The Master: sex, love and scientology

The Master: sex, love and scientology

joaquin-pheonix-600I recently watched the film The Master, a the second time with Anja (the love of my life). [1]  It is an exceptional movie, well worth a second viewing. The first time I saw it what captured me were the outstanding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The film and the acting have been received with widespread critical acclaim and the biggest opening day ticket sale revenue of an art house film in the States. I would say the performance by Phoenix, an exceptional actor, is his best ever, rarely have I ever seen anything better from anyone. It is set to be a cult film; I would rate it along side Searching for Sugarman as one of the two best films of 2012.

Something else, though, emerged on my second viewing, and that is the topic of this post: specifically the relationship, in the film, between Freddie (Phoenix), a “sex-obsessed alcoholic WW2 veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder”[2] and Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), based on L. Ron Hubbard. The story takes place in 1950, during the early days of the movement called “The Cause” (a.k.a. Scientology).

It is the relationship between these two quite unusual men that the film explores so brilliantly. Dodd is able to see Freddie, presumably see something in Freddie, which no one else is able to see. And in his seeing Freddie in this way, Freddie is able to see himself through Dodd’s eyes and so are we the audience, who stand in, metaphysically, for the world.

The question is what does Dodd see in Freddie? What does he see that starts off as affection but grows into something akin to love?

Freddie is raw instinct. He is, to use Dodd’s terminology, “a silly animal” or “a mischievous animal” or even “an animal that eats its own faeces”. This is artfully depicted in a scene where during “processing” by Dodd, an intense form of psycho-social interrogation, Freddie farts loudly and then bursts out laughing at this, and, despite himself, Dodd is obliged to laugh as well. Dodd attempts to civilise Freddie, to normalise his reactions, or abreactions, so that he can overcome himself and become a normal functioning member of society; or, possibly more to the point, a functioning member of The Cause for which Freddie becomes the test subject.

Dodd is ultimately unsuccessful in this civilising project, Freddie, it seems, is incorrigible. Seen in Freudian terms we might say the struggle between Dodd and Freddie is the struggle between the superego and the id. Freddie resists this civilising influence and remains very much at the level of the Freudian id.  Nevertheless the encounter touches both men and acts as a spiritual balm and challenge from which neither emerges unchanged. As Anja suggested, they were the shadow of each other. Freddie a slave to his passions but free from convention, and Dodd, having successfully sublimated the animal and brought it into the service of the master, is nevertheless now trapped by his own rigid ethos that has been institutionalised and now acts to oppress him, its creator.

There is a scene at the end of the film, Freddie and Dodd’s final encounter, in this life anyway as Freddie suggests, where our two protagonists face other and say their goodbyes. It is a very moving scene, a sublime moment. Dodd sings a song to Freddie which speaks of his love for him. Whilst their love can be reduced to a psychodynamic formula, it would be no less true to say it connects the men in a way which transcends their equally limited perspectives. And in doing this, offers them a moment of communion with what is infinite in man.

The other as a spiritual catalyst

I found in this film an example of an idea I have been grappling with for the last few months: the role of relationships and specifically “the other” i.e. the other person in your encounter with another, in the process of your transformation[3]. How the other can act as a catalyst for your growth, or you for theirs. The much vaunted goal of those in the transformation game, into which category we must surely place psycho-dynamic theory, is naturally transformation. And it occurs to me that the most powerful catalyst to transformation, to emotional, psychological and spiritual growth is no mystery, it is quite obviously our encounters with other people; more specifically, as I imagine it, meaningful relationships with others.

If you take the time to reflect on the most significant moments in your personal history, I would imagine many or most would include a significant encounter with another person. I don’t mean to suggest this as the exclusive agent of transformation, but surely it must rank as one of the most potent catalysts to genuine change and growth.

I think this idea is sometimes lost in the Jungian paradigm. Not entirely of course, the analytical relationship is symbolised as a hermetic container in which the patient can be healed and from which the analyst, too, does not depart unchanged. The analytical relationship is the healing agent. Nevertheless this is framed as the analyst acting as a guide on the analasand’s journey to wholeness. The focus is on the subject, not the relationship. This is understandable within the Jungian myth, for the journey to wholeness, to individuation is seen as a journey inward, into one’s own subjectivity and beyond that into the objectivity of the imaginal or archetypal realm, rather than the inverse. The journey in the external world, our relationships with other flesh and blood people with unique qualities of thier own, is sometimes reduced to a series of projections by the subject.

The Dodd-Freddie relationship, in the film, provides a good example of this transformational dynamic. And, in my opinion, to reduce their interaction to the level of projection would be to miss a critical dimension of that which they encountered in each other and their relationship. This is not to say, naturally, that projection does not, and in their case did not, play a significant role, rather that it is not the entire story.

