What We Talk About When We Talk About Talk

by Fred Schwarz

I recently saw A Dangerous Method, the new David Cronenberg film about Jung, Freud, and their friendship and subsequent estrangement. (Spoiler alert on what follows.) The film is not bad if you enjoy hearing people talk about talking — specifically, the “talking cure” for mental illness, which Freud pioneered and Jung refined and developed.

The film is full of subtleties and symbols, most of which I assume went over my head, but I did catch one significant allusion in a fleeting bit of dialogue. A woman with whom Jung is having an ill-advised affair asks how highly he values her, and he replies, “You are my jewel of great price.” When I heard this, it sounded slightly off; presumably Jung meant to quote Matthew 13:45–46: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Very eloquent — but why did Jung say “jewel” instead of “pearl”?

Then I realized: The woman he says this to is Jewish, something he insists does not matter to him, though in fact it does. Thus Jung’s Freudian slip: “Jew-el” for “pearl.”

The only problem is that in real life, they would have been speaking German, not English. Too bad, I thought, since it is a clever line. Could this be a case where something is gained in translation, instead of lost? Then I wondered how the gag would have come off in the original. I know about six words of German, but this is one of them: The German word for “jewel” is “schmuck.” Hmmmmm . . .

It gets better, because the pejorative connotation we attach to that word stems from a vulgar Yiddish meaning for “schmuck” that parallels the English phrase “the family jewels.” (This double meaning provides the basis for a well-worn Jewish joke.) So much for gaining in translation. I have no idea if Jung ever spoke that line in German in real life, but if he did, I’m sure his frenemy Freud would have had a field day with it.

(Note: Soundtrack for the title of this post can be found here.)

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