A dangerous Method


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Murray Stein: Maybe just a word about what stimulated this particular seminar. A friend of mine told me that he took his wife to see A Dangerous Method, the film, and came away from it, he knows quite a lot about Jung, she didn’t know very much, and she said, “my goodness, I had no idea that’s what they did in those early days of psychoanalysis.” And, but Jung was, you know, her image of Jung wasn’t very formed to that point and the film made a tremendous impression on her. And that’s what film does, of course, it gives you a picture of reality that may or may not be true to the facts.

And so I wanted to take the opportunity, talked it over with Steve, maybe to do some reflecting on this film, and take off from the film to talk about the early years of psychoanalysis, to talk about the history behind the film, the characters involved, and to give that film a bit of a context. And I think the film, while it’s very exciting, very interesting, cannot be shown as a truthful, historical documentary, not that it was meant to be. One couldn’t show it to a classroom as a representation of historical accuracy, historical period, and characters. In fact that would be a most dangerous method to try to use this film in that sense. It is an entertaining film, some people like it, some don’t; I’m not going to comment too much on the aesthetics or the quality of the directing, or the acting. I’ll leave that to the discussion. People have very different views, on that. But I would like to just give a little bit of background about the film, and where it comes from, and what it’s based upon.

The story that the film rests on is a historical episode in the life of Jung. Someone once asked Jung toward the end of his life if he was interested in writing an autobiography, and he said, “Oh no, no, my life was so boring, there was nothing interesting about it, I don’t know what I would write about.” But this particular episode in Jung’s life has gathered a lot of interest around it since it was fully exposed and made known through Aldo Carotenuto, who in the 1970s wrote a book called A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud, The Untold Story of the Woman Who Changed the Early History of Psychoanalysis. And Aldo Carotenuto had been offered a treasure trove of documents that nobody knew existed, they were found in an attic in Geneva, and he went through them and discovered an amazing amount of letters, diaries, important information about some of the early relationships and figures in psychoanalysis, mainly Sabina Spielrein, who was Jung’s patient and we’ll hear a lot more about her in the course of the seminar today, and how she played a role in Jung’s life and Freud’s life. And in this book he also offers the beginnings of a biography of her life. And a lot more work has been done on that since this book was published by Carotenuto in the 1970s. Sabina Spielrein was hardly known in psychoanalytic circles in the history of psychoanalysis until these documents were found and this book was written by Carotenuto. Since then important work has been done.

In the 1990s, John Kerr wrote a book called A Most Dangerous Method. And that is a scholarly work on this period in the history of psychoanalysis. And for his title, he draws from a letter by William James, written to Theodore Flournoy, on the twentieth of September, 1909, and in which James is commenting on his experience of Freud at the Clark University anniversary celebrations that Freud and Jung participated in earlier in September. And he writes, “I hope that Freud and his pupils will push their ideas to their utmost limits so that we may learn what they are. They can’t fail to throw light on human nature, but I confess that he made me personally,” (he – that is Freud, made me – James, personally) “the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas. I can make nothing in my own case with his dream theories, and obviously symbolism is a most dangerous method.” So James is commenting on his introduction to Freud at Clark University, and on symbolism, that is, Freud’s approach to the interpretation of dreams. Symbolism being a most dangerous method. He wasn’t saying that psychoanalysis was a most dangerous method. John Kerr took this phrase, “a most dangerous method,” and broadened it to include the experience of psychoanalysis, that is the transference/countertransference, eruptions that can take place within the context of analytic relationship, and Jan Wiener will comment on that further later in the seminar. But the dangerous method, really, that James is referring to is the method of dream interpretation.

