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Rollo May : The Artist and The Neurotic

Edvard Munch - The Scream, 1893

Extract from :

Rollo May

Love and Will


The relation between the artist and the neurotic, often considered mysterious, is entirely understandable from the viewpoint presented here. Both artist and neurotic speak and live from the subconscious and unconscious depths of their society. The artist does this positively, communicating what he experiences to his fellow men. The neurotic does this negatively. Experiencing the same underlying meanings and contradictions of his culture, he is unable to form his experiences into communicable meaning for himself and his fellows.

Art and neurosis both have a predictive function. Since art is communication springing from unconscious levels, it presents to us an image of man which is as yet present only in those members of the society who, by virtue of their own sensitized consciousness, live on the frontier of their society — live, as it were, with one foot in the future. Sir Herbert Read has made the case that the artist anticipates the later scientific and intellectual experience of the race.

The water reeds and ibis legs painted in triangular designs on neolithic vases in ancient Egypt were the prediction of the later development of geometry and mathematics by which the Egyptian read the stars and measured the Nile. In the magnificent Greek sense of proportion of the Parthenon, in the powerful dome of Roman architecture, and in the medieval cathedral, Read traces how, in a given period of history, art expresses the meanings and trends which are as yet unconscious, but which will later be formulated by the philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists of the society. The arts anticipate the future social and technological development by a generation when the change is more superficial, or by centuries when the change, as the discovery of mathematics, is profound.

By the same token, we find the artists expressing the conflicts in the society before these conflicts emerge consciously in the society as a whole. The artist — who is the “antennae of the race,” to use Ezra Pound’s phrase — is living out, in forms that only he can create, the depths of consciousness which he experiences in his own being as he struggles with and molds his world. Here we are plunged immediately into the center of the issues raised in this book. For the world presented by our contemporary painters and dramatists and other artists is a schizoid world . They present the condition of our world which makes the tasks of loving and willing peculiarly difficult. It is a world in which, amid all the vastly developed means of communication that bombard us on all sides, actual personal communication is exceedingly difficult and rare.

The most significant dramatists of our time, as Richard Gilman reminds us, are those who take as their subject matter precisely this loss of communication — who show, as do Ionesco and Genet and Beckett and Pinter, that our present fate as man is to exist in a world where communication between persons is all but destroyed. We live out our lives talking to a tape recorder, as in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape; our existence becomes more lonely as the radios and TV’s and telephone extensions in our houses become more numerous.

Ionesco has a scene in his play, The Bald Soprano , in which a man and woman happen to meet and engage in polite, if mannered, conversation. As they talk they discover that they both came down to New York on the ten o’clock train that morning from New Haven, and, surprisingly, the address of both is the same building on Fifth Avenue. Lo and behold, they also both live in the same apartment and both have a daughter seven years old. They finally discover to their astonishment that they are man and wife.

We find the same situation among the painters. Cézanne, the acknowledged father of the modern art movement, a man who in his own life was as undramatic and bourgeois as only a middle-class Frenchman can be, paints this schizoid world of spaces and stones and trees and faces. He speaks to us out of the old world of mechanics but forces us to live in the new world of free-floating spaces.

“Here we are beyond causes and effects,” writes Merleau-Ponty of Cézanne; “both come together in the simultaneity of an eternal Cézanne who is at the same time the formula of what he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. There is a rapport between Cézanne’s schizoid temperament and his work because the work reveals a metaphysical sense of the disease…. In this sense to be schizoid and to be Cézanne come to the same thing.”

Only a schizoid man could paint a schizoid world; which is to say, only a man sensitive enough to penetrate to the underlying psychic conflicts could present our world as it is in its deeper forms.

But in the very grasping of our world by art there is also our protection from the dehumanizing effects of technology. The schizoid character lies in both the confronting of the depersonalizing world and the refusing to be depersonalized by it. For the artist finds deeper planes of consciousness where we can participate in human experience and nature below superficial appearances.

The case may be clearer in Van Gogh, whose psychosis was not unconnected with his volcanic struggle to paint what he perceived. Or in Picasso, flamboyant as he may seem to be, whose insight into the schizoid character of our modern world is seen in the fragmented bulls and torn villagers in Guernica , or in the distorted portraits with mislocated eyes and ears — paintings not named but numbered. It is no wonder that Robert Motherwell remarks that this is the first age in which the artist does not have a community; he must now, like all of us, make his own.

The artist presents the broken image of man but transcends it in the very act of transmuting it into art. It is his creative act which gives meaning to the nihilism, alienation, and other elements of modern man’s condition. To quote Merleau-Ponty again when he writes of Cézanne’s schizoid temperament, “Thus the illness ceases to be an absurd fact and a fate, and becomes a general possibility of human existence.”

The neurotic and the artist — since both live out the unconscious of the race—reveal to us what is going to emerge endemically in the society later on. The neurotic feels the same conflicts arising from his experience of nihilism, alienation, and so on, but he is unable to give them meaningful form; he is caught between his incapacity to mold these conflicts into creative works on one hand and his inability to deny them on the other. As Otto Rank remarked, the neurotic is the “artiste manqué,” the artist who cannot transmute his conflicts into art.

To admit this as a reality not only gives us our liberty as creative persons but also the basis of our freedom as human beings. By the same token, confronting at the outset the fact of the schizoid state of our world may give us a basis for discovering love and will for our own age."



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