Commentary on the Film, “A Dangerous Method”

This Commentary is reprinted from the Winter-Spring, 2012, CAPPSTONE, the newsletter of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. It appeared alongside a review of the film by my colleague Michael Losoff.

The story of Freud and Jung needs to be told, because of its importance for our time; especially, though not only, for those of us who practice psychotherapy. So I am grateful to “A Dangerous Method” for telling that story. I’m also grateful that the film takes a big step toward restoring Sabina Spielrein to her rightful place in that story. Yet I found the film more useful for prompting me to look into source material, than for conveying the characters of Freud, Jung, and Spielrein. One doesn’t blame the film for this, but rather acknowledges that there are certain qualities of extraordinary character that are difficult, if not impossible, to portray artistically.[more…]

Something similar happened with “Nixon,” the film about Richard Nixon and Watergate; another “must be told” story for our time. Several years ago, I happened to be at a great local bookstore, the Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, when Elliot Richardson, Nixon’s attorney general who resigned rather than follow his chief’s order to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, was making an author’s appearance in support of his book, and so I was present when Richardson was asked what he thought about the film. Richardson said that Nixon had personal qualities that inspired loyalty and respect and made people want to follow him, that couldn’t be conveyed by an actor, no matter how technically proficient. He went on to say that Nixon’s fatal flaws–by which he meant the paranoia, grandiosity and manipulativeness that ultimately undermined him–needed to be seen in the context of his exceptional leadership personality. Freud, Jung, and Spielrein were all exceptional personalities too, yet in “A Dangerous Method” they seem so ordinary, even when they are discussing extraordinary matters, such as the creation of psychoanalysis, or doing extraordinary things, such as Jung dutifully paddling a semi-nude Spielrein.

It’s unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that the “danger” in “A Dangerous Method” is the risk of consummated erotic attraction between doctor and patient. The greater danger in the psychoanalytic enterprise, one which is much more difficult to portray dramatically, is the inevitable insufficiency of knowledge on the part of the doctor who enters into a treatment relationship with a patient centered around how the patient’s unconscious processes are undermining him or her, within a cultural milieu which constitutionally keeps certain experiences unconscious. The analytic therapist must thread his or her way through the lack of sufficient information about people in general and this person in particular, the false security of theoretical dogma, the narcissistic appeal of making up some apparently adequate explanation of the patient’s problems out of whole cloth, and the tempting attractions of transference and countertransference; to arrive, eventually, at enough of a cocreated understanding of this particular person to effect a series of healing, corrective experiences. Mindfucking, rather than sex, is the greater danger of the “dangerous method.”

After watching “A Dangerous Method,” I’ve been reading “The Freud-Jung Letters,” abridged edition, edited by William McGuire, and “Sabina Spielrein, Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis,” edited by Coleen Covington and Barbara Wharton (available on Google Books). It’s clear that both Freud and Jung were acutely aware that they were overturning the prevailing logical-rational view of human nature, and erecting in its place a view of human nature as largely at the mercy of unconscious forces that could only be brought into the light of awareness and made civilized through the “dangerous method” of psychoanalysis. Their early union, productive collaboration, eventual conflict and final break is the stuff of legend, and well enough told in the film. But what about the role of Spielrein in the development of psychoanalysis?

Freud, Jung and Spielrein were all forces of nature, and are inevitably diminished in the film; but Spielrein’s character, played by Keira Knightly, is the most attenuated. The role focuses on her emotional neurosis, physical beauty, and emotional-sexual attraction to Jung, while underplaying the contribution of her conceptual brilliance to her personal and erotic magnetism. It seems to have been her brilliance, no less than her eroticism, that made her love for Jung impossible for them to resist, and led to a kind of fusing of identities with Jung, at least for awhile; which he seems to have found both inevitable and profoundly upsetting. In the film, when Jung finally relents and becomes Spielrein’s lover, he is giving into his needs, and hers, but not merging with a brilliant partner whose self and love resonate with him as they merge into an eroto-analytic third; as seems to have been the case in their actual relationship. In the film, Jung is dutiful, and Knightly beautiful, but we don’t get that merging of identities, or the reversal of roles in which she becomes the more powerful and nurturing figure, and he the more dependent and suppliant. Yet something like that seems, from her diary, to have happened. We get a hint of that, for example, in this diary entry about a last meeting with Jung; whom, at one point, she refers to as “my beloved little son!:”