Now, this story then was picked up and dramatized in a play by Christopher Hampton, that is a theatrical piece called The Talking Cure. Played in London, I believe also in New York. And in that play Ralph Fiennes played the role of Jung to great acclaim. What Hampton did was take the story and boil it down into a theater piece. So he’s working from history toward theater, and in that process, of course, there’s a great condensation, and simplification if you will, or one is moving from the thickness of history, in which there are so many details and so many experiences going on through these years, between 1903, 1904 and 1913, the period of basically the film A Dangerous Method. But this thickness of history is boiled down to a number of characters who are interacting with each other dramatically and powerfully onstage, moving each other, changing each other, dealing with each other, and that dramatization is very captivating and very provocative, it draws us in to a story, into a narrative. Now, whether that narrative is factual and historical and true to the period is a wholly different question. You’re now in theater.

The film A Dangerous Method pulls from John Kerr’s title A Most Dangerous Method, simplifies the title a little bit, and takes Hampton’s play and puts it on film. So now you’re moving from historical scholarly work, to a theatrical piece, to a film, and at each stage of this process, things change, and things happen. To move from a theater piece to film is its own, has its own issues, and it’s own problems, and people who are very familiar with the art of filmmaking and the craft of filmmaking will tell you that’s a most difficult enterprise. At any rate, what we have then in the film A Dangerous Method is a version of the story that’s told by historians and scholars that was put on stage by Hampton.

Now in this boiling down process, or this simplification process, basically in the film you get four or five characters who are interacting with each other. And I’ve diagrammed it in this fashion. You have C.G. Jung and Emma as a pair of characters; they’re a kind of persona couple in the film. They’re very proper, they look like English aristocrats in the film, they don’t look very Swiss. Drawing room people, very well dressed, affluent, upper-class folks, who are living a pretty conventional life in their marriage. And C.G. Jung is portrayed as a young psychiatrist at a clinic in Switzerland. The film, by the way, was made, was filmed in Constance, not in Zurich, so again you have the film story and the film setting is not the historical setting. There’s a bit of a difference there. And then you have the other main character, who is shown in the first scene of the film struggling to…the film starts with a lot of noise and action, pulls you in to it, you think “Oh my God, what’s happening in the middle of the night, and these horses running wild, and all this noise, something terrible is happening.” And Sabina is being taken to the clinic in Zurich, to the Burghölzli Clinic, against her will, and struggling and fighting every inch of the way. And then in the next scene you see the young psychiatrist C.G. Jung entering the picture, and attempting psychoanalysis with her. And so you see a scene of what is generally thought to be Jung’s first psychoanalytic patient. He’s beginning to try to use Freud’s method of psychoanalysis. At this time, when she comes to the clinic in 1904 Jung has not yet met Freud, he’s read Freud, some of Freud’s papers on hysteria, he’s read Freud’s book on dreams, he thinks very highly of this method, he wants to try it out, but he doesn’t know how it works, really, and he hasn’t seen it in action, he hasn’t talked to Freud yet. But she’s going to be his first patient, his guinea pig so to speak. And so you see his early attempts at psychoanalysis in those scenes.

And then there is Sigmund Freud, who plays the role of a kind of father figure. A very distinguished gentleman, a Viennese doctor, the founder of psychoanalysis, about fifty years old. Jung is about thirty, thirty-two at the time, early to mid-thirties. Freud is definitely a father figure, the senior figure. And the scenes you see between them, again, show attention between a father and a son, a student and a mentor, and that’s a whole story in itself; the Freud-Jung letters were published in the 1970s, and they show a very thick and very interesting and very dynamic relationship between these two men. All of that’s very simplified in the film, there are few scenes between them. Jung visits Freud in 1907, in Vienna, Freud comes to Zurich a couple of times, they go on a ship together to the United States, exchange dreams and so on, there’s the big crisis about authority on the ship. And so you see the dynamic tensions between a son and a father figure, that is the diagram that runs between Jung and Freud.

