Once you've built a home, a family, a life together, how do you make sense of the fact that the thrill is–or seems to be–gone? Can passion and security coexist? Or do we inevitably trade excitement for stability when we commit to someone? Do we have to rein in our most powerful impulses to protect the very relationship we've worked so hard to build?
In the new David Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method, a tortured Carl Jung struggles with these very questions. He has met Sabina Spielrein, a fiercely writhing, twitching, hysterical patient who seems literally possessed by violence, her body stretched so taut that at times you half expect her to pounce. It's Jung's job to unearth the forces roiling within her that have her wound so tight, and that he does, with the help of a miraculous new "talking cure," fashioned by one Sigmund Freud, his elder mentor, who aims to shake the medical community (and the world) out of their complacent view that the human race has evolved as far beyond animal instincts as they'd like to believe.
With Freud's help, Jung uncovers the source of Sabina's troubles–traumatic, sexual memories, of course (no spoiler there)–and on she goes, almost completely cured, to become a doctor, herself. But the bond between her and Dr. Jung begins to grow during his visits to her at the University. And Jung's fascination with Spielrein's erotic energy–she still loves a good, humiliating spanking–brings the two together in sometimes frightening ways.
Sabina is Freud's id incarnate–raw, unbridled passion and anger; and Jung, a staid Protestant, constantly searching for power and mystery beyond the tame domestic existence with his rich, heiress wife, finds her completely irresistible. At one point he observes, sadly, about his latest mistress, that "she is the perfume in the air," while his wife is the foundation of his life, an image that neatly captures his–and everyone's–dilemma. On the one hand, we have stability; on the other, excitement.
Jung, for his part, gives into his desires. He seems unable to find excitement with his wife, though it's clear, from his behavior with her, that he's as much to blame as anyone for the absence of the erotic in his marriage. He wouldn't dream of doing to her what he does with his mistress. Sabina, too, seems to grasp that our world is too often split between passion and commitment, reassuring Jung, as she kneels before him with what appears to be more than devotional intent, that they're in another country together–one that has nothing to do with his wife in Switzerland. The fact that Jung later repeats his mistake by having an affair with another patient suggests that the problem goes far beyond his relationship with Sabina or his wife–beyond even the Victorian setting of the film. He's suffering from something that plagues us all: the basic human struggle to balance excitement with restraint and still retain the vitality of our erotic lives.
What, if anything, can we do about this? It's that question that makes A Dangerous Method, for all its well-crafted early 20th century sets and costumes, so thoroughly modern. The tragedy of Cronenberg's Jung is that he can't find passion in his marriage–only outside of it. He comes alive in his intellectual life, and through the thrill of forbidden love, but not, it seems, with his wife. And he feels helpless to change this.
In fairness, since Jung's (and Freud's) time, we've learned that the story is a little more complicated. A wealth of evidence suggests that our own actions have quite a bit to do with our feelings of excitement (see here). We're certainly animals, in part driven by instincts, but we're also intentional, imaginative beings, who carve out an erotic space in which to dwell with our partners. Sometimes, sadly, excitement dies a natural death within that space. But very often we kill passion, with our own lack of imagination and initiative. It's our fear of bringing the erotic into moments of security and stability that often hobbles us romantically. We crave excitement but build necessary (boring) routine. We long for explosive sex with an id-like Sabina, but fear we can't erect (pun intended) a lasting relationship on such an unstable foundation. How might Jung's adoring wife have come alive had he brought his fantasies into the marital bed? How might she have responded if he held her and gazed into her eyes, or shared his deepest longings, or simply listened more closely to hers (all acts known to enhance attraction and desire)? We can't ever eliminate the conflict between the thrill of sexual excitement and restraining forces of safety and familiarity. But in our attempts to live in that tension, we should never forget that our own choices often tip the balance in one direction or another.
Jung, of course, couldn't have understood this yet. Neither could Freud, who would, in fact, have been horrified at the suggestion that sexual excitement flows from anything but internal sources. But that's what makes the film so powerful. It depicts a world–Freud's world–in which people often struggle vainly to control the beast within. One has the feeling that dark forces are moving inexorably through everyone and everything, and all the characters, including Freud, are at their mercy. (Jung even has an ominous dream about blood washing over Europe, hinting at the coming violence of WWI and even, perhaps, the Holocaust, which later claims Spielrein's life.)
Cronenberg asks, but doesn't answer, questions about how possible it is to reconcile these vital forces of sex and aggression with the calming influences of stability and security. But he asks the questions brilliantly. The relationships between Sabina, Jung, and Freud establish a powerful resonance with themes at the very heart of not just psychoanalytic theory but modern life. A Dangerous Method is, among other things, a story about the eternal and sometimes calamitous clash between passion and fealty, impulse and restraint, sex and stability. These are the conflicts Freud and Jung lived with, palpably, each and every day of their lives. And certainly, even now as we battle over questions of how much sexual freedom is healthy–should polyamory be a way of life, or friends have "benefits?"–they're conflicts we're still living with today. It's hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the architects of a theory that completely transformed how we think about the human mind.
“[Dr. Malkin’s] reassuring tone and plethora of case histories offer considered advice and generous encouragement.” Kirkus Reviews
“... a book that will have readers rethinking themselves and, paradoxically, those around them.” Publishers Weekly
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for my newsletter, for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—And Surprising Good—About Feeling Special, devoted to understanding and coping with narcissism in all its forms, in our friends, lovers, colleagues–and even ourselves. (Harperwave and Harper UK, July 2015.)