A Dangerous Method

May 6, 2012 4 Comments

What makes a method “dangerous”?  David Cronenberg’s controversial 2011 film “A Dangerous Method” is the prolific director’s  attempt to explore the inherent risk–danger really–to those embarking on a psychoanalytic journey through the unconscious armed with “the talking cure.”   The film has been applauded and dismissed by critics, praised and renounced by psychoanalysts, labeled as riveting and boring by viewers.  So what is going on?

The last installment of the 2011-2012 Reel Deal Film Series presented today at the Bloomfield Library on Freud’s Birthday (May 6) offered those who attended a unique experience to explore and discuss Cronenberg’s film.  The afternoon began with Diane Geiger in the director’s chair who challenged the idea that this “period piece” film centered around the relationships of Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein between the years of 1904-1912 is too staid and verbal to qualify as “Cronenbergian.”  She then proceeded to demonstrate the recurrent themes of internal danger, passion and obsession that permeates so many of his films.  Cronenberg’s fascination with the doctor-patient relationship preceded his interest in Jung and Sabina Spielrein as Diane demonstrated with film clips from classic Cronenberg such as “The Brood,” “Scanners,”  “Dead Ringer,” “The Fly” and “Videodrome.”  Ambiguity, invasion and contagion (via alien beings or alien ideas) loom large in his films…visually  over the top or over the top via repression.. pure Cronenberg either way.  Diane’s deep understanding of the Cronenberg essence and her creative exploration of his themes via her use of carefully chosen clips provided the film theory framework to hang the psychological and philosophical talks that followed.  Diane’s co-presenter was Sarah Jeanne Peter, who cautioned the audience against accepting historical films as “fact.”  She demonstrated the subtle and not so nuanced organization of  the film around Cronenberg’s sense of  Jung as the film’s “hero,” which rendered Sabina Spierlrein once again to the status of footnote (Freud of course did this much earlier).  Such positions, though well within the right of the filmmaker, nonetheless can be absorbed with little question because they are presented as “what  really happened.”

Kathy Moore provided the psychoanalytic perspective with an insightful discussion of Cronenberg’s casting of Vigo Mortenson as Freud, citing the intertextual implications–psychoanalysts would say transference=of using an actor whose signature attributes from another film (the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) would carry over to his portrayal of a character who “seems” much different.  The new character inherits the attributes of the character from the previous film….that is, we are invited to see Freud as “Aragon, the King,” which fortifies his place as the Conquistador of the Mind….. (I would say that Freud never looked hunkier)

Bruce Russell provided the final talk and invited the audience to ponder the questions:  What was the best explanation for the rift between Freud and Jung?  What was the nature of the relationship between the two men and between Jung and Sabina Spielrein?  Was it morally permissible for Jung to have a sexual relationship with his patient?  Is it ever permissible?  Is it ever rational?  What should we teach student therapists about this?

Needless to say, the Q and A was lively, with comments centered primarily on the relationships of the three characters.  Who was footnoting who and what were the implications for each and for us?  What can we believe about what happened?  What difference does it make for us in 2012?  Do the risks of intensive treatment–the dangerous method–outweigh the potential benefits?  Is there a way to miminize the risk without diluting the experience?  Several comments underscored the historical holes created when certain contributors are eliminated–suppressed or repressed- for various reasons and the difficulty in working backwards to fill them in…….

Happy Birthday Freud (we enjoyed the cake) and don’t forget to celebrate Jung’s birthday on July 26th and Spielrien’s on November 7…it’s only fair…….Jolyn Wagner


Must See Movie of the Week, Reel Deal Past Seasons
4 Comments to “A Dangerous Method”
  1. Dave Lundin says:

    Great summary!! I would add two thoughts. First, I really appreciated the “Director’s Chair” discussion on how Speilrien’s and Cronenberg’s work both emphasized that creativity and destruction and sex and death are intertwined inextricably. And secondly, even if a patient and therapist have sex and live happily ever after, thereby “disproving” the ethical code, the fact that the code is weakened and that sex between patient and therapist is more on the table in every treatment could harm future patients and contaminate future therapies.

