. . . modern creative work has a strong addictive or compulsive component to it; the artist is expected to outdo himself or herself with each succeeding product. It is here that we see the schismogenic character of modern creativity most clearly. The structure is one of “upping the ante,” in other words; work is often “unfinished” because it is done in the pursuit of an inaccessible ideal. It must depart from tradition, must create a new genre, and it gets difficult to keep on doing this. As a result, modern creativity tends to have high psychic costs.
There is one aspect of Western creativity that has been commented upon by sociologists and cultural historians alike, and that is its peculiar tendency to burn out or destroy the artist, often at a relatively young age. Why this should be so remains unclear, but the “tortured artist syndrome,” represented by figures as diverse as James Dean and John Keats, does seem to be a persistent feature of modern Western life. Thus Elliott Jaques, some years ago, provided ample statistics to show a recurrent pattern of mid‑life crisis, frequently leading to death, among creative people, while Katinka Matson, in Short Lives, gives the reader a series of extremely interesting vignettes that reveal artistic self‑destructive tendencies all too clearly. In a similar vein, A. Alvarez, in his study of suicide, argues that modern creativity is “provisional, dissatisfied, restless.” All of this, as the cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson would have said, comes under the heading of â€œschismogenesisâ€ -the tendency to move toward climax or breakdown; and in this sense, modern Western creativity is a reflection of the culture in which it is embedded. There are exceptions, of course, but the cliche of the driven (and, frequently, alcoholic) artist is not only common, but actually a kind of cultural ideal‑a “good thing,” as it were; or at least, something we have come to expect. (1)
That creativity has to be self‑destructive or schismogenic is, accordingly, taken as a given. Genius continues to be regarded as akin to madness, and creative individuals are somehow seen as members of a separate species, inhabiting worlds that most of us will never see or even understand. The problem with this way of viewing human creativity is that it is ahistorical. It assumes that the mainsprings of the creative impulse are somehow archetypal, true for all time; that in effect, there is only one way to “do it.” As a result, we have thousands of histories of art, music, science, architecture, and so on, but apparently nothing on the history of creativity itself. Of course, if the creative act is fixed for all time, then there is nothing to write. But suppose this were not so? Suppose the creative process itself has evolved over the centuries, or millennia? This would mean that there is more than one way to do it, and that future creativity might be a very different animal from the one it is now. My guess is that the creative process can be understood both historically and psychodynamically, in terms of a typology, and that such a typology can lay bare not only the nature(s) of creativity itself, but also of the wider culture(s) of which it is a part. Both in art and in society, schismogenesis leading to breakdown might not be the only option we have. What follows is thus an investigation into the varieties of creative experience as well as an attempt to explore what the alternatives to the schismogenic model are or might be.
One of the best treatments of the subject occurs, surprisingly enough, in an extraordinarily bad piece of historical writing published by Sigmund Freud in 1910, viz. his study of the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. (2) As an historical argument, the essay is a complete failure, a mass of unsubstantiated conjecture and speculation. Yet in a few short pages, Freud generates a typology of the creative process that strikes me as being immensely suggestive, and it is one that stayed in my mind long after I forgot the discussion of Leonardo per se. Freud’s typology is too stark, and it is also incomplete; yet given the available alternatives, it is not a bad place to start. Freud was specifically interested in intellectual activity, and its relationship to sexuality; but I believe that if we arewilling to broaden this and talk in terms of sensual experience of the world in general‑an experience that includes curiosity and exploration as major components‑his analysis can be extended to all forms of creative work. Let me, therefore, take a bit of poetic license with Freud’s exposition, modifying it in certain ways, and see whether it can be helpful to the inquiry at hand.
Freud begins his discussion by noting that there is a certain type of person who pursues creative activity “with the same passionate devotion that another would give to his love . . . .” The crucial event, says Freud, is the fate of what he calls the “period of infantile sexual researches,” or, more generally, the pleasure the child takes in the sensual exploration of its surroundings. This may include curiosity about the birth process, but the larger expression is a tactile‑erotic one, and this total lack of inhibition tends to make the parents nervous. Unconsciously, they are stirred to remember when they, too, were like this, and how this openness toward the world got quashed. Disturbed by this unconscious awareness, they do the same thing to their own children. The impulse then gets thwarted and repressed, and this, says Freud, has three possible outcomes. In the first and overwhelmingly typical case, the child’s curiosity gets shut down. The child learns that such openness, such creative expression, is risky business. The result, says Freud, is that creative expression “may be limited for the whole of the subject’s lifetime.” In the second case, the child’s development is sufficiently strong to resist the repression to some degree. The repressed sensuality then returns from the unconscious “in the form of compulsive brooding, naturally in a distorted and unfree form, but sufficiently powerful to sexualize thinking itself and to color [creative or artistic] operations with the pleasure and anxiety that belong to the sexual processes proper.” The brooding never ends; eros is transferred to the creative activity and the latter becomes a substitute for it. In the third case, says Freud, “the libido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning.” The tran sition is smooth, the quality of neurosis absent; the instinct operates freely in the service of creative activity.
In general, Freud’s schema (modified) might look something like this:
Sensual curiosity about the world –> Repression (ages 2-5)
- Inhibition (most people). Repression is totally effective; unconscious activity emerges via symptoms such as hysteria and other forms of psychosomatic illness. Posture toward life is one of (usually unconscious) fear and hatred.
- Neurotic compulsion. Repression is largely but not totally effective; unconscious activity emerges into creative work by a process of breakthrough or eruption. Creative work is the substitute lover.
- “Smooth” sublimation. Individual escapes repression; unconscious activity is freeflowing and not characterized by stress.
