Bohemian Buddhist Review

A Dangerous Method with Keira Knightley

A Dangerous Method - Sadomasochism and Psycoanalysis?

The beginning camaraderie and ensuing rivalry, then complete break between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud takes a back seat to the movie's emphasis on Jung's illicit affair with one of his younger, more disturbed and equally brilliant patients, played by Keira Knightley in a rather over-wrought portrayal of Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish repressed masochist, diagnosed with the now infamous Freudian female catch-all "hysteria."

The male roles -- Michael Fassbender as Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Freud -- are much more contained and thus a bit more believable, but overall the movie's eminently watchable with more than a few memorable moments, including the staid-looking, fully-clothed Jung heatedly spanking his scantily-clad mistress. 
Sexual perks and pervs aside, I particularly liked the scenes based on Jung and Freud's trip to America, circa 1909. Jung reveals a personal dream to his mentor, which they analyze easily (and it's a testament to Freud's work that most viewers would be able to as well). Freud then admits that revealing one of his own dreams to Jung would, in his words, "diminish his authority."
This actually, as Jung says later, was the beginning of their break.
Probably my favorite shot in the movie was of Freud and Jung on the steamship as it sails into New York harbor, past the Statue of Liberty. Freud says to Jung that Americans are probably not aware that they "bring the plague." Meaning the whole Pandora's box of the ego, id, and subconscious, with all its messy, sexually complicated, sometimes murderously powerful, and often misunderstood egoic drives. 
The conflictual father-son pattern that the movie shows between Jung and Freud is one that will later be played out even more momentously in real life with Freud and another of his brilliant disciples, Wilhelm Reich. 
After the break with Jung, Reich was Freud's main psychiatric assistant at the Vienna Ambulatorium for about ten years, even living on the same street for a time. Freud had every expectation that Reich would follow in his footsteps. Indeed, Reich may even have had similar thoughts, but the classic confrontation between them, as it had between Jung and Freud, boiled down to a major difference of opinion on psychoanalytic theory and practice.
Reich believed that there was a biological basis for human sexual libido and so went into a scientific search that infuriated and alienated Freud, especially when Reich thought he had found the cure for neurosis -- orgasm. Jung, on the other hand, chose a more metaphysical approach, championing the intangibilities of synchronicity, ESP, and the collective unconscious, among other ephemera.

The fascinating relationship between the three major pioneers of psychoanalysis is what sparked the core of my novel, "The All Souls' Waiting Room: Author's Preface." What would have happened, I wondered, if Freud had been able to finish his aborted analysis of Reich? This was the subtext to my own search for sanity amidst the paranoid McCarthy years, when I was a very young witness to the terrible injustices inflicted on Reich, mostly for being ahead of his time.

Both Jung and Reich represent, to my mind, necessary offshoots and additions to Freud's breakthrough work. In Buddhist terms, I've always thought of each of them as representing a different aspect of healing:  Reich = body, Freud = speech, and Jung = mind. Reich insisted on a rigorous form of physicality in therapy to break through neurotic body-armoring; Freud insisted on speech based on free association as a therapeutic tool; and Jung for his part insisted on the unveling of the hidden commonalities of the human mind.
It's worth noting that they were all very successful in treating their patients, each in their own way. Freud's methods were highly controversial in the beginning, just as Jung's and, later, Reich's were. But again, in referring back to Buddhism, teachers and healers must be able to appeal to many different types of humans. This is one reason the Buddha left so many different types and levels of teachings:  something for everyone, as they say.

"A Dangerous Method" merely skims the surface of the issues underpinning the beginning of the complex art and science of psychoanalysis, but it's a brave movie. Even though I felt it was unduly over-sexualized, Knightley does at least represent a strong female counterpoint to the weighty male psychiatrists she deals with, more than coming into her own after her affair and analysis with Jung, and was more convincing as a Jewess of her time than Viggo Mortensen was as the Jewish Freud.

If nothing else, the movie reminds us that the affairs of the mind are not mere abstractions but lead to the very real, often dark desires of the body. That much was refreshing, no goody-goody allowed here! Knightley will probably get an Oscar nod for her performance, though I wish there hadn't been quite so much anguished jaw-jutting. The movie may shock the naive, but it's probably wise to be reminded that we all have feet of clay and that, in the end, is what makes us -- complex, unpredictable, carnal and comical --- entirely human. 
In the final analysis (ahem), the movie does add to our overall knowledge of these two early mind-mappers.  And it's entirely possible that Jung's steamy affair with Spielrein helped unlock some previously locked corners of his mind, enabling him to envision things he might not otherwise have discerned. 
Are we ultimately, clinically, certifiably knowable? 
I most certainly hope not.
Paki S. Wright, Editor