Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Dangerous Method: Review

Way back in September 2008 I wrote the following in this blog:

"I have long been a reader of the works of Carl Gustave Jung (1875 – 1961) who was a famous Swiss psychiatrist, a personal friend and disciple of the founder of psychoanalysis Dr Sigmund Freud, an influential thinker and the founder of analytical psychology in opposition to psychoanalysis. Jung himself owed much to his erstwhile friend and mentor, though they grew apart as the younger man began to establish himself as an independent thinker. I had heard all the following Jungian terms when I was at college in the 1970s as his thought had infiltrated the study not alone of psychology but also of philosophy, theology and English literature which I was then studying: Shadow, Collective Unconscious, Archetypes, Individuation and Synchronicity. These words have been rattling around in my head for the last thirty years and I have often alluded to them in these posts. I have just finished reading the excellent biography of Carl Gustave Jung - the one written by Ronald Hayman.   Dr. Anthony Storr, also a favourite psychiatrist and Jungian therapist, had this to say of Hayman's book: "The best biography of Jung." When I saw this judgement quoted on the dust jacket I immediately purchased my copy of A Life of Jung (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)"  See here.

I have also discussed Freud many times in these pages also. In April 2009, I wrote the following about the founder of psychoanalysis:

"Freud spent his whole life attempting to fathom what was at the heart of the human psyche – if it’s not somewhat contradictory to use the metaphor ‘heart’ with respect to the mind. In doing so he constructed his famous archaeological or topographical or layer model of the psyche namely – conscious, preconscious and unconscious strata(depths or layers) of the mind. Needless to say, Freud had been obsessed with archaeology. Then, we are all possibly as well, if not more, acquainted with his structural model of the psyche – that is, the model with which practically everyone who knows even a little about Freud is acquainted with, at least with the terminology which has entered common parlance, namely Id, Ego and Superego. These according to Freud are the major components of the self or mind or personality, call it what you will for the moment. It is very important to note that this structural model puts these three major components in the unconscious. These Ego, Id and Superego are not topographical regions or layers as it were as we saw in his archaeological model. Rather they are distinct agencies at war or in conflict with one another. Indeed, for Freud human beings were not yet fully evolved. Hence there was a split or a rift in their very nature. In other words human beings were torn between their dark bestial motives (Id) and civilized conduct and demeanour (mores and manners and morals of society). On the one hand then there was humankind's animal nature (Id) and its cultural aspirations.(promoted by the Superego) Hence, humans are literally driven to seek pleasure, but society and civilization reign this rapaciousness in because control of passions is necessary - otherwise there would be murder, rape and strife of all kinds." (See here )

A Dangerous Method Poster
When I saw the trailer of A Dangerous Method in the cinema recently, I could not resist going to this film with a certain expectation. This is a good, but not brilliant film.  I enjoyed it much and would go back and view it several times again.  However, I feel that anyone unacquainted with the birth and development of psychoanalysis will be at a loss with this film.  It would be a good introduction to whet the appetites of would-be counsellors and psychotherapists of all hues, though I wonder how appealing it will be to the mass audience of cinema-goers.  Indeed, anyone who has read either Freud or Jung, even books about them, will be familiar with some lines of dialogue which come straight from their own writings, like the following:

“We are bringing them the plague,” Freud purportedly said when he and Jung and Ferenczi disembarked in New York in 1909. “We’re bringing them the plague, and they don’t even know it.” (Quotation from The Death of Sigmund Freud by by Mark Edmundson, p. 32)

Jung and Freud remained very close friends for some seven years from March 1907 till 1914. As Hayman succinctly remarks about this friendship: "Both benefited professionally: the alliance helped to propagate Freud's ideas, while the ideas helped both of them to international fame. (Carl Jung: Biography, Ronald Hayman).  The film is essentially an account of their relationship and of the development of psychoanalysis as a therapy over those years.  Freud saw himself as the architect and founder of psychoanalysis and he demanded nothing short of complete allegiance to his ideas and his ideas alone.  That Freud was arrogant and egotistical about his beloved theories and practices which he saw essentially as firmly scientific is beyond doubt.  That he became angry, even neurotic, when saw his favoured "son" and "heir" beginning to go his own way, come up with wider and more "mystical" and unscientific ideas about psychoanalysis is also undoubted.  That inevitably a split would come where two large "egos" meet is also always beyond doubt.  When the split did come it was final and irreversible.  This film follows their relationship to this bitter end.