There is not much to say about Type I creativity, since it is the counter‑example, the decision to give up on creativity (and really on life) altogether. The repression is so effective that all creative expression is blocked forever. Most people mask this early defeat with substitute activity, but it shows up somatically, or psychosomatically, when they are caught off guard. Type II, the neurotic model, was‑as far as Freud was concerned‑typical of most creative work. As we have aid, in this case the person fights back, for the spirit is not completely extinguished. But the result of this partial repression is a situation soaking in ambivalent emotions. The creative work has an obsessive quality to it; one is “married” to one’s work, as the saying goes. Tension and passion are the characteristic modes of expression here.
Type III is the least familiar case. The repression is very slight, and the translation of sensual energy or exploring spirit into creative work is carried out with a minimum of trauma. Such work has a relaxed, spontaneous feel to it. In the early pages of the da Vinci biography, Freud puts Leonardo into this category; but by the end of the book, he is forced to conclude, based on his own evidence, that the Italian master was a Type II. As a result, Creativity III emerges as an empty category. It is an intriguing possibility, and Freud’s insight here is intuitively brilliant; but it would seem to be a category without content, hanging in the middle of nowhere.
One possible candidate for Creativity III might be children’s art. T saw such artwork myself many years ago when I worked in a Montessori nursery for three‑year‑olds, who had not as yet been hit by too much repression. As aides or counselors, we were instructed never to put the children on the spot by asking them what it was they were painting or constructing, and indeed, they exhibited virtually no performance anxiety whatsoever. It was a pleasure to watch their glee as they immersed themselves in their “work.” Looking back, I wouldn’t call it great art, but it certainly was not compulsive or conflict‑ridden. For better or worse, there were no van Goghs in that nursery. The problem is that if that is all that can be put in this category, then it is not very interesting. What I wish to argue is that Creativity III constitutes a mode of expression that includes most medieval art, the art of non‑Western cultures, and the art of traditional societies. It approximates what we call craft, as opposed to art as such. As a result, it throws the creativity of the Western, post‑Renaissance world into sharp relief, for it involves a psychodynamic entirely different from that f Creativity II. Modern creativity, or Creativity II, should be seen for what it is: a local and, in fact, fairly recent phenomenon that organizes bodily energy in a particular way. In doing so, it produces a mode of expression that is very powerful and focused, but extremely draining, both for the individual and for the culture at large. In its most extreme and perhaps most talented form, it tends to have the effect we have already mentioned‑that of taking the lives of its representatives at a fairly early age.
When I first began thinking about this subject, and specifically about how creativity manifested itself in my own life, there was no avoiding the fact that I fell into the second category. I conformed very well to the popular image of the writer who stayed up all night fueling himself with coffee and tobacco, pacing the floor in frustration as ideas refused to come, and sitting down and writing things out in white heat when they finally surfaced. The pattern was clearly addictive/obsessive; neurotic, in short.
Yet as I thought about it more, I began to see that these were the surface manifestations of a deeper drama. The most creative work I had done resulted from a psychic crisis that ran very deep, and which, once triggered, I was powerless to control. The French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan said that we state our problems on the symbolic level before proceeding to solve them, and something like this had happened to me. It began with the speculation that if worldviews were artifacts, the magical worldview that antedated modern science must have real validity. The more I began to follow that train of thought, the more archaic consciousness began to take me over. Finally, I was in deep trouble. How does the line from Faust go? “Two souls reside within my breast.” I was both a modern and an ancient, a scientist and an alchemist, and neither side would release its grip. It was a rocky ride, but I had no choice except to live out those contradictions. Once the traditional/modern gap opened up within my psyche, my fate was sealed: I had to heal that split or die. And this, I believe, is the number‑one characteristic of Creativity II: It is a contemporary form of exorcism. (I am not talking here about productivity, which has no psychic energy behind it, and which merely involves turning out work in a mechanical fashion.) In Creativity II, you are possessed by an internal conflict, and the work is undertaken to resolve it. You create from pain; or as John Fowles put it in one of his novels, you create from what you lack, not from what you have. It is this that gives modern poetry, for example, what Robert Bly has called a “leaping” structure. Chaucer, by way of contrast, derives his power from the beautifully crafted language of the narrative. The Canterbury Tales are not soaking in unconscious power; they do not “leap,” as do, say, many of Bly’s own poems.(3)
The second characteristic follows from this: You create yourself out of your work; the work is characterized by “self‑expression.” In the modern period, art and self‑expression (something Chaucer was not after) have practically become synonymous. Creative work must bear a personal signature or style, whereas in the Middle Ages it tended to be anonymous. Medieval artists typically did not sign their work. Cennino Cennini’s essay of 1400, Il Libro dell’ Arte, announced the artist’s intention to break with this tradition, and the book is usually regarded as a turning point, marking the end of the craft tradition and the call for modern artistic creativity. Once again, John Fowles is relevant here. “Romantic and post‑Romantic art,” he writes, “is all pervaded by . . . the flight of the individual from whatever threatens his individuality.” Modern creativity, he essentially argues, is heavily fueled by the desire to prove that one exists.(4)
A third characteristic, which tends to follow from the first two, is that the creative insight is seen to break through, or erupt from, the unconscious. It is this eruption that generates the psychic split that demands to be healed, and that alters the personality structure so that the work of integration becomes self‑expression. Traditional creativity would have to be different, since traditional societies tend, in varying degrees, to be swimming in the unconscious already. Hence, there is nothing, or at least much less, to erupt.
