by Dennis L. Merritt, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst, Ecopsychologist
The film A Dangerous Method is remarkable in its presentation of the early days of the psychoanalytic movement that was to revolutionize our understanding of the human psyche. Superb acting dramatizes the relationship between two giants of the psychoanalytic world, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and the struggle between them that led to a painful split still reverberating through their two schools of thought over 100 years later. Sabina Spielrein, a former Jewish patient with whom Jung was to have an intimate relationship, functions in the archetypal feminine role of Eve in painfully forcing the raising of male consciousness through the discovery of countertransference. She became the seed of Jung's concept of the archetype of the soul, the anima or inner feminine in a man. Other significant elements in the film include the powerful role of sex in life and in the therapeutic environment, the the midlife crisis, the association experiment, and the issue the “Jewish” and the “Christian” cultural unconscious. As a Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist, I see in Sabina Spielrein as portrayed in A Dangerous Method as the catalyst that eventually led Jung to believe that a strong emergence of archetypal feminine energy in Western culture is the most important element in a needed paradigm shift. He called the shift a “New Age” and the “Age of Aquarius,” a shift with important ecological implications.
Why the Method was Dangerous
The beginning of psychoanalysis was particularly dangerous because it blew the lid off a culture trapped in a repressive Victorian worldview. Following Freud's initial exploration of the unconscious using cocaine and hypnosis, he developed a revolutionary approach called “the talking cure” which encouraged patients to tell their thoughts and fantasies to an analyst. What is repressed ultimately turns against us in a negative form, and what Freud discovered was the results of centuries of repression in our Judeo-Christian culture of powerful instinctual drives, especially sexuality. The material was so shocking Freud called it “the seething caldron of the Id,” full of animalistic drives, barbaric behavior, and childish immaturity, as he saw it.
While Freud was analyzing privately and primarily with sexually repressed and abused Viennese women, Jung, 19 years Freud's junior, began working in the world-renowned Burgholzli clinic in Zurich in 1900, the year Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams based on approximately 13 years of developing his methods and concepts. Eugene Bleuler, the chief at Burgholzli, insisted doctors live on the grounds of the cantonal mental institution, as depicted in Method, eat with the patients, and speak in their dialect. (Ellenberger 1970, p. 666, 667) Because of Jung's background, described in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he was particularly good at relating to schizophrenics and published an important paper on the topic. This, together with his development of the association experiment, convinced Jung their was an unconscious and led to his meeting with Freud.
The Association Experiment
The conduct of the association experiment is depicted in the movie where Jung tests his wife as Sabina Spielrein helps gather the data. When I trained in Zurich we had to participate in, then administer and write up an association experiment, be graded on a paper, and pass an oral exam on the subject (I graduated in 1983). Memory was a topic of psychological interest in the late 1800s, and Jung and others conducted research on what interfered with the conscious intent to free associate to 100 words read to the client with the simple instruction to respond as quickly as possible to each word. The word list was designed to have what was thought to be psychologically loaded words like father, mother, death, etc. with more neutral words like long, ship, etc. The researcher uses a stop watch to time the responses. Most responses are immediate but Jung discovered over 100 indicators that something impedes free associations, one of the strongest indicators being prolonged response time (as depicted in the movie), with other indicators being rhyming responses, foreign words, etc., proving that unknown factors can affect conscious intent, what Jung called the unconscious. (Collected Works, volume 2) Analyzing the results and questioning the client about difficulties in answering revealed the source of the problem, what Jung called complexes (“hangup). Further development of Jung's work became the lie detector test.
