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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dangerous Minds, Dangerous Flesh: David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method"

A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s Freud/Jung play The Talking Cure, is a film about war. One could say that war refers to the ideas of two great thinkers, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Gustave Jung (Michael Fassbender), interplaying; a war for disciples to adopt those ideas; a war between Aryans and Jews; between repression and expression; and also a portent of two great wars that loom on the horizon. The simplicity of A Dangerous Method, which with its talkiness and scenarios drawn out in epistolary form as letters traverse between Vienna and Zurich, is the buttoned dressing of the great naked darkness behind it, something vicious wanting to get out at a time when mental hospitals are "bulging at the seams," according to libertine psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell). In the first moments of seeing a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), hysterically screaming through coach windows while being dragged to one of those hospitals, we deduce that the real war here is the battle between the physical world, of manners, dress, ritual, and social status, and a secret world, hidden in the cracks of the answer to the mythological Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus, man. Filmed in Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suchitzky’s trademark wide-angle close-ups, Sabina’s face contorts and juts out of the screen more effectively than 3D. Something is in there, inside of Sabina, and wants to get out.

Repression is a tired theme, and when we have two icons discussing desire and neurosis, it makes sense to dismiss this all as a Wikipedia/Cliffs Notes simplification of major ideas that most people in academia love to deride as outdated. It’s the stuff of too many Miramax period pieces where the contemporary audience is granted an easy identification with long-dead personalities, and our notions of humanism easily translate to theirs. But when I see Freud and Jung talking about their dreams – or more properly, Jung’s dreams – there’s an odd sensation of watching the modern world being born. It doesn’t matter if these men were correct or incorrect, or if their adventures followed a path of almost clichéd melodrama. They were themselves literary critics, where the texts being discerned were human lives, their own and others.

They analyzed constantly, seeing “father figures,” Siegfrieds, gods, demons, and themselves playing the parts. The unsavory aspects of existence were uncovered and men sought to define what they found. It’s comforting to sit back and shrug, saying that an id, ego, superego, complex, or collective unconscious isn’t real. Metaphors were what Freud and Jung had, and they swam in a symbolic ocean predating our neuroscience. Early on in the film, we see Jung using a Galvonometer during a word-association test on his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon). The goal of these pioneers of interior geography is to measure the mind. Unlike other period films, David Cronenberg’s understanding of human nature makes A Dangerous Method’s ruminations on repression highly unnerving. As ideas and technology change us – making Cronenberg’s “new flesh” so to speak – we become something different. We are not watching ourselves in this film, but another species of humanoid. And what more, the implications of this wonderful film are that with each idea in our contemporary selves, we too are susceptible to contorting specters, becoming New Flesh.

In its true-life account, where a lot of the information and dialogue is taken verbatim from letters and recorded anecdotes, A Dangerous Method curiously fits into Cronenberg’s format of his bio-horror science fiction scenarios, where new science is growing and nurtured, while simultaneously political and financial stresses clash with the new idea’s mysteries, causing havoc and oftentimes ending – or very nearly ending – the world as we know it. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and eXistenZ all have scientific characters who carry themselves about as respected professionals, ultimately undone by what they create. Sabina Spielrein and Carl Jung find themselves in A Dangerous Method, but the cost of wisdom correlates to worldwide implications involving perverted ideologies and mass murder.


For Cronenberg, the insects of the mind leap above spatial boundaries of abstraction, their metaphorical significance becoming embodied. As with Sigmund Freud, the unconscious affects us much more than we would care to admit. Freud, though he lacks much favor from scientists and academics in the Humanities, was vaguely right, according to neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide), who recently wrote, “In recent years, it’s become clear that, as Freud always insisted, the unconscious is the dominant force in our mental life. (What Freud called the id is now a network of brain areas associated with emotion, such as the amygdale and nucleus accumbens.) He was mostly right about the logic of dreams, which often regurgitate those parts of experience we store in long-term memory. And he was basically correct to imagine the mind as a set of conflicted drives, with reason competing against the urges of the passions. We expend a lot of neurotic energy holding ourselves back,” all this in addition to, Lehrer goes on to explain, how “modern attachment theory has confirmed the crucial importance of the maternal bond.”

