Sunday, July 03, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 14

The Dialectic of Creativity

Now the following thoughts are not at all unrelated to my four or five posts on doing philosophy with children. Neither is it far removed from those posts in the sense that teaching children to think philosophically can and does increase their curiosity and wonder, and in so doing will spark their creativity in many fields of knowledge. Hence, what may seem like interruptions or bifurcations in the flow of my thoughts are not necessarily so at all. Everything is grist to the philosopher's mill and indeed to the creative artist's mill too.

I have always been fascinated by creativity - which is surely one of the hallmarks that distinguishes us human beings from the unthinking animals. For the last seven or so years I have attended an annual performance of The Messiah by Handel in our National Concert Hall here in Dublin and that is some aural, emotional and spiritual experience. That one human mind could have come up with that big magical and mystical sound is astounding to say the least. That the poetry of the likes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, T.S.Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop and so many others exists to our delectation is also astounding. Then, one can go into the field of architecture and muse at the great and wonderful medieval and modern cathedrals - Chartres, St Peter's, Canterbury, Christ Church (Dublin), Salisbury, Koln, Sacre Coeur, and indeed the Sagrada Família of Antoní Gaudi in Barcelona, just to name some that I have visited myself. That human creativity can do all these things is nothing short of amazing. Creativity, I believe, is the expression of the wonderful power of the human imagination.

The Tension of Opposites

Anyone who has been a reader of these pages over the last six years will know that I am fascinated by the healthy tension or polarity of opposites. Our author Professor Stephen Levine is also, and this is one of the things that keeps me returning again and again to his short and profound book Poiesis. It is perhaps patently obvious that this polarity exists at the level of human emotions and at the very core of ethical and moral thinking. That it might exist at the heart of creativity is not at all as obvious, though not unsurprising given its centrality to the world of reality. In this chapter, Professor Levine presents us with an exposition of creativity based on a healthy tension of opposites as expressed in the literary work of William Blake insofar as the latter got at something important and essential in the human make-up - that of the polarity or tension between the world of innocence and that of experience. William Blake is also one of my most favourite poets, artists and mystics and I have written at length about this great creative genius in this blog over the years at these links here: - Blake as Poet 1 , Blake as Poet 2  and Blake as Genius/Mystic.  Let me here return to Levine's own words, and omit his couple of pages on Blake as I've dealt with this polarity in this pre-Romantic English author already at length:

My hypothesis is that this development [that of creativity over the human lifespan] is a dialectical one, that mature creativity is capable of integrating the opposing forces within the person in order to bring him or her to a sense of wholeness and fulfillment (Poiesis, p. 77)

Professor Levine argues in this tightly reasoned chapter that the Blakeian healthy tension or polarity of opposites between Innocence and Experience is mirrored in the opposing theories of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott. It is to a brief summary of each of their theories that I now turn.

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960) was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst who devised novel therapeutic techniques for children that had a significant impact on child psychology and contemporary psychoanalysis. Professor Levine sums up her take on the psychology of creativity thus:

Melanie Klein, in her account of the internal world of the child, has given us a theoretical formulation that comes close in spirit to Blake’s world of experience. It is interesting that for Klein, as opposed to Blake, the child is hardly innocent; the envy and jealousy that Blake describes in his Songs of Experience are the core of the child’s world. For Klein the child deflects its own self-destructive impulses outward. He or she aggressively attacks the mother’s breast and seeks to devour it, incorporating its goodness. This aggressiveness gives rise to a fear of retaliation, which is responded to by guilt and a desire to make reparation. (ibid., p. 79)
Professor Levine goes on to argue that in this scheme of things creativity is emphatically NOT understood as an expression of childhood innocence. In fact, it is only because the child is capable of feeling guilt that it can be creative – that is, that he or she can make restoration or reparation for its imaginary and deeply felt crimes. In other words in Klein creativity is very much based on the Blakeian world of Experience.


D.W. Winnicott
Donald Woods Winnicott, more often referred to as simply D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971) began his career as a pediatrician and used his experience with children to develop his innovative ideas. Winnicott has made great and lasting contributions to psychoanalytic theory, particularly in the tradition of Object Relations Theory, derived from Melanie Klein's theories, the intricacies of which need not detain us here.

D.W. Winnicott clearly questioned the basis of the Kleinian account of creativity.  For this paediatric psychoanalyst, it is not loss that is the basis of creativity; rather the child must first find a core or centre to him or herself before they can tolerate loss. To put it in other words, the mother-infant bond must be firmly established or else loss of any significant object in the child’s life will quite simply be experienced as a loss of self. Such a loss would mean essentially that the child would be overwhelmed.

Again, we can state that the Winnicottian view of creativity is one that essentially sees it as a central or primary rather than a defensive or secondary phenomenon in the child’s life. In other words, creativity is a central part of “being alive”. Returning to Professor Levine’s words we read:

Creativity is a basic expression of being; it is the child’s affirmation of his or her own existence. This affirmation must be responded to and affirmed by another in order for the child to feel that he or she is who they claim to be. (Ibid., p. 82)

In summary, then, for our purposes here we may state that for D.W. Winnicott, all creative action stems from the creativity of being itself.  In short also, Professor Levine is paralleling the Blakeian creative opposition between Innocence and Experience with the opposition between the opposing theories of Winnicott (which approximates to Innocence) and that of Klein (which approximates to Experience).


One can see the overarching influence of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis in the Kleinian version of creativity as adumbrated by our scholar Professor Levine.  As I was reading Klein’s words in Poiesis I could almost see the venerable old man nod in agreement with her conclusions, because Klein, being a good disciple of the great pioneering father of psychoanalysis, based her theories on the death instinct as being a primary psychic element in the human condition.

For Klein, creativity, then, comes after loss (Experience in the Blakeian scenario) – an attempt to restore or repair the lost object. For Winnicott, creativity is the exact opposite, because it is based on what his found; if you like it is based on that sense of selfhood found in a relationship with a significant other. I like Levine’s summary here:

“One could say that for Klein, we can only find what we have lost; for Winnicott, we can only lose what we have found, that is, we can only mourn a loss if we can have a self that can survive what we have lost. Winnicittian “innocence” stands in stark contrast to Kleinian “experience.” (Ibid., p. 83.0

Levine suggests that these two opposing theories of creativity can be reconciled in a sort of healthy tension or polarity of opposites which he defines as the dialectic of creativity.

To be continued.

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