The Artist as Analyst

A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers From 1930 to 1980

by Erik H. Erikson, edited by Stephen Schlein Ph.D.
Norton, 782 pp., $29.95


Erik Erikson must surely be the most distinguished living psychoanalyst. His early work in child therapy, his ventures into psychoanalytic anthropology, his rendering of the “identity crisis” and of the “stages” in the human life cycle, all these established him as a brilliant, though aberrant, psychoanalytic theorist, aberrant particularly in his sensitivity to the ways modern culture has shaped the neuroses of contemporary life. Then came his prize-winning biographies of the young Luther and of the aging Gandhi, which catapulted him beyond the starchy circle of Freudian psychoanalysts and brought his work to the attention of historians and literary people. Younger historians began to find Erikson’s form of “psychohistory” attractive. And social critics found his psychological rendering of the Marxist idea of alienation—the famous “identity crisis”—a less pessimistic way of thinking about dropouts and delinquents.

In all these excursions beyond traditional psychoanalytic concerns, Erikson managed always to appear to be honoring Freud’s heritage, indeed claimed his work to be an “extension” of psychoanalytic theory—though that theory was based principally on a theory of instincts and on a parochial view of family drama, with little to say about the strains within society that produced the conflicts. Erikson seemed to be bringing psychoanalytic discussion into touch with late-twentieth-century cultural theory. Whether he brought the psychoanalytic establishment along with him is another question. What is remarkable is that he has managed all this without getting himself kicked out of the psychoanalytic fold (no mean feat, given the fate of earlier innovators). He managed it, moreover, without benefit of a medical degree—or any other higher degree, for that matter—and did so at a time when psychoanalysis was growing ever more medical and professionalized. Psychoanalysts are plainly proud of him and shower him with honors. Erikson is unique among them for his qualities as a writer and thinker, unique also in his concern with the psychological issues of modernity. He may have had a deeper effect on laymen than he has had on his fellow analysts.

So it is of more than passing interest that his publisher has seen fit to bring out a selection of his essays and “papers” covering the half-century from 1930 to 1980. For these essays provide us with a chance not only to assess Erikson as a cultural figure in his own right, but to see him against the backdrop of the psychoanalytic movement.

The collection contains little that is “new” or surprising in Erikson’s thought. But in their half-century sweep, the essays provide new insights into the mind of this gifted man, and into the milieu in which he chose to work. What is apparent from the earliest essay in 1930 to the pieces written a half-century later is that there are two Eriksons: one a surprisingly doctrinaire psychoanalyst, embracing the received doctrines of the master; the other a moralist, artist, and intellectual trying to deal with a culture that has begun to lose its power as an instrument for fulfilling the potential and the aspirations of those who live within it. The two Eriksons do not have as much to say to each other as they might. Indeed they even seem to be rather shy and inhibited in each other’s presence.

It is not easy to reconstruct how the two Eriksons emerged from the young German painter in his late twenties, who came to Vienna in 1930 after a troubled Wanderung in Italy. He had been invited there to teach in the school that Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham had set up for the children of visiting parents. The invitation came from Peter Blos, a friend who had also found his way to the school, and who was later to become a distinguished psychoanalyst. Erikson had had a little Montessori training, but was otherwise “unqualified.” It was his first regular job. The voices of those classrooms ring through the early essays on education and the psychological problems of children. “Freedom” and “playfulness” (and the manner in which each is a sine qua non for the other) are their leitmotifs. Despair, defeat, and anxiety, he early decided, heighten the child’s powerlessness and rob him of both play and freedom. It was in these early encounters that Erikson first saw the child as the prototype underdog, the powerless victim, the victim not only of his own instinctual life, but of the society that enforces his powerlessness.

But the children he describes are not passive underdogs: they resist, trick by word or silence, fight for survival, go underground if necessary. And the sympathetic, unconforming Erikson goes underground with them, observing but not condemning their anger and despair. He wins their confidence by recognizing, indeed, even appreciating their conspiracies, their trickster maneuvers, their rages, their evasions. From the start, Erikson’s is a bohemian impulse. His effort as teacher (and, later, therapist) is to restore to his children the capacity to play, to help them reclaim their creative leeway. The ideal image for him (both of the child and of man at his freest) is the artiste de la vie, much akin to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.

