good story.

Think about it:  Wouldn’t it be terrific if each and every one of us could expect to have a Popham-and-Yawney-like team of amanuenses — who arrive on the scene years after our demise and pull together and publish the single essay that came closest to our intellectual hearts, but that somehow we never got around to completing?  What a splendid scholarly gift!

And, by the way, wouldn’t it be something to find and listen to the tape recording of Jellinek’s lecture at Stanford that Popham and Yawney highlighted?  I think I’ll make a few inquiries there.

Stay tuned!

Notes:

(1)  In the late 1930s Jellinek may have helped recruit Roheim to the staff of Worcester State Hospital, to bolster its psychoanalytic capacity.  Roheim served at WSH only briefly.

(2)  See D.L. Davies, “Defining Alcoholism,” pp. 42-51 in Marcus Grant and Paul Gwinner (eds.), Alcoholism in Perspective, Baltimore: University Park Press, 1979, p. 46:

(3)  JSA 38:849-866. 1977.

(4)  Ibid., p. 850 fn.

(5)  Ibid., p. 849.

(6)  Jellinek, E.M., “Alkoholbruket sasom en folksed” (“Drinking as a folkway”), Alkoholpolitik 15:36-40, 1952.

(7)  Jellinek, 1977, p. 850.

(8)  Ibid., p. 859.

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