Psychoanalysts writing on creativity have commonly tried to answer two different questions, not always distinguishing between them. The first concerns the function that creative work fulfills for a given person, or type of person, and here the concepts and materials of psychoanalysis and psychopathology have undoubtedly been useful. The other question is how it comes about that creative work, especially in the arts, is one of the human possibilities, a characteristic activity of the species.
In handling this latter problem the psychotherapist has had no advantage over the psychologist, the ethologist, or perhaps even the philosopher. Dr. Storr rightly rejects the Freudian theory of art as sublimation, which puts it on a par with neurotic symptoms. Art certainly derives from primitive roots, as all our activities must, but it is not a distorted and disguised development that loses its force when its psychological history is disclosed. Dr. Storr prefers a biological justification of art, in essentials keeping close to the nineteenth-century view of Karl Groos (without, however, mentioning him), though he supplements this view with references to the unconscious. But like Groos he fails to show explicitly how developed art (as distinct from primitive cave paintings) can at all contribute to “biological success” defined in any simple Darwinian terms.
It seems just as plausible to argue the converse: that biological success, a good margin between us and extinction, is a condition of creative work. The Eskimos had sufficient margin to do some admirable carving, but China and the Mediterranean regions had greater margins, and could develop art further; and though favorable physical conditions are not the whole story (otherwise Oceania might have been a still greater center of art) there is little supporting evidence for the case that art contributes to biological survival.
“Biologically adaptive” is often the latter day puritan’s synonym for “godly.” Nowadays, when we give almost as much anxious attention to leisure as to work, it might seem enough that people find intense satisfaction in creating and enjoying works of art. But in this respect, masturbatory fantasies might do equally well, and Dr. Storr is incisive in dismissing them and the pornography that feeds them. However elaborate these fantasies become, they come back to the repetitive simplicities of sexuality:
The distaste or contempt with which various peoples throughout the world regard masturbation is not necessarily based upon a puritanical condemnation of sexual pleasure, but rather upon a half-formulated recognition that it is a childish way of short-circuiting and discharging impulses which could be integrated in a creative way if they were not so dissipated.
What has to be explained about the arts is our satisfaction not only in the achieved harmony of a particular work, the momentary point of rest, but also in the unending development that makes us ready, as artist or audience, for the next step, the advance in complexity or subtlety, or even accurate simplification, which only the preceding step makes possible. Dr. Storr recognizes the fact, but his theoretical account hardly explains it; too many human groups have been biologically successful with no more than the rudiments of this development.
On the other question, the place of creative work in the lives of individual people, Dr. Storr has more to draw upon and more to offer. He is an eclectic British psychotherapist, inclined to be placatory when he differs from Freud, but drawing freely on Jung, Melanie Klein, Fairbairn, and D. W. Winnicott (besides referring occasionally to experimental work in psychology). Although much of his material, psychological and biographical, is familiar, it has been gathered from wide enough sources for some of it at least to be new to readers. One early chapter discusses Newton and Einstein, examining the relation of what he considers to be their “schizoid” personalities to the kind of creative effort they made, but otherwise the book deals almost exclusively with the arts (and could have had a more accurate title).
Storr’s plan is largely to work from clinical categories and concepts and to illustrate them from biographical material, which they in turn illuminate. So, for instance, in a suggestive and stimulating discussion of creative work by people with manic-depressive tendencies he points out that achievement provides an injection of self-esteem that has to be repeated frequently:
Success does bring self-esteem, reassurance, and even elation to the depressive; but the improvement is generally short-lived. In the end, no amount of external success compensates for what has not been incorporated in early childhood; the irrational sense of his own value which the loved and wanted child assimilates automatically as part of his birthright.
(The over-simple expository style is evident: it is not until several pages later that we get the all-important proviso that the depressive’s sense of lacking love may spring from fantasy rather than fact.) Success does not, of course, affect only artists in this way; as Dr. Storr has previously mentioned, the depressives who benefit include not only “creative workers” but—and the contrast is his—“leaders, millionaires, television personalities or stage performers.”
He comes closer to the special appeal of artistic creation when he refers to the depressive’s underlying difficulty in handling his own aggressive feelings. Occasionally the aggression may find release in a form as direct as Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh,
But a creative work provides a more subtle vehicle for the expression of aggression than by simply acting as a means of abreacting hostility. Any work which becomes public property is a kind of self-assertion…. The depressive person is less than normally assertive within his own group, on account of his need to ingratiate, and his capacity for identification. If a man habitually says “Yes” in order to please others, he is in danger of disappearing as a separate entity. The maintenance of individuality requires at least a minimum of self-assertion. But the practice of an art gives a man an opportunity to express himself without any immediate need to fit in with the opinions of others. In fact the work may be a much more valid piece of self-expression than what is revealed in action or conversation in “real” life.
He points out the consequence—that depressives become more sensitive about what they produce
…than they are about their own defended personalities in ordinary social life. To mind more about one’s book or painting than one does about oneself will seem strange to those who are sure enough of themselves to be themselves in social relations. But if a book or a painting contains more of the real person than is ever shown in ordinary life, it is not surprising that the producer of it is hypersensitive….
