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The Courage to Create

Rollo May

ARJ2 Chapter: Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Bantam Books/NY in 1976
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2009

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The book cover leads off with a volley of questions to which this book promises to provide answers:

What is the one quality possessed by all geniuses?
How can we acquire creative courage?
What takes place in the creative instant?
How can creative power make your life richer and more satisfying?

As we proceed through this review we'll see how close Rollo May comes to fulfilling his promise to answer these questions. These are all subjects which I have thought long and hard about, and for all I know these are unanswered questions(1) which I first began to hold after reading May's book. My first reading of this book began when I read it on November 7, 1978 in about two hours according to a note on the inside cover page. In preparation for this review I gave the book another reading in May of 2009 to refresh my recollection of its contents. This second reading gives the review a place in A Reader's Journal, Volume 2.

Rollo May himself was aware of the unanswered question which he held about creativity, admitting his reason for hesitating to publish his thoughts on the subject was due to what he called their "unfinished" nature. Holding something in its "unfinished" state is a way of holding on to an unanswered question.

[page viii, Preface] These chapters are a partial record of my ponderings. They had their birth as lectures given at colleges and universities. I had always hesitated to publish them because they seemed incomplete — the mystery of creation still remained. I then realized that this "unfinished" quality would always remain, and that it is a part of the creative process itself. This realization coincided with the fact that many people who had heard the lectures urged that they be published.

On May 5, 2009, this passage inspired me to write this poem on creativity that I entitle, "Art":

Art is always unfinished —
      it is but a map,
Our map of terra incognito —
      the round Earth
      on the flat paper
Which hides more
      than it reveals.

If you look at art, true art, and focus only on what it reveals, the mystery for you will be: Why does it exist at all? Art, true art, does not meet our expectations, but rather destroys them because, rightly understood, art is the process of destruction, the destruction of the sameness which exists when art comes into the world(2). This aspect of art is not understood by the majority of people and leads to much confusion, especially when some truly new artist arrives on the scene and the universal cry seems to be, "It is ugly!" Ugly, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder of the art work, but projection is the root of perception — as I see it — and what is being projected upon the new artist's work is that it does not conform to the currently accepted standards of art. What new art does is unleash exciting possibilities which other artists will grab onto or build off of — what seems ugly at first glance gradually becomes viewed as the seed from which an entirely new tree of art has sprung.

Rollo May, writing in 1975, begins by calling his time a time of transition. Rightly understood, we are always in a time of transition, but some times, such as in 1975, the transition is more obvious than others.

[page 1] We are living at a time when one age is dying and the new age is not yet born. We cannot doubt this as we look about us to see the radical changes in sexual mores, in marriage styles, in family structures, in education, in religion, technology, and almost every other aspect of modern life. . . . To live with sensitivity in this age of limbo indeed requires courage.

May goes on to describe various kinds of courage: physical courage which he claims needs the added dimension of sensitivity, moral courage to perceive evil, social courage to achieve intimacy, courage to recognize we might possibly be wrong, creative courage to live out our imaginations. Creative courage is what is required to create new art in whatever medium one works, whether it is painting, film, photography, poetry, stage, sculpture, music, etc. He gives us, among others, the example of James Joyce:

[page 20] Consider James Joyce, who is often cited as the greatest of modern novelists. At the very end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he has his young hero write in his diary:

Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

I read this book when I was a young man, identifying with Stephen Daedalus at the time, somehow grabbing onto what he wrote in his diary as a scenario for my life, but I was not consciously aware of having done so until reading this again in 2009. Did Stephen give me the thrust for the rest of my life back then at 16? Joyce's words are so powerful in that passage that it makes me wonder.

When May comments that "genius and psychosis are so close to each other", it gives me pause to consider what deep meaning might be hidden in that passage. Psychosis is defined as some "non-organic based distortion of the sufferer's concept of reality" and I have studied many innovators who were deemed crazy and some were even hospitalized. Take, for example, the case of Ignatz Semmelweis, who was thrown in a mental institution because his clear concept of the benefits of prophylaxis reality did not match the distorted version of those who forced the government of Austria to hospitalize him. Who was crazier? Semmelweis, who saved hundreds of thousands of women from childbed fever in Vienna or the hospital administrator who hospitalized him? Giordano Bruno, whose clear vision of the arc of heaven did not match the distorted version of the authorities in Rome who ordered him burnt at the stake? Joan of Arc, who saved France as a nation or the church fathers who killed her likewise. No wonder it takes courage to create: one does it at the fear of one's life or livelihood being taken away by those whose distorted vision of reality is thereby threatened by your creativity!

