The Mindful Bard
A Dangerous Method
Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World
Volume 20 Issue 12 2012-03-23
Film: A Dangerous Method (2011)
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton
Cast: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon
“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.”
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
A Pair of Docs, a Paradox, and Lots of Talks
Psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Gross is Jung’s patient du jour. He’s offering Jung a very compelling argument as to why one must never thwart one’s own longings. Jung is noticeably surprised and even swayed by this brazen departure from the strict Protestant morality with which he was raised. Freud had taught him that neuroses sprang from repression, but this looks like the first time he’s encountered a shamelessly libertine solution. In the film the encounter appears to have some influence on Jung’s later decision to have an affair with his psychiatric patient, Sabina Spielrein.
Influenced by Nietzsche and by his own anarchist inclinations, Gross ascribes an appendage to Freud’s theory, one which Freud himself had never voiced but which our modern culture seems to have assumed: if civilization’s troubles are based on repression, then the solution is simply to remove repression and do exactly as we please.
As Simone Weil was later to remark, “Repression is in reality an excellent thing. What is bad is repression coupled with inward lying.”
Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, brings this point home when she demands that Jung tell Freud the truth about their affair. When he does, Freud responds with approval and profound respect for Sabina, but nary a comment to Jung.
In turn-of-the-century Europe, Sigmund Freud became young Carl Jung’s mentor when Jung became interested in Freud’s theories. The two worked together on the development and application of the psychoanalytic theory, which for all its detractors and its apparent lack of documented benefits has proven to be one of the most significant milestones of Western culture in the last two centuries.
The famous conflict between Freud and Jung can be seen from a number of different angles. Jung wanted to use euphemisms when speaking of all things sexual, while Freud firmly believed in calling a spade a spade (interestingly, Jung had extramarital affairs but Freud, from what we know, did not). Jung was intuitive, seeking answers in cultural symbols and parapsychological phenomena, while Freud strove to keep psychoanalysis as scientific as possible. In fact, the modern debate on whether psychology is a discipline of the liberal arts or a science can be traced back to their relationship. Freud believed that the problems of civilization stemmed from the repression of natural sexual urges, whereas Jung believed that collective and individual problems were rooted in a spiritual barrenness.
You get a clear picture from the film of the social morality prevalent in Europe at the time, a morality that enforced an unnatural distance between husbands and wives, between parents and children, and even between classes and races, a distance that lead to many negative repercussions for individuals and societies. There is also the suggestion of the patriarchal roots which even today render psychoanalysis of doubtful benefit to women unless administered by women themselves (or by extremely enlightened men).
This film is in part a tribute to the valuable insights of Sabina Spielrein. Ideas she presented in her dissertation on the dual nature of sexual desire predate Jung’s and Freud’s later writings on this subject, suggesting that it was she who influenced them. Her realization that the sexual urge is simultaneously the ego’s urge for extinction was a necessary logical adjunct to Freud’s theory.
A Dangerous Method is surprisingly accurate; most of the departures from the historical record are not so much a fudging of the truth as they are fictitious elaborations of how this or that documented event might have panned out For the most part, the fiction seems probable, based on what we know about Freud and Jung.
There are a couple of notable exceptions. First, Spielrein comes across in the film as being far more spectacularly ill than history indicates. Additionally, there’s a bit of an oversimplification and minimalization of the psychoanalytic process that lead to Spielrein’s cure, but no doubt both of these emerged as a result of the exigencies of the film art. As well, in the film Jung espouses a professional ethic much more in keeping with our time than with his; it was in fact feminists within the profession whose insistence on the avoidance of exploitation that created the standards by which psychoanalysts are now required to practice.
Largely, Cronenberg skirts the temptation to make this a ghastly Hollywood extravaganza designed to cater to the whims of the shallow (except for those horrendous and quite pointless spanking scenes). For example, the film doesn’t attempt to paint Jung as a deprived husband compelled to have affairs because of an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage; he has a beautiful, kind, loving, and intelligent wife who is wealthy enough to devote her time to him. His problem lies elsewhere.
A Dangerous Method fulfills six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 2) it stimulates my mind; 3) it is about attainment of the true self; 4) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 5) it gives me artistic tools; and 6) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.