Always an Eve

Sabina Spielrein
I suppose there always has to be a temptress somewhere in the background, even foreground to tempt our would-be hero.  The temptress comes in the person of Sabina Spielrein.  The film opens with the hysterical Sabina being forcibly brought to the Burghölzli Mental Hospital  which is portrayed as a very humane institution indeed, given that we are in the early years of the twentieth century before the First World WarJung is presented as a kind and sympathetic person which indeed he was.  As a reader of Jung for many years it was only in the last ten years that I learnt that he had at least two mistresses, both of whom were his patients.  That this great man had feet of clay came as a surprise initially, but unfortunately we are all too human, all too much heir to our own weaknesses, so to demand superhuman qualities from our heroes is probably asking too much.  However, after the initial shock, or more correctly initial disappointment, I quickly realised that I was being silly and that we all have our weaknesses.  This certainly does not detract from the validity of Jung's theories which are extremely holistic to say the least.

His relationship with his patient Sabina gathers momentum. At first it is purely platonic or romantic. Eventually after long deliberations it becomes sexual. He became her 'Siegfried', the romantic hero of her dreams, and Jung admits all this to Freud. Being acutely aware as psychiatrists of transference, it is remarkable indeed that these two great men often got lost under the strength of its allure. Sabina referred to their lovemaking as 'poetry.' This was also a very fraught relationship - one which, when Jung decided to end it, caused Sabina to stab him at his consultancy room. Luckily for him, she only managed to stab him in the hand, though in the film we see that she stabs him in the face.  That the film portrays Jung as beating the semi-clad Spielrein on the buttocks during love-making is more than likely the director's imagination rather than historic fact, though I could be wrong here.  Knowing films, and what films must do for dramatic purposes, I instinctively feel that some licence is taken here.

A Dangerous Method is a 2011 Canadian historical film directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen (as Freud), Michael Fassbender (as Jung) , Keira Knightley (as Sabina) and Vincent Cassel (as Otto Gross). The screenplay was adapted by Academy Award-winning writer Christopher Hampton from his 2002 stage play The Talking Cure, which in turn was based on the 1993 non-fiction book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein.

A Dangerous Method is a German/Canadian co-production. The film premiered at The 68th Venice Film Festival and was also featured at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.  As I said above it is a good film which I'd give a 6 or 7 out of 10 to.  The cinematography (by Peter Suschitzky) is wonderful as are the period costumes and the studies of Jung and Freud as well as the latter's famous couch are all lovingly and carefully rendered to give an overall feeling of authenticity.

If you are going to go to this film a little light reading, if it is possible to do light reading about psychoanalysis, is a must to get you into the frame of mind.  Incidentally, the music is wonderful and is by the inimitable Howard Shore.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dialogue not Monologue: A Sort of a Response to Dr. Tony Humphreys


Oftentimes we have to call in the experts because we have no other way out.  Serious, and indeed not so serious, medical problems come to mind as do problems with plumbing, sewage, drainage, electricity and so on.  Then in the education field, in which I work, we need the advice of experts with troublesome, even no so troublesome ADHD, ADD, ODD or ASD children.  We certainly do need our experts to improve our practice, add to our skills base or even to encourage and confirm us in our own good practice.  Indeed, that's what the inspectorate should be and do ideally.

