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A Spirit that Impels: Play, Creativity and Psychoanalysis

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This volume brings together some of the papers presented by leading scholars, artists and psychoanalysts at an annual Creativity Seminar organised by the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center. Looking at creativity through a psychoanalytic lens - and very importantly, vice versa - the authors examine great works, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and William Gibson's The Miracle Worker; as well as great artists, such as Van Gogh and Lennon and McCartney, for what we might learn about the creative process itself. Deepening this conversation are a number of clinical studies and other reflections on the creative process - in sickness and in health, so to speak. A central theme is that of "deep play", the level at which the artist may be unconsciously playing out, on behalf of all of us, the deepest dynamics of human emotion in order that we may leave the encounter not only emotionally spent, but profoundly informed as well. The central questions of this book are how do we understand the creative process, what might psychoanalysis contribute to that understanding, and what opens up within and for psychoanalysis by engaging with the subject of creativity?

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Introduction to Chapter One - On (Not) Being Able to Paint: The 2003 Creativity Seminar

ePub

In 1950, under the pseudonym Joanna Field, the British psychoanalyst Marion Milner, published one of her several autobiographical books. On Not Being Able to Paint (1957) focused on the personal experience and serious difficulties encountered by its author in her effort to become a painter. It is a moving, articulate memoir, which lays out for us the human subject in the process of finding her subjectivity, a process of both excitement and peril. Milner, whose theoretical work both stimulated and elaborated Winnicott's ground-breaking studies of early childhood development, introduced from her own experience ideas central to her eventual understanding of creativity and the psychoanalytic process—concepts such as reverie, illusion, and medium.

In that same year, Erik Erikson wrote (in Childhood and Society, 1950) that play was “the royal road to the understanding of the…ego's efforts at synthesis” (p. 209) and “the most natural self-healing measure childhood affords” (p. 222). A year or so later, he helped his wife establish the activities programme at the Austen Riggs Center, a small psychoanalytically orientated treatment centre, through which the patient's struggle toward creativity inevitably illuminated the personal obstacles to that inner leeway or play in the system Erikson considered essential to health. In linking play to “self-cure” (p. 209) and in inventing an activities programme where artists and craftsmen become intimate teachers to patients-as-students, the Eriksons brought together the creative process and the treatment process.

 

Chapter One - Creativity and Psychoanalysis

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Christopher Bollas

In “What is surrealism?” (1934), André Breton recalled how he “practised occasionally on the sick” (p. 412) during the war, using Freud's “methods of investigation”, as he experimented in written monologue by throwing out ideas on paper, followed by critical examination. He invited Philippe Soupault to do this with him and soon they were writing automatically and comparing results. Although, of course, their contents varied, Breton noted that

there were similar faults of construction, the same hesitant manner, and also, in both cases, an illusion of extraordinary verve, much emotion, and a considerable assortment of images of a quality such as we should never have been able to obtain in the normal way of writing, a very special sense of the picturesque, and, here and there, a few pieces of out-and-out buffoonery. (1934, p. 412)

The writings proved “strange”, invested with a “very high degree of immediate absurdity” (p. 412). It was out of this experiment with Freud's method that Breton founded surrealism and, when he asked himself to define it, he wrote that it was “pure psychic automatism”, which, through the spoken or written word, or some other means of expression, would reveal “the real process of thought” (p. 412). The associations created by the surrealist act created a “superior reality”, more purely because they came from the unconscious, otherwise known in the forms of the dream and “the disinterested play of thought” (p. 412).

 

Chapter Two - A Moonlight Visibility: Turning the Scarlet Letter into a Play

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Carol Gilligan

“Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly, – making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility…”

(Hawthorne, 1898, pp. 45–46)

It was the death of his mother that impelled Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter. As a child, he had seen his mother scorned by his father's family after his father, a sea captain, died in Surinam when Nathaniel was four. Raised by his mother, who took him and his sisters and went back to live with her family, Hawthorne was brought up in a household of women. Following his graduation from Bowdoin College, he lived for twelve years in his mother's house, teaching himself to write. But it was only with The Scarlet Letter that he managed to still a critical, censorious voice inside him, reflecting subsequently in his journal, “I think I have never overcome my own adamant in any other instance” (1870, p. 301).