Fourth, modern creative work has a strong addictive or compulsive component to it; the artist is expected to outdo him‑ or herself with each succeeding product. (“I work as my father drank,” George Bernard Shaw once remarked.(5)) It is here that we see the schismogenic character of modern creativity most clearly. The structure is one of “upping the ante,” in other words; work is often “unfinished” because it is done in the pursuit of an inaccessible ideal. It must depart from tradition, must create a new genre, and it gets difficult to keep on doing this. As a result, modern creativity tends to have high psychic costs. The examples of an intense, sustained burst of creative work followed by suicide are legion: Vincent van Gogh, Dylan Thomas (suicide by alcohol), Janis Joplin (suicide by drugs), Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and on and on. The work ineluctably moves toward breakdown. It is for this reason that so many creative people stop doing what they are doing in their late thirties: They know where it is all leading .(6) This also explains, in part, why the public loses interest in writers such as Norman Mailer. Mailer’s first work, The Naked and the Dead, remains his best. From the standpoint of modern creativity, the artist is expected to set up and leap over increasingly higher hurdles. This is the structure of an ever‑expanding economy; it is not steady‑state. Mailer’s career was over almost before it began. The modern Western public is trained to expect novelty from its creative sector; it quickly loses interest in artists who have nothing “new” to offer.
Finally, modern creativity often involves, as Freud said, the sexual ization, or at least eroticization, of the activity. One’s work becomes one’s lover‑one’s central, and obsessive, relationship. All the dramas that are typically played out in such a relationship get played out here: the initial romantic rush, the subsequent tapering off, jealousy and possessiveness, and finally disillusion and the search for a new love. There is a heavy overlap of Oedipal energy here: Male artists are notorious mama’s boys, “heroes” winning battles for the mother. And they do this precisely by innovating, by rupturing tradiÂtion‑i, e. , by slaying the father.(7)
We have, in the West, many images that glorify the notion of creativity as being a triumph over adversity. We speak of “the shit that fertilizes roses,” or the grain of sand in the oyster that leads to the generation of a pearl. This is the stuff of Reader’s Digest stories and Ann Landers columns. And these images do capture a truth, though they mask a larger one. The truth they capture is that creative work can and often does emerge out of conflict; the truth they mask is that other psychodynamic patterns of the creative process are possible, and that, historically, the conflict model may actually represent an aberration. My goal in this essay, however, is not to condemn modern Western creativity as “bad” and to enshrine Eastern or pre‑modern creativity as “good.” It is, rather, to argue that there are different somatic or energetic processes involved in each case. There is a way, given my own upbringing, that no Indian raga will ever move me as much as Mozart, no Japanese landscape painting resonate for me as deeply as Cezanne’s evocative scenes of the Midi. In fact, modern Western art has a brilliance that no medieval icon or Eastern painting can ever approximate, in my view. But my point here is that it takes a particular energetic configuration to create such an effect, and if Freud is right about Creativity II, it actually requires early somatic damage that leads to a distrust of the body, and a corresponding shunting of that bodily energy upward, toward the head. The center of gravity is too high, so to speak; there is a way in which the very brilliance of Western creativity depends on its instability, its extremely high level of tension and stress.
Yet the conflict model of creativity, as Freud realized (though he wasn’t able to prove it), does not exhaust the entire subject. Psychologists from Otto Rank to Rollo May have insisted on the necessity of stress or tension for the creative act, without realizing that this is a formula for only one type of creative expression.(8) In Caliban Reborn, Wilfred Mellers addresses himself to the issue of conflict and self‑expression, and emphasizes how specific it is in time and place:
While this conception of art is our birthright and has gone to make the world we live in, we have to realize that in the context of history the notion is both newfangled and restricted. It is relevant to only about the last five hundred years of Europe’s history ….
The difference between music as magic (traditional music) and music as expression, he says, is that the former lacks the element of harmonic tension. Such music, he adds, has a strong corporeal component:
In the music of primitive cultures . . . the rhythm is usually corporeal and the music is never self‑expression but rather a communal act of work or play which may have magical] as well as social significance.
Mellers goes on to say that “the compositional principles inherent in European music before the Renaissance are not radically distinct from those of Oriental music.” In both Gregorian chant and the Indian raga, rhythms such as breath or heartbeat constitute the creative source. The invention of harmony‑something of which traditional and Oriental cultures were aware, but which (says Mellers) they never chose to emphasize‑ruptured this pattern. That is, it shifted music from a Creativity III to a Creativity II structure.(9)
Many years ago, living near New York City, I used to play a kind of game, experimenting with the shift between Creativity III and Creativity II energy patterns, without really knowing what I was doing or why. In upper Manhattan, I would go to the Cloisters, which is the medieval section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then, having spent several hours there, would go directly downtown to the Museum of Modern Art. I would recommend this experiment to anybody. If you stay tuned to your physical reactions, the effect is quite remarkable. The immersion in a “craft” environment, complete with tapestries, carved wooden doors, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts, creates a very soothing sensation. The body lets go, as it were, and time seems to stand still. The sensation of silence and tranquility is particularly striking. To follow this up with an immersion in twentieth‑century art is to give yourself a real shock. The sensation here is one of excitement and anxiety; the dreamy and magnetic sense of wholeness, or union, is replaced by a chaos and dramatic brilliance that explodes on the canvas, or from the sculptures. As in the case of van Gogh (see below), it is as if the breakdown of the psyche resulted in the breakthrough of art. Two hours in such a place as this leaves one both exhilarated and emotionally spent. This simple experiment conveys only a fraction (I suspect) of what it means to live in one culture as opposed to the other, and how very different the psychic and emotional pattern that lies at the root of Creativity II is from that which underlies Creativity III.