The Wisdom of the Non-Expert

However, there is place for the wise lay person who is far from being an expert.  What comes to mind here is the recent controversy over an article written in The Examiner by the clinical psychologist Dr Tony Humphreys which questioned whether ASD is a good label or not for those who have been diagnosed as so being.  Indeed he went further still and questioned whether ASD existed at all as a neurological disorder.  Now the article caused consternation among parents of ASD children for two reasons: (i) the author implied, according to those who angrily rang Joe Duffy's Live Line programme on RTE Radio One, that their cold uncaring treatment of their children initially caused the ASD and (ii) because a diagnosis given by the mainstream experts (not mavericks like Dr. Tony Humphreys) brings a certain amount of emotional relief, not to mention financial relief as it allows access to professional care and facilities, which are not too thick on the ground anyway.

Having read Dr Humphreys article a few times, I don't think that he actually said what these sensitive parents understood him as having said.  Admittedly, a sensitive reader (i.e., parent or teacher) could make that inference.  However, he did appear on Marian Finucane's Saturday morning programme to answer his critics.  He stated that people were putting words in his mouth and that he had absolutely never said that parents were at fault.  Indeed, he had not.  He also re-affirmed and reiterated the fact that he always insists in every seminar he gives and in every book he has ever written that parents are not at fault at all; that if ever they are at fault, it is only done unconsciously.  Dr. Humphreys is a sincere man and one could not deny that.  However, the good Doctor has made a very basic mistake in philosophy, that is, he has been living so long in the world of the expert (a well-paid expert at that as I have attended many of his seminars over the years and have forked out hard earned money to hear him) that he has begun to believe in his own expertese, hook, line and sinker.  Now a philosopher does not do that.  In fact a good philosopher is always questioning his own suppositions and pre-suppositions, and indeed his motivations.  He would ask questions like, What if I'm wrong?  Why do others hold differing opinions?  What's the evidence on the opposing side of the argument?  What if I'm right?  If I am right what are the implications of what I'm saying?   Or even more to the point, What will be the feelings of parents and teachers if I write X,Y or Z?   Or, again, Maybe there is a more approriate forum than a weekly column to express these views?

The Arrogant Expert

Now, I am not going to throw the accusation of arrogance at Dr. Humphreys because I have never found him so over the years I have attended his seminars and read his popular books.  What I do find objectionable is his sheer conviction that he is fully correct, that is, "I'm the expert and I have the answers" stance.  This is not what a good philosopher in the tradition of the great Socrates would allow.  On the contrary a good philosopher starts with questioning throroughly his own assumptions.  Now, I have met a few arrogant experts in my life and they have come from all walks of life.  I remember one psychologist taking a whole staff to task, and outrageously so, over a certain method of discipline they were using in a school (and it had nothing to do with corporal punishment in any shape or form as that has been outlawed since 1981 here in Ireland.)  On several occasions I have met inspectors, who have never done very much teaching in the careers at all, being severely critical of classroom practices of X or Y teacher.  Save us from these experts, these so-called experts!

We do need Debate and Dialogue

Now, let us not stifle debate.  That there are many positions and arguments about X theory or Y theory in any field you may care to mention is without doubt.  We need to hear all sides of a particular argument and the majority of experts in any given field must be the ones who give the near-as-possible-to-consensus answer.  Now that answer must remain until it is disproved.  That seems to be good solid common sense.

As a sufferer from clinical depression for the last fifteen or so years I am quite content with my diagnosis and I am not in a hurry to throw away my antidepressant medication even though I have read much of the publications of the anti-medication lobby in mental health.  Now, this does not mean either that I have never gone to counselling or psychotherapy or engaged in other non-medical complementary practices like meditation and yoga.  In other words, it is never an either/or answer but rather a both/and in most cases.  I readily admit that in some cases medication has been given rather too readily making problems worse but in the balance of things our medical profession call most cases correctly from my experience.  Again, this is not to deny the serious failures in the system which we can read all too frequently about in our media.

