A Dangerous Method: violating the boundary between theory and practice

A lot has been written about David Cronenberg’s masterful A Dangerous Method (2011) in terms of what it tells us about the strengths and weaknesses of the psychoanalytic movement, about the growing conflict and eventual rupture between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and about therapist-patient relationships that go wrong. Does the film’s title refer simply to the then- (and still-) controversial ‘talking cure’, or perhaps to how Freud and Jung saw each other’s divergent ideas, or to Jung’s transgression in developing a sexual relationship with analysand Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley)?

Always an intensely cerebral artist, Cronenberg cinematises Christopher Hampton’s script (based on his own play) to draw out these debates. But I’d argue that underlying all this is another of the Canadian director’s meditations on the nature of scientific method.

Cronenberg has in the past fended off accusations that his films are cautionary tales about when scientists ‘go too far’ and ‘play God’. If anything, his work is a direct rejection of such ideas, which have been a staple of North American science-fiction cinema. Where such films are often injunctions to researchers to limit their inquiries to safely acceptable limits, usually defined in conservative moral terms, Cronenberg celebrates the creativity of scientific progress even as he recognises its deeply contradictory aspects.

Think of his first feature, Shivers (1975), where residents of an apartment block infect each other with a scientist-created parasite that sends them into an orgiastic frenzy. Yes it’s science out of control, destroying its creator, but it’s also intensely (if perversely) liberating. Or much later in his breakthrough Hollywood feature, The Fly (1986), scientist Seth Brundle becomes both greater and less-than-human by subjecting himself to his own teleportation experiment, one that merges him with the eponymous insect.

In all of Cronenberg’s films about science there can be no arbitrary separation between theory and practice, fact and value, experimental observer and participant.

This is what makes A Dangerous Method so powerful, but also disturbing. Not only does Jung break taboo and have a prolonged affair with his patient, but when he and Freud discuss their theories at the highest level of abstraction, they are also probing at each other’s psychic weaknesses, deconstructing each others’ behaviours, ideas and even dreams as if therapist and patient, or father and son. Jung uses his wife as experimental subject even though this gives him unfair insight into her anxieties about their relationship, yet she also encourages his analysis of Spielrein when it is clear she knows something is up.

Boundaries between psychological science and the actualities of psychological and social life crumble. Freud warns Jung against taking analysis down the road of mysticism or using it as a tool for expanding human potential because such moves will leave it open to attack as ‘unscientific’. But even in Freud’s own behaviour we see how tenuous such claims must seem within the narrow terms set by the circumstances of the day.

It is that kind of scientific positivism that A Dangerous Method implicitly criticises. Writing about psychiatry as it was going through another deep crisis of scientific legitimacy in 1973, English psychologist Peter Sedgwick summarised positivism as:

an approach towards the investigation of human pathology which, modelling itself upon antecedents it believes to be characteristic of the natural sciences, (a) postulates a radical separation between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ (declaring only the former to be the subject matter of the professional investigator) and (b) suppresses the interactive relationship between the investigator and the ‘facts’ on which she or he works.

Such conceptions arise from the apparent separation between theory and practice, thinking and doing, which characterises modern capitalist society. For Marx this arose from a growing division of labour between mental and manual tasks. Such a division was not merely technical but social, tied up in the class division between those who control conscious, collective production, and those who do the actual producing but no real control. Real social relationships of exploitation and class domination become fetishised as things, and so appear as mere objective facts, amenable to empirical description and technical manipulation.

Peter Dear has described this phenomenon in the history of modern science as a growing split between science as seeking the intelligibility (knowledge, understanding) of nature and science as a practical instrument for changing the world (natural and/or social). He has pointed to how this leads to both theoretical confusion, and to disguising the use of science as a practical power behind a veil of value-free inquiry.

Psychiatry in particular is bedevilled by fear of admitting that it lies at the murky intersection of facts and values, seeing the false hope of a ‘truly scientific’ path when this actually means submitting to a positivist value set.

Cronenberg creates discomfort by refusing to pass moral or political judgement on the transgressions of his protagonists. The most obvious boundary violation – the Jung-Spielrein relationship – is both helpful and damaging to both of them. It advances the science as well as muddying it. Lest this be considered just an aspect of the director’s obsessiveness, the meticulous period accuracy (down to the very specific performances: anyone who thinks Keira Knightley is overacting should realise she is actually being a model of restraint) creates the historical-social frame in which these themes play out. The science develops not just between the protagonists but firmly embedded in the context in which they operated. Aspects of class, social status, intellectual culture, gender relations and race pervade the seemingly intimate two-person realm of psychoanalysis. The approaching Great War is the backdrop for a conclusion that leaves much unresolved. This again underscores how inner emotional worlds cannot be divorced from social realities, and that science is a profoundly social and historical phenomenon in which thought and action are inseparable.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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