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Book Review: A Dangerous Method by John Kerr

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Don’t be mislead by the fact that John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method now re-titled A Dangerous Method has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley into thinking the book is some sort of romantic novel. It is not.

Don’t be deceived by the cover of the newly released Vintage paperback which plants Knightley firmly between Fassbender and Mortensen into thinking this is the story of some epic love triangle. It is not.

The book is not fiction. There is something that might qualify as a love story, but it is less the central concern of the book than it is an interesting sidelight.

That said, what, then, is it? A Dangerous Method is a serious historical account of one of the most significant relationships in the development of the theory of psychoanalysis, the friendship and eventual animosity between perhaps the two most important figures of the movement, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It traces that relationship through their letters and their writings, and through the writings of their colleagues and critics.

It shows how they attempted to foster the growth of the discipline, how their ideas developed and how those developed ideas and their outsized personalities gradually pulled them apart. Their collaboration began in 1907; by 1913 they were hardly on speaking terms.

This is not a new story. The quarrel between the two great theorists has been explained before, perhaps not in the same kind of detail, but explained nonetheless. What is new is the emphasis on the role played by Sabina Spielrein, the young Russian woman who first became a patient and mistress of Jung’s, then a psychoanalyst herself, and a confidante of Freud’s.

Spielrein came to the Swiss clinic where Jung was practicing for treatment of what seems to have been “psychotic hysteria.” In the course of the treatment, she, as it seems many patients do, developed a romantic attachment to her therapist, and Jung didn’t manage to maintain his professional cool.

Now while Kerr demonstrates that that romance and the psychic themes resulting from it played an important role in the formulation of some of Jung’s ideas, ideas that were to result in the eventual break with Freud, it is the ideas that are the focus of the book, not the love affair. The point to be made here is that this is a study of ideas, not a soap opera.

Indeed for those with no familiarity with these ideas the book may be tough sledding. Kerr is a trained clinical psychologist, and he doesn’t hesitate to use the jargon of the trade. “Phylogenetic inheritance” comes trippingly from his pen along with such other felicitous phrases as “the clinical phenomenology of neuroses,” “the psychological structure of introversion,” and the “temporary effluxes of sexuality.”

Certainly there is nothing wrong with this kind of language, but it does not exactly make for an easy read for the general reader. Add to this a cast of thousands (excuse the hyperbole), a gaggle of psychologists and psychoanalysts from all over the world who are referred to throughout the book, and who are very hard to keep track of if they are little more than names.

It is one thing when you’re talking about well known theorists like William James, Ernest Jones and Alfred Adler, it’s quite another story when you’re talking about Ludwig Binswanger, Eugen Bleuler and Josef Breuer. It is not that these men are insignificant or unimportant; it is simply that they are not household names and there are so many of them.

To be clear, this is an excellent book, filled with interesting information. It has excellent analyses and critiques of some of the seminal ideas of some of the most original thinkers of the early part of the twentieth century. It provides a compelling look at the personality and character of the central figures and shows how their work was affected by it. It looks at their flaws; it looks at their merits, and it makes considered judgments.

And over its intellectual history it superimposes the narrative of a young woman who became involved with two of the century’s giants and may never have quite gotten the recognition she deserved. It is simply not a book to breeze through on the beach.

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