Yes we need a well-informed debate.  More than that we need Dialogue.  I have been reading of late that wonderful master of the dialogic way of approaching life itself, viz., the wonderful Martin Buber.  In the terms invented and used by this great Jewish philosopher, we can say that Dr Humphreys has given us a monolgue, whereas what we teachers (and parents) need is real dialogue where the I of the expert meets the Thou of the non-expert and vice-versa and the wisdom and humanity of both are affirmed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some Good Films

They say that we Dubliners attend the cinema more often and in greater numbers per head of population than most other cities in the world.  That's what's said here, at any rate.  However, even if this contention is not true, the cinemas always seem to be packed whenever I go.  Anyway, I've viewed many wonderful films of late, so I'll give a very brief commentary on four recent ones I've seen, starting in the reverse order of viewing.

(1) Carnage:

Despite its provocative title, this film isn't a thriller.  In fact, the title is deliberately provocative.  What drew me to this film in the first place was its controversial but brilliant director Roman Polanski, not to mention its equally talented cast - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.   The whole action takes place in an apartment and at times in the corridor outside it.  Given its tiny setting - in fact almost a theatre space - would immediately remind one of being at the theatre.  Indeed, one would not be too far wide of the mark in that conclusion as this film is based on a play called God of Carnage (originally Lay Waste To England For Me) by the playwright Yasmina Reza. (Reza's parents were both of Jewish origin, her father Iranian, her mother Hungarian and she was born in Paris in 1960)   The play and film concern two pairs of parents, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, who meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. However, as the evening goes on, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting in the evening devolving into chaos. The play was a success in its original language, French, and has been equally acclaimed in its other English-translated productions in both London and New York. 

The film is by turns moving and profound, funny and lighthearted - just like life.  One feels that the cast are plumbing their own depths in trying to make sense of what life is about anyway.  I remember one of our great national poets, Patrick Kavanagh, saying that life is neither tragedy not comedy, but rather tragi-comedy.  How true he was and this wee film (it lasts a little more than an hour) concurs with the poet's conclusions about life.

Adapted, then, from Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, Roman Polanski’s new film is the year’s most scathing, shocking, unsettlingly honest and surprisingly hilarious comedy.  It does not surprise me that Polanski has been called "the director of small spaces," because he makes every little movement and facial expression significant.   As I've outlined above both sets of parents try to solve their sons' fighting in a civilized manner.  At least that's their initial intention, but like all good drama we cannot help suspecting that there is more at stake here and that things are not quite as they seem.   What begins cordially soon descends into chaos as tempers flare, secrets are revealed and the Scotch starts to flow.   Then one lady vomits over the coffee table, drenching in the process the art books of the hostess.  Life is certainly not mere superficial convention as the masks of each character is gradually peeled off.

With the stunning quartet of stars delivering no-holds-barred performances under Polanski’s ruthlessly tight direction, Carnage, according to its publicity at any rate, is destined to be a prime contender this award season.   This is an excellent short film, tight and spare in its dialogue.  I'd go to it again and again for its insights into life and for its sheer fun.  Then, despite their parents' involvement, the youngsters make up of their own accord anyway.  We're left with many questions as all good drama and all good films should so do.  Why do parents have to fight their children's battles for them?  Are they living their own lives out vicariously through them?  These are questions only.  I don't have any answers.  The truth is never simple and very seldom if at all pure!

(2) J.Edgar

This movie is worth seeing for the performance of the wonderful Leonardo diCaprio alone - one of my favourite actors, and for the fact that the inimitable Clint Eastwood directed it.  Again I'm biased because he is one of my favourite actors and my most favourite director.  Now that I have nailed my prejudices firmly to the mast, let me say that the subject of the film is one of the most enigmatic, powerful and conflicted Americans of the twentieth century, viz., John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States.  Eastwood and the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have re-created wonderfully that period in the nineteen-twenties and thirties in the USA when a righteous, conservative young man, influenced by an overpowering mother who believed that her son was born for position in society, could win over all he came in contact with by his persuasiveness.  Indeed, the New York Times puts it succinctly when it says that this young man "with a stentorian style could electrify a nation."