So even if things like penis envy and the Oedipus complex are too schematic to carry any sense of general truth, it’s hard to think that intelligent people still have a hard time accepting the door Freud opened for the sciences, in a way liberating us while inviting us to see how powerful that hidden world within is, how we are in fact not in control as much as we would like, and how our distant childhood experiences, particularly with our parents, have immense ramifications. The discomfort of instinctual man may have to do with Freud’s insistence on the importance of sex. And even if sex isn’t responsible for everything, the drive for it, coupled with the temperaments sculpted by personal childhood experiences, undeniably dictates much, such as our clothes, what side of the street we walk on, how we walk, where we sit for our lunch hours, how we eat, etc. The great psychologists showed us that we were always someone else, in addition to “ourselves.” And neuroscience now indicates that we are several selves, our identity reformatted every morning as memories are retained, resculpted, or disposed, a trait that is dramatized by Cronenberg with Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) in A History of Violence. Though according to his former acquaintances and enemies like Fogarty (Ed Harris), he’s still “crazy fuckin’ Joey,” to survive Joey has adapted, becoming a warm small-town family man and café owner, Tom Stall.

Tom Stall is another variation of Cronenberg’s theme of the flesh, the corporeal substance inhabited by our identity/identities. There is no Cartesian dualism for Cronenberg, the mind and body being one thing, itself not extended from anything coming into contact with it. Infection, whether viral or technological, results in evolution, not death. Decay is procreative. In Cronenberg’s early horror film Shivers, a character says that “even old flesh is erotic flesh… disease is the love two alien kinds of creatures have for each other… even dying is an act of eroticism.” There are repercussions of this with Max Renn (James Woods) hailing the “New Flesh,” born out of his viral interactions with disturbing images in Videodrome, Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) “Brundlefly” transformation in The Fly, the effects of “junk” narcotics on Bill Lee (Peter Weller) in Naked Lunch, and the philosophy of Vaughn (Elias Koteas) in Crash, where “the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that’s impossible in any other form.” Crash is Cronenberg’s most visceral example of the triad between exterior stimulation, mind, and body, as he creates a numbing pornographic movie of extreme sexuality, putting the audience in the same stripped senses as J.G. Ballard’s characters: the film, an optical technological mechanism, is changing us, making our own “juices” flow. When you are talking to a sexually aroused person, you are not necessarily talking to the same person before their arousal. Identity, self, is affected in the poetry of flesh.

And so those bacterial drives aching in stimulation and altering under the glare of new technologies and stimuli are threats to stability. The Fly is a masterful example of the metaphor in action, as the movie is more than a horror film about a scientist who accidentally splices his DNA with an insect’s during teleportation experiments, thus beginning a horrifying metamorphosis. An almost stage-like love triangle between the scientist Brundle, reporter Veronica (Geena Davis), and her editor and ex-boyfriend Stathis (John Getz), Cronenberg stresses the vulnerability of jealous men unable to resist instincts when their erotic standing is threatened by another lover. Stathis is developed as the film’s villain, the snide and shallow moneyman who is ruthless and petty after Veronica becomes close to the sensitive and isolated Brundle. But Stathis loves Veronica as much as Brundle does. He ends up saving her and may be seen as the hero. His sexual jealousy manipulates the character’s construction.

Brundle is just as reflexive in his jealousy. When he suspects that Veronica has left his apartment to see Stathis, he becomes reckless and teleports himself – the act which begins his transformation, as in his drunken haste he’s overlooked the housefly who was in the telepod with him. As the “fly” begins to take over, Brundle takes another lover (a barfly floozy) to satiate a booming libido, and even though his conscious and intelligent self knows that Veronica should abort his child, he kidnaps her at the clinic. An abortion of Brundle’s baby is a rejection of Brundle’s DNA, the deep hidden anxiety of every male who wants to spread his genes.

Brundle verbalizes Cronenberg’s point about jealous males in the magnificent “insect politics” monologue, a moment that is so uncanny because it is intelligent, horrific, and operatic at once. “Have you ever heard of ‘insect politics’?” he asks. “Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician…I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt you as a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake. I’m saying, I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

The line between “humanism” and carnage blurs. A History of Violence has an unsettling prologue with simple camaraderie between two mysterious characters, whose banal conversation is then played against the shocking outcome of their existence: violent, merciless killing. Compare the sex scenes of Tom Stall and Joey Cusack, the same man with the same woman (Maria Bello), and yet both everything – including her – is different, as with Tom Stall, sex is playful fantasy with reciprocation (it ends with him performing cunnilingus on her), but with the unleashed and exposed Philadelphia gangster Joey Cusack, lovemaking is based on his gratification, rough to the extent that it could be interpreted as rape. When Joey returns to Philadelphia to confront his older brother (William Hurt), an area crime boss, his brother tells him, “When mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib,” adding, “I guess all kids try to do that.” In love and connectivity, there is friction and dissonance, constant struggle, like in the fate of the twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers, or the homoerotic and troubling relationship between over-compensating Kirill (Vincent Cassell) and the calm and collected driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) in Eastern Promises, a film beginning with a baby’s birth coinciding with the mother’s resultant bloody death.