And then there is the figure of Otto Gross, who I think is a terrifically played role in the film. I was totally engrossed by Gross. I thought he was a fabulous actor and really very convincing. And Gross plays the role of a kind of Puer to Freud’s senex. Freud thinks very highly of Gross; he says Gross and Jung are the two most promising figures in psychoanalysis. The problem with Gross is that he’s addicted to drugs. And he’s an anarchist. He’s a believer in total freedom, free love, sexuality rampant, if you feel like doing it, do it, make love not war; that’s Otto Gross. And Gross enters the Burghölzli Clinic as a patient, shortly after Spielrein has left. He’s there around 1907, Spielrein’s there from 1904, 1905, and then she becomes an outpatient, Jung continues his analytic work with her on an outpatient basis. And Jung and Gross engage in a mutual psychoanalytic process. They analyze each other, at the end of which Jung says to Gross in the film, “Well, I think your analysis is finished.” Gross says to Jung, “I agree. I think my analysis is finished, but I don’t think yours is.” He has gotten under Jung’s skin considerably, and between him and Spielrein, Jung is starting to have all kinds of questions and doubts about his personal life, his marriage with Emma, the very proper persona couple that they present. And so you see him in the center under the pressures of all these different forces. And they all come to bear on him, come down on him, and create a tremendous turmoil in his life. At one point, in a letter to Sabina Spielrein at the end of 1908, around Christmastime, he writes to her that he asks her to be kind to him, to be understanding. He is now suffering, he was kind and understanding to her as her doctor when she was ill, he is now ill. He says, “Ich bin jezt krank,” “I am now ill.” So something has happened to him. He has cracked under these pressures. Gross has gotten to him, this very intimate relationship with Spielrein has gotten to him, and his persona covering is cracking.

And he gets involved in the film, and one doesn’t know to what extent this is historically accurate or correct; according to the documents it seems like they did move from a doctor-patient relationship, in three stages. Jung writes about this, Sabina Spielrein writes about it in a letter to Freud, from a doctor-patient relationship to a friendship, to making poetry, or to love. So it’s a three step process that they go through and Jung no longer considers himself her doctor. They have now entered into a different kind of relationship. And this is very troubling to Jung because he’s married and he doesn’t know quite what to do with this relationship with Sabina Spielrein, and that’s the film. The film really draws on that and presents us with scenes whose historical accuracy is very questionable with whipping scenes and lovemaking scenes. So nobody knows what happened behind those closed doors. That’s left to Cronenberg, the filmmaker’s imagination, which he shares with us in the film.

And this relationship between Jung and Spielrein comes to a head in 1908, 1909, at which point Jung breaks off the relationship, because he doesn’t know what to do with it, apparently. And he decides univocally, on his own, to end the love relationship and try to enter or retreat, into a kind of maybe professional friendship-relationship, collaboration, about Sabina Spielrein’s intellectual efforts or work or thesis and so on. He doesn’t want to break off the relationship altogether, but he wants to stop the erotic or romantic part of it. And this is very upsetting to Sabina Spielrein. Letters go to Sabina’s mother, one doesn’t know where that letter came from, or those letters, Sabina thinks they came from Emma. At any rate the mother, Sabina’s mother, enters the picture, Jung is very embarrassed, he has to confess to Freud, there are those scenes in the film where he confesses he’s gotten over-involved with his patient, former patient, who’s now become his friend and maybe his lover. And he ends it in the summer of 1909, that’s the end of it, it peaked in 1908, late 1908 when he says “I’m sick, I’m ill.” And then she gets very upset and engaged and she writes to Freud, and Freud gets drawn into the picture. And by the time we get to the end of the film their relationship has passed its critical phase.

We see in the last scene of the film, we see Sabina Spielrein, who’s gotten married in 1912 to a Jewish doctor in Zurich, she’s pregnant, she gives birth to a daughter, Renatta, in the fall of 1913. The very last scene of the film, and this is to be contrasted with the initial scene where you see her entering the Burghölzli Clinic wild as an animal, screaming and shouting, and all the contortions and so on, body language that the actress Kiera Knightley expresses. In the last scene, on the contrary, she’s sitting with Jung, supposedly in his garden on the Zürichsee in Küsnacht. Emma says to Sabina, “Go and talk to him. Maybe you can help him, there’s something wrong with him.” Now, this is 1913, Sabina is pregnant with the child of her husband, and they sit and have this conversation. While Sabina Spielrein, pregnant, is talking to Jung, and Jung is obviously troubled by these terrible dreams he’s been having of Europe being flooded by blood and catastrophe overtaking Europe, this happened, this vision came to him on a train trip from Schaffhausen to Zurich in October 1913, so this is just the period before he enters his Red Book phase, his venture with the Spirit of the Depths as he calls it in the Red Book period. Just before he begins that, toward the end of November, he’s having this conversation with Sabina on the beach. And I think the most moving scene of the whole film, for me, was that one.

