A Dangerous Method

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Jung analyzing Spielrein

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is a period piece bio-pic about Carl Jung in the period of his life when it was entangled with the lives of Sigmund Freud and Sabine Spielrein — an hysteric patient who became an analyst on her own merits, an eventual patient/student of Freud’s, and a seminal influence on Freud’s famous theory of the death drive.  Essentially the film is about the presumptions of Jung who takes for granted all of the benefits of his (wife’s) wealth and Protestant privileges.  We see him struggling with his own desires, as if they were noble, without really considering who he harms in the process — which is everyone around him.  In the end, he is sitting alone and depressed amid the splendor of his unappreciated domestic bliss.

It’s a compelling plot, but bogged down by psycho-analytic jargon that I don’t think anyone not already interested in Freudian theories of sexuality would want to sit through.  The jargon is neither fully defined nor does it advance the plot.  Nor does it become any sort of animating force of the film’s progression.  The dynamics of transference or the unrelenting pull of the death drive fail to emerge as anything other than words dropped in hard-to-follow conversations.

Which is too bad.  Because the film raises some good questions.  Cronenberg (or maybe the book the film is based on) wants to underscore the radical contribution Freud has given to the exploration of desire and questions of happiness and personal freedom.  Yes, it may always return to sex — an issue which, as Freud states, has caused resistance in his own day and probably even 100 years later. But in this confrontation with sex — as that persistent question that quickens little minds (where did I come from? what’s the difference between boys and girls? why does it feel good when I touch this place?) and constantly gets in the way of “normal” social behavior — Freud, the film insists, found a passageway toward a more ethical relationship between analyst and analysand as well as between the analysand and him/herself.  Once sex is acknowledged as always present, always coming in between any human relationship, the analyst can use its presence to allow the analysand to see his/her desire and work with or around it.  S/he sees it for what it is out in the open instead of locked in the closet only to scream its presence at inopportune moments.

Jung gets it all wrong.  Not only does he use Spielrein’s emerging sexuality to his own — admittedly conflicted — advantage, violating the laws of transference (meaning the desires Spielrein directs toward Jung are not for the man himself but for the object-of-desire she comes to associate with her analyst, who should remain only the blank screen of her desire).  But he tries to formulate a kind of messianic theory of analysis in which the analyst directs his patients toward some vision of “happiness” and “freedom.”  As Freud states in the film, psychoanalysis should allow people to recognize life for what it is, not to substitute one delusion for another (or as Marx put it: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower”).

All of Jung’s clunky missteps occur on the volatile political stage on the eve of World War I.  The film highlights the difference in situation between the Aryan Swiss doctor and his Jewish lovers/rivals (as he eventually comes to see both Spielrein and Freud).  Jung’s world is white, white, white — white clothes, white rooms, white wife, white children.  Freud’s world is dark, cluttered, obscure (and lovingly reproduced to the tiniest detail).

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Jung’s theoretical formulations — mystical, extravagant, and presumptuous — are proposed because Jung can afford to do so.  Neither haunted by a history of persecution nor burdened by imperatives of respectability in a field that looks askance at its Jewish colleagues, Jung can mistreat his Jewish lover and mentor without really thinking twice.

Until he does.  Think twice.