A Dangerous Method

Penelope Thornton


David Cronenberg’s latest movie gives us his view of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his pupil, Carl Jung, and even more centrally it tells the story of the affair between Jung and his patient, Sabina Spielrein.  It is set in Vienna in the early years of the 20th century.

The battle between Freud and Jung is fairly well known.  Jung was the heir apparent of the psychoanalytic dynasty founded by Freud.  But he began to go astray because Freud demanded a strictly sexual explanation for all neurosis.  Jung wanted to incorporate more; he rejected the orthodoxy.

For Freud everything boiled down to sex.  All conflicts in the psyche were rooted in early sexual experiences.  Jung challenged this core concept, telling Sabina that there must be “another hinge to the universe.”  In the words of Sabina, Jung did not want his patients to simply understand why they were the way they were but to become whom they might have been.

Jung is an idealist but Freud sees him as a threat to psychoanalysis because of what he considers his mysticism and mumbo-jumbo.   He dismisses Jung’s approach as simply replacing one delusion with another.  You then have to ask yourself why he chose Jung to carry on his work.  The usual explanation is because he needed a non-Jew to cross the bridge to the European society in which he lived, as the world of psychoanalysis was understood at the time to be Jewish. 

Freud took great pains to ensure that a non-Jew, Jung, would be the head of his psychoanalytic movement—a move that infuriated his Jewish colleagues in Vienna, but one that was clearly intended to deemphasize the very large overrepresentation of Jews in the movement during this period. To persuade his Jewish colleagues of the need for Jung to head the society, he argued, “Most of you are Jews, and therefore you are incompetent to win friends for the new teaching. Jews must be content with the modest role of preparing the ground. It is absolutely essential that I should form ties in the world of science” (in Gay 1988, 218). As Yerushalmi (1991, 41) notes, “To put it very crudely, Freud needed a goy, and not just any goy but one of genuine intellectual stature and influence.” Later, when the movement was reconstituted after World War I, another gentile, the sycophantic and submissive Ernest Jones, became president of the International Psychoanalytic Association. (From Chapter 4 of The Culture of Critique)

Jung is a very devout student of the father figure Freud, but when he goes in search of other theories and explanations, his very search is portrayed as part of his own psychopathology. Jung had the naïve belief that psychoanalysis was a real science where the idea was to keep searching for new ideas and honing old ones rather than simply accepting Freudian dogma. This idea plays throughout the film and though not landed on too heavily, it is developed as the underlying theme.  Jung, it is pointed out, is an Aryan.  From the standpoint of the film (and Freudian orthodoxy), the very fact that he cannot see what Freud considers the scientific basis of psychoanalytic theory is portrayed as a by-product of his repressed German Protestant culture.  His very search for an ideal is a flight from sex, or a flight from seeing life as it is, or a flight from the pragmatic.  His two antagonists are Jewish: Sabina is a Russian Jewess and Freud a German Jew.

At one point Jung counters Freud’s suggestion that Sabina had been arrested at the anal stage of development by saying that she was quite the opposite: disorganized, emotionally generous and quite idealistic.  Freud dismisses these characteristics as “a Russian thing” — as a German Jew he would have looked down on Russian culture.  We do seem to be seeing the world from Freud’s perspective in the film.  Freud is the watcher and so are we as we see the others through his eyes.  Psychoanalysis as the art of watching.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud theorized that those discontents arise from its suppression of sex.   In repressing your sexuality you become distorted and the family, particularly the patriarchal family inflicts this on the individual. But according to Freud, the Jews managed to avoid all this. The Jewish religion “formed their [the Jews’] character for good through the disdaining of magic and mysticism and encouraging them to progress in spirituality and sublimations. The people, happy in their conviction of possessing the truth, overcome by the consciousness of being the chosen, came to value highly all intellectual and ethical achievements” (Freud 1939, 109). In contrast, “The Christian religion did not keep to the lofty heights of spirituality to which the Jewish religion had soared” (Freud, 1939, 112).

