Vancouver Olympic Flame 2010

Some highly creative people once believed that psychoanalysis would extinguish their creative flame and impair achievement. (Photo: public domain)

In his psychiatric practice, Carl Jung dealt with many creative individuals. Jung noted how often his patients’ psychological difficulties arose from the creative process itself. The ground-breaking physicist Wolfgang Pauli was one of these troubled creators. Jung analyzed Pauli’s dream imagery after the scientist’s unconventional and tumultuous life brought him to the brink of mental breakdown. Pauli had become obsessed with where the insights for his greatest discovery had come from. He felt that he had drawn upon something beyond physics. Swiss-German author, Hermann Hesse was another of Jung’s notably creative patients. Already a famous writer when treated by Jung, Hesse – like Pauli – went on to win a Nobel Prize. Hesse suffered from recurring bouts of depression that tended to strike when his writing had reached an impasse.

From his experience with such patients, Jung formulated his own theories as to why an individual’s creative talent can cause neurosis. He came to believe that “… two forces are at war within him: on the one hand, the justified longing of the ordinary man for happiness, satisfaction, and security, and on the other, a ruthless passion for creation which may go as far as to override every personal desire.” For Jung, the creator is held hostage by uncontrollable creative desires, called to a greater task than others, and “chosen for that high office by nature herself.” As a result, the creator may “pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

Creativity research has called some of these ideas into question. The basic concepts remain the same, but the emphasis has shifted, and new perspectives have emerged. The latest evidence, gathered from a much wider sample, clearly indicates that the creative impulse arises from genuine will. Creators are not hostages to unbridled creative urges. They are powerfully motivated to capture nuanced feeling tones (subtle moods) or to embody a potent image in an invention or work of art. It is certainly true that creative work can interfere with living an ordinary life, and because it so often brings little in the way of financial reward, can lead to poverty. However, creators willingly accept any suffering their work may entail as the price they must pay for the chance to live a richly rewarding creative life. Nevertheless, hardships do take their toll. Lack of money can strain relationships and generate stress; poor living conditions can impair health, and so on.

Jung also tackled the related question of whether psychoanalysis could impair a creator’s abilities. The issue arose when creators who shared the notion that “madness” and genius are related expressed considerable reluctance at the prospect of psychoanalysis. They believed the process would rob them of their creative spark. Jung’s position was clear. “True creativity is a spring that can’t be stopped … disease has never yet fostered creative work; on the contrary, it is the most formidable obstacle to creation. No breaking down of repressions can ever destroy true creativeness.”

In short, Jung believed that the creative process could make one neurotic, but being neurotic could not make one creative.

5 thoughts on “Why Creative People Once Feared Psychoanalysis

  1. Many a creative individual who has descended into neurosis would agree with you, Lucinda. Troubled creators often have long dry spells when their creative work is interrupted by the need to wrestle with their “demons.” Virginia Woolf had a number of breakdowns, and the threat of another stint in the mental hospital may have prompted her suicide.

  2. Thomas, This is a very thoughtful piece. Jung had an incredibly imaginative mind, and like all of us, his imagination was affected by the parts of his unconscious mind that were too much for him to face. Paul, A Therapist with a Pen

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Paul.

    What you say is interesting, but consider this: If I were a creative artist afraid that psychoanalysis would rob me of my creative spark, what you have said about Jung’s imagination would make me even more reluctant! I think you can see why many creative people were wary of wrestling their “demons” into the light.

    It all boils down to where you believe your inspiration comes from. If you take a broader view of what fires the imagination (or the creative process in general), then analysis will not seem so threatening. But if you believe your spark arises from the things you cannot face, then analysis looks like creative ruin. Memory fails me at the moment, but some writers have accused analysis of drying up their talent. I share Jung’s view that they are laying blame in the wrong place, but do we understand these things well enough to say this is true in every case?

  4. Thomas, You make a very good point, and as in your posts, I appreciate the intensity with which you write. One of the aspects of Jungian psychology that I admire most is Jung’s concept of active imagination. The few times I have practiced it over the years (few times because it is a very powerful way of experiencing our creativity in its most authentic sense), I have always felt changed afterwards, that the direct experience of my own creative origins (in Jungiuan terms, of the collective unconscious) is itself beyond words. Thank you for your thoughtful words and please check out my blog A Therapist with a Pen. It can be a bit difficult to understand, but basically I write in a journal-like form that I hope shows on some intuitve level the unconscious dialogues that happen in our minds all of the time.

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