An Inoffensive Method: Cronenberg and the Fight of the Century

A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg, depicts the friendship and the eventual split between two of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.  I entered the theater feeling somewhat skeptical over how it would handle the ideas of the two men, but I was impressed by how engrossing the conversations about the psychoanalytic method actually are in the film.  Yet, the film ultimately disappoints.  It backs away from pursuing to its end the implicit question it raises in portraying the clash between these two momentous figures: who will define the soul of the bourgeois in the modern age?

The film focuses on the relationship first of Jung and then of Freud to a younger woman, Sabina Spielrein, who is one of Jung’s early patients.  Brought to the clinic where Jung works against her will by her wealthy Russian Jewish parents, she flowers there as a patient of Jung, working through her emotional traumas to become an outstanding medical student, and then emerges as an eminent therapist in her own right.  The film appears to credit her with giving Jung, who becomes her lover, the idea of the anima.  Later on, her academic thesis regarding the destructive character of the sexual drive so impresses Freud that he shifts direction in his own work to theorize the death drive (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud acknowledges his debt to Spielrein’s work in a footnote).

Jung and Freud themselves are portrayed as opposites, though not in a schematic way.  Jung is played by Michael Fassbender as a nervous and passionate patrician, a volatile compound of Calvinist guilt and Teutonic intoxication.  Viggo Mortensen’s Freud by contrast conveys solidity and rootedness – he is never at a loss for words and always with a sardonic riposte at the ready.  Freud is utterly convinced of the truthfulness of his science but perpetually uneasy about his status as the father of an intellectual and moral revolution.  On several occasions he exhibits something of a persecution complex regarding the forces hostile toward his movement, although the rise of Nazism would of course prove his fears prescient.  The rational Freud objects to Jung’s research into parapsychology and psychic phenomena as dangerous to the embattled reputation of psychoanalysis as a science.  He also cautions Spielrein from accepting the ideas of her erstwhile therapist and lover too readily.  Freud reminds her that as Jews, they must take with a grain of salt the enthusiasms of an Aryan Protestant for whom the experience of religious and ethnic persecution fails to register within his psychic horizon.  Yet, it is Freud who seems more at ease with himself and with the modern world than Jung.  He is the one who has more fully embraced the realities of the industrial age and, lacking any inclination for redemptive nostalgia, has achieved a sense of harmony and balance in the midst of the cold, hard facts of a disenchanted life.  The bespectacled Jung by contrast comes across as unworldly and sensitive most of the time, except when he comes up against the proprieties of Swiss Protestant society, in which case he is rapidly reduced to both philistinism and petulance.

Within the film the character of Spielrein, who is played by Keira Knightley in one of the most remarkable performances of recent years, should logically serve as the figure that mediates or achieves a synthesis between the opposing attitudes of the two men.  But while she recognizes the limitations of Freud’s approach, which seeks only to help the patient resign herself to a life of ordinary misery, she never comes around in the film to formulating the equivalent defects or limitations of Jung’s thought.  This lack of symmetry leads me to conclude that the film tacitly hands the victory in the intellectual standoff to Jung, as it does not locate an objection in the realm of ideas to the latter’s stance that therapy should be about more than reconciling patients to their problems, and that it ought to help them uncover their untapped potential and to discover within themselves the people they are meant to become.  Indeed, the moment of triumph she experiences over Jung does not take place on the level of their ideas, but has to do with the choice of his new mistress, who, he reveals with one part embarrassment and two parts flattery, is “half-Jewish.”

Given the fact that liberal capitalist society places a premium placed on individual freedom, Jung’s ideas are certain to appear far more desirable and authoritative than those of his rival.  Freudian sobriety and resignation are antithetical and run counter to the spirit of contemporary society: be the best self you can be! life is a journey! spring your inner child from detention! you are a spiritual warrior, so go out and collect some spiritual scalps!  A Dangerous Method does not announce a winner in the bout quite so emphatically, but while many a viewer might greet such reticence as a form of subtlety and as the outcome of a laudable impulse to do justice to the complexity of life by keeping matters open, I find its restraint to be a critical flaw.  The film fails to follow through as fully as it ought on this conflict in which the stakes are nothing short of the heart and mind of the modern individual, but this failure is nevertheless profoundly symptomatic of the deadlocks of contemporary intellectual life.

