Freud, Jung, Sabina Spielrein and the Countertransference: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method1

By Aguayo, Joseph | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Freud, Jung, Sabina Spielrein and the Countertransference: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method1


Aguayo, Joseph, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Prologue

With so few films that deal with significant themes in the history of our discipline, the occasion of David Cronenberg's (2011) A Dangerous Method presents innumerable interpretive possibilities to both the psychoanalyst and historian. It is somewhat unique to have an historical work become a stage play before becoming a film. But that is what happened when Christopher Hampton transformed John Kerr's (1995) A Most Dangerous Method into a stage play (The Talking Cure) in 2002 - and finally into a screenplay. In my view this helps us understand why the film may strike some as a hybrid, not unlike psychoanalysis itself. While Hampton and Cronenberg have crafted an admirable film, it falls between two stools, at once a historical documentary and, at another level, a drama about ill-fated love, both of the heart and of the mind. A Dangerous Method is more like a 'docu-drama,' itself a chemical compound that is to the liking of some, but not to all. Since I enjoyed the concoction, I break up the narrative of the film into two acts, faithful to Hampton's dramatic structure as embedded in the film. I then present a psychoanalytic critique in terms of the Freud / Jung / Spielrein triangle as a cinematic portal into the perennial problem of countertransference in its historical context.

First, the bones and knuckles of the story.

Act I. The talking cure becomes a cure of love

The carriage that raced down a road towards the Burghçlzli Hospital and carried 19 year-old Sabina Spielrein screaming and gesticulating wildly was met by 29 year-old Carl Jung. The date (17 August 1904) is one that marked the beginning of Spielrein's talking cure with Dr. Jung, who had recently become fascinated by Freud's idea that neurotic patients could be treated solely by 'talk.' The two principals sat on chairs (one behind the other, at least in the Swiss version) and the patient said everything that came to mind, or at least tried to. Spielrein compresses her short life history, ticking and grimacing wildly and grotesquely: how her overbearing father often lost his temper and laid hands on both his children and wife. Sabina tortuously confesses that, whenever father hit the children, they had to kiss his hand.

We then see juxtaposed Jung sitting with his pregnant wife Emma, usually in one comfortable domestic situation after another, soon to have a spacious home looking onto Lake Kusnacht. But Jung chafes at these domestic reins, more excited to get back to his hospitalized young patient and the experiment on which they had embarked, one that Freud (1914) would liken to a potentially explosive mixing of chemical compounds in the laboratory. Young Sabina oozes out symptoms at every turn: while walking on the grounds with Jung, when he simply dusts offher jacket with his cane, she goes wild, as he looks on incredulously. This symbolic gesture stands for father spanking her, all of which causes her unbearable distress and excitement, so she rushes back to her room to masturbate.

Despite her symptoms, Sabina proves to be a quick study, as she soon assists Jung in his research, such as the famous Word Association Test, complete with stop-watch, galvanic measurements, all used to get at subjectively experienced 'complexes,' which Jung thinks can be ascertained by certain 'trigger' words. A key moment occurs when Jung, in the midst of administering the test to Emma, says the stimulus word, 'divorce,' to which she quickly retorts: 'No.' Sabina intuits Emma's 'ambivalence' (a recent term coined by Jung's chief, Eugen Bleuler) with respect to her pregnancy and fears that she might be losing her grip on her beloved Carl. Jung and Sabina continue to meet, delving into the dark recesses of a terrifying childhood, piecing together the clues to her fright and forbidden sexual pleasures with herself, all of which seemed to center around the beatings administered to her by father.

Insatiably curious to meet the man who had invented the talking cure and find out more, Jung arrived on 3 March 1906 with Emma in tow at Berggasse 19, where he is greeted at the foot of the stairs by a restrained but secretly jubilant Freud. …

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