A Dangerous Method: Relationships, Sexuality, Ideas and Ego

A Dangerous Method explores the early, heady days of psychoanalysis

Posted Dec 27, 2011

Speilrein (Keira Knightley) with Jung (Michael Fassbender)
Speilrein (Keira Knightley) with Jung (Michael Fassbender)

December 27, 2011

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought." - Basho

Fortunately, the wise have left giant footprints, and the example of their attainment. David Cronenberg's film A DANGEROUS METHOD (reviewed here) masterfully portrays the early, heady days of psychoanalysis through ideas, certainly, but also through the deep and complex relationships of key characters. In our adulation of the founding figures of our discipline, we sometimes lose sight of them as human beings - unique, flawed and rich in potential and paradox. We see Freud - warm, heartful, charming, and also authoritarian and egotistical. The young Carl Jung, before his great confrontation with the unconscious - brilliant, driven, compassionate, expansive; but also cold, callous, "woo woo" and often self-absorbed. He feels the pull of greater energies than the id, yet he falls prey to sexual temptation - or liberation, as Otto Gross would have it. Otto Gross, a psychiatrist turned Dionysian tempter and puer aeturnus, seeking unfettered exploration and gratification of sensual desire, perhaps in reaction to his father's constraints - brilliant and seductive in one lens and sociopathic in the other. Sabina Spielrein, who begins the film as a hysterical patient and then develops into an outstanding and groundbreaking theorist and psychoanalyst herself, thus proving the power of the talking cure, the wisdom and failings of Freud and Jung, as well as the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, abuse and its own demons.

Most importantly, they all develop their ideas in profound relatedness to each other. Certainly, solitude plays an important role in the generation of new ideas, but these ideas are shared with and challenged and changed by others. The people themselves are changed by their relationships with others, alongside the ideas they are working out.

Some of what's being worked out: the role of sexual desire to the self. Is it true that "love wants to be unmastered" as poet Ken Chen wrote in Juvenilia? Certainly, the development of professional boundaries and ethics have channeled "therapeutic love and concern" into pro-social manifestations, and placed prohibitions on sexually abusive relationships. Jung (and perhaps Freud, and certainly many early psychoanalysts) unfortunately used sex inappropriately and with great damage to their clients. The film has Jung saying to Speilrein she was the love of his life and the "jewel of great price." Desire and attraction certainly want to be unmastered, and are frequently out of control in our lives; but I think true love knows limits. Or maybe this is wisdom.

There were many touching moments in the film. I was especially taken with the explanations offered by Spielrein and Jung for their methods. To paraphrase, "not to simply show the person their illness, like a toad squatting inside them, but to show them their possibility." I can only hope for a sequel that details Jung's descent into the abyss and return with transformational theories about and observations of the unconscious. What was out of control early in Jung's career eventually righted itself, as he was eventually recognized as the foremost psychoanalyst of his day.

I left the movie feeling deep wonder at the scope and power of the human psyche, and deep sadness at what is lost for the sake of ego and self-preservation. As psychology and psychiatry progress, I hope that we as practitioners and shapers of the tradition carry with us a great deal of humility. We have learned much, but we have so much more to learn from each new person we meet, each relationship we forge.

That would make a good New Year's Resolution: "Stay Humble, Stay Related!" And as the Dalai Lama says, "Think! Always Think!"

©  2011 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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