In the early, more technical papers in the volume (all the papers are arranged chronologically), Erikson goes to extraordinary lengths to explore the distortions that neurosis and anxiety produce in the form and quality of children’s play with blocks. At times, indeed, his analyses are so detailed as to become tedious—until one recognizes that they are offered in the spirit of a master art teacher examining his students’ work. And it comes as no surprise that thirty years later Erikson concludes, after examining the fully matured adults who had participated since childhood in the famous Berkeley Growth Study, that those with the richest lives were the ones who had kept play close to the center of their lives, rather than walling it off into special hobbies or specialized weekends.

In the early papers Erikson sees the method of psychoanalysis as the way to the restitution of “playful freedom”—freeing the neurotically trapped child to have his future, freeing the adult from the tyranny of an unhappy, neurotic past. In the later ones, his discomfort with modern society becomes increasingly evident. With greater and greater clarity, he concentrated on the shortcomings of a culture that produces the conditions for neurosis. And by the 1960s, he became concerned not only with his patients but with Black Panthers and student rebels, with dropouts and delinquents.

The emphasis on the interplay between personal neurosis and the culture’s failure to give children the support they need—the “psychosocial” emphasis, as it came to be called—increasingly preoccupied Erikson. But the complexities of this interaction do not seem to disturb his established faith in Freud’s classic ideas about the inner psychogenesis of neurosis—the crises of psychosexual development, the Oedipus complex, and so on. It is never made explicit in Erikson’s writing, for example, whether inner conflicts, generated by “standard” psychoanalytic psychosexual crises, predispose the child or adolescent to identity crises that are induced by a culture, or whether a culture can, in and of itself, produce neurosis, delinquency, and alienation, however well its members may weather the presumably universal crises of family life.

Why did Erikson turn such a blind eye to the puzzles and paradoxes that his own ideas posed for “standard” psychoanalytic theory? His own training in psychoanalysis was conventional for his time: analysis with Anna Freud, seminars at the Vienna Institute, early supervision in his own analytic work at that institute as well. But what of his interest in culture and its impact? Its sources, it would seem, were considerably more idiosyncratic.

Erikson has already told us a good deal about his own “marginality” in his earlier writings, about the origins of his own problems of identity.1 He was born in Germany, he tells us in an earlier published autobiographical sketch, at the very “margin” of the centuries, in 1902. Dr. Theodor Homburger, his “father,” a German-Jewish pediatrician, had married his mother when Erikson was three. In childhood, his mother and “father” hid from him that his real father was a Dane who had abandoned his mother before he was born. But the young Erikson had already stored away memories (he tells us) of being in and out of the studios of his mother’s artist friends—“my first male imprinting before I had to come to terms with that intruder, the bearded doctor.” Dr. Homburger gave him his family name (which he later retained as a middle name) and expected him to become a doctor like him. But growing up “blond and blue-eyed, and…flagrantly tall,” he says, “I was referred to as ‘goy’ in my stepfather’s temple; while to my schoolmates I was a ‘Jew.’ ” Karlsruhe, his home town, was itself mixed Catholic and Protestant, and its communal identity problems were never far from his consciousness—like that of the young Luther, of whom he later wrote.

Erikson was restive in his bourgeois family setting. “Like other youths with artistic or literary aspirations, I became intensely alienated from everything my bourgeois family stood for.” So after attending the local humanistic Gymnasium, rather than choosing medical studies, he went on to art school. From there, he took to “wandering,” and came “sooner or later” to Italy, where he took up the life of a bohemian artist. It was there, trying to find a place in the world, that he developed what he has described as an “aggravated identity crisis.” And, it was there that his school friend Peter Blos rescued him with the offer of a school-teaching job in Vienna.

By now, the young Erikson was ready to shed “a stepson’s negative identity…to avoid belonging anywhere…working between the established fields.” Freud was the perfect hero: “a great doctor who had rebelled against the medical profession.” “If I ask myself in what spirit I accepted my truly astounding adoption by the Freudian circle, I can only surmise…that it was a kind of positive stepson identity that made me take for granted that I should be accepted where I did not quite belong.” And finally he went to America, married an American, wrote in a language not quite his own, and became a nonmedical humanist in the medical profession, teaching without benefit of higher degrees at prestigious universities. Like Paul Tillich, whom Erikson knew and admired, he had spent most of his life “living on the boundaries.” It was to this state of being, this cultural marginality, that Erikson’s major work addressed itself.

The sensitivity that comes from being on the borderline undoubtedly helped make Erikson a “natural” as an analyst. Even the earliest essays reveal his eye for hidden patterns, for false postures and buried impulses in the lives of his young patients and their families. Later (after the political experience of the war years and after the McCarthy period, when he refused to sign the California loyalty oath) his attention shifted to the plight of the more “structurally” marginal groups in American culture, including Indians, blacks, delinquents. In an early essay, he urges that the disturbed child be helped to accept rage as a fact of life, and “not merely as a fault of the individual who carries it within him.” In those days, he saw the origins of rage in the standard psychoanalytic “family drama.” But as he became more politically minded, rage also became for him a reaction against the circumstances that thwart the formation of a healthy identity.