And he cites Virginia Woolf and the agonized attention she paid to the reception of her books.
The same approach enables him to illuminate the familiar phenomenon of the creative block:
If the whole of one’s self-esteem comes to be bound up in the production of a particular work, it is too dangerous to risk its exposure, and it may, therefore, be put off and put off by means of one excuse after another. More commonly it becomes impossible to proceed at all, although the reason for the block is generally unconscious. The torments which people suffer, and the compulsive way in which they force themselves to engage in a task which brings no pleasure, but only pain, is often highly distressing.
The value of Storr’s book lies in its systematizing such clinical insights as these around the subject of creation in the arts. The simplification and selectiveness of the materials is, however, extreme. A chapter which takes as its examples of manic-depressive artists Samuel Butler, Michelangelo, Virginia Woolf, Schumann, and Balzac is bound to be using a very limited selection of the biographical, even of the psychopathological, facts about each, let alone examining the relation between their personal problems and the individual qualities of their work.
The book’s construction contributes to this selectivity and to a piecemeal quality. As a manic-depressive, obsessional schizoid, I find my own tendencies accurately delineated, of course, but split up under three chapter headings. The chapters deal with conventional topics in a rather mechanical sequence, as in a syllabus approved by a committee for a not very advanced course of lectures; one misses the vitality and urgency of a book that needed to grow. The great writers and artists cannot have been as simple, even in their psychopathology, as the labeling they receive here. Of course, Dr. Storr is not offering a full case study of any of them, and he does illuminate them all, but compared with the fluid complexity of the interaction between a work in progress and the personality producing it the treatment here is bound to seem a little facile.
It is not enough, for instance, to note what the mere fact of producing a work means in the artist’s psychopathology; we want to know more about the extent and nature of the pathology as it influences the work itself. B. R. Haydon’s flamboyantly manic-depressive characteristics could hardly be deduced from his paintings; the vast canvases and scenes of action were conventions of his time, and though he painted when in his euphoric moods, the figures convey their energy less convincingly than, say, Tiepolo’s. In contrast the paranoid and withdrawn traits of Edvard Munch reach clear expression in his paintings. When the personality is so clearly reflected in the work, difficult questions arise about the effectiveness with which the pathology is controlled and whether it becomes an enrichment of the work or an irruption of the clinical. In Kafka, for example (whose work in relation to his personality Dr. Storr discusses), one might argue that The Castle shows the former process, The Trial and The Penal Colony the latter.
Questions like this, questions of quality, lurk behind all psychological thinking on creativity. Dr. Storr criticizes psychoanalytic theory for failing to distinguish between good art and bad, but having once dismissed James Bond and much popular fiction as “escape” (without scrutinizing that slippery concept), he himself almost ignores the distinction in the rest of the book. For the past generation or two we have been increasingly tender, rightly so in many ways, toward the rudimentary in artistic achievement, whether it is the art encouraged for therapeutic purposes in psychiatric patients, the verse that externalizes surges of feelings in adolescents, the Sunday painting that relieves the week’s tensions of the businessman, or the creative writing of young school children. No one would want to inhibit these things by premature self-criticism.
But their relation to serious, finer work is doubtful. Dr. Storr notes that
…there is a negative correlation between the higher forms of creative production and financial reward, whereas the lower and more ephemeral forms are much more lavishly rewarded….
This merely reflects the fact that only a tiny minority has developed the skills required of an audience for appreciating more serious work. The dynamics of enjoyment are as important as the dynamics of creation, and no less obscure.
The difference between people who remain on a plateau either as creators or as audience, content only with minor variations, and those others who have always to press on to something beyond is crucial and puzzling. Henry James conveys it, with the muted irony that allowed him to be almost honest and yet keep his friends, when he replied to a letter in which W. D. Howells had reported on his own prolific productivity:
I have fortunately broken ground on an American novel, but when you draw my ear to the liquid current of your own promiscuous abundance and facility—a flood of many affluents—I seem to myself to wander by contrast in desert sands. And I find our art, all the while, more difficult of practice, and want, with that, to do it in a more and more difficult way; it being really, at bottom, only difficulty that interests me. Which is a most accursed way to be constituted. (31 December 1903)
We could argue about James’s “difficulty” and whether he sought it in the most fruitful direction, but the process he pointed to is important. It is not quite enough, however true, for Dr. Storr to say that
…personality development is a process which is never complete; and no sooner is a new integration achieved, a new mandala painted, than it is seen as inadequate. Another must follow which will include some other omitted element, or be a more perfect expression of the new insight.
This suggests too much that some ultimate completeness must somewhere exist, toward which the artist strives. But in fact—if he is constituted like Henry James—he is at his best when he behaves like a tree, always complete and balanced, but constantly ramifying further while his strength lasts. And his audience needs to develop with him, as James’s audience in his lifetime could not. The dynamics that Dr. Storr analyzes concern the creation not only of great art but of the larger body of seriously intended, competent, and undistinguished work, amateur or professional. Vital questions therefore remain, questions of the psychological processes and conditions, in the artist and in his potential audience, that bring about the emergence of a great work.
December 14, 1972