Jung’s essential failure was that was that he was an Aryan, a Swiss one at that, and a product Christianity.  He has a perfectly lovely wife to whom he is loyal, a beautiful home provided by her money, and beautiful children.   Jung’s wealth is underscored while it is pointed out to the audience that Freud bears the financial burden of supporting a large family.  Jung’s  is a life without passion, an “inauthentic life,”  as it would be called in the psychobabble of the age to come.  He has the exterior wealth but not the interior richness, the latter seen as typical of Jews. This sense of psychological superiority is, of course, a favorite theme of the Jewish world view, which we have all seen depicted time and again.  What is interesting in the film is that although Jung will critique Freud’s theory, Freud criticizes Jung’s character. Freud’s character remains above reproach.

An interesting side character is Otto Gross, who exemplifies the socially destructive tendencies of psychoanalysis as a radical critique of European society. Gross was also a cocaine addict, possibly introduced to the drug by Freud, a user himself, though no mention is made of that in the film.  “Never repress anything”, Gross tells Jung.  Jung tries to counter this saying, “You don’t find it necessary to exercise some restraint in the interest of the smooth functioning of the society?” But you can see he is being swayed.  “And make myself ill?” Gross responds—a comment illustrating the psychoanalytic idea that repressing sexuality would lead to neurosis or worse.  “I should have thought that some form of sexual repression would be necessary in any rational society.” is Jung’s answer.

Gross is dismissive of patriarchy and obviously hates his own father who has had him committed to a psychiatric hospital for what today might be termed a lifestyle choice.  Gross is an addict of cocaine as well as sex, never passing up an opportunity for the latter.  At the end of the film we are told that he dies of starvation in 1920; apparently due to following his own advice too closely.  Cocaine can become a lot more compelling than food.

The film tells the story of Jung’s rebellion from his father-figure Freud, which would be interpreted by psychoanalysts as verifying Freud’s central thesis—the son wanting to murder the father and possess the mother.

But Jung wants to possess not his mother but the beautiful, fragile, neurasthenic Sabina.  Keira Knightly, who plays the role, looks as though she could be of Sephardic descent.  Sabina’s anxiety attacks make her seem almost birdlike as she arches her back to avoid her tormentor— her father who had beat her regularly.  Her catharsis comes when she blurts out that “It excited her.”  Her masochism is revealed.

Jung is her analyst and we are told that he cures her.  But we are also shown a few scenes where she gets aroused as Jung beats her. The image hits the bull’s-eye — the brutal Aryan beating the poor Jew.

He leaves her and goes back to his persona, that of Herr Doctor.  Only when she is safely out of the way, married and pregnant, does he admit to his feelings for her.  And he tells her that it was through their relationship that he really sees himself, presumably as an inauthentic and brutal Aryan.

Viggo Mortensen draws long and slowly on his pipe and says very little in the quintessential psychoanalytic style as Father Freud.  Occasionally sardonic, ever watchful, he is well aware of Jung’s affair, although of course, Jung, as a typical hypocritical Christian, denies it.  But the canny Jew sees through him.

Michael Fassbinder who plays Jung is German himself.  His character is not all bad.  The power of suggestion in the film is more subtle.  But you are still presented with the stereotypical racist depiction of a Germanic male.  There are several interesting things about his depiction of Jung.  He goes into a rant about Sabina at one point, saying that she had calculatedly gone about seducing him.  Does she feign an interest in opera, Wagner specifically, the German composer so favored by the Nazis?  Is he right to trust her or to distrust her?  How can we know?  She did in fact initiate the relationship so he is not completely wrong in his suspicions.  He does take an interest in her studies as a psychoanalyst. But then again, is he sincere?

Masochist that she may have been, she is strong enough to get even with him.  She sends out a series of letters about the relationship after he has ended it.  She forces him to confess to his Father Confessor, Sigmund Freud and admit to the relationship which he had tried to pass off as a friendship.  She knows him well enough to know he will do it.  Perhaps the Christian experience with the confessional predisposes him to confess all.

But it wins him no grace.

