Opinion

Emanuel Derman

The dangerous method

By Emanuel Derman
October 7, 2011

I went to the NY Film Festival for the first time in years last night and saw David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a movie about the interactions between Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein who was Jung’s mistress, Jung and Freud’s joint patient sequentially, and an eventual analyst herself.

It was consistently absorbing, but I wouldn’t say more than that.

What I did find thought-provoking was its recreation of the impact of psychoanalysis as a technique. I got a glimpse of how revolutionary it must have seemed, not just because of its focus on infantile sexuality, but even more so because of its use of what they refer to as the dangerous method, by which they mean the talking cure, the idea that you can treat what appears to be an organic or seized-by-spirits illness by words, by access to the mind through its natural outputs. (I suppose in a way it isn’t that different from putting spells on people, and therefore not that new really. Yuri Manin in one of his books refers to the fact that hypnosis is impossible without the invention of language.)

According to Spinoza, to whom I devote a chapter in my book Models.Behaving.Badly, everything in the universe has a Thought attribute and an Extension attribute, i.e. a mental and physical side. Our temptation these days is to give major weight to the physical and regard the mental as a byproduct. But Spinoza thought (and I like the idea) that the two were but complementary sides (and there are more than two, he insisted) of the same underlying thing, and that one aspect can’t explain the other.

I may be putting words into his mouth, but he liked the idea of explaining physical events by physical causes, and mental events by mental causes. So, according to him you can legitimately say: I blushed because blood ran to my face, or: I’m embarrassed because I said something revealing, but you can’t say: I blushed because I’m embarrassed. Blushing and embarrassment are equivalent, the physical and mental sides of the same coin, neither one causing the other.

Recently there was an article in the Times about using the talking cure on schizophrenics.  I don’t know how well psychotherapy really works, but I like the idea of using talking to try to cure mental disturbances and using antacids to cure indigestion. I realize of course that you can have indigestion as a result of what feels like psychic disturbances, but I think Spinoza would argue that the psychic disturbance and the indigestion are parallel, not sequential.

The other thing I liked about the movie is Freud’s notion that everything has an explanation. A dream isn’t just a random thing but is related to your life in a meaningful way. I don’t know whether that’s true but it’s a deeply causal way of looking at the world, a way of treating the mental on an equal footing with the physical.

Asking about the reason for everything is an interesting thing to do. My son once pointed me to a Theodor Adorno essay on why photos of people twenty or thirty years ago in the fashions of twenty or thirty years ago look so ridiculous. It’s true that they do, but asking why had never occurred to me.

Postscript: I just saw Melancholia tonight. Knew absolutely nothing about the movie before I went, not a clue. Nice to see a movie where you know zero about it going in, not even what it’s about. It was scary … not much redemption there except for the calming down of the child with fairy tales.

 

 

 

 

 

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