Creativity and Neuroses

In 1909, Sigmund Freud made his sole journey to the U.S., having been invited, along with colleague (and then-annointed son and heir) C.G. Jung, to lecture at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. According to the book’s editor, Freud biographer Peter Gay, the lectures found an appreciative audience at the time, and they have endured as a “lucid general introduction to what is, after all, a difficult discipline.”

The unidentified editor of what appears to have been the 1961 edition of the lectures (which formed the basis for this more recent edition), noted that they “give an excellent idea of the ease and clarity of style and the unconstrained sense of form which made Freud such a remarkable expository lecturer.”

Is it any surprise, then, that creativity fascinated Freud? In one of his five lectures, he explains that the roots of both human neuroses and creativity lie in the natural conflict between the obligations of reality and the temptations of fantasy. In creativity, Freud recognized a possible escape from the enduring problem of neuroses, a doorway drawn with chalk (or perhaps a crayon) in an otherwise blankly solid wall:

The deeper you penetrate into the pathogenesis of nervous illness, the more you will find revealed the connection between the neuroses and other productions of the human mind, including the most valuable.

You will be taught that we humans, with the high standards of our civilization and under the pressure of our internal repressions, find reality unsatisfying quite generally, and for that reason entertain a life of phantasy in which we like to make up for the insufficiencies of reality by the production of wish-fulfillments…

The energetic and successful man is one who succeeds by his efforts in turning his wishful phantasies into reality. Where this fails, as a result of the resistances of the external world and of the subject’s own weakness, he begins to turn away from reality and withdraws into his more satisfying world of phantasy, the content of which is transformed into symptoms should he fall ill. In certain favorable circumstances, it still remains possible for him to find another path leading from these phantasies to reality, instead of becoming permanently estranged from it by regressing to infancy. If a person who is at loggerheads with reality possesses an artistic gift (a thing that is still a psychological mystery to us), he can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms. In this matter, he can escape the doom of neurosis and by this roundabout path regain his contact with reality.

If there is persistent rebellion against the real world and if this precious gift is absent or insufficient, it is almost inevitable that the libido, keeping to the sources of the phantasies, will follow the path of regression and will revive infantile wishes and end in neurosis. To-day, neurosis takes the place of the monasteries which used to be the refuge of all whom life had disappointed or who felt too weak to face it.

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