A healthy identity is not simply a state of the psyche in isolation, but a connection one has with one’s culture, a connection that encourages aspiration and provides means for effective action even if in opposition. For Erikson Huey Newton and the Panthers were not on a neurotic trip. They were battling for connection, for a place and means for growth—even if in enraged opposition. It is not the inevitable family drama of the Standard Version that is causing the trouble, but the organization of society. And yet, the two Eriksons go on: the one in the consulting room, the other on the barricades.


Erikson’s sensitivity to the warping effects of culture on personality could not have been “derived” from psychoanalytic theory. To begin with, standard psychoanalytic theory is mute on the subject. What a culture legitimizes as an “identity” or role and how the individual defines himself—this is not part of the theory. The Standard Version of the theory sees “society” principally as a source of prohibition against intellectual expression. It is notoriously cultureblind: the human family and the drama it creates are seen as always and everywhere alike. Feminist critics have been the most recent to remark on this cultural blindness, but it has been a target of critics for many decades now. Moreover, Erikson was never greatly impressed by the more abstract and “technical” side of psychoanalytic theory. He comments at one point that he never liked its “scientism,” with its convoluted ideas about libido, energy transformation, and the rest.

The “literary” Erikson probably managed to be original precisely because he had neither interest in nor taste for the early positivist metaphors of psychoanalysis. Freud, of course, had hoped to align psychoanalysts with late-nineteenth-century science. Even when he tells his “stories,” the narrating voice in Freud’s great case histories comes through as the “objective searcher after the truth.” Erikson makes no such claim. He accepts theories along with his insights as, somehow, “given.” But he does so not in the guise of a scientist, but as the self-styled “phenomenologist,” the artist with an eye to life at the “borderlines.” He never invokes scientific rigor in his defense: what attracted him, he tells us, was the intuitive, the literary, mode of truth-seeking.

Erikson argues that his contribution has not been counter to but has supplemented psychoanalytic theory. And, moreover, he thinks that Freud would have approved. He notes in a 1969 paper that while it was Freud’s genius (like Darwin’s) to go backward to origins and downward to instinctual processes, he, Erikson, wanted to go forward from the past to a recognition of the power of aspiration and to go upward from the unconscious to the “enigma of consciousness” and to its role in human striving. Erikson then assures us (and himself) that these forces—aspiration and consciousness—were always “implicit” in Freud, if not in his activities as a healer of the mentally sick then in the literary “grand style” for which he won the Goethe Prize as a writer.

But can psychoanalytic theory continue to insist on the grim and deterministic working out of the repetition compulsion, of the death instinct, and of libidinal transformations, and still have room for the idea that human aspiration and acts of human consciousness can alter the course of a life and even of history? Can Erikson merely add these amendments to psychoanalysis without having to do major surgery on the classic theory?

I suspect that the two Eriksons, the culture critic and the orthodox analyst, had an unfortunate habit of becoming mum in each other’s presence. A few examples from A Way of Looking at Things illustrate this habit—his work on “psychoanalytic anthropology,” his surprising inattention to the role of narrative construction in psychoanalytic therapy, and his classic scheme for the life cycle.

In the 1950s, when Erikson was at Berkeley, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber invited him to spend some time with the Yurok, a Northwest Coast Indian tribe of California, whose culture Kroeber had described in one of the classics of modern ethnology Erikson accepted, and concentrated his efforts on interviewing an old woman who was one of the leading doctor/shamans of the tribe. His report of the encounter is surely the most fascinating chapter in the second half of the new collection.

The narrative account he offers has the wizardry of García Márquez or, among more recent writers on the exotic in the human character, of the Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela. As an analysis of “ethnopsychiatry,” it has few peers. Erikson sketches the tensions that occur in Yurok life, tensions between their possession-packed, crowded, and female-dominated living places and the sweat-house where men go to be uncrowded, male, pure, and free of possessions. He then brings into his tale the shaman’s ideas about healing, which we can understand as a mirror image of these tensions. Her task is to relieve pain by removing the “object” that enters and “crowds” the body, which she does by sucking it out with much pain to herself, and then by finally spitting it out on the ground. In Erikson’s tale, we also see the ethical, psychological, anatomical, and even geographical worlds of the Yurok being synthesized into a common symbolic form. The sea comes into their rivers bearing salmon; they gorge themselves on the fish and they store them. Then there is emptiness. They have a daughter; they long for an exorbitant price to be paid for her. Then the daughter is gone and, of course, the bride price never matches the fantasy. They possess, and then they are without. The objects that produce pain enter; and they are sweated out or sucked out or somehow extruded. In each instance the magic event occurs when that which has gone inside and become unbearable is turned around and then extruded.

