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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Art and the Origins of Depth Psychology

Both Hillman and Freud acknowledge a debt to artists. Freud is reported to have said: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.” Indeed, Hillman (1983b) begins his book Healing Fiction with a quote from Giovanni Papini’s 1934 fictional interview of Freud:


I am a scientist by necessity, and not by vocation. I am really by nature an artist . . . . and of this there lies an irrefutable proof: which is that in all countries into which psychoanalysis has penetrated it has been better understood and applied by writers and artists than by doctors. My books, in fact, more resemble works of imagination than treatises on pathology . . . in all great men of science there is a leaven of fantasy, but no one proposes like me to translate the inspirations offered by the currents of modern literature into scientific theories. In psychoanalysis you may find fused together though changed into scientific jargon, the three greatest literary schools of the nineteenth century: Heine, Zola and Mallarmé united in me under the patronage of my old master Goethe. (p. 3)

Hillman points out that this fictional interview more clearly shows “what psychotherapy is actually doing, than do the elaborations of Freudian theory” (p. 3)


Hillman often relies on artists instead of psychologists to illustrate his ideas (Hillman & Ventura, 1992). For example, Hillman uses Picasso and the poet Wallace Stephens to discuss image, imagination, and his acorn theory. After quoting Picasso about image, Hillman goes on to quote Wallace Stephens regarding the fact that we can never get outside the imagination: “the absence of imagination had/ Itself to be imagined” (p. 63). Hillman himself adds: “your life is the ongoing operation of imagination; you imagine yourself into existence, or let’s say, an image is continuing to shape itself into the oak tree you consider your reality” (p. 63). In his latest book, A Terrible Love of War, Hillman (2004) frequently turns to poems and literature to capture the essence of a topic under discussion. Odajnyk (1984) argues that Hillman is really an artist who uses psychology as his medium.


Depth psychology’s beginnings were realized through art. Freud, after reading Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos realized “I am Oedipus” (Downing, 2002, lecture). This same play and its sequels, as Hillman (1995) points out, have profoundly inspired depth psychological theory. Jung was greatly influenced by Freud’s reading and followed in a more polytheistic trajectory. Where Freud saw one myth, Jung saw many. Indeed myths led to the notion of the collective unconscious, and Jung’s search for the myth he was living. Joseph Campbell (1968), in turn, was influenced by Freud, Rank, and Jung and as a result wrote The Hero with A Thousand Faces, a book that has had a tremendous effect on Hollywood, most notably George Lucas, the director of Star Wars. Christopher Vogler, when he worked for Disney, crafted a

“seven page memo” about Campbell’s book. This memo, along with Vogler’s subsequent book, The Writer’s Journey (1998) are used by many of the Hollywood studios in evaluating and reworking material (Vogler, 1995, cassette).


The work of Max Ernst provides another instance of depth psychology inspiring art, which, in turn influenced depth psychology. Max Ernst was a surrealist artist who worked with collage and frottage. Ernst was influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and many of his collage images explore psychoanalytic themes (Warlick, 2001). Ernst, in turn, influenced Lévi-Strauss (1988), who credits Ernst with being the inspiration for his concept of bricolage. As have seen, the concept of bricolage has had an effect on many, including D. L. Miller (1996, online), Hillman (1992) and anthropologist Victor Turner (1988), who first influenced me.


The work of Max Ernst provides another instance of depth psychology inspiring art, which, in turn influenced depth psychology. Max Ernst was a surrealist artist who worked with collage and frottage. Ernst was influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and many of his collage images explore psychoanalytic themes (Warlick, 2001). Ernst, in turn, influenced Lévi-Strauss (1988), who credits Ernst with being the inspiration for his concept of bricolage. As have seen, the concept of bricolage has had an effect on many, including D. L. Miller (1996, online), Hillman (1992) and anthropologist Victor Turner (1988), who first influenced me.


While Freud and others were inspired by art and in turn had an effect on art, similarly, we will see that depth psychology explores culture and uses culture to explain itself. Although Freud and Jung realized that civilization was a problem, they had no real method of working with civilization (Hillman, 1983c, p. 130). Hillman has taken the cultural ball and run with it. Hillman, too, has been influenced by art, so before discussing further the conversation between depth psychology and culture, I will briefly digress to consider a few of Hillman’s thoughts about art and depth psychology. Hillman desires psychological theory to function like art:


I want theories that blow the mind, as art can, not settle our minds. And the value of the psychological theory lies in its capacity to open the mind, take the top of your head off like a good poem or voice in song. (Hillman & Ventura, 1992, p. 69)


Hillman has suggested an artistic paradigm for therapy and remarks that psychology must be comfortable with the poetic basis of mind. He writes of imagination:


If our methods are to meet the madness in America, that eruptive violence, there must be madness in our methods. And since our methods are our own personalities . . . then we therapists must admit the idiosyncratic craziness that is inherent to the poetic basis of mind, its fountain of strange imaginings. Our obligation to the soul calls for outrage and outrageousness, no warm support for compromising mediocrity. (Hillman & Ventura, 1992, p. 97)


Art has inspired Hillman’s theory as well. He credits Picasso’s painting Le Jeune Peintre (The Young Painter) as the brainchild for his “living backwards” theory. Picasso painted it when he was 91, a year before he died. In speaking about Le Jeune Peintre, Hillman remarks:


When I first saw this painting—and it was a big one, nearly a yard tall—I had that frisson Andre Malraux says leaps from one work of art to another via the human person. This haunting, simple image turned out to be the initiatory experience for my theory of life lived backwards. Here is the invisible Picasso caught on the canvas, a self-portrait of the daimon that inhabited him all his life. At the end, it emerges and shows itself . . . This image also presents Corbin’s basic premise about ta’wil, or the art of interpretive reading, how to read life itself; we must “read things back to their origins and their principle, their archetype.” . . . Because the primary activity of the psyche is imagining. My point here is that we humans are primarily acts of imagination, images. Jung says, “The psyche consists essentially of images.” . . . What we are really, and the reality we live in, is our psychic reality, which is nothing but—get the demeaning nothing but—the poetic imagination going on day and night. We really do live in dream time; we really are such stuff as dreams are made of. (Hillman & Ventura, 1992, pp. 61-62)


Grof has also been influenced by art and is himself an artist. Through his own art, as well as that of his co-researchers and patients, Grof has chronicled nonordinary state experiences. In these creative expressions, Grof was able to see patterns and themes emerge that resulted in his notion of systems of condensed expression, or COEXes. These COEXes relate to the different stages in the birth process (Grof 2002b). Indeed, it was the descriptions of one of these stages of the birth process—Basic Perinatal Matrix II (BPM II) when the uterus contracts but the cervix is not yet open—which led me to Grof’s work during a Google search.


Now that we have seen a few examples of depth psychology’s influencing and being influenced by art, I will turn to how depth psychology has explored culture and how it uses culture to explain itself.



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