Jung is more than ready to share his dreams with Freud and have them analyzed.  In one scene on the boat going to America he does so, and sits patiently as Freud dissects what he sees in the dream. But when Jung asks Freud to discuss his dream of the night before, Freud says that he would not do so because he would lose his authority.  It’s a telling moment.  And the as they approach New York Harbor, Freud makes his famous remark, “Do you think they know, we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?”   The new religion as a plague of self-conscious destruction—which indeed it was.

In one of the last scenes of The Dangerous Method Sabina has come to see Freud.  She argues Jung’s position, although Freud points out that in general she agrees with him (Freud).  But in fact her view is quite the opposite.  She believes that “true sexuality” demands the destruction of the ego, the opposite of what Freud believes.  The following is the content of their conversation.

Freud:  I thought he (Jung) would be able to work and carry on after I was gone.  I didn’t bargain for all that second rate mysticism and self-aggrandizing shamanism.   Nor did I realize that he could be so brutal and sanctimonious.

Spielrein: He was trying to find some way forward so that we don’t have to tell our patients that this is why you are the way you are.  He wants to be able to say, ‘We can show you what it is you might become’.

F:  Playing God in other words.  We have no right to do that.  The world is as it is.  Understanding and accepting it is the way to survive.  What good can we do if our aim is simply to replace one delusion with another?

S:  Look, I agree with you.

F:  I see that in the major areas of dispute between him and myself, you agree with me.  Understanding the basic areas of dispute is not enough.

S:  I thought you had no dispute with him.

F. Are you still in love with him?

S:  That does not matter.  It is not why I took up his cause.  If you two do not find some way to co-exist, it will hold back the cause of psychoanalysis, perhaps indefinitely.

 F:  Scientific relations will be maintained, of course.  I will be seeing Jung at the editorial meeting in Munich in September. .  . . . I am afraid that your mystical union with the blond Siegfried was bound to be doomed.  Do not put your trust in Aryans.  What you and I are, Fraulein, are Jews and Jews we will always be.

As the credits roll at the end of the film, the audience is told what happened to each character. Sabina Spielrein returned to Russia and had a successful career as an analyst before being shot by the Germans. Freud had to leave Vienna and move to London because of the rise of National Socialism, and Jung became one of the most renowned psychologists of the 20th century, living a long life.  The evil Nazi theme is underscored here one last time by Director Cronenberg.  And are we to think that Jung’s success was due to the destruction of his former mentor and ultimate rival?

This is the same director that depicted the Russian mafia as composed of Christians, going so far as to show mafia hit men with tattoos of crosses on their backs in the film Eastern Promises.  And he would never mention that the Russia to which Sabina Spielrein returned was one in which Russian Christians were being systematically murdered by the largely Jewish Bolsheviks in power.  The bias is as predictable as heat in July.

The film appears to be a study of a conflict between the two titans of psychoanalysis.  But the conflict is more than between two individual points of view.  It is a conflict rooted in two cultures which do not view the world through the same lens.  No doubt we will continue to hear Jewish complaints and accusations about Christianity.   The following quote underscores even more clearly the culture war between Christianity and Judaism:

The Jew … is not content merely to destroy Christianity, but he preaches the gospel of Judaism; he not only assails the Catholic or the Protestant faith, but he incites to the unbelief, and then imposes on those whose faith he has undermined his own conception of the world, of morality and of life. He is engaged in his historic mission, the annihilation of the religion of Christ. (Benard Lazare, Antisemitism: It’s History and Causes, Translated by Britons Publishing Co., London (1967), p. 158; my emphasis)

It is well known that Freud was hostile to Christian civilization, seeing himself as Hannibal leading the Semitic armies against Rome.  As Lazare would doubtless agree, Freud’s theory was a way of undermining Christian conceptions of the world, of morality, and of life.

Psychoanalysis has been relegated to the intellectual fringes of academic psychology and psychiatry. Indeed, psychoanalysis is widely seen as the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century. But movies like this present psychoanalysis as emanating from brilliant Jews trying to make the world a better place for everyone. They function to reassure educated audiences that Jewish concerns and Jewish attitudes are at the very center of our culture.  And by that measure, they succeed admirably.

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