A British detective comments on Russian gangsters in Eastern Promises, “In Russian prisons, your life story is written on your body in tattoos. You don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist.” Fogarty in A History of Violence and Vaughn in Crash both have facial scars that reference history, and so a memory and identity. The flesh is the text to be analyzed and read, as the cops and gangsters do in Eastern Promises, or as we do while watching A History of Violence, where Mortensen remarkably alternates between two identities with the slightest adjustments on his face and in his speech. M. Butterfly is about a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) who has a 20-year affair with an androgynous opera singer (John Lone), the decorum of the singer’s theatrical performance manipulating the diplomat’s sexuality and mind, to the extent that he’s completely fooled himself about the singer’s gender (“Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.”) Naked Lunch takes the issue of texts and bodies to an extreme, as writer/exterminator Bill Lee’s typewriter is part insect, and part talking asshole.

Blood, semen (Crash, Spider), withering bodies (Videodrome), mutant cervixes (Dead Ringers), exploding heads (Scanners), phallic stingers (Rabid), and most gruesomely, the womblike depository of a woman undergoing a new kind of therapy where her anxieties are birthed as deranged mutant children who kill the causes of her neuroses (The Brood) point to the flipside of horror, where the supernatural is stolen away from out there, and true horror is embedded within our chromosomes, walking with us all the time, the stuff of nightmares transpiring when we notice an unsightly lump, rash, or discharge. The main fact of human existence, according to David Cronenberg, is the body. And he has given ghastly faces to those monsters within. Rather than being a departure, a period piece on Freud and Jung takes his audience to the root of his obsessions. When you think about it, Cronenberg’s work, where the anxieties of the psyche are made manifest by fleshy creatures and horrors, is filled with Jung’s “catalytic exteriorization phenomena.”


The challenge of this new film, much like his perfectly crafted and little-seen psychological thriller Spider, about a schizophrenic (Ralph Fiennes) whose tragedy is that he encounters his hidden and repressed self, is that the deformations are spoken about, per Freud’s “talking cure,” instead of shown. Like the neurotic patients, the audience is left to their own imaginations and subconscious of manufacturing images. The demons and monsters are there, but slithering between the lines and words, muffled through our language that tries to give definition to the shapeless murk of night terrors and uncontrolled fantasies. Civilization, for Freud and Cronenberg, is Repression, and we need it. Art is a subversive act that works to disrupt civilization, showing us what’s being repressed, and we need that too. It’s a difficult beast to articulate, in A Dangerous Method, being that this threatening creature is not so much Carl Jung’s temptations, Sabina Spielrein’s hysteria and sadomasochism, or Freud’s lethargic self-certainty. This is not Ken Russell’s Gothic (the film about Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, and the weekend getaway that created Frankenstein). The true agent of conflict and disease, that Freud himself says is “the plague” while the two psychologists enter America (and so a blunt declaration of Cronenberg’s longtime venereal-horror obsessions), is the talking cure itself. Discovery of new ideas and concepts entangle the thinkers. After watching A Dangerous Method, I felt I had seen a more balanced and restrained – and more effective – translation of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

The theme of worlds at war is presented by the visual motif of having characters in the foreground and background being in focus, as if the unconscious were always overlooking, speaking to us and judging us. “Talking” is a form of ideological procreation, evoking Shivers’ notion that “everything is erotic,” talking in particular. A Dangerous Method is primarily Jung’s journey. We first see him diagnosing the illness of Sabina Spielrein, sitting behind her and watching the back of her head. His journey ends as she, and us, look at the back of his head while he deeply stares into Lake Zurich, maybe lost in his own unconscious murk, from which he may have never returned as he increasingly explored alchemy, mysticism, and Christ as the symbol for individuation in what he called “the post-Christian age.” Cronenberg wants to make this unconscious darkness elliptical, lurking but offscreen and hidden in expressions, as the picture is almost shot completely in evenly lit day.