Having just put down a marvellous book called Between Man and Man by Martin Buber , I am left with the overpowering conviction that we humans are creatures who long for security in a very insecure world.  This existential feeling of insecurity fits in nicely with the career of J.Edgar Hoover who all his life preyed on the insecurities of others, even presidents, an account of whose "sins" and misdemeanours he kept on secret files so that he could "persuade" them to keep him at the helm of his baby, the FBI.  The New York Times review of this film is superb and it can be accessed here: ReviewNYTDiCaprio is wonderful as he captures brilliantly this conflicted, repressed (he kept his homosexuality a secret) and tortured soul who believed in his own propaganda, literally constructed a fictitious profile of himself as hero, while all the time he had feet of clay. Returning to a line from David Denby's review in the above named paper, I concur with a Buberlike intensity, that "Hoover, we realize, is obsessed with keeping America safe because he feels unsafe himself. Internal subversion is a personal, not just a political, threat to him. "

(3) The Iron Lady

The film begins circa 2008 with an elderly Lady Thatcher buying milk unrecognized by other customers and walking back from the shop alone. Over the course of three days we see her struggle with dementia and with the lack of power that comes with old age, whilst looking back on defining moments of her personal and professional life, on which she reminisces with her (dead) husband, Denis. She is shown as having difficulty distinguishing between the past and present. A theme throughout the film is the personal price which Thatcher has paid for power.  This writer's own mother has had dementia for the last eleven years and her brain is practically wiped clean of all memories now.  In a sense, this is more a film about dementia and what power does to a person rather than a straight bio-pic.  We really don't get to know Thatcher at all or what really motivates her as we see everything through the eyes of an ailing woman.  So what we get are fragments of history in flashback.  Picking dementia as the focus through which the film is created is perhaps its central flaw.  Being invited into the mind of a demented heroine is not a very secure vantage point from which to view the history of the longest serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, the only woman ever to have held that prestigious post.  However, the film is worth seeing for the wonderful acting of the brilliant and inimitable Meryl Streep.

(4) War Horse

This is a "good feeling" type of film reminiscent at stages of The Quiet Man (1952) which was directed by John Ford, especially in its opening scenes - rural England, the peasant life, fairs and especially the music which reminded this viewer of traditional Irish music.   However, the current film under review here is set in Devon, England, where a boy called Albert Narracott watches the birth of a thoroughbred foal and follows its growth with studied admiration. Much to the dismay of his mother, Rose, Albert's father, Ted, buys the colt at auction, despite a friend pointing out a more suitable plough horse for his farm.  Thus begins the young Albert's close relationship with this beautiful animal whom he affectionately calls Joey.  The film recounts Joey's journey from the farm in Devon to becoming a war horse and to his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War.  If you are an animal lover you will love this film.  As an animal lover, I have to admit that I was moved to tears at points in this film because I have long believed that the unconditional love offered humans by animals - especially dogs, dolphins and horses - is second to none.  Stephen Spielberg works his magic on his audience by drawing us into the "personal life" of Joey, and he does this subtly almost without our knowing it.  Indeed, I hasten to add that no animals were hurt during the making of this film in these days of wonderful computer-generated special effects.  Philosophically, though, it leads me to question again and again our treatment of animals (brutal at times) and to wonder whether we humans are really specist when we credit ourselves with being the most intelligent and possibly the most ethical of animals (at times).  Personally, this film raises the big question of humanity's evil nature, its estrangement from its own animal or bodily nature which leads it inexorably to cut the world to pieces including both humans and animals.  The WIKI tells us that War Horse

is a 2011 war epic motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on both War Horse, a children's novel set before and during World War I, by British author Michael Morpurgo, first published in the United Kingdom in 1982, and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same nameThe cast includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell and Peter Mullan. The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and executive produced by Frank Marshall and Revel Guest.  Long-term Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, and John Williams all worked on the film.The film is currently in contention for six Academy Awards and five BAFTAs. It was also nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. (See War Horse )
All in all, I loved this picture and would view it on a big screen again and again.  In short, it appealed to the romantic in me.