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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.

  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.

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