Friday, February 10, 2012

Dangerous ideas on screen

Liz Else, associate editor
(Image: Sony Pics/Everett/Rex Features)

A Dangerous Method, the latest film from director David Cronenberg, explores the complex relationship between two men who helped shape 20th century thinking: Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).
The tangle and later clash between Freud and Jung is ironically interwoven with the stories of Jung’s relationships with the underrated women in his life: a Russian Jew called Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient, lover and subsequently a well respected analyst in her own right; and Emma Jung (Sarah Gadon), the rich but understandably insecure wife who must endure both the great man’s angst and his affairs.
The fifth player, fellow psychiatrist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) is the man Freud originally wanted to succeed him. A libertine who believes that monogamy should be subverted, Freud sends Gross to Jung to be treated for his drug addiction - and he encourages Jung to become Spielrein’s lover, thereby violating the doctor-patient relationship.
In many ways, the film is a well-made hybrid of ideas movie, masterly costume drama, and, frankly with Knightley onboard and some spanking sex, a touch of S&M soap.
But the real danger in this drama lies in the fact that it is a story about real people, two of whom had a defining effect on the 20th century and beyond.
The film is based both on the play The Talking Cure by British playwright Christopher Hampton, and the 1994 non-fiction book, A Most Dangerous Method, by John Kerr. The book charts the course of the development of the theory of psychoanalysis, through the letters and writing of Freud and Jung. It also, for the first time, explained the role played by Spielrein, whose arrival in 1904 at Zurich’s Burgh√∂lzli hospital where Jung worked is the opening shot of the movie.
So the film - as well as works it is based on - are purveyors of ideas that neuroscience and cognitive science are revealing to be wrong. And we are already finding it hard to dig ourselves out from under the weight of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, id, ego and dreams - or to slough off Jung’s notions of, among other things, the collective unconscious (while apologising for his anti-Semitism).
Since the so-called Freud Wars of the 1980s and 90s, which debated the Viennese psychoanalyst's reputation, scholarship and impact on the 20th century, critics ranging from J. Allan Hobson to neuroscientist Eric Kandel have been at pains to point out that Freud‘s aims may have been scientific, but his methods definitely weren’t.
Freud set out with the vision of developing a neurobiological view of how the brain worked, but when the limited knowledge of the 1890s made this impossible, he abandoned the idea.
Frank Cioffi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, argued that Freud’s writings had more in common with Renaissance poetry and the mystical parts of the Bible than with scientific research. Freud, he wrote, first had inspiration and insights, then voiced them through the stories of his patients - whether they reflected their real stories or not.
Jung, too, clearly had scientific aspirations. But despite his eventual status as founder of analytical psychology, he ended up wandering far from standard science, making strange excursions into arcane areas such as occultism, alchemy and astrology. Just before the first World War, Jung set out on what he was to describe as his “confrontation with the unconscious", and documented the awful dreams and visions that were tormenting him. He eventually recopied it all, using a gothic script, into a single big, red, leather journal, complete with fancy borders and paintings.
Lost for years, The Red Book: Liber Novus caused a literary sensation in 2009 when it was reissued. As its editor, Sonu Shamdasani, a specialist in the history of Jung at University College London explained at the time, the work “offers us an important insight into a time before the intellectual divide between art and psychology made such a work of inner exploration, of psychology-as-literature (and maybe even as art), less thinkable”.
Cronenberg is known as the master of “body horror”, exploiting our fear of bodily transformation and infection, and cleverly showing how the psychological ends up inextricably interwoven with the physical. He has a long history of exploring psychological and scientific themes in his films: scientists have modified human bodies (Shivers, Rabid), created inner chaos (The Brood, Scanners), and terminally altered themselves through experimentation (The Fly, Dead Ringers). And since about 1990, his films have been more overtly psychological, sometimes exploring the nature of subjective and objective realities (eXistenZ, M. Butterfly, Spider, Crash). Personally I love his films, and would insist some solar powered method of watching them all were I ever to be exiled to a desert island.
But as a work of art, A Dangerous Method does signal a break with his previous work - and form. I am troubled by the question of whether it is fair to expect a film maker to grapple with the scientific provenance and current status of ideas he choses to turn into a narrative. Either way, there are risks.
Meanwhile the work of rethinking the true legacies of Freud and Jung continues apace. And the most dangerous method of all will be working out how to honestly tackle the mess of half-truth and egotism surrounding the two men - and see what it is left.

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