Psychoanalysis – A Dangerous Method?

If you don't read the rest of this post, you prove my point about people mainly turning up for the spanking...

Edinburgh University’s legal team might prefer we don’t tackle poor class attendance this way, but it’s surely a general rule that the prospect of spanking tends to get the punters in.

So it is in the case of David Cronenberg’s new film about the early years of psychoanalysis, A Dangerous Method. The headline-capturing spanking scenes seem to have been a big draw – whether you’re wanting to see Michael Fassbender (as Carl Jung) dishing it out or Keira Knightley (as his patient and future psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein) on the receiving end.

For all that David Cronenberg might have hoped to engage his audience more broadly than this, I think Freud would very much have approved – he would at least have understood.

Psychoanalysis is and was basically two things: a theory about the structure of the human psyche, and a method of treatment – the so-called ‘talking cure’ – for (mainly) neurotic illnesses. Sex formed both the root of Freud’s theory and the basis of its credibility problems. Freud thought he’d discovered a powerful, dynamic unconscious at play in humans; one that was fired by two biological drives – towards selfish gratification on the one hand (linked to sexuality in the very broadest sense of that term) and towards extinction on the other. His critics thought it unbelievably reductive that all mental health problems should come down to sex – Freud rejected their views as simple prudishness, and wondered whether in countries like India and Japan psychoanalysis might face less resistance on this count.

By its very nature, we can’t be aware of this unconscious; we only get hints of it through dreams and fantasies, in analysis and in symptoms of mental ill-health. What we experience as our conscious self – our ‘ego’ – is relatively weak and fragile by comparison, and the task of analysis is to assist it in dealing with the socially outrageous demands of the sex and death instincts.

From sword to cigar: the Freudian transformations of Viggo Mortensen

It may be giving David Cronenberg more credit than he deserves, but it seems to me that he strikes an excellent balance between showing the emerging theory of psychoanalysis and the turbulent lives and strong personalities out of which it emerged.

It’s possible to leave the cinema convinced either that psychoanalysis was something truly revolutionary, as George Makari has claimed, or that it was the pseudo-intellectual outcome of some smart Central Europeans over-thinking their sex lives.

So how is Freud viewed today? As a charismatic leader of a movement, certainly; one who had a tendency to  interpret opposition to his ideas from colleagues and critics alike as evidence of psychological dysfunction – a strategy that contributed to the break with Jung that we see at the end of the film. Cronenberg’s Freud is suitably domineering, gruffly reading through a now-infamous letter from Jung, who had initially regarded himself as Freud’s pupil:

Your technique of treating your pupils like patients is a blunder. In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies. I am objective enough to see through your little trick. You go around sniffing out all the symptomatic actions in your vicinity, thus reducing everyone to the level of sons and daughters who blushingly admit the existence of their faults. Meanwhile you remain on top as father, sitting pretty. Nobody dares to pluck the prophet by the beard.   [Carl Jung to Sigmund Freud, 18th December 1912]

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941): when Tagore and Freud met in Vienna, the latter was apparently struck by an impression of 'God' standing before him

In later years, psychoanalysis faced a lot worse than this. It was rarely thought truly dangerous – certainly when compared with electro-convulsive therapy or insulin-induced coma. It was more that it didn’t seem scientific and didn’t seem to work.

Its theories were based on tiny numbers of cases and had no clear predictive value – as the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore complained, you could use psychoanalysis to claim pretty much anything about a person (and indeed, the British authorities in colonial India used psychoanalysis to explain away serious political problems in terms of the sexual inadequacies or hang-ups of Indians – you can imagine how well that went down).

On top of this, psychoanalysis seemed to turn psychiatry away from seeking ‘real’ medical treatments for the seriously ill, catering instead to the insecurities and the need for introspection of relatively fortunate middle-classes. Edward Shorter suggests that a ‘psychoanalytic hiatus’ in the progress of psychiatry was only overcome once people realised that Freud had nothing to offer those  suffering from, for example, schizophrenia – although Freud’s successors did try, one of them blaming ‘schizophrenogenic mothers’  for making their children schizophrenic through a lack of proper care.

The 'talking cure'

And yet one crucial idea lives on. Without psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein might have spent her life in an asylum, being dunked in baths or stashed in a corner. Psychoanalysis popularised the idea – commonsensical in our own day – that some mental health problems can be cured or alleviated from within: rather than drugging, cutting, or shocking the brain, a sufferer’s own inner experience can be accessed and addressed through talking and through the emotional power of what analysts called ‘transference‘.

This paying of attention to the subjective experience of the patient rather than just the objective view-from-outside of a psychiatrist or neurologist is now being used in research on the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – in the classic example, the problem of how your vivid experience of the colour red can meaningfully be related to patterns of electrical activity in your brain.

Connecting inner and outer understandings of the mind was always an ambition of Freud’s – perhaps he could have wished for no better outcome for his beloved psychoanalysis than that it comes to be associated both with hard science and with the odd bit of spanking.


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