Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Fort!–Da! A century of speculations on Freud’s grandson’s game. Daniel Benveniste conducts Inner Circle Seminar 259 (14 June 2020)

A photograph of little Ernst with his reel is not here: it is fort, not da.
It may be seen at this seminar, or on the flyer that I will send on request.
Anthony Stadlen

A century of speculations on Freud’s report
on his grandson’s game in
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)

Daniel Benveniste
conducts Inner Circle Seminar No. 259
introduced by Anthony Stadlen
Sunday 14 June 2020
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In September 1915 Sigmund Freud watched his 18-month-old grandson Ernst Wolfgang Halberstadt repeatedly and ‘very skilfully’ throw a wooden reel on a string into his cot with a cry ‘o-o-o-o’, which Freud thought meant ‘fort’ (gone’), and then make it reappear with a joyful da’ (there’). This became the paradigm case for a century of far-reaching speculations, including those of Freud himself on the ‘death instinct’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), of R. D. Laing in The Divided Self (1960), and of Jacques Derrida in The Post Card (1980), as well as of Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and Jacques Lacan. Ernst became eventually W. Ernest Freud, the only grandchild of Freud to become a psychoanalyst, and the only other psychoanalyst to practise using Sigmund Freud’s legendary couch. 

But is it really possible to derive such consequences from a grandfathers report of his little grandsons game a hundred years ago? W. Ernest Freud told Anthony Stadlen that he could not even remember playing the game. How could any of the interpretations over the last hundred years be tested?

Today, Daniel Benvenisteclinical psychologist and Honorary Member of the American Psychoanalytical Association, discusses these questions in the light of his comprehensive research, including extensive interviews with W. Ernest Freud himself, as reported in his masterly biography, The Interwoven Lives of Sigmund, Anna and W. Ernest Freud: Three Generations of Psychoanalysts (2015). 


Daniel Benveniste wrote for the centenary of little Ernsts actual playing of the game in September 1915:

September 13, 2015
Bellevue, Washington

To all those who are interested in Fort Da,

On September 13, 1915, Sigmund Freud, along with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, traveled north via Munich and Berlin to visit his daughter Sophie, son-in-law Max, and his little grandson Ernst in Hamburg (E. Jones, 1955, p. 181). During this two-week visit, Freud observed something that was destined to contribute to the reshaping of his theory. What he observed was something that went beyond the primary motivation of pleasure and therefore the pleasure principle. It was something that had implications for the compulsion to repeat, the turning of passive into active, the management of loss, and the renunciation of instinctual gratification. He observed Ernst’s game of fort da and its related games of disappearance and return, which he would famously describe five years later in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920/1955).

There is perhaps no case, no dream, no observation of Freud’s that has received more commentaries and alternative interpretations than his observation of his eighteen-month-old grandson Ernst playing with a wooden reel on the end of a string. When his mother left the apartment, for whatever reason, Ernst would repeatedly throw this wooden reel, with a string tied to it, into a curtained cot while holding the other end of the string in his hand. In this way, the reel disappeared into the cot, and, as it did, he said “o-o-o-o, which Freud and Ernst’s mother, Sophie, understood to mean fort (gone). And when he pulled on the string and the reel reappeared, he said, “da (there).

That was all there was to it. While Freud reported some other games of disappearance and return that Ernst played, this particular game contained all the main components. Freud saw in this little game of disappearance and return the symbolic representation of the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction, for in this game Ernst found a way to allow his mother to leave without protesting. In managing the distress he experienced in his mother’s absences, he turned passive into active and symbolically took revenge on his mother for leaving him: “All right, then, go away! I don’t need you. I’m sending you away myself.” He symbolized his mother as the little wooden reel. Then, instead of being thrown away or abandoned, Ernst threw the reel away—threw his mother away—and then brought it back—brought her back, when he wanted. Freud also saw in this game a situation (abandonment) that was clearly not pleasant but was repeated over and over again, similar to many neurotic behaviors. From this observation, Freud gained insight into the nature of the repetition compulsion and behaviors motivated by something “beyond the pleasure principle.”

Parts of the game were first described in a footnote to the 1919 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, and in 1920 a full description was presented and interpreted in a mere four pages in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. No one at that time could have imagined it would later stir the interests and alternative interpretations of Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Erik Erikson, Siegfried Bernfeld, Harold P. Blum, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Jean Piaget, and so many others. 

The fort da baby was Freud's first grandchild, Ernst Wolfgang Halberstadt, who later changed his name to W. Ernest Freud largely because of his closeness to the Freud side of his family. W. Ernest Freud (1914-2008) was the only Freud grandchild to become a psychoanalyst. His story can be found in the recently published book The Interwoven Lives of Sigmund, Anna and W. Ernest Freud: Three Generations of Psychoanalysis

This week we celebrate the centennial of Sigmund Freud's Fort Da observation and are reminded of his extraordinary genius. Sigmund Freud looked at things others had looked at many times before and saw things no one had ever seen before.

Feel free to forward this note to others you know that might be interested in Fort Da.

Daniel Benveniste


Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175, some bursaries; coffee, tea, Durrants rock, mineral water included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857   iPhone: +44 (0) 7809 433250
E-mail:  or:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.

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