The primordial innovator was Prometheus, and just look at what Zeus did to him for giving fire to human beings.

[page 24] He decreed that Prometheus be punished by being bound to Mount Caucasus, where a vulture was to come each morning and eat away his liver which would grow again at night.

Here is a beautiful metaphor for what happens to a human being each night: tired from a day's work and activities we slip into sleep and disengage from conscious activity in the physical world so that our body may be spiritually re-enlivened. No one ever goes to the doctor while asleep, only while awake. Doctors do not study live bodies while they are sleeping and recuperating, only awake patients who are in the process of running down their bodies(3). The only unconscious bodies most doctors ever encounter are either cadavers in the dissecting room or etherized bodies on the surgical table. Neither example is that of a vibrant human body recovering life like Prometheus did at night.

True art as the process of destruction(4) of sameness (conformism) is the theme of an essay I wrote to describe the fight an artist must go through against the gods of culture which resist any innovation. I may have unconsciously gotten the initial idea for this essay ten years earlier from this next passage by May, who explains the root of the various myths of creativity being born by rebellion against the gods:

[page 26] The most obvious explanation is that the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as contrasted to the ideal) gods of our society — the god of conformism as well as the gods of apathy, material success, and exploitative power. These are the "idols" of our society that are worshiped by multitudes of people. We human beings know that we must die. We have, strangely enough, a word for death.

The popular TV show, American Idol, apparently sees its job as creating idols, but, as May's analysis shows, these idols are symbols of conformity to the norms of society not that of true artists.

Rollo May makes the assertion that "Creativity is a yearning for immortality." I rather see creativity as a tapping into our immortal essence. As human beings we have a spiritual essence which is immortal which resides in each of us in what is best called our "I". It survives and precedes this life and personality we find ourselves in currently, I as I type these words, and you in your "I" as you read them. Creative inspiration comes to true artists, not the shopping mall artists or the handicraft weekend artists, but the artists who transcend the conformity of today's art and brings something completely unexpected into the world. Such a person has tapped into their immortal essence and received inspiration directly from the spiritual world.

We have a word for death and we have a word for surviving death as a spirit, namely immortality. But we have no equivalent words for any life of spirit preceding birth, nor do we have in current usage the word unbornness to refer to the condition of immortality which precedes our birth on Earth into a physically embodied being. It seems time for us to recognize the reality of unbornness as much as that of immortality, and to learn the significance of such condition for our life on Earth.

May asks a great question on page 36, "If by psychoanalysis we cured the artists of their neuroses would they no longer create?" Freud worked with psychoanalysis to remove neuroses from people, artists included, but, on the other end of the spectrum, Jung worked with his depth analysis to cure people in order to release and encourage their creative urges.

Plato understood the true artist, and wrote of it in his Symposium: "they are those who give birth to some new reality." Rollo May says about Plato's writings on true artists:

[page 38] These poets and other creative person are the ones who express being itself, he held. As I would put it, these are the ones who enlarge human consciousness. Their creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world.

True artists are the people who engage in the evolution of consciousness because they leave behind an enlarged human consciousness. They destroy the sameness they find in art and release exciting possibilities. It is from these exciting possibilities that what is normally called art is created, the weekend hobbyists’ type of art. Rightly understood, these weekend artists are replicating examples of the new forms of art previously unleashed by the true artists. Rarely is this aspect of creativity as replication taken into account, but Rollo May makes the distinction.

[page 38] Now we must make the above distinction clear if our inquiries into creativity are to get below the surface. We are thus not dealing with hobbies, do-it-yourself movements, Sunday painting, or other forms of filling up leisure time. Nowhere has the meaning creativity been more disastrously lost than in the idea that it is something you do only on weekends!