The path the film takes in cutting Jung down to size is revealing.  The title cards at the end of the film tell us that Spielrein when on to become a pioneering and renowned psychotherapist in the Soviet Union, but was murdered along with her daughters by the Nazis after their home city of Rostov-on-the-Don fell to the Wehrmacht in 1941.  The refutation of Jung takes place outside the boundaries of the film, in history.  This point is reinforced by the last meeting between Spielrein and her former mentor, which takes place several years before the outbreak of World War One.  She finds him in a state of mental and intellectual paralysis brought on by apocalyptic visions of a Europe drowning in blood.

The portrait of Jung as a prophet stunned and immobilized by his visions receives a counterpoint earlier in the film when Jung is asked by Freud to take in his troubled pupil, Otto Gross.  Gross is one of the bohemian “degenerates” and “flatterers” derided by Jung who orbit around the great doctor in the coffeehouses of Vienna.  But Jung is soon seduced by Gross’ sexual ruthlessness and lack of scruple – the latter expresses surprise that Jung does not sleep with his patients.  For Gross, there is no other way to interpret Freud’s teaching than to release oneself from all repression.  He declares to Jung that his method is to tell patients what they want to hear, that they should be free to act on their carnal desires, or to convince them that their misery stems from their adherence to outmoded restraints.  Jung is supposed to be the one analyzing Gross, but the latter turns the tables on him, serving as the catalyst for Jung’s decision to break with his professional obligations and moral restraints.

It is thus Gross, and not Freud, who succeeds in outmaneuvering Jung.  Indeed, during Jung’s final confrontations with Freud, the latter collapses after Jung disputes Freud’s argument that monotheism is bound up with parricide.  So what then is the role of Gross, who is obviously not the “female genius” forgotten by history?  Is Gross a sort of Smerdyakov, the one who puts into action, albeit in a catastrophic way, that which his half-brothers the Karamazovs discuss endlessly?  Or is Gross the loyal and unscrupulous enforcer typically found standing at the right hand of almost every great prophet?  Does Gross, with his message of no-repression, reflect if not the true teaching of Freud, then its inevitably vulgarized historical expression?  If Spielrein is the victim of the psychic energies that psychoanalysis was not able to tame and humanize, then does Gross not embody the degraded and ultimately trivial uses to which the method will be put?

Psychoanalysis was a science devised to give meaning to the life of bourgeois man, who had come to experience as overly burdensome the faith and the virtues of his forebears.  The bourgeois is the man who seeks to maximize his pleasure and to minimize his pains, to enlarge the sphere of what is permitted and to reduce as much as possible his obligations.  The bourgeois values possessions, unlike the saint or criminal, both of whom recognize the essentially transient character of all things.  The saint allows things to come and go, commemorating each passing moment as the manifestation of a mysterious grace.  The criminal responds to the ephemeral condition of life by sucking the life out of things and casting them aside.  The bourgeois man takes everything personally, whereas the saint and the criminal see their lives bounded by an impersonal force – by the dispensation granted by a sacred providence or by the delayed fulfillment of an inescapable curse.  Perhaps it is too formidable of a task for any body of thought to enable a human type like the bourgeois to become well-adjusted to his predicament, for he is attached to diversions but cannot escape the anxiety that he is squandering his time and his energies.  The bourgeois response to the tyranny of truth, the power which lures him away from a life of endless diversion and easy gratifications to sublime acts of destruction, has been in the years after World War II to make thought safe for the world.  But moderation and sobriety themselves have a way of becoming untruthful.  In the liberal capitalist world, ideas are not supposed to be dangerous.  Cronenberg’s film does not rise to the challenge of exposing the decay of this principle, how it wilts before economic reversals which, though severe, are hardly the equal of calamities like war and plague which swept the world but did not shatter systems of belief.  It leaves us only with a prophet who, instead of gaining discernment, is blinded by his visions of destruction.

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2 responses

  1. Thanks for a terrific piece that articulates very clearly both the strengths and the weaknesses of Cronenberg’s rewarding but also frustrating film. You might want to correct a (very minor) typo though: it’s ‘Mortensen,’ not ‘Mortenson.’

  2. Brilliant write up

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