Dreams and Drama: Psychoanalytic Criticism, Creativity, and the Artist (Book Review)

Author:v Roland, Alan 
Publisher:  Wesleyan University Press, 2003
Reviewed By:  Elaine Schwager, Fall 2003, pp. 53-55

In this groundbreaking book, Alan Roland’s stated purpose is to integrate psychoanalysis with art and the artist. The first part of the book illustrates the importance of delineating the unique psychological issues of the creative artist if they are to be helped by psychoanalysis. The second part reexamines the relationship of the dream to art and how psychoanalysis has defined primary and secondary process. Drawing on his own experience as an artist and his deep understanding of the artist from a clinical perspective, Roland sees art taking the paradoxes and poetic metaphors in dreams to a higher level, and he critiques the hierarchical organization of primary and secondary processes as well as current ideas about art in psychoanalytic theory. In the third part, Roland reviews the history of psychoanalytic criticism to show how it has fallen into the trap of reductionism and how awareness of this as well as deeper understanding of creativity and aesthetics can make it more useful tool in bringing psychoanalytic understanding to the dramatic arts. His scholarly knowledge of both literatures, as well as his experience as a visual artist, librettist, playwright, and a psychoanalyst with a multicultural perspective, brings a scope and complexity to these integrations uncommon in the psychoanalytic literature.

While many psychoanalysts, among them, Rank (1932), Kubie (1958) Milner (1969), Winnicott (1971), Schactel (1959), Rose (1980), have addressed the secondary place creativity has been placed in psychoanalytic theory, no one has systematically addressed the particular problems of the career artist. As Roland writes “to be an artist today involves far more than being creative and productive…To evolve an artistic career in today’s American society usually requires a degree of initiative, entrepreneurship, networking and social skills that is as, or more demanding, than any other career” (p. 14). Through expanding analytic theory and technique to address the issues of the career artist, Roland simultaneously gives finely tuned validity to the unique problems of the artist and to the analytic process as a means of helping the artist fulfill his vision.

Among the issues Roland addresses is how to deal psychoanalytically with problems related to artists’ parental and familial attitudes in conflict with their artistic aspirations, their need for selfobjects and supportive mirroring ones, differentiating from family’s or the culture’s ideas and attitudes towards art, problems of envy of other artists and towards other artists, and how success can arouse intense paranoid anxieties, resulting in attacking others and oneself.

In the example of “Hal,” a recognized filmmaker, Roland illustrates the difficult struggle involved when the artist finds himself in opposition to his own need to be a responsible family man as well as his family’s idea of who he should be. This can be a substantial obstacle in doing the aggressive networking, finding supportive others and pushing through to a successful career. This and other case material illustrate how essential it is for the analyst to understand the plight of the artist and the centrality of the creative unconscious to effectively facilitating development of the artistic self in a world where support and validation is not easily available to the artist’s plight.

Roland sees the development of internal, idealized figures as transformational objects to be critical in the artist’s development. The psychoanalyst might become the first internalized object to support the artist patient in forming the necessary mentor or fellow artist relationships essential to his career. He emphasizes that the selfobjects of the artist differ from the non-artist, in that they serve to enhance his self-esteem as an artist and recognize his talent. Roland brings out how painful it can be for the artist not to have significant others who are in tune with his artistic self and talents, particularly in a culture that tends to value utility.

As several other analysts have recognized, notably Rank (1932), the artistic and creative self is inseparable from the spiritual self. Here as well, Roland points out that psychoanalysis, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, has tended to view spiritual pursuits and experience as either regression to early parent-infant experiences or as some form of psychopathology. In opposition to this stance, Roland sees the realization of the artistic and spiritual self as a rare, highly developed accomplishment.

In this regard, Roland broadens psychoanalytic thinking in line with Jung. Whereas Freudian developmental theory is mainly concerned with childhood through adolescence, and separation and individuation from parental figures, Jung dealt more with adult development. He saw the spiritual and creative development of the person going beyond involvement with the family. For the full individuation of the self and reaching the peak of development, integration of the dark shadow elements, opposites, as well as the subjective and objective aspects of the self was necessary. This means parting with the crowd and convention and valuing solitude as much as relations as a way of accessing forbidden or unconscious parts of the self. Such integration is the core of both spiritual and artistic struggles and is central to what is aesthetically satisfying. Dewey (1934) held integration to be the characteristic of every work of art. And “ the completeness of the integration is the measure of its aesthetic status” (p. 272).