On page 45, May says, "William James once said that we learn to swim in the winter and to skate in the summer." There is a delay between one first encountering an idea and one coming to grips with it wholeheartedly. We put on our ice skates in winter to try them out, but it is only over the summer that our skill on the ice skates get honed and smoothed out in our unconscious processes. On page 63 May talks about breakthroughs as destroying something. If I had read this some twenty years before my insight came to me in a flood that "art is the process of destruction" — I cannot say, but it is certainly plausible that I put on those skates during that winter and, after a twenty-year summer, I learned to skate with them.

[page 63] The guilt that is present when this breakthrough occurs has its source in the fact that the insight must destroy something. My insight destroyed my other hypothesis and would destroy what a number of my professors believed, a fact that caused me some concern. Whenever there is a breakthrough of a significant idea in science or a significant new form in art, the new idea will destroy what a lot of people believe is essential to the survival of their intellectual and spiritual world. This is the source of guilt in genuine creative work. As Picasso remarked, "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."

When that thought arose in me two decades later, it shook me up enormously. I couldn't believe what I was seeing so clearly. What I thought was an artist being creative was actually an act of destruction! The destruction would release exciting possibilities which others would hang their hat on and call their work, creation. But none of the subsequent creation would be possible without the initial act of destruction which unleashed the possibilities for creating in a new way.

Rollo May experienced a similar shaking up from his breakthrough in understanding the flaw in his hypothesis about the presence of anxiety in unmarried mothers. (Pages 58 to 60)

[page 63] The breakthrough carries with it also an element of anxiety. For it not only broke down my previous hypothesis, it shook my self-world relationship. At such a time I find myself having to seek a new foundation, the existence of which I as yet don't know. . . . it is not possible that there be a genuinely new idea without this shake up occuring to some degree.

In addition, my shake up was accompanied by everything around becoming suddenly vivid as May points out on page 64. I can remember where I was sitting, what I was looking at, the diagrams I drew to help me understand the polar opposite relationship of destruction and creation, how destruction releases the possibilities which creation then picks up and produces what is usually called art. Of this special clarity I had, May says, "I am convinced that this is the usual accompaniment of the breakthrough of unconscious experience into consciousness."

Before that breakthrough can occur, however, one must have somehow asked themselves a question, one for which they had no answer, but which was presented to their unconscious mind for an answer, sometimes days, weeks, months, or years before. It is the process of holding an "unanswered question" as I name it, but in reality it is the holding of an incomplete Gestalt, as May describes it, which is the seedbed of the new form or breakthrough.

[page 66] The idea, the new form which suddenly becomes present, came in order to complete an incomplete Gestalt with which I was struggling in conscious awareness. One can quite accurately speak of this incomplete Gestalt, this unfinished pattern, this unformed form, as constituting the "call" that was answered by the unconscious.

My process of "holding an unanswered question(5)" is equivalent to placing a call to one's unconscious for an answer to some incomplete Gestalt. I was not aware of my holding that unanswered question about the true nature of art, or of the possibility of its being placed in me by the reading of this book back some twenty years earlier, but the answer came through, breaking through the sameness of what I held to be the world of art, revealing to me that "art is the process of destruction" and that creativity as we know it is but the cleaning up process of implementing the exciting possibilities unleashed by that destruction. One needs less courage to create some weekend art than to come to grips with true art which appears as a break through the conformity of all current forms of art when it first appears. My breakthrough was understanding for myself the process of breakthrough, and my hope is that my breakthrough will show others how to come to breakthroughs for themselves.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. My concept of holding an unanswered question is itself a creative process which I stumbled upon over the past three decades.

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Footnote 2. This idea is further expounded in my Essay, Art is the Process of Destruction.

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Footnote 3. Yes, there are some doctors who do sleep-studies, but it is with the primary focus on the sleeping patterns of their patients, not on the recuperating aspects of their bodies as they are asleep.

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Footnote 4. See my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction, here: http://www.doyletics.com/artpofd.htm

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Footnote 5. For more details on the "unanswered question" see my Matherne's Rule 25: What is the power of an unanswered question?

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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