Love as an agent of transformation

Whilst grappling with this concept I asked the question:

What (exactly) would it take for me to act as an agent or catalyst in your process of individuation?

And, I concede, that prima facia there are several quite credible candidates as possible answers here.

One could, reasonably, suggest, at least from a psychodynamic perspective, that there are any number of issues, complexes and even neuroses that can evolve constructively through any meaningful relationship.  They don’t always naturally, but they can.

Furthermore, as a student of mine suggested, any functional relationship, such as that between educator and student can serve to further the subject’s individuation.

This makes sense.

Nevertheless, the nature of the relationships that interest me here are of a more specific type, the type exemplified by Dodd and Freddie.

What is the alchemical ingredient that needs to be present for one person to wake another up, wake them up to themselves, to their possibilities?

My intuition is it can only be one thing, love.

I believe the only way for me or for anyone else to really touch you, to connect with you at this level, the level where I wake you up to who you are is if I have a profound, I would almost say unconditional, love for you.

Only, love, as I see it, allows me to care sufficiently to make the effort to wake you up, to let you know you who you really are.

Love is, to put it metaphorically, the fuel of this transformational engine.

With this qualification in place, that it is love, and only love, that can act as a transcendent point of connection between two people, we may enquire as to how a process like this actually takes place. What allows or facilitates someone to connect with previously hidden or unconscious dimensions of their being, such that that connection is a catalyst to individuation.

What is it that needs to be recognised and acknowledged?

I suggest that in another which elevates them, which makes them unique and beautiful, that which differentiates them, a transcendent quality.

This may sound simpler to do than it is. Recognising and acknowledging that in the other which makes them genuinely beautiful takes courage, real courage; for in acknowledging and amplifying your light I must be willing to see my own light wane, if only temporarily.

In a sense I must be willing to lose myself so that you may be found.

Also, significantly, in order to do this I must possess the ability to see that which is truly beautiful in another despite their inevitable flaws. In The Master Freddie is anything but perfect. As, Dodd, correctly points out to him, during a heated argument, he (Dodd) is the only person who cares for Freddie. So somehow he is able to see something genuinely worthwhile, worth caring about beneath the surface of Freddie’s highly anti social persona.

Before I’m ever going to be able to recognise and reflect something transcendent in you I would need to have done more than my fair share of work on myself. Without insight, sensitivity, vulnerability and a strong ego such an exchange is unlikely. Whatever else we may seek to criticise in Lancaster Dodd, it speaks for him that he is able to see in Freddie what others are not.

What we are not talking about is flattery. Many have mastered the art of flattery and use it as a manipulative technique, either to poor or better effect, with begin or malevolent intentions. But either way, flattery is the very antithesis of what we are attempting to articulate here.

Finally then, what I think is possibly the most critical point:

An act of this nature is not done for one’s own growth, awakening or individuation. If my act is not a genuine act of love, rather than some form of self-gratification, it belongs to a different class of actions.

When I see you, and what I see is a portal into the infinite, if I  with reverence, humility and courage acknowledge that which I see, the possibility exists that you will wake up to your true self. Anything less is does not constitute an act of love such as I use the term here.



[1]This is an idiosyncrasy of mine, re-watching a movie I have recently seen with a close friend or lover. A few years ago, at a conference at the University of Arizona, I met computer scientist Dr. Gino Yu, who spoke about a “two person experience”; specifically that when we participate in an experience in the company of another person, the nature of the experience is different. The experience is somehow amplified by the presence of another. I have found this to be true even when it comes to watching a movie, which on the face of it is a pretty solitary activity, unlike having a coffee and a chat after the movie for example.

[3] My thanks to Igor Sturmheit for drawing my attention to this idea. Specifically, in his relating to me the story of the relationship between Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Anthroposophy) and Walter Johannes Stein.

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Comments (2)

  • peter Reply

    Found your review of The Master very illuminating. I think the acting and the Movie is really Oscar stuff and I dont necessary mean the statue. The scene in jail where Freddy goes off ! was so powerful It is that moment where both men stop sparring with each other and become authentic with each other. Although abusive, the air is cleared and a new chapter starts. They fess up on fessing up about what they really think of each other . As for Sugar man . Humbling poetic story that boarders on the surreal . Have the opportunity to see him live in Cape Town next month

    January 3, 2013 at 9:55 am
    • Stephen Reply

      many thanks Peter. Rodriguez will be performing in Johannesburg as well, definitely an opportunity to see a living legend. I like your insight into the jailhouse scene, nice point.

      January 6, 2013 at 10:31 am

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