Part of the appeal for reading Freud and Jung has to do with how, as writers or philosophers, they are speaking to the bourgeois environment they are cleverly trying to subvert. In their philosophy, we encounter the shapes and forms of fantastical fiction. Freud is focused on the monsters of the id, and in Jung the reader takes delight in imagining the mysticism and gods hidden in the psyche. Freud exposes and works to defeat the illusion, while Jung believes identifying, expressing, and projecting the illusion is a helpful part of individuation. For both men, these gods and monsters hold the secret to the self. Cronenberg and Hampton show how Freud and Jung took seriously the capacity of mind to affect human beings. As Sabina halts after speaking through a contorting face, Jung asks, “Why did you stop? Did a thought come into your head? Or an image? What was the image?” It was her father’s hand, which was inflicted on her as constant corporeal punishment, which she was made to kiss after such chastisements. This, coupled with how Sabina Spielrein’s mother refused to let her daughter have any sexual knowledge, results in neurosis. She is stimulated by punishment. The prospect of pain arouses her, but she hasn’t been properly conditioned to handle these feelings. She is hysteric, as a lot of women possibly were in repressed environments. In her words, she is “vile, filthy, and corrupt. There is no hope for me.” When she communicates a dream to Jung, the imagery feels perfect in its disgusting specificity for Cronenberg: “There’s something in the room. It gets in the bed with me. It whispers to me. It’s like a mollusk moving against my back.” And during this moment of cthonian disgust, Sabina admits to Jung that she was masturbating.

Sabina communicates with the secret world, hearing it from “her angel,” what we would now think of as an intuitive voice. She hasn’t learned how to properly integrate the unconscious and conscious worlds. Yet though her doctor Jung seems on top of things, he will be swept into a similar tumult of observation and desire. Sabina, who aspires to be a doctor, assists Jung on his word-association tests, and is able to correctly diagnose the feelings of Jung’s test subject, his wife Emma. “You have quite a flair for this,” Jung tells Sabina after examples of her deeply analytical interpretations point to Emma’s fear of Jung losing interest during her pregnancy.

Sadomasochism, phallic mollusks, masturbation, anal retentiveness. What was silently guessed at by literature and philosophy (one could say that there’s more Shakespeare in Freud than Freud or Oedipus complexes in Shakespeare, and also think of the Marquis de Sade, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Wilde, Ibsen, and so on, all of whom lived out of the dream world Freud was putting under his mental microscope) was threatening to be clinically named and diagnosed outside of the dark and dreamlike theater box of art, and in the light of everyday life where Europe was believing itself to be increasingly rational and progressive, much like Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel set in the same time and ending with the same apocalyptic crunch of the irrational Great War. A figure like Freud maybe grasps why it’s important for civilization to wrangle with such concepts instead of outright rejecting them, as otherwise the anxieties and discontents of man sublimate in detrimentally catastrophic ways. Writing about the current war in 1915, when so many were surprised by what was happening, Freud wrote, “Our fellow citizens have not sunk so low as we feared, because they had never risen so high as we believed.”

In the film, Freud sees the difficulty of making such a reconciliation with the meaning of his findings. “Once they work out what [we] actually mean, they’ll be just as appalled as ever,” he tells Jung as a dinner table chat at Freud’s Vienna apartment, where the whole Freud clan sits with them, looking on. “Don restrain yourself,” Freud says to Jung, who piles several slabs of meat on his plate while discussing the clinical terms. The elder professor could be referring to the meat, but could also be referring to Jung’s own repressions in discussion, as the Freuds are much attuned to the sex-driven writings and beliefs of their patriarch.


Jung, who venerates Freud, is one of the few men in the intimate psychoanalytical circle who is independent enough to contradict dogmatical schema. The two talk about Sabina, who exhibits some anal personality traits. Freud assumes that she fits into his established paradigm for the anal type – uptight, clean, and always describing things with “the most amusing details.” But no, Sabina is “disorganized, generous, and idealistic,” according to Jung. Later on, Jung is similarly blunt in contradicting Freud’s observations of another patient, a “classic nymphomaniac” who, Jung counters, does not exhibit Freud’s classification. The conflict bogs down to the major disagreement about the “exclusively sexual” character of Freud’s theories, while Jung believes “there must be more than one engine to the universe.”

This quest for the “other engine,” which we could call Jung’s mystical Holy Grail or primal Wotan volk god, the archetype out of whom we should live as our own myth, points to the more discomforting schisms between Freud and Jung, master and student, authentic and cynical friends who may be using each other as much as they value shared ideas, and it’s also why Sabina is such a potent third party in their strained epochal conflict in modernity’s invention. Freud and his family are in what Jung describes as a “small, stuffy apartment,” while the young Swiss doctor lucked out in marrying Emma, one of the richest heiresses in Switzerland. Unlike a lot of other ambitious doctors, Jung had the luxury of being able to continue studying patients while taking time off to pursue personal interests, and Freud seems quietly bothered by Jung’s bourgeois comforts, as he must stay with the bulk of boat passengers while Jung walks upstairs into first class. While expressing admiration for Freud, Jung mentions his dislike for the bohemians who surround Freud, many of whom we can assume are Jewish.