Hawthorne calls The Scarlet Letter a romance, a blending of the actual and the imaginary. It also has the character of a dream, its manifest content concealing its latent meanings. Setting his story in seventeenth century Boston, Hawthorne draws on historical figures, the Reverend John Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Mistress Hibbins, who was burned as a witch, to establish “an iron framework of reasoning” (1898, p. 193), a powerful alliance of church and state where “religion and law were almost identical” (p. 62), a patriarchal world where women were divided into “goodwives” (p. 63) and witches. Within this framework, he places the triangle of Hester Prynne, her lover Arthur Dimmesdale, and her husband—the man who calls himself Roger Chillingworth. At its centre, Pearl, the luminous child whose existence reveals her mother's “lawless passion” (p. 197), becomes the voice of emotional truth in a world where such truths cannot be spoken.

 

Chapter Three - Dimmesdale's Ailment, Hawthorne's Insight

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M. Gerard Fromm

“Every dream has at least one point at which it is unfathomable; a central point, as it were, connecting it with the unknown.” With this epigraph, James Mellow begins his award-winning biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (1980). The words are Freud's, from The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). Mellow ends his biography with Melville's belief, as conveyed by Julian Hawthorne, “that Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret, which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries of his career” (p. 589).

Hawthorne's life and work abound in mystery. He was an attractive but elusive person: a combination of reserve, coolness, gentility, and unexpected attentiveness that could transfix the other person in a middle distance of interest, loyalty, and unsatisfied desire. After his death, his wife, Sophia, said that he “veiled himself from himself. I never dared gaze at him…It seemed an invasion into a holy place…[H]e was…to me a divine Mystery…” (Miller, 1991, p. 9).

 

Chapter Four - Sublimation and Das Ding in Mahler's Symphony No. 8

ePub

John Muller

When Gustav Mahler arrived at his summer retreat in June, 1906, he was, as usual, filled with doubt about whether he would be able to compose. He reports, however, being immediately “seized by the Spiritus creator” which “shook and lashed” him as he felt the music being “dictated” to him (quoted in de La Grange, 1999, p. 889; see also Mahler, 2004, p. 234, 357). Earlier that year, he had said of his difficulties, “There was the Court, there was the press, there was the audience, there was my family, and finally the enemy in my own breast…Often, it was terrible!” (de La Grange, p. 394). After he had finished the symphony in August 1906, he wrote,

I have finished my Eighth Symphony. It is the grandest thing I have done yet, and so peculiar in content and form that it is really impossible to write anything about it. Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving…. It is a gift to the nation. All my previous symphonies are just preludes to this. In the other works everything is still subjective-tragic—this one is a great joy-bringer. (quoted in de La Grange, p. 926)

 

Chapter Five - Stepping on to the Transference Stage: From Actualised Unconscious Trauma to Therapeutic Play

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J. Christopher Fowler

Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible, then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient into a state of being able to play. (Winnicott, 1971, p. 38)

This evocative quote from paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott illuminates a core therapeutic challenge for therapists undertaking psychodynamic treatment of patients with severe character pathology. Sifting among the array of diagnoses, life stories, and chaotic backgrounds of patients, there appears a singular similarity: the problem of creating and maintaining a viable therapeutic alliance and space in which patient and therapist play out a symbolic drama, primarily through language and illusion, to resolve conflicts, and to symbolically put to rest the traumatic past by neutralising repetition compulsions.