The Discovery of Countertransference
To delve into the muck of the Western cultural unconscious was particularly dangerous during the trial-and-error days of the early psychoanalytic movement in the relationship between a male analyst and a female client. This became a central theme in the movie. Sabin Spielrein had a strong transference (patient-to-the analyst eros/feeling of a strong connection) onto Jung, at Jung's encouragement. Having worked with women longer than Jung, Freud had more experience with this phenomenon, and his genius and self-reflection enabled him to identify strong erotic feelings he often had towards his female clients. His initial idea was that the analyst could be completely objective, which was one of the reasons the analyst sat behind the client so everything the client said was thought to be their fantasies and feelings against an objective background supposably offered by the analyst. Jung's entanglement with Spielrein helped Freud more easily reflect on his own analyst's experiences and develop the concept of countertransference—the projections of the analyst's unconscious material onto the client. In other words, the analyst could not be completely objective, making it necessary for the analyst to become aware of what was being stirred up in himself or herself as the patient presented their innermost thoughts, fantasies and emotions. Jung became the first analyst to require students training to become analysts to undergo a training analysis: experiencing their own unconscious and what its like to be in analysis, and being supervised to learn not only how to apply theoretical concepts but also to explore their unconscious connections to the patient. A minor error in the movie from a psychoanalytic standpoint is Jung using the term countertransference fairly early when he was trying to understand what was happing between himself and Spielrein.
The Midlife Crisis
Jung experienced with Spielrein what he would come to describe as the early stages of a midlife crisis. In 1906 after Spielrein had left the hospital and Jung began to get emotionally involved with her he was 31 years old. He became more erotically and sensually involved with her in 1908 and 1909. Jung had worked hard to get through medical school, graduated in 1900 at age 25, and used his boundless energy and drive to read all the psychiatric literature to date. He was married in 1903 to the second wealthiest Swiss heiress and had the responsibilities of fatherhood with the birth of his first child in 1904 and a second child in 1906. His poor background haunted him, he was painfully aware of growing up with parents in a difficult marriage, and his hysterical mother had been severely depressed, especially in Jung's early childhood. This was a mother who frightened him with her fervent belief in ghosts and spirits. As the daughter of a Swiss Reformed (strict late 19th century Protestant) minister she and her sibs had to sit behind her father as he wrote his sermons and swat away the demons. Jung's father was also a Swiss Reformed minister in a poor rural area, and both parents were from long lines of ministers. Jung would eventually describe a minister's children complex created by preaching a standard of perfection and parishioners watching the family closely, delighting in every pitfall.
Jung would become the first psychologist to talk about the stages of life, using the analogy of the sun moving across the sky during the course of a day. In the first half of life, the focus is on getting a job, starting a family, succeeding in the world, etc. After the sun reaches the zenith at midday, its orientation shifts to the opposite direction as it moved towards its demise at the end of the day. In the second half of life the focus subtly shifts as getting one more promotion or continuing in the same old way becomes less and less fulfilling. Nagging questions arise about the purpose and meaning of life, where one is not being fulfilled, and what had been set aside to become established and successful. Questions about death and matters of the spirit grow in importance.
Otto Gross and the Felix Culpa
It was when the relationship with Spielrein reached the more personal, intimate phase that Jung poured out his soul and his feelings for her. Otto Gross was in the position of Mephistopheles in Milton's Paradise Lost and hell in William Blake's worldview (Ryley 1998, p. 141-144, 147, 148 and Merritt 2012b, appendix B) by representing the seductive, enlivening energy confined within repressed sexuality. The melting of the doctor-patient boundary between Jung and Gross with its strong unconscious affect was another powerful example of countertransference. (Bair 2003, p. 141-144, 156) The felix culpa (the “fortunate accident,” the blessed sin leading to redemption) that followed, with Gross's encouragement, was Jung's affair with Spielrein that opened Jung up to his soul, painful and difficult as the process was. The erotic interaction was probably not as depicted in Method but as described in Spielrein's diary and letters discovered subsequent to the book the film was base on. The “poetry” between them (Spielrein's word for their intimacies) was romantic swooning as they looked into each others eyes and holding, touching and kissing. (Lothane 1999, p. 1201) Freud and Jung as the first generation of analysts had not been analyzed, aside from the rather informal work they did with each other's dreams. They found it difficult to discuss such personal and intimate matters with their colleagues and followers, as Freud did when he refused to provide Jung with associations to his dream because he feared it would threaten his authority. Discussing deep, personal issues with a woman, albeit a former patient, that Jung has fallen in love with was an avenue for him to explore his darker unconscious side with a sympathetic and supportive listener and admirer.
