Wandering and Wondering

Carl Jung’s Portrait of the Visionary Artist

Art is kind of an innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him.

Carl Jung, “Psychology and Literature,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 169


Jung on Cover of Time, Feb. 14, 1955

Jung on Cover of Time, Feb. 14, 1955

My choice for the lead-in quote above is intentionally ominous. According to Jung, Visionary Fiction, largely the unvarnished chronicle of the Hero’s Journey, does not accommodate faintness of heart in either its writers or readers. While a profoundly uncomfortable notion even if  kept in proper context, it offers a deep enough truth to warrant considerable mental roiling.

Since Jung’s ideas and their phrasing require little editorializing by his student, I’ve largely limited this article to a concatenation of some of the more memorable quotes from “Psychology and Literature.”

In a previous 2-part article, “Carl Jung and Visionary Fiction, (see Part 1 and Part 2 on this site), examining Jung’s 1929 seminal essay, which introduced the concept of visionary fiction by name, focus was on the visionary work itself; but, as he points out in the lecture’s introduction, its complete study must be twofold:

 We may expect psychological research, on the one hand, to explain the formation of a work of art, and on the other to reveal the factors that make a person artistically creative….

In the case of the work of art we have to deal with a product of complicated psychic activities—but a product that is apparently intentional and consciously shaped. In the case of the artist we must deal with the psychic apparatus itself. In the first instance we must attempt the psychological analysis of a definitely circumscribed and concrete artistic achievement, while in the second we must analyze the living and creative human being as a unique personality.

Although these two undertakings are closely related and even interdependent, neither of them can yield the explanations that are sought by the other. It is of course possible to draw inferences about the artist from the work of art, and vice versa, but these inferences are never conclusive. At best they are probable surmises or lucky guesses.

 Causal analysis, even though it can be applied with some benefit to both the work of art and the artist, is bound to fall short, Jung says, “because the creative aspect of life which finds its clearest expression in art baffles all attempts at rational formulation. Any reaction to stimulus may be causally explained; but the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will forever elude the human understanding. It can only be described in its manifestations; it can be obscurely sensed, but never wholly grasped.”


Portrait of the Visionary Artist (It isn’t a pretty picture.)

Visionary 1When the art form is specifically visionary fiction, which addresses those primordial experiences that arise “from timeless depths; it is foreign and cold; many-sided, demonic and grotesque,” as Jung describes VF in the first part of this lecture, its channel for manifestation, the writer, is bound to be a paradox in character.

Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other side he is an impersonal, creative process. Since as a human being he may be sound or morbid, we must look at his psychic make-up to find the determinants of his personality. But we can only understand him in his capacity of artist by looking at his creative achievements.

While the visionary artist does not function in any official capacity, the opposite being nearer the truth, he nevertheless resembles, Jung maintains, the English gentleman, military officer, or cardinal “who function as such in an impersonal role, and their psychic makeup is qualified by a peculiar objectivity.”

The specifically artistic disposition involves an overweight of collective psychic life as against the personal. Art is kind of an innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense—he is “collective man”—one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being….

The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. The lives of artists are as rule so highly unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side, and not because of a sinister disposition. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.

With the exception perhaps of the few human beings who have mastered the tightrope between genius and madness, all visionary writers experience the chaos that their vocation imposes on their personal lives. We all come endowed with a certain capital of energy, Jung posits. “The strongest force in our make-up will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it. In this way the creative force can drain the human impulses to such a degree that the personal ego must develop all sorts of bad qualities.” This argument won’t score a second invitation to hobnob with polite company, but it may help the artist to tolerate his personal limitations.

The Realm of the Mothers

What prize might prompt a human being, with a perfectly normal existence available, to flirt with a life that could well be an absolute hell? It isn’t for the money. As Jung noted, “the reading public for the most part repudiates this kind of writing.” To answer this legitimate concern, Jung draws not from his psychological research but from his understanding of the human soul. His conclusions will not resolve the VF writer’s angst but should likely stimulate him or her to continue the quest, come what may.

How can we doubt that it is his art that explains the artist, and not the insufficiencies and conflicts of his personal life? These are nothing but the regrettable results of the fact that he is an artist—that is to say, a man who from his very birth has been called to a greater task than an ordinary mortal. A special ability means a heavy expenditure of energy in a particular direction, with a consequent drain from some other side of life.

It makes no difference whether the poet knows that his work is begotten, grows and matures with him, or whether he supposes that by taking thought he produces it out of the void. His opinion of the matter does not change the fact that his work outgrows him as a child its mother. The creative process has feminine quality, and the creative work arises from unconscious depths—we might say, from the realm of the mothers. Whenever the creative force predominates, human life is ruled and molded by the unconscious as against the active will, and the conscious ego is swept along on a subterranean current, being nothing more than a helpless observer of events. The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe.

Participative Mystique

Carl Jung quoteBut the last line above prompts a further question: for what purpose would Goethe submit to Faust transforming the original Goethe? Was he not good enough? Jung answers this question of purpose as applied to both visionary writer and reader:

The work of the poet comes to meet the spiritual needs of the society in which he lives, and for this reason the work means more to him than his personal fate, whether he is aware of this or not. Being essentially the instrument for his work, he is subordinate to it, and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us…a great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal…to grasp its meaning, we must allow it to shape us as it once shaped him. Then we understand the nature of the experience. We see that he had drawn upon the healing and redeeming forces of the collective psyche that underlies consciousness with its isolation and its painful errors; that it has penetrated to that matrix of life in which all men are embedded, which imparts a common rhythm to all human existence, and allows the individual to communicate his feeling and his striving to mankind as a whole.

The secret of artistic creation and of the effectiveness of art is to be found in a return to the state of participative mystique—to that level of experience at which it is man who lives, and not the individual, and at which the weal and woe of the single human being does not count, but only human existence. This is why every great work of art is objective and impersonal, but none the less profoundly moves us each and all. And this is also why the personal life of the poet cannot be held essential to his art but at most a help or hindrance to his creative task. He may go the way of a Philistine, a good citizen, a neurotic, a fool or a criminal. His personal career may be inevitable and interesting, but it does not explain the poet.

Participative mystique–what a delicious phrase to characterize the entire process of creating a visionary work. It brings to mind a dynamic concert in which author, book, and reader each contribute their unique portion, which then blends, as if by magic from another realm, into a breath-taking whole that far surpasses the sum of its parts.

(This post simultaneously published also on the Visionary Fiction Alliance website on 10/7/14)


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