The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a movie masterpiece that is enormously educational not for the particular details of the story but for the phenomenon of politics as an outlet for personal problems: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a 1969 British drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. Directed by Ronald Neame, it stars Maggie Smith in the title role as an unrestrained teacher at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh.
Maggie Smith (whom you know from Downton Abbey as the aggressive matriarch) plays a romantically naive schoolteacher at a girl’s school in Scotland, 1930s. She has a “big time” crush on a handsome gym teacher whom she discovers in bed with one of the young girls—“Sandy” and has a kind of nervous breakdown or better, “image of the whole correctness of the world” breakdown.
The teacher sees newsreels of Mussolini in Italy and begins to think of him as a “romantic savior and ‘world-cleaner’ who will clean up the illegitimate situation at her girls’s school in Edinburgh and salvage her dignity and place and prestige and sense of how the world should be. On the one hand Miss Brodie talks about the girls of the school as ‘la crème de la crème’ but how does that comport with ‘Sandy’ and the male gym teacher sharing their beds with each other? The ‘cognitive dissonance’ (incompatibility) in Miss Brodie’s mind is causing her to break down and flee into fantasy land (i.e., Mussolini will restore the romantic world to the way it’s supposed to be). She goes deeper and deeper into this nutty vision of salvation and romantic re-balancing and at the end of the movie, ‘Sandy’ senses that she’s coming unglued and is borderline bonkers. Thus the title ‘the prime of’ can be thought of as ironical or sardonic since the teacher Miss Brodie is flipping out and ‘maps’ her romantic frustrations” onto Mussolini. This is what makes politics so dangerous (i.e., it serves as a “Rorschach test” for people’s inner irrationalities and yearnings and they “see” what they need to see).
Harold Lasswell (died in 1978) spent his life exploring politics and people’s private lives, order, sense of things, grievances, in such books as Psychopathology and Politics. If you watch the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie you will see how people use politics as a “screen” on which they project their emotions, grievances, hurts, humiliations, hysteria, anger.
Harold Dwight Lasswell (February 13, 1902 – December 18, 1978) was a leading American political scientist and communications theorist. He was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, and he was a professor of law at Yale University. He served as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of the American Society of International Law and of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).
He has been described as a “one-man university” whose “competence in, and contributions to, anthropology, communications, economics, law, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and sociology are enough to make him a political scientist in the model of classical Greece.”
Table of Contents for Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics Book
I. Life-Histories and Political Science
II. The Psychopathological Approach
III. A New Technique of Thinking
IV. The Criteria of Political Types
V. Theories of Personality Development
VI. Political Agitators
VII. Political Agitators—Continued
VIII. Political Administrators
IX. Political Convictions
X. The Politics of Prevention
XI. The Prolonged Interview and Its Objectification
XII. The Personality System and Its Substitutive Reactions
XIII. The State as a Manifold of Events
Afterthoughts—Thirty Years Later
Appendix A. Select Bibliography
Appendix B. Question List on Political Practices
(2016 reprint of 1930 edition. Full facsimile of the original edition.)
First published in 1930, this classic study of personality types remains vital for the understanding of contemporary public figures. Lasswell’s pioneering application of the concepts of clinical psychology to the understanding of power brokers in politics, business, and even the church offers insights into the careers of leaders as diverse as Adolf Hitler and, arguably to more recent figures such as Richard Nixon, Donald Trump and the Clintons.
Movies should be your off-campus alternate university. You should ask yourself does this movie and Lasswell’s notions of psychopathology in politics help me understand authoritarian leaders today and such bizarre phenomena as half-dead prisoners in Stalin’s gulags bursting into tears in March 1953 when they learned of his death. Why sob over the death of the man who’s murdering you and tormenting you and your family?