The music in the background, one has to also take care to pay attention to, there’s a lot of Wagner going on. And Jung and Sabina apparently talked about Wagner quite a bit in their conversations, and it comes up in their correspondence a bit. And there was a fantasy that Sabina held, maybe Jung shared in, when they were making their poetry in that period of intense interaction and love, that she would have a child by Jung, and the child’s name would be Siegfried. And Siegfried would combine her Jewish genes and blood and his Germanic, gentile, Aryan genes, and this combination would be a heroic figure that would pull the two races together and create Heaven on Earth, or peace, or he would be a tremendous hero. That was the fantasy. And they named him Siegfried, she named him Siegfried. And in this last scene, when she’s sitting there pregnant, and Jung says to her, “That should have been my child,” which I doubt that he ever said, but in the film he says it, “That should have been my child,” what you hear in the background is the Siegfried Idyll, very movingly played. And the Siegfried Idyll is Wagner’s gift to his wife Cosima upon the birth of their child Siegfried. When Cosima gave birth to their son Siegfried, a couple days after Wagner arranged for an orchestra to come to their home in Tribschen, outside of Lucerne here in Switzerland, line up on the stairs to the bedroom upstairs, and play this very moving piece called the Siegfried Idyll. And that’s what you hear in the background of the film, it’s very touching and very moving.

There is Jung, standing at the edge of the abyss, he’s about to go into it, in a month or two with his active imaginations. There is Sabina, quite healed of her psychosis or her hysteria, which she had, all the symptoms that she had brought to the Burghölzli. She’s now a medical doctor, she’s been with Freud, she’s a psychoanalyst, she’s a psychiatrist, and she’s about to give birth to her child. So, she is healed, he has been torn to pieces and left there and he’s going to have to put himself together, which he does over the course of the next five years or so, through his active imaginations. So that’s how those pieces fit together.

The film, I think, raises a lot of these questions and issues, and I think it’s true in a very deep sense that I think the experience with Sabina Spielrein really did touch Jung at a very deep level; in Sabina Spielrein’s letters to Freud, she describes some of their conversations – those are published, those letters were published in Aldo Carotenuto’s book – in which she says that Jung showed her his diaries. We know from a note in the diaries, that Sonu Shamdasani includes in The Red Book that Jung left off writing his diaries in 1902. He got married to Emma in 1903 on Valentine’s Day. He didn’t make any further entries in his diaries after that until 1913, apparently. And he shows Sabina Spielrein these early diaries and she says that he, in the diaries, she finds evidence that he had been deeply in love with the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Just the initials are given, “S.W.” in the text, but we know that was Jung’s cousin, Helly Preiswerk. And that Jung’s relationship with Sabina Spielrein had somehow touched this earlier experience and had then been transferred over, Sabina Spielrein says, over Freud’s daughter to her, Sabina Spielrein, and she had to free herself from that. Clearly, Jung was deeply moved by something that he discovered in his relationship with Spielrein, that really brought him to a very deep reflection on his life. He didn’t know how to solve the problem, and at that time he didn’t do a very good job of handling the relationship with Sabina Spielrein, according to the documents that we have.

At any rate, there were a lot of loose ends left after they ended their romantic relationship. But it’s clear that the relationship between Jung and Spielrein had a very deep effect on Jung, as it did on Spielrein as well. And so this is an early case of a relationship that begins in the psychoanalytic treatment, goes quite beyond that, and ends in a lot of questions that Jung would have to work on for many years to come, and finally, probably, answers most powerfully and profoundly, in his essay on the psychology of the transference many years later in 1946.

