Awfully Attractive

When I began the study of beauty, I had the sense that the ability to perceive beauty and to create it were indicators of psychological health. While I still tend to believe this, I also see that the situation is more complex. The beauty of aesthetic arrest, the appreciation of the beauty of form and order, the beauty that self-actualized individuals see in the “values of being” are indicators of psychological health. These beauties can be enjoyed by everyone; however, they are more likely to be enjoyed and perceived by individuals who have gratified basic needs. Their perception and creation of beauty are affirmations of the beauty and wholeness they experience in the natural world. This perception of beauty is a transcendent experience. But there is also the beauty of the ominous and the awfull, the beauty of the mysterious “secret cause”. Consider again Huston Smith (1990) on the Tibetan Tantric Buddhists’ understanding of the incalculable good: …the holy is this distinctive range of reality which both fascinates us, because it is more than we realized was there, but it also frightens us because it is strange, unfamiliar and we don’t know whether the human spirit is viable in that medium. Can we endure its intensity? (1990)


Awful beauty also raises the existential crisis put so passionately by Rilke (1978) in his First Duino Elegy: If I cried out who would hear me up there among the angelic orders? And suppose one suddenly took me to his heart I would shrivel I couldn’t survive next to his greater existance. Beauty is only the first touch of terror we can still bear and it awes us so much because it coolly disdains to destroy us. (p. 19) Can we endure its intensity? In the passion of creativity when we encounter the seductive qualities of beauty as the transcendent archetype, can we endure its intensity? Do you know that it can overwhelm you? Like the flame attracting the moth, it can get you. It’s as if we can’t look into the light of the numinous for too long without self-destructing in some way. I have spoken of the need to take the creative process in measured doses. In her sensitive, well researched book, Touched With Fire. Manicdepressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment (1993), Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University, reports that, among distinguished artists, manic depression and major depression are ten to thirty times as prevalent as in the general population. Those with manicdepression oscillate between a sense of grandeur and boundless energy, an energy that feeds on itself; and a profound depression.


Jamison’s book, written from the medical model, traces the mental illness of families of artists such as van Gogh. She notes how artists often avoid the medications available to them today, preferring to deal with their depression as a price to be paid for their creative highs. There is perhaps some truth in the glib question that often arises during clinical teaching situations: Who would not want an illness that has among its symptoms elevated and expansive mood, inflated self-esteem, abundance of energy, less need for sleep, intensified sexuality, and — most germane to our argument here — sharpened and unusually creative thinking and increased productivity? (p. 103) Noting the anguished lives of manic-depressives and indicating that most do not have the compensation of the creative life to make it bearable, Jamison asks what humanity might lose should we be able to medically stabilize their moods. Van Gogh, on the other hand, in his last year said: “If I could have worked without this accursed disease — what things I might have done .. . following what the country said to me. But there, this journey is over and done with” (cited in Jamison, 1993, pp. 249-250). Applying the ideas of Hofmann (1990) and Sheldrake (1993) to van Gogh’s case we would conclude he was receiving sensory input on another wave length. How seductive that must have been, on one hand, and how difficult, on the other, it must have been to have lived in a world where few others understood what he saw. Yet, today, a hundred years after his death, almost everyone can appreciate his vision. Can this be morphic resonance at work? What about visionaries like Shakespeare, Beethoven and Picasso? They were supremely creative, relatively well-balanced, and self-actualized in the fullest sense of the word. Recall that Maslow (1993b) felt that one reached self-actualization only after satisfying the basic biological and stimulation needs.


Consider the possibility that van Gogh was operating like a selfactualized individual, but he lacked the grounding of those basic needs. Van Gogh grew up in a family rife with mental illness, a whole family with a different tuning system at odds with the world. Through his art he found an outlet to express his vision, but without the grounding he needed to partake of the vision in measured doses. Is the manic-depressive artist a selfactualized spirit ungrounded? In my own modest encounters with the creative process, I have learned that an incubation period, a time for the unconscious process to germinate, preceeds the creative rush. Once the rush is on, it can last for weeks, always followed by a period of decline. Sometimes the rush is hard to get out of. I find it can be moderated by long walks in nature and by certain kinds of music. Are measured doses of creativity and long walks for artists like training meals and workouts for athletes? Consider the impact of the use of various recreational and performance enhancing drugs on athletes and artists who are not grounded in Maslow’s (1993b) basic needs. Then, notice how the best athletes measure out their energy to last the race. Van Gogh produced great art for ten years, Picasso for seventy. The psychodynamics behind the creative urge remains an area of fruitful inquiry. I only wish to suggest here that the creative state is an altered state of consciousness, that the theories of Hofmann (1990) and Sheldrake (1993) have much to offer in understanding this state and that everything we know in psychology about infant development, family dynamics and chemical dependency can shed light on the individual’s relationship to the creative process. Beauty is transcendent, it need not be terror. I want to return to Bateson (1990) and the communication inherent in a “wrong note”. Recall that a note is “wrong” only in context. When we encounter so much art today that appears to be ugly, art we perceive as a “wrong note”, what is it trying to say to us? What does “pornography” want to tell us about our relationships with one another.