Bringing in creativity and spirituality as significant aspects of the self, and expanding development to include the full integration and differentiation of the self redefines pathology. If accomplishments in the creative and spiritual areas are seen as supreme achievements, does one view over-attachment to the rational and secondary process as pathology? Given that artistic effort, and revelation of forbidden aspects of the self, often meets with opposition and ignorance of the process in the culture and within the self, might periods of depression, despair, anxiety and aloneness be essential phases of an artistic struggle? Relationship, pleasure and even life sacrifice, out of commitment to an artistic or moral vision, in the psychoanalytic lens, might be viewed as masochism, self-destruction or the workings of the death instinct. Given this and the difficulty the artist frequently has in finding an audience for his work (which often addresses denied truths and injustices of the society) I did not feel sufficient emphasis was given to the contribution these forces make to the artist’s inability to become successful, even with perseverance and awareness of inner obstacles to succeeding. In addition, success as demonstrated in a successful career is not always the measure of success in the arts.

One of the psychoanalytic terms Roland puts a substantial effort in redefining is primary process. He writes:

Rather than being inferior to rational, secondary-process thinking, symbolically expressive thinking of a metaphorical nature, using primary-process mechanisms, is intrinsically far better suited to represent simultaneously and in depth a far broader spectrum of psychic life than other more rational modes, and becomes the basis for meaningful and valuable paradoxes (p. 55).

The dream in Roland’s view is the exemplary product of primary process, a unique communication, with the “incipient makings of a paradox, which can then be realized through creative interpretive work…” (p. 46). Next to art, Roland sees the dream as a symbolically superior expression. He builds his formulation on the ideas of Noy (1969), who viewed primary process as serving integration of new experience in the self and giving expression to the self rather than dealing with outer reality. Roland is also indebted to Deri (1984), who emphasized that the rich symbolization of the primary process gives unparalleled expression to the various and complex aspects of the psyche. He points out that dreams and images have the power to slip through defenses, but without the artist’s imaginative, conscious process shaping these into artistic forms, the primary process material remains in incipient form. The artist, in developing heightened consciousness of the flow of images, metaphors and dreams within and through his art, Roland believes, has the ability to achieve the greatest integration of the self. Imagery for the poet, Roland points out “reaches up into the artist’s imagination and down into his unconscious” (p. 73). But Roland’s re-vision of primary process as contained in the “imaginative part of the secondary process as distinct from the more usual logical, rational and casual thinking” (p. 150) is such a departure from how the term is generally used by psychoanalysts, it seems to call for new terms that avoid the duality, hierarchical thinking and division of mind in which these terms have been embedded. “Imagination” is an integrative process drawing simultaneously on the unconscious and conscious. I believe there is more to be gained by freshly rethinking the imaginative process than struggling to understand it through a terminology established for a different purpose.

The third part of the book, which addresses the history of reductionism in psychoanalytic drama criticism, amplifies the concerns in the first half. Roland highlights the pitfalls that psychoanalytic criticism has fallen into in the past, among them are the limitation of seeing works of art as derived from unconscious fantasies that reflect various psychosexual stages of development, for example, seeing Hamlet as a reflection of Oedipal issues; looking at unconscious motivation or psychopathology in a character to illuminate a literary work; looking to the author’s life to understand a work of art; seeing art as a defense against repressed wishes; seeing art as a form of the dream or daydream expressed within a formal aesthetic framework, and not having an adequate grasp of aesthetics.