And while Jung himself may not conscious grasp it, where there are bohemians, there are the Jews, and this is the most unnerving of dualities in the great debate of Freud and Jung when set in the foreground of 20th century narrative. Freud respects Jung, but sees in him a “crown prince” whose appearance and reputation can elevate psychoanalysis above the prejudiced criticism of political enemies, who see it as a “Jewish science.” “All of us are Jews,” Freud says. “I don’t see how that matters,” Jung naively responds. The knowing Freud pauses, “If you don’t mind me saying so, that’s an exquisitely Protestant remark.” Later on, the tribalism is set in ideological stone when Freud warns Sabina to stay away from Jung’s ideas. “Place not your trust in Aryans,” he says. “We’re Jews, and Jews we will always be.” The volkish Aryans have an unfortunate propensity for mysticism, replacing one delusion with another when rather we must learn to live life as it is.

Though he was not an active anti-Semite, Jung was naïve, and by his own admission as we hear in this film, a “philistine.” His analytical psychology may have had at least one very politically incorrect trait in how he saw racial psychologies at work, and he compared the Aryan and Jewish mind, the latter being a nomad tribe having a disconnect from a deep volk myth or primal connection to a land, while Aryans, in order to be individuated, needed to reconnect with that myth in order to be whole.

What is horrifying is that the Germans did return to a perversion of the volk collective. Wotan returned in the guise of Hitler, an analogy Jung himself observed, though, it should be noted, he did not endorse, as it was a mythological reconnection that played out as perverse nationalism, the Self being lost to a tribe, and not being individuated. The implications of mythological thinking not only carried suspect reverberations for Jung, whose subsequent tendency for megalomania is explored by Richard Noll in his books The Jung Cult and The Aryan Christ, but for the other famed likened personalities of the 20th century, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, both of whom had accusations of unexamined right-wing leanings, distaste for democracy, and anti-Semitism (the accusations for all three thinkers, particularly Jung, however requires a lot of picking and choosing over a wealth of material, and an honest examination is found in Robert Ellwood’s scholarly The Politics of Myth; the judgment is, much like the apolitical design of A Dangerous Method, decidedly grey, and not simplistically black and white).

Even so, Jung may have expressed a latent anti-Semitism of which he was hardly aware, and as the dangerous method of Freud could unleash the demonic impulses of a man like Otto Gross, who refuses to repress anything, the dangerous method and ideas of Jung could – much like Nietzsche, who hated nationalism and anti-Semitism – be used for the wrong ends. When Sabina asks Jung if he likes Wagner, he says, “The music and the man,” and Wagner was a musician whose translation of the myths could be interpreted as a nationalistic prayer fueling Dionysian frenzies, much like Thomas Mann adopted into another novel, Doctor Faustus, where the Faust protagonist Adrian Leverkuhn is not only modeled on Nietzsche, but also bears reference to the Gnostic Jung, of whom Mann was weary.

Appropriately for a sadist, the Jewish Sabina shares Jung’s love for Wagner, the two of them most adoring Das Rheingold as their favorite. Sabina takes Wagner’s Siegfried as the creative power born out of sin, and in falling in love with Jung, she dreams of having his baby, a literal Siegfried from his pre-Christian Aryan limbs. They collaborate on using Wagner’s art as a therapeutic instrument, playing a record of “Die Walkure” while asylum inmates listen and are soothed in the boundless realm of their imaginations, where Cronenberg is also placing his monsters in the film. The sense as we watch the patients sway in calm ecstasy is one of great discovery, but also, given what we know of Wagner’s impact on Germany, the ecstasy’s danger.

“Perfection can only be arrived at through sin,” Sabina says of her Siegfried theory. But her own fate, as a Nazi casualty in 1941 (and for that matter, Freud’s flight from Vienna to London), could be seen as being monstrously written in a same Nietzschean hammer of Dionysian cleansing. At the end of the film, in 1913, Jung says, “You should be able to do something unforgiveable just to be able to go on living,” a sensibility born out of his relations to Otto Gross, or the “dare to become who you really are”/”Live dangerously” mottos attributed to Nietzsche, who still haunted the Basel walls of Jung’s university days while the philosopher himself was inert in asylums after his 1889 Turin breakdown. Is that journey actually worth it? Or is it better to just see the monster, being conscious of it and so more conscious of yourself, and going on living without finding new delusions or masks under which we live?