Discovery of the Anima
Jung's relationship with Spielrein became the experiential base for what years later he would come to all the “anima,” the inner woman in a man. The German's have a saying: “every man has a woman within.” The “animus” is the inner male equivalent in the female psyche. A woman represents for a man what is closest to him as a member of the human species yet in so many basic ways is his opposite. As such she compliments the male's psyche and intimacy with her gives the male a sense of wholeness and completion. Because she is so much “the other,” a female represents for a male the deeper layers of the unconscious, something we are intimately a part of and always relating to, but ultimately a mystery and a source of fascination. So profound is the symbolic importance of the opposite sex that Jung called the anima and animus the archetype of the soul.
Significant influences on the formation of a particular man's anima come from the experience of his mother, sisters, and significant other women in a man's childhood. There is a strong unconscious and mysterious attraction when a man meets a woman that resonates with his sense of his inner woman. Emma Jung provided the stable, secure, provider and motherly side that Jung needed and she dutifully assumed her role as a wealthy Swiss housewife and child bearer. Spielrein was a different story. She represented a wildness, freedom and exotic feminine and soul experience because of her Russian Jewishness, her active and excellent mind, and her boldness in dealing with academics. (Bair 2003, p. 91) Freedom was of utmost importance for her—and for Jung's psyche. Jung's mother was a hysteric, another unconscious connection for Jung to Spielrein.
The Incestuous Early Days of Psychoanalysis
Jung's sexual involvement with Spielrein put him into an extremely difficult and embarrassing situation within the incestuous early days of the small psychoanalytic community. He was discussing his dreams and difficulties of his cases with Freud, including Spielrein, while Emma was also doing some analysis with Freud. Freud's sister-in-law, Minna, who was living with Freud's family, confided in Jung upon Jung's first visit with Freud that she was having an affair with Freud. (Bair 2003, p. 119, 120, 164, 689 note 51) Spielrein went on to analyze with Freud after leaving Jung.
Spielrein became the real heroine in the story and represents the beginning of the return of the repressed feminine into the Western psyche. Raging beatings on her buttocks as a child by her moody, tyrannical father distorted her sexuality (Bair 2003, p. 87), but she developed her intellect and forged her way through the male dominated world of academia and the all-male world of the first generation of analysts. She carried the banner of the archetypal feminine and Eros in her insistence that Jung acknowledge and honor the love he felt for her and her importance in the life of his soul. To Jung's credit, he ate humble pie and confessed to Freud his level of involvement with her rather than blaming it all on Eve as the crazy, seductive, lying woman. (Lothane 1999, p. 1200) Spielrein was important in helping Jung formulate some of his ideas (Bair 2003, p. 283-285) and her concepts of death and ego extinction during sexual intimacy led Freud to develop his formulation of the death instinct. (Lothane 1999, p. 1202) She became a psychoanalyst and taught others in Russia.