So, that is, as much as I want to say about the film. I’m now going to ask Angela Graf-Nold, who’s a historian of the period, who’s studied the records of Sabina Spielrein’s hospitalization at the Burghölzli Clinic in detail, and who knows a great deal more than I do about the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in Zurich. And she will give us a lot of very interesting information about this background. So, Angela.

Angela Graf-Nold: Thank you. Yes, for me, the film was really strange, because the facts I know from this story gave me a quite different fantasy. It’s always that facts are here and you always make to the facts you make fictions, and to the stories behind the stories, you have a history. And it is a very interesting thing that the story of Sabina began with a big trunk, a steamer trunk of documents, and Aldo Carotenuto took only some of it out, and made his story out of it. And so did all people following and all make their own stories. And for me, it’s a funny thing to have a picture that’s very different, and the actors and the play, what is in my mind is very different. You have the actors, the ideas, the plot, and the story, and for me it’s the story of the Zurich School of Psychiatry, which didn’t begin with Jung. And Jung although was not the real doctor of her, but she was a patient of, of one of 380 patients in 1904. And therefore the story is a quite a little bit different, and I’m interested how you think this, real facts, perhaps they also make a modification in your understanding of the story. Of the many stories which are around.

The whole thing is here. You see the Burghölzli, from the south and you see the terrasse, the lake, and the town, which was not very big at that time. It was growing, it was about hundred thousand with the whole agglomeration. And you see the Burghölzli is a very big building, it was not for three hundred patients but always there was so many. And you see, they have for farmers, and you see they have a factory, and that was a main thing that they made to use occupational therapy, and all patients had something to do, and it was not for saving money, it was a part of the theory, of the practical thing, to give the patients a meaning in life back and to make their…if they contribute to the functioning of the hospital, it should be a good thing for them.

And that was the staff at the Burghölzli, some years before Jung came. It’s not Bleuler yet, it’s his teacher, his predecessor, the second from the left side, it’s Auguste Forel. And he was the man who shaped the whole practical functioning, because he was a very multi-faceted personality, he was a part of Burghölzli from the beginning, so you know he was an assistant of the very first director, and he became director in 1879 in age of thirty. He was also very young and this picture is about twenty years later, when he decided to stop working there, because, you see, he’s a little bit tired. He was a very strong man and he was a big neurologist, and he introduced hypnosis as a first psychotherapy and he was first in Europe who did this, and he fought in many political things to make…to prevent falling ill. He fought against alcohol, because alcohol was the most…the most patients had problems with alcohol, therefore he made a big association against alcohol with international scope. And that was very important for him. Now he wanted, in this year, he wanted to retire, because he wanted to dedicate himself to the sexual enlightenment. He wanted…he saw that the sex, or sexual question, as he called it, is a very big thing, and he wanted to write a book about that and he really did it, and the book, it became a world best seller.

You see in this picture, too, that the staff, four persons for 380 patients. You see that’s very… you cannot imagine that it would be today like this. And you see also that he had a ….that’s not a rater, that’s a doctor, a medical, female doctor. He was the first who supported women as doctors and he gave them an appointment, what was not usual at that time.

At the same time, then Forel was director of the Burghölzli, Bleuler was director of the asylum in near sixty kilometers away, in Rheinau, at __________ Insela of the Rhine, and there were the cases which was thought to be incurable. And he was also a pupil of Forel. He was also fighting against abstinence. And this was his crew, also for three hundred patients. And he had two doctors and the others were administrators.

And that also, important man for Zurich, it’s Constantin von Monakow, a friend to Forel and Bleuler, a neurologist, and a part of the discussion group which always took place when ultimately in his office or in the Burghölzli and he was also a part of the discussion group, when Jung began, and Bleuler, to discuss psychoanalysis. He was very critical.

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