When Sabina asks Jung if it’s at all practical for her to dream of becoming a psychologist, he tells her that, “We sane doctors have serious limitations.” As a hysteric, Sabina is in constant dialogue with the subconscious, while Jung himself is the epitome of a repressed individual who may be inward, in quiet solitary thought, but he threatens to tread away from the tangible world, which is part of his quarrel with the materialist Freud. Observing Jung, perfectly played by Fassbender as a thinking man with subdued passion, we see a man who may be too doctorly, too sane at moments, and on a perfect path for his own oncoming neurosis. When Emma shows him her pregnant tummy where the firstborn of Jung’s children grows, he pats it briefly and grows straightaway back to work.

It’s worth wondering if even his submission to passion and embracing the sexual affair with Sabina, who gives him a dark exotic otherness (possibly associated with her Jewishness) distinct from the blonde and sunny manner of Emma, is a different kind of clinical adventure. In the few moments we see the two of them having sex, one of which is Jung spanking the bound Sabina, it is not the Miramax Period Drama romance with which we are too accustomed nowadays. He makes love and inflicts sadistic eroticism like a scientist, detached from carnality. Notice the care he takes with the blood-stained white cloth after taking Sabina’s virginity. The sex scene is one of the two acts of physical violence, the other being when Sabina sheds Jung’s blood, stabbing him in the face with a letter opener (an act that implies that he, the doctor, is a text that needs to be opened and analyzed like a patient). But maybe for Jung it is a kind of occult marriage (the bloody cloth), the kind of ritual archetypal mysticism he attempted to marry with his science.

The neurotic psychologist/patient Otto Gross, placed by Freud in Jung’s care, is the Mephistophelian creature who opens the door. “Never repress anything,” Gross tells Jung during a brief conversation involving civilization and repression. Gross points out that “Freud doesn’t get any,” the elder psychologist’s sexual theories being informed by stifled libido energy. Later on we will notice Freud’s compulsive tics in close-up, along with his eventual collapse when his former protégé Jung contradicts Freud’s monotheistic theory of how Ikhnaton became the first monotheist. Freud believes Ikhnaton destroyed the iconography of his father because of a paternal complex, the Oedipal conflict with the father. But Jung has anthropological evidence suggesting that Freud doesn’t understand the historical contexts. As Jung wrote in his Memories, Dream, Reflections, “On the contrary, [Ikhnaton] held the memory of his father in honor, and his zeal for destruction had been directed only against the name of the god Amon, which he had everywhere annihilated; it was also chiseled out of the cartouches of his father Amon-hotep. They were incarnations of the same god.”

The debate recalls an earlier conversation between the two involving Jung’s dream, where Freud believes Jung’s subconscious has established Freud as a walking ghost, a dead man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Is it Jung’s resentment for the “father figure” Freud and his need to “kill” him, or is the ghost a memorial in honor, the ideas potent enough to outlast death? When Jung gives his interpretation of Ikhnaton, Freud collapses and roles are reversed, Jung becoming the father figure, holding Freud tenderly in his arms. “What a wonderful thing it must be to die,” Freud whispers. Both of these men have a genius coupled with an ambition for immortality, like kings with legacies at war. Is Jung finally Faust, the Gnostic alchemist seeking eternal life and knowledge and doing “unforgiveable” things in his self-made mythologizing, abandoning Sabina for his reputable throne as Goethe’s Faust abandoned Gretchen to her own madness?


The diagnosing physician is not safe from what he works to uncover. Jung exposes Freud’s fear of uncertainty, just as Jung’s fear of a completely materialist universe reveals itself in conflict with Freud’s obtuseness, as “a burning in his diaphragm” is telepathically projected outward, causing a pronounced snap in Freud’s bookcase, the “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.” Otto Gross seems the wisest, to a point, because of his talent in sublimating desire. He is, we should notice, an artist, with sketches of naked women taped to his wall. He climbs the fences, escaping into the open world and creating bastards. But his lack of prudence, we learn at the film’s end, contributes to ruin. Gross is an interesting peripheral character for Cronenberg, because as subversive as Cronenberg is, like Freud he acknowledges the need for civilization’s repression. Gross steps off the deep end of what Cronenberg explored in Naked Lunch, being absorbed in the Interzone of addiction and reckless self abandon, or the damning scientific experiments that consume the scientists in The Brood and The Fly. Otto Gross starved to death in 1919, his poverty doubtless indebted, at least in part, to his embrace of revolutionary neo-pagan ideas that dissolved his reason, or Freud’s steady and knowing prudence. He is a part of that same 20th century symptom where the vectors of progress and discovery intersect with fascist and Soviet terror and excess.