By our standards, the Yurok seem a mean lot: possessed by their possessions and greedy even beyond contemporary limits of embarrassment. Jonathan Swift would have found them irresistible to caricature, but in fact, as Erikson notes before he lapses into the psychoanalytic jargon of 1930s Vienna, the Yurok manage to get on well together by their own lights. They have a culture that (“like the ego’s synthetic function”) manages to create a unity, a synthesis of the inner and the outer. And how do the Yurok achieve this synthesis, given the usually corrosive effects of possessiveness and greediness on communal life?

At this point the “other Erikson” grabs the pen. Rather than elaborating upon the inherent artistry and depth and power of Yurok culture—a task he had begun with such exquisite artistry as he searched for meaning in what the shaman told him—he reverts to the Standard Version. If the Yurok are retentive and possessive, they must have anal characters. But they are not concerned about feces or about bowel training. They seem to be just as concerned with “taking in”: so perhaps orality is a principal characteristic as well. Erikson concludes, in a flurry of Standard Version zeal, that Yurok character traits must be an expression of concern with the alimentary tract as a whole. So, in the end, Erikson tries to explicate the power of the Yurok to make life meaningful by invoking the collective history of their alimentary tract.

But even suppose that Yurok culture could be reduced to a preoccupation with alimentary functions, the big question would still remain: How does a culture manage (or fail in managing) to provide a satisfying, unified way of life to its participants, whether the culture is traceable to oral, anal, phallic, or genital histories? Why, for example, are there no evident crises of identity among the Yurok? And which is chicken and which egg? Cultural forms or alimentary obsessions?

This brings us to Erikson’s surprising lack of interest in storytelling, in what makes an effective, a believable narrative of life that people can embrace. Again, Erikson senses the problem with an artist’s insight. He says, discussing psychoanalytic technique: “Few patients…want to know whether or not our interpretations are scientifically true; most patients are satisfied that they feel true and that they give meaning to suffering.” What then does it take—whether in analysis or in the life of a culture—for an “interpretation” or for any account of life to “feel true,” for it to give meaning to suffering or simply make sense? It is an issue that preoccupies such sympathetic but robust critics of psychoanalysis as Donald Spence and Roy Schafer.2 Why not Erikson? Had he not, perhaps, been so “positive” a stepson to the psychoanalytic movement, Erikson too might have addressed this question. He surely raises it in both the Gandhi and the Luther biographies, but he never faces it squarely.

The question of storytelling connects with Erikson’s own most ambitious narrative, his formulation of “stages” in the human life cycle—generally judged to be his most powerful contribution to psychoanalytic theory (and to which a large section of the new book is devoted). The idea grew partly out of his own observations of “what can go wrong” at different points in our lives, and partly from Freud’s earlier ideas about the initial phases of psychosexual development, particularly his ideas about oral and anal stages. In any case, the final form of the theory goes well beyond Freud and is framed according to the conflicts through which we must pass in the later as well as in the earlier phases of our lives. It is a highly dramatized theory, each “stage” in the life cycle taking the form of a scenario that may be triumphantly achieved or screwed up. Each stage, in effect, is a genre of its own.

Infancy, he proposes, is marked by a conflict between basic trust and basic mistrust; it centers on the infant’s relation with the mother, and a successful outcome in which the infant comes to trust the mother helps the child achieve hope. In the years just following infancy, conflict occurs between the child’s sense of autonomy and feelings of shame or doubt; the conflict centers on the child’s relations with its parents, or parental figures, and resolving it successfully equips the child with a will of its own. In the play stage, a similar conflict arises: initiative is pitted against guilt, and the conflict is acted out in the basic family, with a successful outcome assuring a sense of purpose. School age is the time when industry and gnawing inferiority are in competition for control, and if the former prevails, the child achieves a sense of competence in the wider world beyond the family.