The Split Between Jung and Freud
There were several key factors that led to the split between Freud and Jung and Spielrein was not a significant one. (Lothane 1999, p. 1201) Jung had developed important concepts and published research before he met Freud, and as mentioned, was working in one of the leading clinics in the world. Practicing in a state hospital, he experienced a much broader range of patients than Freud. He realized there were many factors that could lead to severe mental problems—abusive parents, alcoholism in the family, extreme poverty, etc. Working with schizophrenics exposed him to the mythic dimension of human experience as every clinic before the age of heavy psychotropics had its God, Jesus, the Devil and the Virgin Mary. Jung knew after his first meeting with Freud that Freud was a truly remarkable man who was making enormous contributions to the understanding of the psyche, but he was trapped in his attempt to be totally objective and treat the psyche scientifically. Freud got very emotional and irrational when talking about his theory of sexuality, and Jung saw that as his religion in this very anti-religious man. Jung came to believe that Freud was a bitter, cynical person because he tried to reduce the psyche to a biological, materialistic level and failed to see the spiritual and symbolic dimensions of sexuality—he was his own worst enemy. (Jung 1961, p. 149-152; Merritt 2012b, chapter 4) He would come to criticize the Freudians for being trapped in Freud's Oedipal complex, running every psyche through that Procrustean bed. (In Greek myth, Procrustes was a innkeeper who had one iron bed. If the guest was too tall, he cut him to size to fit the bed; if too short, he stretched them out) (Jung 1961, p. 167) Spielrein admitted Freud's concepts worked with her, and it works for those whose Oedipal conflicts dominate. Jung emphasized that there is a whole host of Greek and other myths, and we can get trapped in any of them. Also, he said every theoretical system is the subjective confession of its creator.
When Jung was writing Symbols of Transformation, published in 1912, he got stuck on the section where he would provide a non-sexual concept of the libido. He described it as general psychic energy that can take any form, not just sexual. He insisted that Freud missed the symbolic dimension of sexuality, with sexual union being a common image for the union of opposites and the sense of wholeness. (Collected Works 8, p. 3-66) He knew this formulation would spell the end of his relationship with Freud, because Freud considered himself to be the founder and final authority on psychoanalysis. (Bair 2003, p. 241) Freud believed whatever he thought was true (p. 722 note 50), and he was merciless with those who disagreed with him. (p. 227) Jung also believed there was more to be hoped for out of the psychoanalytic process than being a “normal neurotic” who accepts the dismal reality of existence. (Jung 1961, p. 166) Out of the dark depths of the unconscious can arise the beautiful products of the creative process—inspiring works of art and religious symbols. Freud interpreted these thing as the products of sublimated sexuality. Jung was desperate to find a father figure, and they mutually agreed that Freud served that function. This made it even more difficult for Jung to disagree with Freud and ultimately split from him.
Synchronicity and the Occult versus Science
Another huge difference arose during their first meeting, an encounter that lasted for 13 hours: “a world happened then,” Jung remarked. (Bair 2003, p. 117) Jung was thoroughly steeped in spirituality and occult phenomena, having done his doctoral thesis in medical school on the occult phenomena presumably arising during seances conducted by his cousin. Freud, more a product of the Enlightenment, was rightfully concerned about developing a more objective study of the psyche and establishing it on a more reputable base. Only with the rise of transpersonal psychology in the 1970's have significant numbers of psychologists turned to the study of shamans, mystics and yogis as legitimate explorations of the farther valid and rich dimensions of the human experience.