In December 1986 I unintentionally repeated this experiment, but in reverse. The Metropolitan Museum had mounted an exhibit of van Gogh’s last eighteen months‑”Van Gogh at Saint‑Remy and Auvers”‑and I took the opportunity to see it. I had originally planned to stay several hours; as it turned out, I was totally exhausted in ninety minutes by the intensity of color and emotion that escalated in van Gogh’s painting in direct proportion to his increasing madness. Whether it was accidental or deliberately planned by the exhibition’s organizers, I do not know, but the show exited onto a very different sort of exhibition, entitled “Individuality and Tradition in Seventeenth‑Century Chinese Art.” The impact was enormous; I felt a sudden “whoosh” as my entire energy returned to ground level. As I sat and looked at the lovely, relaxed prints of mountains and landscapes, a great feeling of peace came over me. I felt a bodily sense of centering, coming home. I realized that I loved van Gogh, but that I couldn’t live with him hanging on my living room walls. The intensity was simply too great; and his creative pattern‑which is very typical of Type II creativity‑reflected this. In the final seventy days of his life, living under the care of Dr. Gachet at Auvers‑sur‑Oise, van Gogh turned out no fewer than forty paintings. By contrast, Kung Hsian, one of the seventeenthcentury Chinese painters displayed at the Met, turned out comparatively few; and his comments on this are all of a piece with the Creativity III style. “Little by little is better than more and more,” wrote Kung Hsian; “this is the advanced stage of a painter.” He wrote: “When you are afraid of producing too much painting, you will make a good painting.” He explained: “Being clever is not as good as being dull. The uses of cleverness can be grasped at a glance, while apparent dullness may embody limitless flavor. ” These are sentiments that would never have occurred to van Gogh; nor do they occur to most of us. (10)
My goal here, again, is not to make a judgment, but rather to point out a very significant cultural contrast. The first four elements I identified as being characteristic of Creativity II‑healing a split, self‑expression, eruption from the unconscious, and an addictive (escalating) pattern‑all add up to the schismogenic structure discussed above. Add to this the fifth factor of sexual and Oedipal or erotic tension, and you have a situation that cannot help but be as brittle as it is brilliant, as neurotic as it is rich. It is thus not that Creativity II is “wrong,” but that in the late twentieth century, this mode of expression has been pushed to the breaking point. In an evolutionary sense, it cannot extend its trajectory any further. As a result, what we are witnessing in a whole variety of fields is not merely the creation of yet another style or genre, but the transformation of the creative act itself into something else. If creativity has a past, it also has a future, though it is not easy to predict at this stage what it will be. I shall return to this question later on; for now, it might be valuable to try to obtain a deeper understanding of the psychological basis of schismogenic creativity.
The schismogenic nature of Western creativity was first (indirectly) recognized by the Jungian writer Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness.(11) The essential argument of the book is that the consciousness of the individual passes through the same stages as that of the human race at large, and that mythology is the map of that evolution. The first myths, says Neumann, are creation myths: The earth is submerged, or nonexistent, and‑is precipitated out of a watery chaos. This is certainly the drama described, for example, in the opening chapter of Genesis. The second set of myths are hero myths, and these record the process of differentiation. The symbols of the first category are water, or the egg, or the ourobouros, reflecting a unitary consciousness or the absence of consciousness: no tension, no opposites, no differentiation. The symbols of the second category are the sun‑the entry of light into darkness‑and also journeys and conquests. The Odyssey, for example, can be read as a psychic journey involving the hero’s differentiation from the unconscious, and, in general, from the archetype of the Great Mother. It is the drama of ego vs. unconscious, light vs. dark, male energy vs. female energy, that makes the archetypal journey so fascinating, even to the modern reader. Again and again, Odysseus experiences the enormous pull of that great, unconscious, undifferentiated female power, the desire to melt or merge back into it, to go unconscious, as he once was as a very young infant or a fetus. But what makes him a hero is that he refuses that option. He is not interested in the dark energy of the unconscious, and his “victory” over this is symbolized by the blinding of the cyclops, whose eye is the “third eye” of intuitive understanding. (12) With the birth of the hero, which is really the birth of the ego (or, perhaps, of a certain type of ego), the world becomes ambivalent. It gets split into masculine and feminine, black and white, left and right, God and the devil, ego and unconscious, and this becomes the great drama that all cultures have to deal with, at root. In the Far East, the solution has been characterized as Taoistic‑i.e., “both/and”; yin and yang are seen as transformable, interpenetrating, and as I shall discuss shortly, this has given Eastern creativity a particular style. In the West, and especially since the Renaissance, the solution has been Manichaean‑i.e., “either/or”; the two poles are mortal enemies, locked in combat to the death. And in the West or Near East, in particular, this has given rise to a third type of myth that tends to combine the first two: the myth of Set and Osiris, or the twin brothers. In this myth, two brothers emerge from the Void (Primal Unity), or the womb, or the Great Mother, viz. the Hero and the Great Mother Representative. The Hero urges separation from the Great Mother; the Representative wants to merge back into her. And so there is a tension that is never resolved.(13)
This is, of course, a mythological struggle, played out in the Western psyche. The twin brothers’ conflict is intermediate between hero and creation myths. A defiant ego has emerged, but it is fearful of complete separation. Set and Osiris, or Cain and Abel, are really two parts of the same person. We hear these conflicting voices particularly at those moments when we are about to give in to an addiction: taking a cigarette, smoking a joint, drinking a martini, eating a slab of cheesecake. The body wants merger; the mind says: Resist (or is it the reverse?). This is, in fact, the theme of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is nothing less than a twin brothers’ war. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:
I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two …. I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable …. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together‑that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.(14)
What does all this have to do with creativity? The point is that creativity‑or at least Creativity II‑is the product of this internal tension. As Neumann puts it, “[this] tension is what we call culture”; and in this I think he may have been mistaken. Being a Jungian, he saw this dynamic as universal and archetypal, and perhaps to varying degrees, it is; but different cultures express it differently and deal with it differently, and this may be the crucial point. Nevertheless, Neumann’s formulation of twin brothers arguing over the Abyss is an especially important clue as to what goes on in modern creativity. The “game” is to let the whole drama play itself out on the terrain of the psyche, and channel the resulting energy into art, poetry, or whatever. It is precisely here that we find the mechanism that underlies the brilliance of modern Western creativity, giving it its keen edge and also its tragic aspect. For in order for his or her work to be increasingly brilliant, the artist has to generate greater and greater twin‑brother splits, or encounters with the Void, from which to recover. Finally, as in the case of Dylan Thomas or Janis Joplin or so many others, the gap becomes too great. The chasm widens beyond their heroic powers, and they cannot manage to get back. Modern creativity is a battlefield of psychic, and often physical, corpses.