“My friend and I had the tenderest ‘poetry’ last Wednesday. What will come of that? Make something good of it, Fate, and let me love him nobly. A long, ecstatic kiss in parting, my beloved little son! Now—may luck be with me! What a difference between his diary entry and mine…in spite of the colossal similarity between us. How remarkable the difference in the way he, the man, and I, the woman, contemplated the tasks ahead of us. With him the sacredness of his profession occupied the foreground, with me the sacredness of love…”

Coline Covington describes Spielrein’s profound role in influencing Freud’s and Jung’s evolving ideas, a role which was acknowledged but minimized by both. “It was in Oct., 1911, that Spielrein first met Freud, in Vienna. The following month Spielrein read her first theoretical paper, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being,” at one of Freud’s meetings, in the presence of Freud, Federn, Rank, Sachs, Stekel, and Tausk, among others. Here she introduced the concept of the death instinct, later to be incorporated and developed by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) in which he refers in a footnote to Spielrein’s idea of the ‘destructive’ component of the sexual instinct. Commenting on her paper some months later, Freud wrote to Jung, “She is very bright; there is meaning in everything she says; her destructive drive is not much to my liking because I believe it is personally conditioned; she seems abnormally ambivalent (McGuire, 1974: 494).” Jung acknowledged Spielrein as the originator of the idea of the death instinct, but not until the revised edition of his Symbols of Transformation, in 1952, by which time she was long dead–murdered by Nazis in Russia, where she had gone to live.

Perhaps Spielrein’s neurotic problems were partly due to her incredible ability to tolerate conflicting feelings and ideas together, without having to artificially resolve the conflict by rejecting one side or the other; and perhaps this is the “ambivalence” that Freud refers to. Covington quotes Spielrein, in her diary entry of 26 November, 1910, as she “expressed her fear that Jung would ‘simply borrow the whole development of the idea (of the death instinct).” Spielrein wrote, “’Is this another case of unfounded distrust on my part? I wish so fervently that it might be so, for my second study will be dedicated to my most esteemed teacher, etc. How could I esteem a person who lied, who stole my ideas, who was not my friend but a petty, scheming rival? And love him? I do love him, after all. My work ought to be permeated with love! I love him and hate him, because he is not mine. It would be unbearable for me to appear a silly goose in his eyes. No, noble, proud, respected by all! I must be worthy of him, and the idea I gave birth to must also appear under my name.’ (Carotenuto, 1982: 35).”

Defending his advocating the same or similar ideas as Spielrein, Jung had said that they were thinking along the same lines, had stimulated one another’s thoughts, etc. I expect that there is truth on both sides here. The situation of Freud, Jung and Spielrein has undeniable parallels with that of Rosalind Franklin and Watson and Crick. Franklin was a biophysicist and x-ray crystallographer whose x-ray diffraction images of DNA were studied by Watson and Crick and lead to their discovery of the double helix shape of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick’s paper didn’t acknowledge anything like the full contribution of Franklin’s work to their discovery, and she was not included in their Nobel award, as many feel she should have been. Like Spielrein, Franklin died young, of ovarian cancer, at 37. The film, “The Double Helix,” helped restore Rosalind Franklin’s place in the historical record, as “A Dangerous Method” might eventually do for Spielrein.

Spielrein went on to a distinguished career as a psychoanalyst, among whose analysands was Jean Piaget, practicing in Switzerland and in her native Russia, where she married and started a school, before being slaughtered. Thus was another veil cast over her life and accomplishments, much like those of her compatriot, the pioneering psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose influence on psychology and education is profound but mostly unacknowledged.

As I often say, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a powerful and sometimes necessary method for understanding ourselves and finding our way in this world, yet the teaching and learning of it has been so deeply infected with pathologies of personality and politics by its originators and transmitters that we must engage in much work of disentangling what’s useful in it from what isn’t. To some extent, analytic therapists need to cultivate an anthropological attitude toward the culture of psychoanalysis, in order to sort out “the baby from the bathwater.” I am grateful to “A Dangerous Method” for highlighting the intertwined truths and pathologies present at the birth of psychoanalysis, and also for providing a delayed acknowledgement of the indispensable contribution of an overlooked woman pioneer. Her role can now be studied, acknowledged, and incorporated into our understanding of where we have been, where we are, and where we might be going.