“Jewish” versus “Christian” Psychoanalysis
An issue Freud mentioned in the film was the difference between his constructs of the psyche and their appropriateness for Jews (more worldly, materialistic and pessimistic) in contrast to Jung's Aryan, Christian concepts (like sin, redemption, salvation, and an other-worldly spirituality). (Hillman 1990, 2003) From the beginning Freud accused Jung of being anti-Semitic and that charge has bedeviled Jung ever since (see Bair 2003 index “anti-Semitism” on p. 858). The matter is complicated by the many aspects of Jung's thought that paralleled Nazi beliefs and his behavior during the early years of Nazi Germany. Issue included the difference between the Jewish and Christian cultural (“racial”) unconscious and the relevance of the Freudian psychoanalytic approach to a Christian psyche; Jung's criticism of Freud, a Jew, and his followers for their narrow focus on the Oedipal complex and a materialist, reductive, biological approach to the psyche; Jung's emphasis on the importance of a connection to the land and an awareness of one's cultural roots and history; the significance of symbols in the cultural evolution of the human race; Jung's idea that the imposition of the more culturally developed and refined Christian religion upon the barbaric Teutonic tribes cut them off from the “two million-year-old man within”--a man connected to the earth, seasons, and the symbolic world; and Jung's understanding from personal experience and from his study of alchemy that it is necessary to go through a dangerous period of darkness and chaos for new, healing and integrative energies and symbols to emerge. The positive ecological aspects of all these issues except the first are discussed in Merritt 2011a. Jung's conduct during the late 1920's and early 1930's led to legitimate concerns about possible Nazi sympathies (see Sherry 2011 and the critique of Sherry in Stein 2011) but this must be viewed within the larger framework of his thoughts—individual freedom, individuation, freedom from oppression from the right, the left and the collective, and acceptance of all cultural and religious perspectives as long as they are not forced upon others or destroy human and other forms of life. It must also be noted that both men engaged in most heinous form of character assassination after the break. (Shamdasani 2005, p. 52, 72; Bair 2003, p. 235, 238, p. 725 note 102)
Jung's Dark Night of the Soul
The film ends in July 16, 1913 with Spielrein talking to Jung, at Emma's request, because of Emma's concern for the disturbed state of Jung's psyche. In actuality Jung never saw Spielrein after she left Zurich in 1910 and married in 1912. (Bair 2003, p. 191, 192, 194, 712 note 21) Toni Wolff was hospitalized under Jung's care in 1910 and he developed an intense relationship with her in 1913 after she had been his patient. The relationship reached an erotic peak in mid-1914. This was the second of three times in their married life that Emma's threatened a divorce, each time resulting in Jung getting ill or having an accident. (p. 191) Jung went into a chaotic and frightening descent into his unconscious beginning after the last contact with Freud and the psychoanalytic conference in Munich in September of 1913. In October he had the first of three visions over a period of several months, the theme being a flood over all of Europe carrying blood and debris to the base of the Swiss alps. (Jung 1961, p. 175, 176) For 3-1/2 years Jung engaged in a shamanistic journey through the depths of his personal and the collective Western psyche, realizing he was in the domain of psychotics and the mentally ill. He exercised a superhuman strength in engaging the powers of the unconscious (p. 173), and it was Tony Wolff who had an uncanny knack for being able to relate to the strange material emerging from Jung's unconscious and could remain unflappable in accompanying Jung through his dark and strange night of the soul. (Bair 2003, p. 249, 266, 321, 322; Hannah 1976, p. 119, 120) It is believed that Emma may have tolerated her presence, even in their own household, because she realized the desperate state Jung was in and knowing she could not be the one to be with him on that journey. (Bair 2003, p. 388) He resigned from his teaching position at the university, lost most of his friends and colleagues, and barely held on to his sanity. During that period he developed the techniques that were to become standard practice in Jungian psychoanalysis. He actively engaged the unconscious through art work, playing in the sand [this developed into sandplay therapy (Jung 1961, p. 173-175 and http://www.dennismerrittjungiananalyst.com/Sandplay_Therapy.htm)], dialoguing with inner figures (Jung 1961, p. 181-189), and totally abandoning Freud's concepts and practices. Jung took a “don't know” approach to his patient's dreams, exploring with them the contents of their dreams. He discovered the anima and ultimately his greatest discovery, the Self. (p. 196, 197) He described the Self as the center and centering element in the psyche, experienced as the image of God within, and at the cultural level as God, Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, Wakantanka (Lakota Sioux), etc. The elaborate paintings and coded writings Jung did during that period, that tapered off considerably after the initial 3 years, were finally published in 2009 in the form of The Red Book.