A good study of this turbulent or tormented phenomenon in modern art occurs in a work by James Lord called A Giacometti Portrait, which is a study of the great sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, at work. It very clearly embodies the first four themes of modern creativity that I have noted. Giacometti is never satisfied with his work; it is never, in his eyes, really finished; he sees his Self totally on the line every time he sits down before an easel or a piece of clay, and so on. Lord writes how he once found Giacometti at a nearby cafe on a coffee break, his hollow eyes gazing into nowhere, “staring into a void from which no solace could come.”(15) Any healing that is engendered tends to be short‑lived. You are constantly challenged to create yourself, and this process never ends. “I work in a state of passion and compulsion,” said the artist Joan Miro’ in 1959.
When I begin a canvas, I obey a physical impulse, a need to act …. It’s a struggle between me and what I am doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. (16)
The problem with this struggle is that it often ends in death or madness.
There are numerous examples of Western creativity one can take as illustrations of Type II, and as I indicated earlier, much of this is well documented. The classic example of the tortured‑genius syndrome, and one that has been worked over in great detail, is Vincent van Gogh, whose art was so clearly “a cry of anguish,” an attempt to merge with life, a substitute for intimacy. “The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher,” he wrote, “by so much more am I an artist‑a creative artist . . . .â€(17) This is one of the paradoxes of modern creativity‑that the search for selfexpression actually winds up depleting the Self. The artist of the Type II category is like a broken doll, an imitatio Christi, exhausting himself or herself for ail’s sake, which is “all.” In this case, however, you are the agent of your own crucifixion: You make something greater than yourself, seek the unattainable, become a flawed vessel, ultimately emptied or destroyed. For van Gogh and many others, acute depression is somehow welcome, a source of creative drama and energy.
A more complex and interesting example of the Creativity II pattern is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, about whom so much has been written in recent years. Exactly what happened in Mozart’s infancy we shall never know; but there is evidence to suggest the presence of repressed antagonism toward his father, Leopold, for nearly twenty‑five years. (18) Very early on, Leopold Mozart, himself a musician, realized he had a prodigy on his hands, and proceeded to take on the role of impresario, abandoning his own career and dedicating his life to that of his son. He made Wolfgang totally dependent on him, stage‑managing virtually every step of Mozart’s rise to fame. As a child, Wolfgang was fond of saying, “Next to God comes Papa”; and if antagonism was present, it must have been very deeply buried. Mozart’s letters home during this periodabout twenty years‑were filled with an ostensible love and appreciation of Leopold, and his music during this time was childlike, exuberant, spontaneous. Operas and concerti literally poured from his pen. There is simply no evidence of conflict here, and the style of work reflects this.
All of this gradually began to change in the late 1770s. Wolfgang began to realize that his father had effectively kept him a child all his life, and that Leopold still, after all his (Wolfgang’s) achievements, was disappointed with him. He began to realize also that he feared and resented Leopold, and by 1781 the resulting anger began to surface in some of their correspondence. Yet there was only so much Mozart could say, for Leopold was by now an old man, and Mozart did not want to hurt him. But the conflict that had been so deeply buried finally surfaced, with even more needing to come out; and all of this got channeled into his work. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, one of Mozart’s more recent biographers, notes that the four years from 1784 to the end of 1787 were Wolfgang’s most prolific and creative ones, and that this was also the period of his greatest experimentation and discovery. Mozart’s interest in destroying old genres and creating new ones was at its height during this time. As Hildesheimer writes, “The revolutionary Mozart is the Mozart of his last eight years.” Repressed Oedipal rebellion surfaces in his two most brilliant operas. In The Marriage of Figaro (1786), which was based on a play by Beaumarchais that had long been banned in Vienna, Figaro, the servant of a member of the nobility, Count Almaviva, thwarts the latter in an amorous adventure and emerges the victor. As Hildesheimer tells us, Mozart
. . . knew [that] Figaro was no fairy tale. His theme yielded a model for his own behavior; an unconscious drive, probably long latent, came to the surface and tempted him to stop living according to the rules imposed on him from outside. He began to “let himself go.”
It was this opera, which so antagonized precisely the class that Leopold had toadied to, so as to grease the wheels of his son’s career, that marked the beginning of the end of that career: the descent into poverty and, by the end, relative obscurity.
