“PSYCHOANALYSIS, SCIENTOLOGY AND CINEMA: PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S ‘THE MASTER’ AND ITS FREUDIAN AND JUNGIAN PROPOSITION OF RELIGION”
By Bobby Cai
[The Master] There’s nothing I can do for you if your mind has been made up. You seem to know the answers to your questions. Why do you ask?
[John More] I’m sorry you’re unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational…
[The Master] If you already know the answers then why ask, pig fuck?!
The Master, 2012 (Paul Thomas Anderson) [i]
The dialogue presented above from Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA) 2012 film, The Master, is a dangerous, solemn, yet somewhat accurate representation of both how easily a debate on (religious) belief can spiral out of control, and a sharp observation of the “dogmatic slumber and… caked prejudices” that we are subject to.[ii] Part of the reason for this, or perhaps the main cause of such a phenomenon, is the fact that discussions on beliefs are emotionally driven – such is the proposition of the film. However, the film does not necessarily halt at ‘discussions’ of the topic, but rather, belief itself being the end product of non-rational bases.
The Master acts as a beneficial segway from 20th century psychoanalytics to 21st century science. We are allowed to view Paul Thomas Anderson’s portrayal of the main characters’ (Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, otherwise known as ‘The Master’) mental tussle with the latter’s Scientology-inspired movement, ‘The Cause’. The film itself admits to intimate ties with “Herr Freud”, [iii] and this paper offers the Freudian basis of certain ideas whilst bringing evolutionary and chemical empiricism into consideration. This valuable separation allows for the film to become a brilliant source material for a comparative discourse between 20th century psychoanalysis and 21st century psychology.
This essay proposes that, through the medium of The Master, although there are Freudian elements of sexualization, repression, as well as trauma, alongside a Jungian admittance towards the difficulty of disproving beliefs, PTA proposes a somewhat Nietzschean ideal of mankind finding purpose in religion. This purpose may stem in God’s explanation of the world, as postulated by Bloom. The essay also takes note of ‘The God Effect’, popularised by Patrick McNamara, which may help us identify certain aspects of Freddie’s behaviour, whilst being wary of the replication crisis in psychology. These sources serve to justify how belief in God and religion is, although sometimes not rational , permissible and perfectly logical (and even as far as the condition of our composition).
The Master follows the journey of WWII veteran Freddie Quell as he attempts to ease back into society. He eventually meets and works under Lancaster Dodd, who is the leader of a movement seeking to “restore mankind to the state of perfect”, known as ‘The Cause’.
‘The Cause’ preaches a message of accessing past lives to the end of healing present trauma. The most persistent claim of this is the curing of Leukaemia through a process of life-retrieval and trauma-healing known as ‘Processing’. PTA’s most direct visualisation of such a process presented itself in a scene in which ‘The Master’ required the protagonist, Freddie Quell, to answer a persistent set of questions immediately without blinking. If Freddie blinked, he would have to restart.
The most direct link that one can draw between the concept of ‘past lives’ in ‘Processing’ and psychoanalysis lies in Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “primal horde”,[iv] characterised by Michael Palmer. [v] Lancaster Dodd’s claim in the film was that, through accessing the memories and experiences in our past lives, we could overcome mental and physical trauma in this “vessel”.
However, it soon becomes evident that Freddie Quell has had more than his share of sexual repression and trauma within this life alone during his initial ‘Processing’ session. It is revealed that Freddie has had intercourse with his aunt thrice, and that he had killed people during the war, and had perhaps poisoned somebody with his moonshine earlier in the film. Interestingly, yet perhaps somewhat in alignment with Freud’s Oedipus complex theory, Freddie does not hold any wishes for God’s salvation, although he pleads guilty to an inferiority complex.
[Master] Do you believe that God will save you from your own ridiculousness and self-contempt?
[Freddie] No I don’t…
…[Master] Do you often ponder your own inferiority?
[Master] Do you believe God is going to save you?
In the same dialogue from above, it is also asked and implied that Freddie’s father had died – somewhat removing a father figure from his life. This father figure could be said to be replaced by Lancaster Dodd, with the age difference fitting, and their relationship of master and subject matching to that of Freud’s theories.
In Freud’s cases of the Wolf Man and the case of Judge Schreber, there seems to be a correspondence between relationships with God and sexual repression, contrary to what is exhibited.
