The neurotic and the artist — another excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”

Continuing on where we left off on page 181 in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:

Another way of approaching neurosis is from the opposite end of the problem. There is a type of person who has difficulty fetishizing and narrowing-down; he has a vivid imagination, takes in too much experience, too large a chunk of the world—and this too must be called neurotic. We introduced this type in the last chapter where we talked about the creative person. We saw that these people feel their isolation, their individuality. They stick out, are less built-into normal society, less securely programmed for automatic cultural action. To have difficulty partializing experience is to have difficulty living. Not to be able to fetishize makes one susceptible to the world as a total problem—with all the living hell that this exposure raises. We said that partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew. Rank puts it this way:

The neurotic type . . . makes the reality surrounding him a part of his ego, which explains his painful relation to it. For all outside processes, however unmeaningful they may be in themselves, finally concern him . . . he is bound up in a kind of magic unity with the wholeness of life around him much more than the adjusted type who can be satisfied with the role of a part within the whole. The neurotic type has taken into himself potentially the whole of reality.

Now we can see how the problem of neurosis can be laid out along the lines of the twin ontological motives: on the one hand, one merges with the world around him and becomes too much a part of it and so loses his own claim to life. On the other hand, one cuts oneself off from the world in order to make one’s own complete claim and so loses the ability to live and act in the world on its terms. As Rank put it, some individuals are unable to separate and others are unable to unite. The ideal of course is to find some balance between the two motives, such as characterize the better adjusted person; he is at ease with both. The neurotic represents precisely “an extreme at one end or the other”; he feels that one or the other is a burden.

The question for a characterology is why some people cannot balance their ontological urges, why they hug at the extremes. The answer must obviously go back to the personal life history. There are those who shrink back from experience out of greater life-and-death anxieties. They grow up not giving themselves freely to the cultural roles available to them. They can’t lose themselves thoughtlessly in the games that others play. One reason is that they have trouble relating to others; they haven’t been able to develop the necessary interpersonal skills. Playing the game of society with automatic ease means playing with others without anxiety. If you are not involved in what others take for granted as the nourishment of their lives, then your own life becomes a total problem. At its extreme this describes the schizoid type par excellence. Classically this state was called the “narcissistic neurosis” or psychosis. The psychotic is the one who cannot shut out the world, whose repressions are all on the surface, whose defenses no longer work; and so he withdraws from the world and into himself and his fantasies. He fences himself off and becomes his own world (narcissism).

It may seem courageous to take in the whole world, instead of just biting off pieces and acting on them, but as Rank points out, this is also precisely a defense against engagement in it:

. . . this apparent egocentricity originally is just a defense mechanism against the danger of reality. . . . [The neurotic] seeks to complete his ego constantly . . . without paying for it.

To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self” whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature. He won’t pay the price that nature wants of him: to age, fall ill or be injured, and die. Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.

We can see that neurosis is par excellence the danger of a symbolic animal whose body is a problem to him. Instead of living biologically, then, he lives symbolically. Instead of living in the partway that nature provided for he lives in the total way made possible by symbols. One substitutes the magical, all-inclusive world of the self for the real, fragmentary world of experience. Again, in this sense, everyone is neurotic, as everyone holds back from life in some ways and lets his symbolic world-view arrange things: this is what cultural morality is for. In this sense, too, the artist is the most neurotic because he too takes the world as a totality and makes a largely symbolic problem out of it.

If this neurosis characterizes everyone to a certain extent and the artist most of all, where do we cross the line into “neurosis” as a clinical problem? One way, as we saw, is by the production of crippling symptom or a too-constricting life style. The person has tried to cheat nature by restricting his experience, but he remains sensitive to the terror of life at some level of his awareness. Besides, he can’t arrange his triumph over life and death in his mind or in his narrow heroics without paying some price: the symptom or a bogging down in guilt and futility because of an unlived life.

A second way of crossing the line into clinical neurosis follows naturally from everything we have said. Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the “artiste-manqué,” as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project. The neurotic can’t marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his introversions. The artist has similar large-scale introversions, but he uses them as material. In Rank’s inspired conceptualization, the difference is put like this:

. . . it is this very fact of the ideologization of purely psychical conflicts that makes the difference between the productive and the unproductive types, the artist and the neurotic; for the neurotic’s create power, like the most primitive artist’s, is always tied to his own self and exhausts itself in it, whereas the productive type succeeds in changing this purely subjective creative process into an objective one, which means that through ideologizing it he transfers it from his own self to his work.

The neurotic exhausts himself not only in self-preoccupations like hypochondriacal fears and all sorts of fantasies, but also in others: those around him on whom he is dependent become his therapeutic work project; he takes out his subjective problems on them. But people are not clay to be molded; they have needs and counter-wills of their own. The neurotic’s frustration as a failed artist can’t be remedied by anything but an objective creative work of his own. Another way of looking at it is to say that the more totally one takes in the world as a problem, the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself. He can try to work out his “badness” by striving for perfection, and then the neurotic symptom becomes his “creative” work; or he can try to make himself perfect by means of his partner. But it is obvious to us that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways. Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection; or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life. In this way he satisfies nature, which asks that he live and act objectively as a vital animal plunging into the world; but he also satisfies his own distinctive human nature because he plunges in on his own symbolic terms and not as a reflex of the world as given to mere physical sense experience. He takes in the world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned human answer to that problem. This, as Goethe saw in Faust, is the highest that man can achieve.

[All emphases his]

Let’s stop there on page 185.

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