The theme of the upper‑class Don Juan character, whose sexual conflicts are so great as to drive him to seduce virtually every woman he meets, and who comes off rather badly for it, is repeated and greatly magnified in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which appeared the very next year, in 1787, only five months after Leopold’s death. It is surely one of the greatest operas of all time; and it is interesting to note that Freud once remarked that it was the only opera that interested him. We need hardly wonder why: One of Mozart’s own additions to the libretto was the reappearance of the slain father as an accusing ghost (the statue). Critics said he stole the theme from Hamlet, but they hardly had to look that far afield. What we find in Mozart’s work, from this point on, with its obvious attack on the aristocracy, its Oedipal themes, and its smashing of traditional genres, is the working out of powerful internal conflicts through the creative act itself. Mozart was not necessarily suffering here; indeed, Hildesheimer claims he was getting high off all this conflict. But my point is that the later Mozart is a classic Type II, and that the energy was coming from a place of anger and frustration. This energy‑and it had twenty‑five years of repression behind it‑was clearly phenomenal. Between Figaro and Don Giovanni (eighteen months), Mozart wrote thirty‑five separate works; between Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte (thirteen months), sixtythree more compositions. These were followed, in 1791, by a mass of chamber music, cantatas, and court dances, plus two more operas, one of which was The Magic Flute. And in The Magic Flute, the Oedipal conflict is revealed as finally resolved: Sarastro, the obvious father figure, is the priest of universal love. As Peter Shaffer has Mozart’s arch‑rival, Antonio Salieri, say in the play Amadeus, when Salieri attended the premiere of the opera and saw the silhouette of Sarastro against the sun: “And in this sunliehold I saw his father! No more an accusing figure but forgiving!‑the highest priest of the Order‑his hand extended to the world in love! Wolfgang feared Leopold no longer: A final legend had been made!”(19)
The catharsis was apparently successful. As Hildesheimer notes, the spontaneous, childlike effect of Mozart’s earlier years, absent since 1778, reappears now in the music for the first time in thirteen years; and significantly, The Magic Flute would seem to lack the power and brilliance of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It was, in any event, too late. Believing that someone had poisoned him, Mozart began, in 1791, to write his own requiem, the “Requiem Mass,” which was never completed. He died at age thirtyfive, for reasons that remain obscure to this day. (20)
I wish to return, finally, to what I have called traditional creativity, or Creativity III. There are endless examples of this, of course, and I could easily furnish at this point texts of Japanese haiku, photographs of ancient Greek or Egyptian vases, or Hopi or Celtic designs, in addition to the seventeenth‑century Chinese landscape painting mentioned earlier. Let me, however, refer to only one classic painting, which is, because of its immense popularity, probably familiar to many readers‑namely, the famous ink drawing of six persimmons attributed to Mu ch’i, an artist who lived in Szechuan province (central China) in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The drawing has been reproduced in many art books and histories of art, and it shows six persimmons, two white, two gray, and two that are black. The simplicity and elegance of the drawing make it one of the most beautiful works of Eastern art ever to have appeared. Here is the commentary of one modern student of Chinese art, Chang Chung‑yuan:
This picture of six persimmons is one of the best works ever produced by Chinese artists. Before Mu ch’i picked up his brush, his mind was in a state of no‑thought. Thus, we have in this painting a manifestation of the primary indeterminacy of the uncarved block. What his mind reflected at that moment his brush would put down. First two deep black contours and then to their left two gray contours. To the extreme left and right he placed two plain white contours. The ink wash of the two first contours is pitch black without any shading at all, and the two contours at the left are all gray with only a light touch. The two outside contours are pure white. The shades of the ink wash from dark to gray and from gray to white correspond to the inner process going on in the painter. When he was still in the depth of the preconscious, the density of his creative night found expression in two dark contours. With the awakening of his consciousness, the inner darkness loses its density and manifests in two gray contours. As he awakens fully, his creative innocence is entirely unveiled. So the white contours are its expression. What is expressed in the picture corresponds to what happened in his mind. Through his brush‑work, the various states of his mind can be traced from the primary indeterminacy of the uncarved block to transparency.(21)
The first thing that strikes me about this work, and indeed, about the whole Creativity III genre, is the absence of what might be called a “Freudian layer.” There is seemingly no pent‑up sensual or sexual struggle in this material. Eros and internal conflict do not play much of a role. What Chang describes is a fairly smooth descent into the unconscious, not an eruption from it. Hence, it is clear that the dark persimmons would come first, in a state of meditative trance, and the lighter ones after, as the artist comes back to more conscious awareness. The state of “nomind” familiar to Eastern thought is largely foreign to the modern West (van Gogh was out of his mind, not in nomind). For no‑mind is a state of detachment or wholeness, and this indicates that the healing takes place before the work begins. This material does not reflect the search for unity; it is, rather, an artistic expression of psychic unity previously attained. To invert John Fowles, you create from what you have, not from what you lack.
Second, there is no “self‑expression” here. It is not a particular person or healing journey being depicted. If there is a twin‑brothers’ tension here, it is fairly muted. The unity is what is being expressed, and that is seen as being universal. As already noted, traditional artists, and Western artists prior to the Renaissance, typically did not sign their work. It is all anonymous because it bears the “mark of God,” so to speak; a theme pursued by the great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. Weil’s idea of creative work was what she called “decreation”‑you “decreate” yourself in order to create the world. It would be more accurate to say that you don’t create the work, but rather that you step out of the way and let it happen. In this way, it is significant that so much Oriental art and poetry is about nature, about the physical world, not about the Self and its dilemmas .(22)
Third, there is no schismogenic or Manichaean structure here. The work is spontaneous and regarded as finished. It is also part of a craft tradition‑i.e., the idea is to stay within a genre, not to have to invent a new one constantly. And as with craft, all of this is part of daily life: pouring tea, carving wood, cooking persimmons‑all activities are considered worthy of craftsmanship. You don’t have a special place called a “gallery” to which beauty is assigned for storage and display, nor do you have a special heroic category in society reserved for creative people (the Balinese are an excellent example of a society permeated by art, rather than having art and artists regarded as exceptional). As Ananda Coomaraswamy once put it, “The artist is not a special kind of person; rather, each person is a special kind of artist. “(23) And this necessarily means the absence of an addictive or schismogenic structure. This kind of art is continuous with life; it doesn’t attempt to “outdo” life by means of psychic acrobatics.
