A Most Dangerous Method: the Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met for the first time on 3 March 1907. They talked for thirteen hours straight. The last time the two men were together in the same room Wc at the Fourth International Psychoanalytic Congress, held in Munich on 7-8 September 1913. On that occasion, so far as is known, they said not a single word to each other. So it was in silence that one of the most vexed partnerships in the history of ideas ended. Yet, working together for little more than six years, these two men decisively altered the course of twentieth-century thought.
This is the story of that partnership. I tell it not primarily to round out the biographical understanding of either man; still less to take sides. I tell it in order to raise critical issues about the nature of their joint accomplishment.
During the years of their collaboration, Freud and Jung brought into prominence a new method of psychotherapy—psychoanalysis—and won widespread acceptance for the interpretive views, some of them quite radical, that helped make that method distinctive. Without them, more specifically without their collaboration, psychoanalysis as we know it today would not exist. But if Freud and Jung brought into being something radically new—something whose transformative value continues to be felt today—they also shaped their creation in ways that were scarcely inevitable, ways that reflected their own special needs of the moment, and ways that ultimately produced distortions which are important to recognize and understand.
Clearly, the relationship between Freud and Jung is an important story to tell. But it is not an easy story to tell critically. These are men we would prefer to admire. We would rather keep them as heroes, as the attractive, humane, skeptical, ultimately wise figures that emerge in so many later anecdotes. Flaving opened a new perspective on the human mind, and most especially on human limitations, Freud and Jung were perforce the first thinkers to live with that peculiarly intense burden of self-reflection that distinguishes the psychology of modern man. They were, in that sense, the first citizens of the twentieth century. It both pleases and comforts us to think that they possessed the virtues that the new forms of self-awareness require to be humanly sustaining.
Neither man was ever so winning a personality as when he was in opposition. Later in their lives, if the logic of a situation called for them to be in opposition to their own theories, they could manage that gracefully, too. We are all familiar, I think, with Freud’s unamused protest: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But more pertinent perhaps is his remark to Abram Kardiner, who during a training analysis questioned the logic of a particular psychoanalytic theorem: “Oh, don’t take that too seriously.
That’s something I dreamed up on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” The irreverence complemented the streak of indomitability in Freud’s character. When the Nazi authorities required him to sign a propaganda statement attesting to their good treatment of him before he would be allowed to emigrate, Freud responded with a heroic flourish. After signing his name, he thoughtfully added a postscript: “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anybody.”
Jung, too, could take a bemused distance from himself. During a panel discussion at the institute he founded, he confided quietly to a colleague: “Thank God I am not a Jungian.” Jung’s handling of patients could be equally straightforward. When one young woman tired of talking about her unrequited scxual transference and proposed that they lie down together on the couch, Jung replied on point: “Yes, we could—but then we would have to get up again.” And Jung could wear the mantle of his reputation no less lightly than his former Viennese friend. During a trip to London later in life, Jung took an afternoon by himself to go to the reading room of the British Museum to look up a rare book.
But at the entrance he was challenged politely by the guard: Where was his entrance pass? Jung replied that he had no pass, that he was Carl Jung from Zurich and did not know he needed one. The guard, obviously startled, queried: “Carl Jung? You mean Freud, Adler, Jung?” To which Jung answered wistfully, “No … just Jung.” (He was allowed to enter.)
But these anecdotes come from late in the lives of the two men. The story of their partnership belongs to an earlier, much darker period.
And though many of their more admirable qualities were also in evidence then, both men were more ambitious, more dogmatic, more intolerant—more possessed—than they would show themselves later on. Success improves most characters, but ambition usually does not. At the time of their collaboration, both Freud and Jung were being cruelly tantalized by the prospects of their own future greatness.
One has to keep in mind the context. At the beginning of this century, in both Europe and America, there was an explosion of interest in the psychology of what were then called “nervous” disorders. There was also a corresponding surge in experimentation with psychotherapy. This dual trend—the effort to understand better the nature of nervous complaints and to provide amelioration through purely “psychical” means—was the result of multiple factors which obtained generally throughout the Western world.
To begin with, it was a period of general economic prosperity. Then, as now, when people have money to spend, one of the things they spend it on is themselves. Often enough, this entails seeking relief from troubles that in harder times one would pay less attention to. Then, too, it was a period when there was an extremely high incidence of “nervous” disorders generally. Few today remember an era when a proper Victorian household was equipped with decanters of smelling salts in all the downstairs rooms for the benefit of equally proper Victorian ladies who might be struck down by that common malady, the swoon. But not only women suffered.
Men, too, commonly suffered from a variety of mental and physical symptoms to the point where it was generally conceded, even if the specific causes were disputed, that there was something about the pace of modern civilization that regularly resulted in a pathologically overtaxed nervous system.
Where it could, diagnosis followed gender. While hysteria was reserved largely, but not exclusively, for women, neurasthenia, compulsion neurosis, obsessional states, and other syndromes were generally the diagnostic prerogative of the male. Moreover, inside all these labels lay the more insidious secondary diagnosis of hereditary taint—that sneak thief of medical theory which satisfied the physician’s need to say something while robbing the patient of all confidence in his or her future prospects for sanity.
It was an age when many sensitive citizens, and not a few more robust ones, found themselves in the uneasy position of pleading a clear conscience as a way of staying one step ahead of unvoiced doubts; of exhausting their energies in overwork and in equally taxing trips to the spa to ward off an ominous, brooding lassitude; of endorsing all sorts of philosophical, political, and social causes as a way of deflecting their attention from an inward unhappiness that seemed to have no name. The resources of character—willpower and rectitude—seemed to have been mysteriously undermined from within…
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