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    Defenders of sets of rule, or codes, often point out that violation of the code can weaken it (in the sense that more people will be inclined to violate it in the future) and can alter the dispositions of those who violate it, making them more prone to violate it in the future. It’s hard to tell whether these claims are true, especially in this case where many violations will go undetected. How can those weaken adherence to the code? Further, one must ask whether the future violations that are supposed to be encouraged by past and present violations are WRONGFUL violations. If not, the consequences wont’ be bad.

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    I’ve copied below the dialogue between Otto Gross and Jung, the clips of which we did not have time to show yesterday at Reel Deal. One piece of dialogue between Sabina and Jung interrupts the Gross/Jung sessions. The one at the end follows the last Gross/Jung interchange.

    Jung to Gross: [on polygamy] And you don’t find it necessary or desirable to exercise some restraint as a contribution, say, to the smooth functioning of civilization?

    Gross: What, and make myself ill?

    Jung: I should have thought that some form of sexual repression would have to be practiced in any rational society.

    Gross: No wonder the hospitals are bulging at the seams. [Then asks whether to be popular with your patients you should tell them what they want to hear. And why be popular with them? Suppose you want to fuck them. “If there is one thing I’ve learned in my short life is this. Never repress anything.”


    Gross: So you’ve never slept with any of your patients?

    Jung: Of course not. I have to steer through the temptations of transference and countertransference. That’s an essential stage of the process.

    Gross: When transference occurs, when the patient becomes fixated on me, I explain to her that this is merely a symbol of her wretched monogamous habits. I assure her that it’s fine to want to sleep with me but only if, at the same time, she acknowledges to herself that she wants to sleep with a great many other people.

    Jung: Suppose she doesn’t?

    Gross: Then it’s my job to convince her that it’s part of the illness. That’s what people are like. If we don’t tell them the truth, who will?

    Jung: Do you think Freud’s right? Do you think all neurosis is of exclusively sexual origin?

    Gross: I think Freud’s obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any.

    Jung: You could be right.

    Gross: It seems to me a measure of the true perversity of the human race that one of its very few reliably pleasurable activities should be the subject of so much hysteria and repression.

    Jung: But not to repress yourself is to unleash all kinds of dangerous and destructive forces.

    Gross: Our job is to make our patients capable of freedom.

    Jung: I’ve heard it said that you helped one of your patients to kill herself.

    Gross: She was resolutely suicidal. I just explained how she could do it without botching it. Then I asked her if she didn’t prefer the idea of becoming my lover. She opted for both.

    Jung: That can’t be what we want from our patients.

    Gross: Freedom is freedom.

    Interlude with Sabina:

    Sabina to Jung: …only the clash of destructive forces can create something new. When my father brought me to you, I was very ill, and my illness was sexual. It’s clear that the subject I’m studying is entirely (my emphasis) grounded in sexuality. Naturally I’m becoming more and more acutely aware of the fact that I have no sexual experience.

    Jung: Law students are not normally expected to rob banks.

    Sabina: Kisses Jung on the lips (remains there for several seconds). She tells Jung that if he ever wants to take the initiative, she lives in the nearby building where the bay window is.

    Gross: I can’t understand what you’re waiting for. Just take her to some secluded spot and thrash her to within an inch of her life. That’s clearly what she wants. How can you deny her such a simple pleasure?

    Jung: Pleasure is never simple, as you very well know.

    Gross: It is. Of course it is. Until we decide to complicate it. What my father calls maturity. What I call surrender.

    Jung: Surrender, for me, would be to give in to these urges.

    Gross: Then surrender. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you don’t let experience escape. That’s my prescription.

    Jung: I’m supposed to be treating you.

    Gross: And it’s been most effective.

    Jung: I’d say the analysis is not too far from completion.

    Gross: Mine, yes. Not so sure about yours.

    This comes after the final Gross/Jung exchange.

    Jung says to Sabina: He’s been spending lots of time with Gross. He is immensely seductive, sure he’s right, obsessionally neurotic. “Pretty dangerous, in fact”!..”What I’m afraid of is his powers to convince me. On the subject of monogamy, for example, why should we put so much frantic effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts?