All of this falls into category III, it seems to me, but it is hardly child art. Creativity III, in fact, can be subdivided into two categories: III(a), child art; and III(b), which is the art of an adult who is training himself or herself to be childlike‑open, immediate, and spontaneous. The difference here is what the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki labeled as Zen mind vs. beginner’s mind. The early Mozart was possessed of beginner’s mind. He began composing at age five. When he finally became aware of his conflicts, he switched from III(a) to II. This is not surprising; what else would one expect? It is just that the Eastern pattern, or pre‑modern one, is so different. The goal is not to go unconscious, or be a three‑year‑old at a Montessori school, but to pull back enough “yang” energy so that yin and yang can balance out. It is spontaneity of a different sort.
To complicate things further, it seems to me that Creativity II can also be subdivided into two categories:
II(a)‑This is what I have described thus far as Creativity II: The healing of the split takes place by playing the struggle out in the work itself. The “exorcism” is, in other words, indirect, or unconscious.
11(b)‑This represents a slight shift away from 11(a), in that the exorcism is direct. One stays fully conscious of the neurotic dramas that have led one to the particular artistic or creative issue at hand, and one goes directly for the liberation from those dramas, through therapy or one’s own internal work. In other words, one moves into one’s fears. This releases the energy that is tied up in obsessional patterns, which is then available for creative work, and which starts out in a more free‑flowing way.
The major difference between 11(a) and 11(b), then, is that II(b) is on the road to Creativity III, so to speak (Creativity III begins when one is finally done with obsessions), whereas II(a) is not. In fact, in II(a) the artist fears the loss of obsessions, because s/he believes that this would mean the end of her or his career. “Life” and “obsession” are seen as being pretty much identical; the heroic ego whispers in the ear of this person, “Lose me and you’ll never create again.” And the voice is sincere, because it honestly cannot conceive of a different form of creativity.
The fact that our categories have now developed subcategories, and that these may even overlap, is possibly an important clue to where our culture is going. Creativity II may be our (Western) path to Creativity III, at least in its II(b) form; it is not all II(a), not all a dead end, and this suggests that within the evolution of Western creativity itself lies a tendency toward genuine cultural liberation. This is no small point: The way in which our private and cultural neurotic configuration is framed, or dealt with, may actually be the key in the lock. Those who choose to work through their fears and repressions in the service of creative work may (if they do it before they die) break through to a liberating kind of creativity, and in so doing recode the culture along nonschismogenic lines. This is an earthshaking possibility.
If we look around at the artistic and literary scene today, especially in the U.S., we do find some radical departures from the II(a) model, if only in an attempt to express a unitary type of consciousness. This may be premature; Western culture may have to push through II(b) before it can experiment with III(b) in a truly unselfconscious way. But the alternative attempts are important, nonetheless. Wallace Stevens’ work displays obvious “decreative” tendencies in the field of poetry; Henry Moore’s work does the same in the area of sculpture. Post‑modern minimalist music is clearly in the Creativity III category. This music, as exemplified by composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, has so completely eliminated the tension/resolution structure typical of Western music since the late Middle Ages that the new form has a curious similarity to Gregorian chant. Reich has stated in public interviews that the study of yoga, cabala, African and Balinese music, and classical breathing exercises, all of which are aspects of traditional cultures, has had a tremendous impact on his work. (24)
It is not clear what all this means, especially since it can be argued that it represents a retrogression, an attempt to return to an earlier cultural period. For various reasons, I think that unlikely; and we should also keep in mind that a major part of the Renaissance involved a revival of antiquity, or what the English potter Bernard Leach called “revitalization,” the going backward in order to go forward. The modern potter, said Leach, takes Sung (twelfthcentury Chinese) pottery as a model; not for imitation, as an end in itself, but as a way of revitalizing contemporary techniques.(25) It seems obvious that the limits of Creativity II have been reached, and that beyond the tendencies I have described as Creativity I1(b), we are searching for completely different modes of cultural and creative expression, in the arts as well as the sciences. As in the case of Creativity II(b), this is a hopeful sign; it suggests that there are somatic forces at work in our culture that are antischismogenic; that are working, perhaps unconsciously, to reverse what appears to me, in a general way, to be a destructive trajectory. We are engaged in turning a corner as significant as that which was turned in Western Europe roughly four centuries ago. We can still listen to Gregorian chant, of course, but most of us don’t do it very often. In two centuries, Mozart may be in the same category, and the tension/resolution structure of music may be puzzling to our ears.
Beyond the form that creativity will take during the next historical epoch is the question of the human personality structure, the energetic experience that will underlie it, and
the nature of Western culture as a whole. Who can say what these will be? There is obviously no way to know. But the following lines from Mary Caroline Richards’s book The Crossing Point sounds what to me is the most hopeful, and at the same time most realistic, note possible. She writes:
Eventually the soul asks to be born again into a world of the same order as itself‑a second coming into innocence, not through a glass darkly, but face to face, in consciousness . . . We pass through cruel ordeals on the way. Estrangement, coldness, despair. Death.
By going through the experience faithfully, we may come through on the other side of the crossing point, and find that our faithfulness has borne a new quality into the world. (26)
A new quality . . . a new history . . . a creativity that can be shared by everyone. Let’s hope it is still possible.
- Elliott Jaques, Work, Creativity, and Social Justice (London: Heinemann, 1970), Chapter 3, (“Death and Mid‑Life Crisis”); Katinka Matson, Short Lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self‑Destruction (New York: William Morrow, 1980); A. Alvarez, The Savage God (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), especially pp. 227‑52; Gregory Bateson, Naven (2nd ed.; Stanford: University Press, 1958), and also various essays in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (London: Paladin, 1973).
- Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, translated by Alan Tyson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964). See especially pp. 27‑30 for the discussion that follows.