 

Chapter Six - Pattern as Inspiration and Mode of Communication in the Works of Van Gogh

ePub

Marilyn Charles and Karen Telis

“There are two ways of thinking about painting, how not to do it and how to do it; how to do it—with much drawing and little color; how not to do it—with much color and little drawing” (

(Van Gogh, 1958, Letter 184, The Hague, April 1882)

The authors, two sisters, a psychoanalyst and a writer, meet at the writer's home in Provence, what Frenchmen call the midi. It is a place of natural intensity, with blinding sunlight, howling mistral, and an arid climate that cracks the earth. Even so, the earth gives forth its own distinct bounty, begrudgingly, to labouring farmers as relentless as the nature they combat. The sisters ride bikes along paths through meticulously planted fields and observe waves of lavender blowing in the breeze, golden blocks of sunflowers reaching skywards, purple and yellow squares of iris bounded by grids of fences laden with craggy vines. Viewed from a distance, the landscape becomes patchwork, in vast seas of colour.

The sisters drive into St Rémy through an alley of gnarled plane trees whose canopy protects the travellers from the sun's intensity. They remark to each other on their impression that Vincent Van Gogh is everywhere. Their vision of Provence is his, one assimilated from countless museum visits, study of reproductions in books, long acquaintance through biographies and letters. His experience in Provence informs their own. They seek him.

 

Chapter Seven - Photography as Transitional Functioning

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M. Gerard Fromm

In a paper titled “Silence as communication”, Masud Khan (1963) describes an adolescent's breakdown into serious depression, the effort at psychotherapeutic contact, and, briefly, the phase of working back toward health. In a passing observation, he notes “the strange way this youth found his way back to mobility and aliveness through skating” (p. 179). Khan's use of the word strange is ambiguous. He is perhaps referring to a most commonplace phenomenon, observable during the course of many a therapy and in ordinary life as well: that people become invested in particular activities which carry deep unconscious meaning and which serve as vehicles for the resolution of unconscious conflict or for a restructuring of self- and object-images in the service of developmental advance. If there is a strange quality to any of this, it would have to do with how very personal and preoccupying this is to the person so involved, as viewed from the outside. Something extremely important seems to have been found upon which a surprising degree of concentration can be brought to bear naturally and with ease. We see it all the time in a child's play. Not infrequently, psychotherapy will catalyse these processes and offer the opportunity for their observation in more salient form because to the patient's natural developmental momentum is added the weight of a longing for recovery.

 

Chapter Eight - To Teach and to Treat: Meditations on the Miracle Worker

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Ellen Handler Spitz

“It's less trouble to feel sorry for her than it is to teach her anything better.” This powerful sentiment from William Gibson's The Miracle Worker immediately links educational and therapeutic tasks; it also captures the fierce valuing of learning over sympathy that Gibson lived out in his work as theatre director at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts many years ago. When Dr Gerard Fromm asked me to speak on The Miracle Worker at the Austen Riggs annual Creativity Conference in honour of playwright William Gibson, who passed away in November, 2008, at the age of ninety-four, and who was a great friend to psychoanalysis, I demurred at first because I am not an expert on the life of Helen Keller, or, indeed, on blindness, or on disability; yet, I have thought deeply about the film, and I hope that what follows may prove meaningful. It is, of course, a brilliant work, and all I can do is to offer a few of my own perceptions; I must emphasise at the outset that, in what follows, I shall be speaking about the 1962 film with William Gibson's script, just as it is, and not its relation to historical fact. We shall be treating it sui generis, as a work of art, tout compris.

 

Chapter Nine - Unconscious Creative Activity and the Restoration of Reverie

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M. Gerard Fromm

Activity

“Concepts can never be presented to me merely; they must be knitted into the structure of my being, and this can only be done through my own activity” (Follett, 1930, quoted in Milner, 1957, p. xi). So begins, epigrammatically, Marion Milner's intensely personal study, On Not Being Able to Paint (1957). This moving articulate reverie lays out for us the human subject in the process of finding her subjectivity, a process of both excitement and peril. As a psychoanalytic text, it is without precedent and without duplication since. As Podro (1990) writes, “What has been largely absent (within psychoanalytic considerations of painting) is an insight into how the activity of painting itself was a matter of urgency and of satisfaction: how painting was itself valuable to us” (p. 17).

