As cinemagoers and telly watchers we are used to accomplished adaptations of fictions born on the page. Whether it’s the BBC’s latest Jane Austen costume drama or blockbusters like the Harry Potter series, we consume creations transformed from the page to the screen all the time. We are also accustomed to the fictionalisation and cinematic imaginings of happenings from history, with one of film’s latest trends being the increasing use of exciting events from the recent past. The likes of The Social Network and 127 Hours brought books about modern, real lives to the big screen.
But we are less used to films based on academic and extensively researched works of non-fiction. There is of course the occasional box office hit based on a lucky scholar’s lengthy biography or surprisingly successful history. However it’s rare for such books to be huge hits in print via Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith, let alone dominate in theatres. It normally takes a strong following of the book to persuade producers that the appetite is there for a lucrative movie. Or a particularly juicy subject matter, ripe for controversial or intriguing expansion and exploration.
In the case of A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr there is certainly the potential for controversy. His book, released in the early 1990s and based on new evidence, charts the relationship between commonly recognised pioneers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, which is controversial enough in itself. But its way into the world of intellectual competition and mental instability is the papers of Sabina Spielrein. She was a Russian patient of Jung’s, taken to a clinic in Zurich in 1904 at the age of 18. Her habits included “ill concealed masturbation”. And she and Jung had an affair.
As if that were not a sufficiently saucy and shocking cocktail, the nature of the affair remains scandalous even now. Jung was trying to drive forward a new profession and ensure its respect as a science and as a medical treatment. And yet he had an affair with one of his patients. An affair directly linked to his treatment and his probing of her condition. She was beaten as a child by her father and this sexually excited her. It doesn’t take much to imagine what she and Jung got up to. Sadomasochism enters the mix.
An official trailer for A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (which was based on Kerr’s original novel), is now online. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ7JKmcLTsI&feature=player_embedded
It stars Cronenberg’s usual partner in crime Viggo Mortensen as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Disappointingly for fans of Cronenberg and Mortensen’s previous collaborations, the story appears to focus on Jung, with Freud relegated to a secondary figure. The weight of the narrative therefore falls on rising star Fassbender, who also stars in a new Jane Eyre adaptation out later this year, and his chemistry with Knightley. Disappointingly for fans of history and good storytelling, Knightley’s role, from the trailer at least, appears to be that of kinky sex slave.
Even the slightest research into Kerr’s original work uncovers just how fascinating a story, a true story, he set out to tell. Spielrein was treated by Jung and she had some kind of sexual affair with him, although it may never have been consummated. She went onto graduate as a doctor and pursued her own career in psychoanalysis, playing a key role in bringing its breakthroughs back to Russia. She was treated by Freud but always remained attached to Jung.
Not only did Kerr tell this remarkable story with “verve devices” of storytelling and “scholarly precisions”, according a 1994 review in The Independent, but his book had a serious point. Aside from being part of a tantalising love triangle complicated by genius and a battle for the soul of a groundbreaking science, Sabina Spielrein sheds light on who was the more influential man; Jung or Freud. Kerr argues that Freud’s thinking was of its time and not revolutionary. In any case many of Freud’s and Jung’s ideas are recognised as plain wrong and outdated today but if one was more important in laying the true foundations of psychoanalysis, Kerr argues it was Jung. He helped create Freud’s reputation and was the “engine” of the profession’s growth.
Of course this is just Kerr’s opinion but it is backed by thorough research and is genuinely interesting. The trailer for A Dangerous Method focused on psychoanalysis for its first 40 seconds, before throwing Knightley into the mix as over the top, loony eye candy for Fassbender to drool over. The dialogue, from Fassbender, Knightley and Vincent Cassel, becomes shamelessly erotic; “never repress anything”/”I want you to punish me”/” why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts”. Surely Cronenberg hasn’t wasted his time on soft porn with period detail?
Probably not. It’s probably just the marketing approach of the trailer. And there are positives and great potential to be found within its brief runtime. The focus on Jung suggests that the general intellectual thrust of Kerr’s book, that Jung was more instrumental than Freud, will remain (although Mortensen does seem to be portrayed as an infrequent but superior wise figure). Cronenberg is hardly known for costumed drama and after the hard hitting History of Violence and Eastern Promises, we can expect something knew from him in this genre. There is also little wrong with well acted desire and I’m sure the full performances won’t disappoint.
The fact remains though that those behind the trailer for A Dangerous Method are following that age old principle of advertising; sex sells. The prospect of charismatic and fit X-Men star Fassbender having forbidden romps with a kinky and crazy Keira Knightley will interest millions, whilst Jung’s professional friendship and battles with Freud will lure considerably less. There is nothing wrong with humanising great figures from the past; it’s what great stories do and it can bring fact to life. But there is something wrong with completely destroying the intentions of a source born of one writer’s hard work. Even if the final film tells Sabina Spielrein’s full story and is truer to Kerr’s revisionist study, it will have sold some sensational half truths to tempt people to see it.
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Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.
I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.
The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.
Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?
I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.
I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.
In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.
His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.
Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.
I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
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