Screening Jung

A new film from David Cronenberg about the early days of psychoanalysis will stimulate critique

Screening Jung

Andrew SamuelsA Most Dangerous Method is a film about Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. If the film stays even moderately true to Christopher Hampton's National Theatre play The Talking Cure, we will witness Jung’s love affair with his patient (or was she an ex-patient?), the impact of the affair on his marriage to Emma, how Spielrein starts to shuttle between the two narcissistic oligarchs of the early psychoanalytic world (a compelling emblem of the belittlement of women’s role in intellectual endeavour, then and now) - and how the whole shish-kebab made the rupture between the two men into an inevitability.

Sex, not the theory of sexuality, is going to be the main interest. Maybe it will be the difference between sex and sexuality that will interest psychotherapists. In a way, this is apposite for, as John Kerr asserted in the book on which both play and the film are based, Freud and Jung each had something sexual on the other: Freud knew about Jung and Spielrein, Jung knew about Freud’s supposed incestuous affair with Minna Bernays, his sister-in-law.

The Jungian century

As we enjoy the film, there will probably be little focus on what Jung actually said and stood for. Yet, if the last century has been called ‘The Freudian Century’, there are reasons for thinking that this one could be Jung’s. Right now, for example, there is collective agonising over what is meant by ‘the West’. It is easy to define 'the West' in contradistinction to a supposedly fanatical Islam (itself a political and media concoction and a distortion of that religion and culture). But what it means to be 'Western' is a much more complicated topic that cries out for a Jungian input. For Jung saw himself as a sort of therapist for Western culture and, if his criticisms of it do resonate with what many responsible Muslims are saying, then that strikes me as all the more significant.

Jung despaired of the one-sidedness of Western culture, its materialism, over-dependence on rationality, the mind-body split, and the West’s loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. He even, in a characteristic moment of imaginative genius mixed with psychological inflation, tried to be the therapist of the Judaeo-Christian God, in his iconoclastic book Answer to Job.

Catastrophic Lack of Meaning

Jung’s turn to other cultures as a way of addressing the West’s profound problems involved a lot of idealisation ('orientalism') - but the main point was always the same: there is something fundamentally ‘off’ in the way we live. Specifically, the lack of meaning in people’s lives was something that Jung (and today’s Jungian analysts) regard as a suitable matter for clinical work. Neurosis and emotional distress, according to Jung, always involve a catastrophic loss of meaning, implying a void that can only be filled from within, given that the great religions have ceased to be effective as conveyors of meaning from outside the self. It may sound odd in terms of linear thinking to see emotional distress as caused by a loss of meaning. However, this is an up-to-the-minute mode of conceiving of psychotherapy – even if NICE and IAPT are singing from a completely different hymn book.

Another area where contemporary discourse is taking a ‘Jungian’ turn is that of gender roles. Jung was, on the one hand, rather conservative in what he thought were appropriate behaviours for women and men. But, on the other hand, with his theory of animus and anima (something that came to him during his relationship with Sabina Spielrein), he offers us a means of expanding what is possible for people of either sex. For a woman, her animus is not a little man in her head but a sign of her capacity to be and do more things than used to be thought possible for a woman. For a man, confrontation with the anima can lead to a similar expansion of roles. So, animus and anima, as many feminist writers such as the literary critic Susan Rowland have noted, can be profoundly radical counter-cultural ideas.

Jung in the context of psychoanalysis

When I give talks on Jung to non-Jungian audiences, I always ask them to do a simple word association test to the stimulus word ‘Jung’. The overwhelming response (virtually 100%) is ‘Freud’. This certainly makes a problem for Jungians if they are always defined in terms of ‘the other lot’; always Number Two, they have to try harder. More seriously, the association overlooks the fact that there was a very important pre-Freudian or non-Freudian ‘Jung’. Nevertheless, what surely gets highlighted is the relationship between these two. There are different ways of evaluating the split between Freud and Jung: as a disaster from which psychotherapy has never recovered, or a healthy ridding by the psychoanalytic world of an unfortunate excrescence upon it.

Jung is certainly used by institutional psychoanalysis to keep itself together, as a sort of tribal enemy. This involves a degree of quite deliberate overlooking of Jung’s pioneering contributions. The distinguished historian of psychoanalysis Paul Roazen commented that ‘Few responsible figures in psychoanalysis would be disturbed today if an analyst were to present views identical to Jung’s in 1913’. Roazen was referring to such things as the move of the mother to the centre of psychoanalytic thinking, the realisation that humans are motivated by more than their sexual drive, consequent re-evaluation of art, literature and religion, an awareness that dreams tell us about ourselves just as we are and are not elaborate skeins of deception, the way in which psychotherapy has emerged as a two-person, relational business, not one expert interpreting the inner life of the other person in terms of a pre-existing theory – all of these hugely important developments in psychoanalysis were first introduced within Jung’s own school of analytical psychology.

Reparation for Jung's anti-semitism

It would be wrong to end on an upbeat note, from the point of view of Jung’s reputation. I have been prominent among Jungian analysts in insisting that we make reparation for Jung’s anti-semitism in the 1930s by acknowledging and apologising for it. The Jungian community as a whole is actively trying to fix those parts of the theories that are misguided or plain wrong. Jung always defended himself against the accusation that his ideas aligned with Nazi ideology, though, to some, his expression of regret seemed inadequate and insincere. The way I see it, Jung was an ambitious man (as was Freud) and he saw an opportunity to become the leading psychologist in Central Europe in the 1930s, so he wrote things that did implicitly and indirectly chime with what was going on in Germany.

But Jung was an intuitive person and, though his writings on what he called ‘Jewish psychology’ (i.e. psychoanalysis) are often deeply problematic, there are some nuggets therein that give one pause for thought. For example, Jung’s protest at the imposition of one system of psychology on everyone anticipates today’s transcultural and intercultural psychologists and therapists who hold that such a universal system, outside of a particular social context, cannot exist. Jung was, on this reading, one of the first therapists to engage with matters of diversity.


Andrew Samuels trained as a Jungian analyst in 1974. He is Chair of the UKCP. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the New Statesman. See www.andrewsamuels.com