Hidden within the genre of “pornography” are loving, resonating couples such as the couple photographed by Paul Simon (Figure 9). At the other extreme are images of dissonance. If we cannot tell the difference between the art of resonance and art that is dissonant, what does that say about our cultural lensing? Beauty, the transcendent archetype, the beauty of resonance, gives us a way to listen to the world from a depth perspective. Consider Campbell’s (1990) distinction between proper and improper art and Maslow’s (1993b) values of being when identifying the images and the literature of psychological wholeness. Can therapists help their clients distinguish between aesthetic “junk food” and “health food”? Does the therapist and the therapist’s environment resonate with beauty so that the client can know a new way of being in the world? Recall that to truly see a flower, to resonate with its beauty, the viewer needs to drop into an altered state of consciousness, a depth state. In depth psychology, to truly see your client, you need to do the same thing. Out of this state comes empathy and compassion for the client, the flower, and the world. In depth psychotherapy, when client and therapist are in resonance, there exists the possibility of transcendence that is experienced as beauty. Van den Berg (1992), describing his work as a therapist, was careful to note the importance of beauty in the therapeutic setting. He sees his clients in his home. He carefully arranges for them to have a friendly impression of the house with a bit of art and a show of hospitality. Van den Berg: On the table I always have a flower and the flower is there just to show that life is not only psychotherapy, but is of some beauty. — Patients come in with various serious problems, patients with the idea of suicide, and you have to show, I think, always that there is some side of existence also for them to admire. (1992) I had the opportunity to visit Professor van den Berg in the Netherlands during the summer of 1993. His home and his therapy room are just as he described them in his lecture. I visited him to find out what formative experiences in his life had sensitized him to beauty.


His descriptions of his relationship to his mother recalled for me statements by Winnicott (1969) about the importance of the mother-child bond in freeing the child to explore the beauty and wonders of the world. She taught him “to listen to the birds, hear the storm, see the rain” (1993). In school a teacher taught him that anatomy was beautiful. Another teacher taught him to press flowers, a hobby he continues to this day. He also valued an education that required him to memorize poems. Van den Berg sees today’s education lacking in the teaching of culture and beauty. Recounting my visit with van den Berg with his student, Professor Romanyshyn, at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Romanyshyn (1993) told a story from his early days as a therapist. He had an on-going group session with teenage delinquents, a tough group. One day he brought pictures of beautiful art to show them, not knowing what to expect.


They were moved. One of the toughest said, with deep emotion, that if he had known there was such beauty in the world, his life might have been different. The relationship of beauty to psychological health needs to become a major focus of research. One sub-category of this research would center on our differing ability to endure the passion of the creative process. To what extent is mental illness in artists related to a deprivation of basic biological and stimulation needs in their lives? When we encounter environments and art that appear to be ugly, what is it that we are not attending to? Can we study the lives of individuals who perceive and create beauty to an extraordinary degree to learn how they do this? Can we understand that beauty has economic as well as psychological value? What is the cost if we continue to deny and repress beauty in our culture? Following a synchronistic methodology, I have set forth the material that has come to my attention and written out of the experiences that have come through my exploration of beauty during the last three years. It seems appropriate to conclude with a recent poem by Mary Oliver (1994) that came to my attention just as I finished this work. The narrator, like a psychotherapist, is in a place of deep empathy and congruence with the fox who might be like a client who has a glimpse of the transcendent. When the narrator touches the dead fox, it vanishes. The narrator enters the eternal “now” of experience and becomes opened to the transcendent. Oliver’s poem, which follows, strikes me as an allegory of the search for beauty. To write about beauty, to give the reader a rational summary of the ideas contained in this paper, is not the way to conclude a work on the experience of beauty.

February 21, 2018


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