A Dangerous Method
Release Date: March 29
The Sydney theologian Phillip Jensen once did me the favour of pointing out that the wisdom of highly regarded philosophers had to be measured against the motives that shaped their lives. Once you know that Rousseau was in the habit of fathering illegitimate children and convincing his lover to institutionalize them, his theories of female subservience seem more than a little self-serving. Likewise, when you watch Freud at work in A Dangerous Method you can’t help wondering who his theories were expected to help.
A Dangerous Method chronicles the professional relationship between Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and Carl Jung, the developer of many diagnostic approaches that have become benchmarks in the profession today. Michael Fassbender plays Jung in his formative years, enamoured of Viggo Mortensen’s confident, mature Freud. However as time passes Jung begins to realize that his older friend saw every problem he encountered as an expression of aberrant sexual desires. “You would expect him to be right in many cases – in most cases,” Jung admits to a colleague. “But there must be more than one hinge into the universe.” The tension in A Dangerous Method emerges when Jung begins to insist on discovering some of those other ‘hinges’ for himself.
There is no doubt that analytical psychiatry has benefited many. The film itself with the disturbing history of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) whose perversions emerged from the abuse heaped upon her by her father. Clearly contemporary medicine offered no hope, yet Jung discovered the causes that led to these effects. Reassembling her mind succeeded so completely she became Jung’s assistant. However the problems arise in the plot – and in life – when we see the mind as merely a malfunctioning machine.
If the brain is a simply a sophisticated engine then making it run as smoothly as possible is the only goal. Any pleasure that aids operation becomes permissible so long as it doesn’t inhibit another’s happiness. A colleague advises Jung,
“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my short life it’s this: never repress anything. Whatever you do, don’t pass by the oasis without stopping to drink.”
This line of thinking leads Jung into affairs, first with Spielrein, then fellow analyst Toni Wolff. Jung’s wife Emma exists uncomfortably on the edge of these relationships while her husband defends the deep needs they fulfill,
“Emma is the foundation of my house. Toni is the perfume in the air. Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to go on living.”
But for all the high-minded thinking, the story doesn’t play out much differently from that of any husband giving in to whatever makes him happy. A Dangerous Method shows Freud and Jung discovering some of the levers that motivate the human mind, but almost completely ignorant of their proper settings. Mortenson’s Freud is at least aware of his ignorance, if a little unconcerned:
“Columbus had no idea what country he had discovered. He just stepped foot on the shore. I have merely opened a door. It is up to young men like you to walk through.”
Yet without directions more helpful than pleasure or peaceful coexistence, people are unlikely to know when they’ve strayed off the map. If the mind is a creation rather than a construction, then we would do well to start looking for instructions. The historical Jung understood this and was the first analyst to recognize the human psyche as religious by nature. Yet he spent much of his life basking in the paranormal rather than searching for the Creator. Christians might turn to psychiatrists to help them understand how they’ve come unhinged, but only the Bible will tell them how they were designed to operate.