It is precisely this “urgency” that catches a dimension of creative activity akin to the clinical, and, indeed, so attuned that one easily finds clinical examples of activity, in some distinction to interpretation, as critically important vehicles for the mastery and integration of unconscious feeling and for, in Kohut's terms (1977), the restoration of self. This largely unconscious process might offer another angle on what it means to work through. But the emphasis in the Follett quote on “my own activity” could obscure the degree to which creative activity always takes place in some relational context, within which such activity might also be quite vulnerable. In this chapter, I hope to illustrate the creative use of activity to deal with developmental challenges, but also how dependent that creativity can be on a primary relationship in the person's life.

 

Chapter Ten - Two of us: Inside the Lennon–McCartney Connection

ePub

Joshua Wolf Shenk

“I thought, ‘If I take him on, what will happen?’” John recalled as he remembered his first encounter with Paul (Davies, 1968a, p. 33). How did John Lennon and Paul McCartney make magic together? On the surface, it seems simple—they covered for each other's deficits and created outlets for each other's strengths. Paul's melodic sunshine smoothed out John's bluesy growls, while John's soulful depth gave ballast to Paul and kept him from floating away.

These points are true as far as they go. John and Paul did balance and complement each other magnificently, and we can pile example on example. When they were writing “I Saw Her Standing There”, Paul offered this opening verse:

“She was just seventeen,

Never been a beauty queen.”

“You're joking about that line,” John shot back, “aren't you?” (Badman, 2000, p. 50). He offered this revision:

“She was just seventeen,

You know what I mean”

There it is: innocence meets sin—an inviting, simple image takes a lusty, poetic leap.

Lennon and McCartney did, to use the precious phrase, complete each other. “Paul's presence did serve to keep John from drifting too far into obscurity and self-indulgence,” said Pete Shotton, a Liverpool boy who stayed in the Beatles’ circle, “just as John's influence held in check the more facile and sentimental aspects of Paul's songwriting” (Hertsgaard, 1995, p. 112).

 

Chapter Eleven - Oppression, Healing and Delia's Story

ePub

Rochleigh Z. Wholfe

In the summer of 2011, I was one of four artists invited to present at the Austen Riggs-Erikson Institute's Creativity Seminar: Finding Voice, Lifting Voices: Oppression and Creativity. The seminar was part of the first “Lift Ev'ry Voice” Festival, celebrating a rich African American heritage and its cultural contributions throughout the Berkshires. I was delighted and honoured to be a part of this historic event and to share my perspectives as a woman, African American, and visual artist.

We received a synopsis several weeks before the seminar inviting us to consider several questions: the interrelationship between oppression and creativity, inhibition as a form of oppression, and the role of others—the collective voice—in the creative process. In this chapter, I discuss these themes, utilising my own personal, cultural, spiritual, and artistic experiences. I also reference other artists, activists, and leaders who were social reformers and whose work was pivotal in both effecting social change and inspiring my creativity.

 

Chapter Twelve - Snapshots of Childhood Creativity in Science, Music, and Art: Richard Feynman, Clara Schumann, and René Magritte

ePub

Ellen Handler Spitz

This chapter is prompted, in part, by a spate of alarmist articles in the media over the past several years concerning what journalists have called “the creativity crisis” (Bronson & Merryman, 2010), articles claiming, in other words, that American creativity is in decline. A corresponding call has arisen to seek remedies and determine how creativity might be fostered in the lives of children so as to stem the tide of this (alleged) decline. While taking these dramatic concerns and pronouncements cum grano salis, this chapter responds nevertheless by extracting a set of themes drawn from the childhoods of three individuals whose remarkable contributions to the disparate fields of science, classical music, and visual art are beyond question: Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988), virtuoso pianist and composer Clara Schumann (1819–1896), and the surrealist painter René Magritte (1898–1967). Highly variable and not always salubrious, the diverse milieus in which these individuals’ childhood creativity flourished demonstrates by default how the topic itself has had an unfortunate tendency to bog down in sentimental rhetoric.

 

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