- On “leaping” see, for example, Bly’s essay “Spanish Leaping,” in his journal The Seventies 1 (spring 1972), pp. 16-21.
- John Fowles, The Aristos (rev. ed.; London: Pan Books, 1969), pp. 52‑53.
- Quoted in Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 45.
- On this especially see the works by Jaques and Alvarez cited in note 1.
- Matthew Besdine, in “The Jocasta Complex, Mothering and Genius,” The Psychoanalytic Review 55 (1968), pp. 259‑77 and 574‑600, identifies a whole number of individuals for whom over‑mothering seems to have been an important factor in their creativity. The list includes Michelangelo, Poe, Dylan Thomas, Proust, van Gogh, Goethe, Einstein, Shakespeare, Freud, Balzac, and Sartre.
- Esther Menaker, “The Concept of Will in the Thinking of Otto Rank and Its Consequences for Clinical Practice,” The Psychoanalytic Review 72 (1985), pp. 254‑64; Rollo May, The Courage to Create (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975). Similar studies that see creativity only in terms of the conflict mode( include classics such as Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson, 1964), and Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, translated by Donald A. Lowrie (London: Gollancz, 1955; orig. Russian ed. 1914). See also the more recent work by Albert Rothenberg, The Emerging Goddess (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979). It seems to me that Freud must be credited, at so early a date, with seeing that an alternative to Creativity II was at least conceivable.
- Wilfred Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth Century Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Chapter 1.
- Quotations from Kung Hsian are taken from translations of texts that were displayed as part of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during 1986‑87.
- On the following see Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, translated by R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979; orig. German ed. 1949), Introduction, pp. 5‑41, and 88‑127.
- I am very grateful to Michael Crisp for this very imaginative, and I think accurate, interpretation.
- The splitting of the Great Mother is discussed by Neumann (see note 11, above) on pp. 96‑97. The terminology “Great Mother Representative” is my own; Neumann’s own phrase, which strikes me as being a loaded one, is “destructive male consort. “
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (New York: Bantam Books, 1981; orig. publ. 1886), pp. 79‑80.
- James Lord, A Ciacometti Portrait (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965), p. 38. See also Lord’s more recent study, Giacometti, a Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985).
- Miro’ died in 1984; this quotation appeared in several obituaries that ran in a number of North American newspapers.
- Quoted in Albert J. Lubin, Stranger on the Earth (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), pp. 3 and 16. See also Matson, Short Lives, pp. 363‑74.
- The following discussion is based on Charlotte Haldane, Mozart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), and Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart, translated by Marion Faber (London: Dent, 1983), esp. pp. 131, 138, 175, 180‑85, 235, 351, and 357.
- Peter Shaffer, Amadeus (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 83.
- According to Hildesheimer (see note 18, above), p. 375, Mozart believed someone had given him aqua tofana, a slowworking arsenic poison common enough in the eighteenth century. Shaffer’s play Amadeus is built around the possibility that Salieri was the villain, and it is certainly curious that Salieri denied poisoning Mozart on his (Salieri’s) deathbed (Haldane, Mozart, p. 129). An inquest on Mozart’s death held in London in May 1983 concluded that he could have been poisoned, not by Salieri, but by a married woman with whom he was having an affair. (This was reported on the BBC.) Dr. Peter J. Davies argued against the possibility of poisoning in a two‑part article published in the British journal Musical Times, in 1984; see also Donald Henahan, “Rest in Peace, Salieri, No One Killed Mozart,” The New York Times, November 11, 1984, Section H. The issue will probably never be resolved.
- Chang Chung‑yuan, Creativity and Taoism (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), page facing Plate 4. Mu ch’i’s drawing is reproduced on the front cover of this work, as well as on the front cover of Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, Zen and the Fine Arts, translated by Gishin Tokiwa (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1971).
- Weil’s essay “Decreation” can be found in Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952; orig. French ed. 1947). Matson discusses Weil in Short Lives, pp. 375‑88. There is of course a large literature on Simone Weil, including studies by Simone Petrement and John Hellman, among others. T. S. Eliot had already approached the theme of personality vs. non‑personality in creative work in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Points of View (London: Faber and Faber, 1941), pp. 23‑24.
- I have substituted the word “person” for “man,” which appears in the original. See Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Meister Eckhart’s View of Art,” in The Transformation of Nature in Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1956; orig. publ. 1934), 2nd ed., p. 64.
- On minimal art, see Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968). Philip Glass is perhaps best known for his opera Einstein on the Beach, and for composing the soundtrack for Godfrey Reggio’s films Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaggatsi (1987). Terry Riley’s most famous work (Steve Reich worked on it as well) is probably “In C”; for an interesting interview with Riley see Jon Pareles, “Terry Riley’s Music Moves to Improvisation,” The New York Times, September 24, 1982. Reich discussed his sources and his own musical development in an interview/performance at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, December 15, 1982; see also the excellent article by Ingram Marshall in Stagebill (San Franciso) (December 1982), vol. 2, no. 4, and the interview with Reich in Parabola (May 1980), vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 60‑72.
- Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book, 2nd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1945), p. 42.
- M.C. Richards, The Crossing Point (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), pp. 63‑64.
Morris Berman, Ph.D., is the author of five books and nearly forty articles. He received the Governor’s Writers Award (Washington State) for Coming to our Senses, published in 1989, and was Director of the Seattle Writers’ Guild from 1996 to 1998. He has taught numerous classes and workshops on the techniques of nonfiction writing and editing and is a faculty associate in the Master in Liberal Arts Program at Johns Hopkins University. “Two Faces of Creativity” is an excerpt from the book “Coming to Our Senses,” which can be purchased from amazon or Book Clearing House (tel. 1Â800Â431Â1579). Article reprinted with permission of author.
Author: Morris Berman
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