The Wolf Man case illustrated the case of Sergei Pankejeff, whose experience of witnessing his parents’ sexual intercourse (with the father in a “castrating” position and mother in a “castrated” position in order to receive pleasure) at 18-months-old developed into a phobia of wolves (or so Freud would claim). This led to a reliance on the Bible, alongside ritualistic, private practices before bed of a compulsive order – all despite often holding blasphemous thoughts. Freud had concluded that God, and the wolf, aligned with an image of his father. [vi]
Similarly, in the case of Schreber, Freud outlined the fifty-one-year-old to have claimed to have developed divine visions and to be under direct contact with God over repressed homosexual urges. In short, he imagined a “penetration by the divine nerves” to be a hint towards him requiring a complete transformation to a woman. Palmer and Freud would go onto draw from this that his emasculation was legitimized through God, and his father’s qualities as a physician was the driving cause behind such a happening. [vii]
From these case studies above, we can immediately takeaway three key details: (1) the shape of God seems to be moulded towards a bespoke father figure, (2) sexual repression was a shared attribute behind the reasoning towards this moulding, and that (3) a relationship with God was also prompted by the very same repression.
These premises allow us to interpret Freddie’s lack of tendency towards God as a disconnect stemming from his lack of sexual repression, even incestuously. However, the domestication attempted by Lancaster towards Freddie is perhaps a move towards the Oedipus complex, or at least the establishment of the father figure and the movement away from sexual freedom. In this sense, The Master illustrates how (i) a religious experience or belief can arise following atheism or agnosticism (even involuntarily), and how (ii) Freudian repression theory rings true in this case of religious belief, in which Freddie had no yearning for God from lacking a father figure in his life and being sexually stimulated with a somewhat mother-like figure.
The part of Jungian theory that this essay wishes to draw upon interacts with that first figure of quoted dialogue – and it is the rationality behind personal experiences with God that this film explores.
Religious experience is absolute. It is indisputable. You can only say that you have never had such an experience, and your opponent will say: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.
Jung postulated that knowledge of God is merely “to admit to the psychological truth of this experience”. [ix] Lancaster Dodd echoes this sentiment of truth and anti-truth from the quote above when he went on to proclaim that what More was denying was a “truth!” during the heated exchange in the first presented scene. The common observation might be that many religions seem to preach these same, exact words – Christianity would tend to claim that the Christian God and Jesus was the bearer of truth and stress an exclusivity. This is a common occurrence. The validity of the claimed religious experiences then, which are as unverifiable as the existence of God itself, is equally valid and invalid. What The Master identifies bluntly is that, ‘we really cannot convince one another, but those who have made up their mind might have a justified non-logical reason to do so.’
Purpose and Dopamine
So, to what extent can we take all of these things at face value? It seems that chapter 5 of The Believing Primate and part 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra offers us Nietzsche and Bloom’s outlooks. Bloom wrote that mankind has a tendency towards finding purpose and a reasoning behind things. For example, if I knocked a book off a shelf in an intentional manner, any able and rational adult would likely assume that I had a purpose for doing such a thing. Bloom goes on to provide some form of empirical support for this being a more innate trait, in offering that infants exhibit habits of looking for purpose and explanation for actions from a young age. [x] What Bloom would then go onto postulate is that God was our evolutionary ‘reason’ behind a plethora of things we could not otherwise explain. I dare to offer that Nietzsche provided a more comprehensive outlook on such. In ‘On a Thousand and One Goals’, Zarathustra proclaimed that “If humanity… lacks a goal, does it not also... lack – humanity itself?”. [xi]
In this essay's outlook, then, God could have been both a starting point and an end point for many things we sought explanations to. It has been the common answer to the void.
However, Freddie did not choose God, despite him needing nothing but answers: Freddie chose an explanation in the prophetic Lancaster Dodd. The orthodox logic would have been as follows: from the post-war regimental life that left a gap in Freddie’s broken psyche, Freddie sought out something to fill that void. He should have found God. PTA depicts it as merely a fortuitous turn of fate that he had encountered Lancaster Dodd first, rather than God. However, this might not be true…
Allow this essay to introduce the ‘The God Effect’. When Patrick McNamara was experimenting during his quest for the chemical phenomena of God, he encountered an interesting finding: when one’s dopamine receptors were damaged, it was possible for a religious person to retain the rational knowledge of God, but to lose religious tendencies. This trait was exhibited in a war veteran who had suffered some damage that meant he lost their religious tendencies despite having comprehensive knowledge of the Christian doctrine and the Bible. Upon encountering this, Patrick McNamara then held a larger scale experiment to test Freud’s theory of anxiety and fear as the root cause of one’s belief in God. [xii]
The experiment involved over 70 patients with left-onset patients that all scored low in their religious activity. After being primed, the patients were read a scenario. The scenario featured one walking up a set of hospital stairs, at the end of which there was either (1) death, (2) a religious ritual, or (3), an ocean view. Countering Freud’s theory, the patients reported higher levels of religious belief after not (1), nor (2), but (3). (However, with both experiments above, it is important to note that in recent history, psychology experiments have had replication success rates of no higher than 50%. [xiii] This is known as the ‘replication crisis’, and therefore, these empirical results should all be responded to with discretion.)