Contending with a tradition set in motion by Freud of using the dream and daydream as paradigms for literary works and biography to shed light on art (e.g., Leonardo Da Vinci), Roland sees literary work as a “much higher level of integration than dream imagery and aims at more universal meanings rather than particularized biographical ones” (p, 99). He shows how various psychoanalytic concepts like internalized identification or expanded use of fantasy beyond the psychosexual, to include, for example, Klein’s idea of infantile greed leading to power urges, can offer to dramatic criticism some of the deep knowledge of people psychoanalysis has accumulated. Roland’s warnings of reductionism, and the importance of a psychological approach in literary criticism operating within the work’s artistic framework and not vice versa, pave the way for a more fruitful integration. His ideas echo Rank (1932) who long ago believed that a scientific psychology could not contend with art, that art gives form to abstract ideas of the soul…fed by a higher consciousness, and the artist cannot be explained on purely individual-psychological grounds. One can lend one’s understanding of Oedipal issues to Hamlet, but to then think Oedipal issues are the key to understanding Hamlet, misses the artistic value of Hamlet. The key to Hamlet, as to any human being, is that there is no key. This said, Roland’s expanded framework of understanding challenges the idea of any fixed or complete understanding, or “use” of art to communicate ideas. Art communicates through highly developed metaphors, images and paradox, which leaves one with an aesthetic experience rather than a point of view. Each of psychoanalysis’ insights make a contribution to understanding character or dynamics in a play, but it is somewhat like the story of the blind men before an elephant. Each come up with the idea of the elephant from what they touched, but none get a whole picture of the elephant.

The plays of Pirandello and Pinter, which Roland examine, dramatize western man’s search for authentic self and the tragic/comic reverberations from his loss of it. Six Characters in Search of an Author is, as Roland sees it, Pirandello’s creation of an author who is a metaphor “for an inability of the creative self to achieve self-realization.” With the power to create he is not impotent but has the power to “portray not only the human condition but the human impasse as well” (p. 116). The lack of developed characters in the play and their cardboard nature suggest man’s unrealized being, his loss of self. Here the theme he brings out is a central to the book—the loss of the creative is not only a tragedy for the artist, but for all men and for their capacity to be authentic in relationships as well.

The plays of Pirandello, particularly Henry IV, raise the key question, according to Roland: At what cost to his humanity does man sustain this vicarious mode of living? He sees Henry IV’s metaphors and central paradox integrated with the three dimensional characters and philosophy creating a unified vision—of how man yields to self-destruction through masquerade and self-deception.

This book is an achievement that can only have come from a psychoanalyst and artist immersed in both endeavors. His artistic sensibilities alert us to pitfalls in reductionistic, analytic thought, his analytic sensibilities to the pathology specific to the creative process and universal to all, even the most talented artists.

Freud said in his paper on Dostoevsky: “Before the problems of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms” (Gay, 1989, p. xxiii). This was in line with Freud’s idea that the creative or transcendent spirit was a gift of the few, and not fundamental to the human condition. Perhaps Freud was aware that these few would be harmed by a theory that did not see the creative and spiritual as central to human existence. He saw his theory and cure as geared specifically to the neurosis that grew out of repressed sexuality, not to the frustrations related to non-fulfillment of one’s spiritual and creative goals.

Roland has sharpened the instruments of psychoanalysis, allowing us to see more clearly both the universal place creativity and spirituality have in human existence and the central place it has in the career artist. But there are residuals of the theory he is challenging in his use of concepts that have come to have meaning in the context of the theory in which it was developed, but have not been adequately redefined in the context of the expanded vistas Roland has opened up. The fact that he has opened up these vistas is important to psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic literary criticism and the artist. While the artistic and spiritual may be fully realized by only the few, it is inherent in all. Analytic consciousness that recognizes this is essential for the full development of any person seeking analysis, but critical for the artist. For those treating artists, or those who want to bring greater understanding of the creative process into their consciousness, this book is indispensable.

References

Deri, S. (1984) Symbolization and creativity. New York: International Universities Press
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Putnam Publishing, 1980.
Gay, P. (1989). Sigmund Freud, A brief life. In Leonardo Da Vinci and a memory of childhood (pp. ix-xxiiii) New York: Norton
Noy, P (1969) A revision of the psychoanalytic theory of the primary process. International Journal Psychoanalysis 50:155-78
Rank, O. (1932) Art and the artist. New York: Knopf

Reviewer Note

Elaine Schwager is a member of IPTAR in private practice in New York, and the author of a book of poems, I Want Your Chair (Rattapallax Press, 2000)

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