The crucial years of adolescence are marked by a struggle for identity, for a firm sense of self that both relates the young person to and sets him or her apart from the social milieu. Success is marked by a feeling of fidelity and belonging, rather than chaos. The setting of the struggle is the peer group, usually centered in the US on high school. In young adulthood, we face choices that lead either to intimate relations or to isolation, and we work the conflict out in marriage and other relationships. If we are successful we develop a capacity for love. Still later, in mature adulthood, we either achieve a sense of “generativity” and movement or we are plagued by feelings of stagnation. The key to generativity is sharing and love within our own household or its equivalent. Finally, as old age approaches, the choices that are at issue are between achieving a sense of integrity or falling into despair. The larger world now becomes the battlefield, and if we succeed in perceiving it clearly, and dealing with it tolerantly, the prize is wisdom.

Three aspects of this remarkably humane conception of the life cycle distinguish it from standard psychoanalytic theory. In the first place, it recognizes that the problems to be solved beyond childhood have an autonomous reality of their own and need not be seen as deriving from earlier ones. There is “life after Oedipus,” as a bright undergraduate once put it to me. Beyond that, the scheme connects human striving to a culture that is something more than a set of prohibitions—as it invariably tends to be in the Standard Version. In the Eriksonian version, one joins the culture; one does not merely fight its prohibitions or incorporate them into the superego. And if one doesn’t join the culture, one fails to achieve identity and fulfillment. And, finally, there are (or there appear to be) many “second chances” in life—as many as eight significant chances, perhaps—though it is left murky in the chapters of the new collection, as it had been in Childhood and Society, whether the problems of one stage must be resolved before one goes on to the next. 3

I would have thought a formulation as sweeping as this one would force a major revision in psychoanalytic theory—though not so much in practice. For psychoanalysis is considerably less hide-bound, considerably closer to Erikson’s position, in practice than in what it preaches. But taken as a theoretical formulation Erikson’s view of the life cycle surely sets a cat among the orthodox pigeons. Oddly enough it has not had that effect, except among some of the younger analysts who, like Daniel Stern, urge that even in early childhood, the Standard Version is too apocalyptic, too unmindful of the way everyday culture bears on children’s problems in the setting of everyday life. 4

But where has Erikson stood in all this? Despite his contribution to our understanding of the life cycle, he has been curiously quiet about its bearing on psychoanalytic theory as a whole. Rather than addressing the contradictions and ambiguities that his formulations pose for the rigid Standard Version, he takes off half-seriously (in arguably the weakest essay in this book) in pursuit of fanciful sociobiological ideas that might somehow account for species formation (and might somehow underlie the identity crisis). Or he speculates about the animal origins of ritualization in order to account for human sensitivity to cultural forms. The “other Erikson” (if I may be permitted to psychoanalyze the analyst) seems the good stepson as he clings to the biologism of the early psychoanalytic movement—at least when it comes to basic theory. Why this curious “splitting” between the literary-phenomenological Erikson and the Standard Version Erikson? Perhaps he needed a firmer grounding in the social sciences to help him bring them together. One interesting exception to this “splitting” is in an essay in this volume, written with his son Kai, a distinguished sociologist, showing the way by which community institutions—the police, the courts, welfare—confirm the young delinquent in his criminality by giving him messages about the hopelessness of his plight.

So Erikson has reached the end of this half-century of work, a brilliant, humane, literary figure who has enriched our understanding of childhood in modern society, and helped us to see the conflicts man must face throughout his life. Yet, for all that, he has shied away from a confrontation with the theories that he took as his point of departure. He has, as it were, kept Freud’s original formulation as Holy Writ, to be invoked rather than interrogated. Perhaps it was the unconscious price he had to pay to keep peace with the establishment that gave this wandering and dismayed young artist his first identity and allegiance. For all that, he is a living testament to the wisdom of admitting lay psychoanalysts into the official fold. Would that he had been able to turn his powers more fully to refreshing and revising the underlying theoretical dogmas of Freud, whose genius was firmly fixed on the issues not of the past half-century but of the fifty years before it.

Perhaps it is enough to say, as one surely feels after reading the 750 pages of A Way of Looking at Things, that Erik Erikson has himself put in a mighty half-century and that he fully deserves his renown as the most distinguished psychoanalyst in the world today. And perhaps among the reasons he is surely the best loved among them is that he had the kindness to know when to let sleeping dogs lie.

  1. 1

    Erik H. Erikson, Life History and the Historical Moment (Norton, 1975). See especially the opening essay, ” ‘Identity Crisis’ in Autobiographic Perspective.” All other quotations are from A Way of Looking at Things.

  2. 2

    Donald Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (Norton, 1982); Roy Schafer, A New Language for Psychoanalysis (Yale University Press, 1976).

  3. 3

    Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (Norton, 1950).

  4. 4

    Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (Basic Books, 1985).