Lancaster Dodd provided Freddie with dopamine and friendship, and for this he was rewarded with Freddie’s faith.
Similarly, we could well then attribute belief in God, or religion, or perhaps some cultist movement, as a thrill-seeking venture. It is, as one may observe, also a result of society’s conditioning. However, that may lead back towards the varying sources of dopamine – some of which may come from activities that involve, for instance, confirmation bias of one’s childhood faith.
Conclusion: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Drive for Pleasure
The Master illustrates a Freudian ideal with a Jungian backing, although it ultimately breaks it down as the result of the free-spirit in Freddie Quell and its excitement-driven adventures. Freddie was always presented as impulsive, slightly reckless, and the subject of very cheap pleasures. Therefore, Freddie’s subjugation by Lancaster Quell made sense. Similarly, mankind’s subjugation towards the father, society, religion, or God with the hopes of a kick can make sense. Not only does it then become rationally permissible to believe in God – it may become purposeful for those who prioritise utility and hedonistic pleasures, and perhaps one of the only logical decisions they will make. On those grounds, there is nothing more fitting than Freddie rode his bike into the sunset – escaping Lancaster Dodd – when he had a chance to pursue a greater pleasure.
 The recent phenomena in which a plethora of results within the field have been found to be difficult to reproduce – which this essay keeps in mind for the validity of the claims it shall touch upon.
 Rational as in the subject of a rational chain of reasoning, and some degree of active decision-making.
 Freud and Smith defined this as a “phylogenetically transferred” phenomenon.
 Dopamine was briefly defined by McNamara as a reward mechanism for unexpected pleasant sensations.
 In short, they were in somewhat similar states to the veteran.
[i] Anderson, Paul Thomas. 2012. The Master. Online Streaming, Netflix. The Weinstein Company. 1:00:03
[ii] Kamber, Richard. 2016. William James: Essays and Lectures. Edited by Daniel Kolak. Longman Library of Primary Sources in Philosophy. London New York: Routledge. P60.
[iii] Anderson, Paul Thomas. n.d. “The Master (Script).” Film Script. Accessed April 25, 2022.https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a1c2452268b96d901cd3471/t/5b6104152b6a28724fe7f608/1533084696769/the-master-2012.pdf. P.55.
[iv] Smith, Richard J. 2016. “Darwin, Freud, and the Continuing Misrepresentation of the Primal Horde.” Current Anthropology 57 (6): 838–43. P3.
[v] Palmer, Michael. 1997. Freud and Jung on Religion. London ; New York: Routledge. P57.
[vi] Palmer, Michael. 1997. Freud and Jung on Religion. London ; New York: Routledge. P54; Freud, Sigmund. n.d. “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” 123.
[vii] Palmer, Michael. 1997. Freud and Jung on Religion. London ; New York: Routledge. P57-59
[viii] Jung, C G. n.d. “Psychology and Religion,” 135.
[ix] Palmer, Michael. 1997. Freud and Jung on Religion. London ; New York: Routledge. P127; Ibid.
[x] Bloom, Paul. 2011. “Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident.” In The Believing Primate : Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[xi] Caro, Adrian Del, and Robert B Pippin. n.d. “FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra A Book for All and None,” 318.
[xii] McNamara, Patrick. n.d. “The God Effect.” Aeon. Accessed April 25, 2022. https://aeon.co/essays/the-dopamine-switch-between-atheist-believer-and-fanatic.
[xiii] “RPP- Tables for Main Report.Xlsx - 55ad3c168c5e4a527e115b81.” n.d. Accessed April 25, 2022. https://mfr.osf.io/render?url=https://osf.io/jq7v6/?action=download%26mode=render.