In exploring the dream, the threat is to become lost in it. Liberation becomes damnation. In his essay Freud and the Future, delivered in Freud’s presence in 1936, Thomas Mann stated, “[Psychoanalysis] deals with the night, the dream, impulse, and the pre-rational…it is, in my sincere conviction, one of the great foundation stones of a structure of the future which shall be the dwelling place of a free and conscious humanity.” This is an optimistic appraisal, and Mann was looking forward to a coming age of democracy that would hopefully destroy the fascism infecting his German homeland, burning the texts of Mann, Freud, and eventually “that ungrateful scion” Jung. Carl Jung gets lost in the dream and pre-rational though, entering the night through Sabina’s apartment and so upsetting all reality as he falls in love, as if it was like falling into a deep sleep. In his sailboat, the gift given to him by Emma, he hides in the shadows with Sabina’s deep and contented embrace, the two dreaming the Siegfried myth together, Howard Shore’s score adapted from Wagner.

What Jung is discovering over A Dangerous Method’s decade is what he called his Number Two personality, the oceanic deep Self as opposed to “himself,” the Number One personality, the philistine bourgeois Swiss doctor. The two Selves conflict, especially when Jung wants to make a reputation and challenge a formidable mind with established followers, like Freud. Jung sought this balance of the conscious and unconscious self his entire life. In the film, Jung is accurately portrayed as a man who was essentially very lonely (there is an “apartness” to him), while we see Freud as a man at ease in public and in the company of others, like his sycophantic biographer (and Jung’s notorious detractor) Ernst Jones, who boards the boat to America with them.

It was extraordinarily difficult for Jung to maintain friendships over time, particularly with teachers, maybe because his nature was innately conflicted with two selves interplaying. He needed his marriage to Emma, not simply because of any cynical economic motive, but because she was, as he says in the film, “the foundation of his house,” while his mistresses, be it Sabina or Toni Wolff, both former patients and both Jewish, and so “Other,” were “the perfume in the air.” He needed the two opposite sides of femininity, light and dark, to complete him, yet maybe that divided nature led to him being tragically incomplete. The contradictions are too pronounced, and Cronenberg shows Sabina telling him how she wants him “to be ferocious, I want you to punish me,” and then cuts from her lurid and attractive carnality to to the birth of his second daughter in the comfortable domicile with Emma.

When Sabina takes “the initiative” and kisses Jung, she tells him, “Don’t you think there’s something female in every male, and something male in every female?” This corresponds to Jung’s theory of anima/animus, the female or male soul-image in a person. For men, the female anima image is at the core of the Self, and vice-versa for women. When we fall in love with a person of the opposite gender, it’s that permanent soul-image that is being projected onto another person, and the person with whom we are falling in love is an archaic aspect of our own selves, an upsetting prospect for some of us being that Jung, like Freud, is stealing our faith in free will away from us. And as with Freud, where the id is almost impossible for the ego to overcome, to combat with this anima or animus is futile as, according to Jung, we are wrestling with a god. The ego or Number One self is lost.

Finding oneself corresponds with losing the self. Sabina’s Siegfried fantasy and strained sexual relationship results is a theory that has echoes in Jung’s eventual anima ideas and is more pronounced in Freud’s death-instinct drawn from Beyond the Pleasure Principle. True sexuality, she believes, is not the affirmation of the ego, “but demands the destruction of the ego,” as the self is lost in the other (interestingly, the absence of self and ego through sex is a theme, I believe, in Michael Fassbender’s other great film of the season, Steve McQueen’s Shame). Sex in A Dangerous Method leads characters to both find and lose themselves. There is no stable, essential self to find. Gross is kind of an “everything,” a walking id; Jung and Sabina go through different personas over the course of their relationship, she eventually being his analyst when he catatonically stares at Lake Zurich. Only Freud, save for his fainting spell, maintains composure, but we notice that he doesn’t – according to Gross – “get any,” nor does he speak about his dreams, something that would, according to him, “risk my authority.”

Religious or mythic experience speaks of a transcendent one-ness where the ego becomes like Emerson’s Over-Soul or the “One Big Self” we see in the films of Terrence Malick, the recent Tree of Life having its own fascinating dialectic of ideas that can be traced to Freud and Jung (the latter’s Answer to Job is one of the many texts someone could analyze alongside it). In the beginning of his seminal Civilization and Its Discontents in 1927, Freud admits that he doesn’t understand this “oceanic feeling,” he’s never had it. Is it the bud from whence all religion comes, a feeling found in even atheists? And if so, does it find a fearsome voice in collective movements like Communism and Nazism, both of which would be doing a lot of “cleansing” in the decade following Civilization and Its Discontents’ publication?