Alchemy and Jungian Ecopsychology
Jung said he spent the rest of his life figuring out what happened to him during those 3-plus years and putting the experience into psychological terms. (Jung 1961, p. 199) After dabbling in the Cabbalah and Gnosticism, he eventually found the historical and cultural equivalent to his personal journey in his 10 year study of alchemy before realizing they were speaking symbolically. (p. 205) Some of the alchemists knew they were not literally trying to turn lead into gold but it was a process of spiritual transformation of the base elements of human nature into the highest spiritual values. Only by going through the darkness in one's life and one's culture--the lead (the “pits”), the rejected elements-- can one become enlightened. Jung said the alchemists were unconsciously projecting the post-Christian unconscious into their vessels and retorts, seeking to redeem and transform the rejected elements of Christianity—the feminine, the body, sexuality, animals and nature. They believed Christ had saved the microcosm, the inner man, but they were working with God as co-creators to save the macrocosm, the world of nature, by re-ensouling nature and discovering the spirit in matter.
Alchemy became Jung's main symbolic system and lens through which he described his “confrontation with the unconscious” and his approach to psychoanalysis. I see alchemy as the base for a Jungian contribution to the new field of ecopsychology, a brand of psychology that studies how our values, attitudes, and perceptions of the environment condition our relationship to it. It also explores ways of connecting people more deeply to the environment and, like deep ecology, advocates a deep analysis of the problems in our relationship with nature. Jungian psychology provides the deepest analysis of Western culture through its exploration of the aspects of our Judeo-Christian myth that led to our dysfunctional relationship to the feminine, our bodies and sexuality, and to animals and the rest of nature. This is described in Jung's Collected Works, volume 11, “Answer to Job,” p. 355-470 and summarized in Merritt 2012a, p. 54-70. Jung associated the Christian era with the age of Pisces and strongly believed a necessary paradigm shift was imminent in the West because of the consequences of our repression of the feminine, the increasing rate of our destruction of the environment, the emptiness of the consumer culture now permeating the world, the rapes of the existing indigenous cultures, overpopulation, the atom bomb, and the massive destructive forces like Fascism, Communism and huge business entities (Jung died in 1961). He coined the terms “New Age” and “Age of Aquarius” to describe this paradigm shift, and many see 1968 (my first full year in graduate school in Berkeley) as the beginning of that age, indeed a revolutionary year in America and other parts of the world.
Sabina Spielrein, Forerunner of the Age of Aquarius
As a Zurich trained Jungian analyst and ecologist (I have a Ph.D. in entomology from Berkeley), I have developed the ecological dimensions of Jung's concepts in my 4 volumes of The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe—Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology (that's a picture of my home farm in Wisconsin on the cover of volume 1). Jung believed the most significant element in the dawning of this new age would be the elevation of archetypal feminine energies in Western culture and in the world. I see Sabina Spielrein as the person who, in the early years of the psychoanalytic movement, strongly nudged the Western patriarchal collective psyche in the direction of incorporating the archetypal feminine, and one of those movers who initiated the shift toward the Age of Aquarius. Her concept of the death of the ego and transformation in intimate sexual relationship is straight out of the old goddess cults, where death and rebirth had seasonal associations and erotic dimensions as practiced by the sacred prostitutes. (see Redgrove 1987, Qualls-Corbett 1988, Hillel 1997, and Merritt 2012c, Appendix G: The Sacred Prostitute and the Erotic Feminine and Appendix H: The Black Goddess)
Dennis Merritt, Ph.D., LCSW, is a Jungian psychoanalyst and ecopsychologist in private practice in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Merritt is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich and also holds the following degrees: M.A. Humanistic Psychology-Clinical, Sonoma State University, California, Ph.D. Insect Pathology, University of California-Berkeley, M.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, B.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over twenty years of participation in Lakota Sioux ceremonies have strongly influenced his worldview.
Dennis Merritt will be doing a reading from Jung and Ecopsychology: The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe Volume I on March 19 at Boswell Books on 2559 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee, just down from the Downer Theater where I led discussions of A Dangerous Method after 7 showings of the film.
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--2012b (April 2012 publication date). Volume 2. The Cry of Merlin—Jung as the Prototypical Ecopsychologist.
--2012c (June 2012 publication date) Volume 3. Hermes and the Cows--Hermes, Jungian Ecopsychology, and Complexity Theory.
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