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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 analysed 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.