In the Belvedere Gardens, we see Freud and Jung walking in front of the Sphinx statue, which alludes to the problem of Oedipus, Sophocles’ hero who was able to solve the man-eating creature’s riddle of Man. But in his wisdom Oedipus was tragically unable to be immune from his own unconscious short-comings, the awful truth leading to self-blinding. Jung is lost and crushed by A Dangerous Method’s conclusion, ill and depressed by his relationship, while Sabina, his greatest disciple, has taken Freud’s side. In an exquisitely moving moment, the saddened Freud tucks Jung’s photo away in the same fashion one does with an ex-lover. Freud boxes away his pain and moves on. Jung is left behind. He enters a period of immense depression and stagnation, laying himself out in the full daylight and catatonically staring into Lake Zurich, the belly of the unconscious. He has been having a premonition, an “apocalyptic dream” about “the blood of Europe.” The Great War is less than a year away, and all the dreams of stable progress and peace aimed to splattered with gore, the “inhumane” or rather the “all too human.” The ferocity of this elliptical shadow functions to perfect complete the capacious mystery of Cronenberg’s laser-sharp specific film (few movies are photographed as crisply), in the same way that the French Revolution hung over Hampton’s Les liaisons dangerouses.

“Only the wounded physician can hope to heal,” Jung tells Sabina, adding that the baby she now carries “should have been his.” Maybe Jung is right, as he also wrote something like “no tree can reach heaven unless its roots descend into hell.” But the unconscious world which psychoanalysis acknowledges requires a delicate balance when we cross its unsteady and unpredictable bridge. Jung’s experience with Sabina, along with his new mistress Toni Wolff, “made me understand who I am.” But he looks like an apparition, the one Freud interpreted as himself, implying that the father-figure and son-figure have swapped places. The last image, the camera moving in on Jung’s deep inward stare, feels like an allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s Michael Corleone at the conclusion of The Godfather Part II, isolated in his dreams. Jung’s private soul has abandoned itself to a bigger soul, and quite possibly a delusion.


The epilogue tells us that Jung successfully emerged from his depression, springing back in 1922 with Psychological Types. He died peacefully in 1961, being one of the most respected psychologists in the world. But he also rarely left Zurich, remaining in his self-made home, where he worked to live out his own myth. The neutrality of Switzerland afforded him the luxury of living through the archetypes in his psyche. He found his shadow, his anima and animus, his host of archetypes and collective unconscious, and wrote about his Christ-image, whose brother is the devil, and who together complete the Self. As Cronenberg’s final images imply, Jung’s life played out through his excavative work, drawing deeply from his inward well.

Freud, on the other hand, had to flee for his life, dying of cancer in 1939 and being buried in London, far from his Vienna home. Sabina remains the most tragic player, as she who brought the “disease” with her to Jung’s asylum, and so prepared the way for the explosive collision of ideas between Jewish Freud and Aryan Jung, became the century’s own repressed unconscious, an anima indeed. Jung never referred to her in his writings, and she was afforded mere footnotes by Freud. Like an unconscious agent, Cronenberg’s Sabina may have contributed greatly to the well-known theories of her famous contemporaries. As a human being, she had reclaimed herself, becoming a wife and mother, and also a successful analyst, bringing the “dangerous method” back with her to Russia. There, the two detrimental tribes of primal collectivism ruined her. First the Soviets, who wanted to only use psychoanalysis for dogmatically Stalinist ends, and then the invading Nazis, who killed Sabina and her children. She remained a repressed memory for decades.

David Cronenberg’s filmmaking, whether here or in Videodrome, The Fly, Crash, or Spider, is not necessarily “psychoanalysis,” but it actively works to bring an audience close to those hidden specters of the repressed psyche, disturbing our comfortable facades and empty conversations. At 69 and possibly entering the last leg of a wonderful artistic career, he is an artist indebted to Freud, his subject, walking a thin line with a chilliness that may not be of the same transcendent ocean of his contemporaries, like Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese, but I believe his films show how there’s great danger in falling into that rhapsodic ecstasy, in love, in the gods, or in the Self. His methods and curious aims as an accomplished filmmaker are invaluable. Think on Jung’s own final evaluation of Freud from his autobiography. “Like an Old Testament prophet, he undertook to overthrow false gods, to rip the veils away from the mass of dishonesties and hypocrisies, mercilessly exposing the rottenness of the contemporary psyche…He gave back to mankind a tool that had seemed irretrievably lost.” Likewise with Cronenberg, few directors dare to deal with the human creature with such nakedness. The New Flesh is a disgusting illumination.

Listen to the Niles Files discussion on David Cronenberg and A Dangerous Method on Tommy Mischke's The Nite Show from CBS/WCCO Radio.

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