    Sabina: I don’t know. You tell me.


    Jung says to his wife Emma (after she says that he must wish he were a polygamist like Gross): If I were, it would be something quite different than what we have, which is sacred. I would have to be sure you understood that.

    Emma: I wouldn’t want to know anything about it. Surprises him with “the boat you’ve always wanted, with red sails. You’re a good man. You deserve everything that’s good.”

  4. Bruce Russell says:


    There were two events that constitute the immediate causes of the rift between Freud and Jung: (1) the so-called Kreuzlingen gesture and (2) Freud’s calling attention to a slip of the pen by Jung.

    However, the background to the rift stems from Freud’s desire to be the head of the psychoanalytic movement and for Jung to be his heir apparent, his “crown prince.” At one point Jung quotes Nietzsche to Freud. Nietzsche wrote, “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” But Freud really wanted to keep Jung as his star pupil, but Jung wanted to be at least Freud’s equal, maybe even his superior. It was a father-son struggle with the son no longer wanting to be the child.

    With this as background, events that occurred had enormous consequences for the friendship between Freud and Jung. The first event involved Freud’s coming to Kreuzlingen, Switzerland in May, 1912 to visit Ludwig Binswanger in whom cancer had just been discovered. He wrote Jung that he was coming, but also said that he could only stay a short time. Jung took offense because he opened Freud’s letter on a Monday, and Freud left on a Tuesday. Zurich was only about 40 miles from Kreuzlingen so, Jung probably thought, why didn’t Freud write me earlier so I could meet him in Kreuzlingen? As it turned out, Jung was away sailing on Sat. and Sun. and so didn’t see the letter Freud had sent until Mon. And Freud was upset that Jung did not meet him in Kreuslingen, even though he had not explicitly invited him to meet there with him and Binswanger. So both parties were offended and felt slighted, even though a reconciling understanding could, in principle, have been reached via letters.

    The two started writing each other daily after Freud fainted at the Nov., 1912 meeting of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Munich. Jung picked Freud up and carried him to the lounge, and that event followed a long walk and talk they shared before lunch. It looked like there was going to be a reconciliation. But Jung made a Freudian (?) slip in a letter to Freud in which he said, “Even Adler’s cronies do not regard me as one of YOURS.” (Adler was a rival to Freud.) He had meant to write “THEIRS,” but the two words are close in German: Ihrigen (with capital “I”) vs. ihrigen (small case “i”)
    In a letter Freud called the slip to Jung’s attention, and that caused a tirade. Jung replied as follows:

    “Your technique of treating your pupils as patients is a BLUNDER. You go around sniffing out all the symptomatic actions in your vicinity, thus reducing everyone to the level of sons and daughters who blushingly admit the existence of their faults…I am not in the least neurotic–knock on wood! I have submitted …to analysis and am much the better for it. You know, of course, how far a patient gets with self-analysis: NOT out of his neurosis–just like you.”

    Naturally, Freud was insulted. After waiting a few weeks, he writes Jung back, saying in part, “But one who while behaving abnormally keeps shouting that he is normal gives ground for the suspicion that he lacks insight into his illness. Accordingly, I propose that we abandon our personal relations entirely.”

    Jung replies, “You yourself are the best judge of what this moment means to you. The rest is silence.”

    So by the beginning of 1913, the break is complete. Ironically, it was precipitated by a Freudian slip by Jung and an earlier misunderstanding involving what Jung called “the Kreuzlingen gesture.” There were theoretical differences between the two, Freud holding that all neuroses are founded on sexuality, Jung thinking that only a partial cause of neuroses. Correspondingly, Freud had a purely sexual understanding of libido, while Jung had a more generally “energetic” understanding. But I do not believe that these intellectual, or theoretical, differences were the bases of their rift. That was caused by a couple of particular events that occurred against a background of a sort of father-son conflict or dynamic.

    I have relied on Linda Donn’s book, FREUD AND JUNG: YEARS OF FRIENDSHIP, YEARS OF LOSS (Macmillan, 1988) for the above material. It contains many quotes from letters between Freud and Jung.

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