A Dangerous Method

In a modest neighbourhood in central Vienna is a tiny flat with the address – Berggasse 19. In the first half of the 20th century, it served as the residence of a man who changed how we look at human nature forever. This was Sigmund Freud, a neurologist who developed a cure of psychological illnesses that was based on, very strangely for that time, talking to the patient. This was something entirely novel for the medical world that was used to locking up people with mental illness and administering electric shocks on them (it still remains novel for a large number of mental health professionals, who believe the best way to help someone with depression or anxiety is to medicate them).

At Berggasse 19 gathered a motley group of ‘psychoanalysts’, as the followers of Freud’s craft called themselves, and discussed and debated their ideas of how human nature comes to be what it is, and what its highest as well as ugliest possibilities are. Some have referred to this time as the birth of the psychological man, to the ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, and to the development of psychological techniques that would help the increasing number of suffering persons in our modern world.

But the modern world, still learning to stand on its new feet, was shocked. For Freud had suggested, among other things, that the 4-year old child harbours sexual feelings for his mother, and the girl for her father. Further, the entire psychological development of the human being was mapped in terms of the expression, repression and sublimation of the sexual instinct, right from infancy to adulthood. To top it all, Freud’s treatments actually worked – at least to some extent. Several of those who were earlier condemned to be incapacitated with their symptoms could now return to normal life.

Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

While the rest of the world tried to grapple with the discoveries of this genius from Vienna, Freud and his heirs worked with a sense of mission – as they were presenting the world with new and liberating knowledge, and a sense of vulnerability – at the attacks they were faced with from a world still mired in a repressive Victorian morality. We may understand the intensity of both these feelings when we consider that each member of the small group that met at Berggasse 19 was given a ring to wear. The ring marked their identity as a group, almost religiously, that was bound together in bonds of trust, loyalty, and security.

In 2008, I visited Berggasse 19 to see “where it all began”. While not much was left of the place as Freud had migrated to London with most of his belongings before the beginning of the Second World War, the small flat still stood out as a unique place in history, where some of the most fascinating knowledge about human nature – and techniques to change it – emerged.

As one watches David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method (2011), one is left with the same sense of historical fascination that marks the rooms and ambiance of Berggasse 19. The film takes us to a few years before and after 1910, when Freud was still battling for acceptance of his discoveries, and most of his successors were yet to make their mark, except one. This was another genius, comparable to Freud, and clearly more gifted than him in matters spiritual – the young Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

A Dangerous Method moves on two interrelated tracks. The first is Jung’s treatment of, and subsequent love relationship with Sabrina Spielren, who comes into his hospital as a violent hysteric whose mutterings are incomprehensible to most, and under his care, blossoms into an intelligent and resourceful psychoanalyst in her own right, who would go on to establish the discipline in Russia. While it is not established by consensus whether Jung and Spielren really had a love relationship, the story of her recovery is a shining example of the relief and growth that therapy can offer to a human being, when and if it works well. A new method had been discovered, a method that could deeply enrich our lives, but also “a most dangerous method”, as the American philosopher-psychologist William James remarked.

The second, and more fascinating track is of Jung’s relationship with Freud. The controlled, calculating, fatherly Freud expects the young, visionary but conflicted Jung to be his successor in the psychoanalytic movement. Freud’s immense control over each and every word he utters, every movement he makes, is contrasted by his uncontrollable addiction to smoking a cigar – something that would cause him throat cancer and eventually contribute to his death – and by his collapsing to the floor when his ideas are challenged by Jung. We see Freud just as he is portrayed in the books – a masterful thinker and a careful speaker, in many ways limited by his own psychological difficulties, yet deeply humanistic and totally dedicated to movement he has founded. He is coldly calculating about the future of psychoanalysis, which he intends to preserve at all costs – and some would say, even at the cost of certain truths.

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender)

Jung, on the other hand, the son of a pastor, holds a fascination for what the later psychologist Abraham Maslow would call ‘the farther reaches of human nature’. “I want to show the patient that he can become what he deeply is, and what he was meant to be,” says Jung to Sabrina, in contrast to the stark and tragic realism of Freud’s worldview, which is famously condensed in Freud’s real life comment, “the purpose of psychoanalysis is to take the patient from neurotic misery to common human unhappiness.”

We see Jung’s unhappy marriage, as we see his total dedication to his work and his deep fascination for the out of the ordinary. At the same time, we know we are seeing a man with his destiny marked out – a destiny to translate ancient wisdom into psychological language, sometimes at the cost of his own sanity, and to address ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul’, as the title of one of his many remarkable books goes.

While the film ends just before the First World War and does not show the final destinies of these two men, we know that the ideas of Freud became much more accepted than those of Jung, and Freud may justly be called the founder of psychotherapy who has contributed much to the care of suffering human beings. The successors of both men proposed distinct views of human nature, the Freudians’ worldview being marked by a streak of tragedy, yet hopeful and compassionate, and the Jungian worldview marked by a a more reflective idealism and spirituality, which would sometimes descend to naive and sentimental new-ageism. Freud died in 1939, at age 83, of physician-assisted suicide, something he decided for when he was incapacitated and in intense pain because of his throat cancer. Jung lived a relatively healthy old-age and died of natural causes in 1961, at age 86, having given up his persona as a positivistic scientist, and being considered by many as the wise sage of Küsnacht, the Swiss town he lived in.

A Dangerous Method is a finely etched drama, that would engage most people, and deeply fascinate those with an interest in psychoanalysis and the cultural values it spawns. It beautifully captures the mood of early 20th century Europe using the classical music and the grand, stately architecture of the time. The leading characters – especially Sigmund Freud – are played with evocative brilliance, bringing alive these two remarkable personalities of the 20th century who have left a mark on civilization for ever. Whenever we use the words ‘unconscious’, ‘introvert’, ‘complex’, or acknowledge that our problems may have something to do with our childhood, or agree that sex should be discussed openly rather than repressed, we owe much, if not all, two the depth of thinking of these two men – so very different from each other, yet having contributed to humanity in their own ways.

~ by tdcatss on June 14, 2012.

2 Responses to “A Dangerous Method”

  1. I found your review interesting, but quite a different perception to mine. I think they both made a contribution, but also that nowadays we need to pick out the useful bits and discard the aspects that are wrong or don’t work for us. In my review I talk more about the limitations to Spielrein’s recovery, and also about the implications of the sexual boundary violation.
    Here is my url http://kayehargreaves1.wordpress.com/films/a-dangerous-method/

  2. […] A Dangerous Method(nookinthewoods.wordpress.com) […]

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