Saturday, May 15, 2010

Opposites, the Creative Instinct, and Our Unique Identity

an article by Lawrence H. Staples

the problem of the opposites

Jung recognized that the problem of the opposites is one of the most formidable obstacles to psychic integration. Even when we are able to integrate opposites there remains substantial tension between them. If the integration is so complete that the opposites literally merge, consciousness, as we know it, disappears. Consciousness of life depends upon the tension of opposites. So the problem is to bring them close together without a total merger in which one or the other of the opposites would lose its identity. This is indeed a challenging task.

To complicate, but also clarify, the problem of the opposites, I would like to share with you a quote from Jung that contains what for me is his most profound insight on the subject of guilt and its relationship to human existence. Jung said, “The one-after-another is a bearable prelude to the deepest knowledge of the side-by-side, for this is an incomparably more difficult problem. Again, the view that good and evil are spiritual forces outside us, and that man is caught in the conflict between them, is more bearable by far than the insight that the opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable precondition of all psychic life, so much so that life itself is guilt.”(1) It is important here to note that “side-by-side” for Jung does not mean a merger, mutual absorption, or synthesis of opposites.
Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way
The idea that life itself is guilt is based upon conceptions of how human consciousness works. As noted earlier, consciousness itself depends on the existence of polar opposites. Guilt, therefore, which attempts to keep us from our “evil other,” is closely related to the formation of the opposites in our psychic anatomy.

the creative instinct

Fortunately, there is a powerful tool that can help us resolve the problem of the opposites. This tool is creative work. Creative production in art, as in life, depends upon bringing two opposites, the masculine and the feminine, into close enough proximity to produce a “child”(i.e., a book, a symphony, a painting, etc.) without losing the identity of the opposites that created the “child.” When we begin to do creative work, we connect to the deepest forces that govern all creation. It connects us to God, to the self within, to put it in Jungian terms. Reflected in our language is the Judaeo/Christian idea and belief that God and the creator and sustainer of all existence are one. The words God and Creator are in fact interchangeable in English as well as in other Western languages, such as French and German. The ultimate product of this process of psychological, inner creation is a stronger ego that increasingly approximates a reflected image of the Archetypal Self, which is whole and contains all of the opposites.

The Archetypal Self, or God, represents the totality; no stone is left out, all the stones are included in this totality. But a colossal lie stands in the way of achieving this totality. This is not about the existence or non-existence of the opposites, the dark and the light. We know they exist. The lie is in labeling one side exclusively good and the other side exclusively bad, as we tend to do. We know that creation is enabled by the existence of, masculine and feminine opposites. If we make one side good and the other side bad, we reject one of the essential players in the creative drama.

There is an instinct deep within us, although difficult to access consciously, that tells us that embracing the one-sided formulas for salvation, including the Christian advocacy of the exclusive primacy of love, will actually keep us from the totality of our selves. It is an instinct that actually is our salvation. It emanates from our duality. It tells us that we must love and hate everything at the same time. We must love the dark and the light and we must hate the dark and the light. Wired as we are, light has no meaning without the dark and dark has no meaning without the light. Each of these depends on the other for its existence. Without the one, there can be no consciousness of the other, and nothing exists for an individual if he is not conscious of it. If we are unable to maintain simultaneously in consciousness both our hate and love feelings, we cannot protect ourselves if we are abused—physically, psychologically, or sexually—by those whom we deeply love and those whom we need to trust.

It is our duality that causes us to be drawn inexorably to movies (e.g., Crash, Lawrence of Arabia, or A Civil Action) or to great art, literature, or music (e.g., the opera Tosca or the play Hamlet).(2) In Tosca,(3) we see Scarpia, on his knees, praying in church, while leering lustfully at Tosca. In the movie, Crash,(4) a policeman saves the life of a black woman whom just days before he had humiliated and mistreated. We see Hamlet indecisive and cowardly one day, and the next brave and sure. In Lawrence of Arabia,(5) Lawrence risks his life to save a man who he deliberately kills shortly thereafter. In A Civil Action,(6) a greedy, money-driven, ambulance-chasing lawyer finds a cause for which he is willing to sacrifice his career and fortune. And then there is Peter loving Christ one moment and denying him the next. There is a Jekyll and Hyde in all of us, in all people. We are drawn, as if against our wills, to these conflicting portraits. We are drawn to them and have feeling for them because we see ourselves in them, whether we know it or not. We are drawn to images that reflect ourselves, but protect us from the direct experience. To know that we have the same base feelings in us as Scarpia, right along side all of our goodness, is difficult to bear. We are drawn, nevertheless, to these characters and images because nature seems to have planted deep within us a developmental process that, through the agency of feeling, attracts us irresistibly closer and closer to our opposites. It attracts us to our opposites so that we can come together with them, side by side, in an embrace of creativity that leads us eventually to wholeness. As we experience in literature, art, and life, we are ineluctably attracted to realness, to three dimensionality, to wholeness.

Life might be easier, simpler, and less painful if our one-sidedness could be a sustainable reality instead of a wish. But, there are always two sides, regardless of whether we are conscious of them. The solution to this dilemma involves finding a way to honor both sides of ourselves in consciousness. This is the answer, but it is not easy to hold on to it. It involves a creative solution to one of life’s most difficult problems. The answer lies in a creation that depends upon intimate contact of two opposites without either being lost or subsumed by the other.

our unique identity

Ultimately, the creative act of self-development results in the formation of our unique identity. It is the most particular manifestation of our self. We all have a unique identity, not just Picasso or Einstein or Beethoven or Frank Lloyd Wright. We are not conscious of our unique identity until we have done a lot of work on our selves. People who study art, music, literature, or architecture can identify the painter’s, composer’s, author’s, or architect’s work without seeing a signature. They know that the painting was by Caravaggio or Manet, or that a piece of music was written by Stravinsky or Wagner, or a book by Hemingway, or that a building was designed by Louis Kahn or Frank Lloyd Wright. The creative product of the artist is his signature, and we recognize it because we have studied his work.

Each of us also has a unique signature. But, we must pay attention to our selves and do our own work in depth, if we are to recognize our own signature. We must do this for the same reason we must study artists to know their works. Thus, an important part of the work of discovering our selves is creative production and in-depth analysis. With time and effort we can come to know and recognize our own special signatures. Our physical identity is more readily visible and accessible than our psychic identity. There is always something unique in our physical identity; for example, the parents and siblings of identical twins can usually tell them apart. We have mirrors and can see our physical selves.

It is far more difficult to “see” our psychic selves. There are no psychic mirrors readily available to us, unless we had exceptional parents who could fully, without harsh judgment, reflect our selves back to us. We may still be able to see our psychic selves if we find a therapist who will do for us what our parents could not.

Creative work can also help us see our selves. Creative work is a mirror that can reflect our selves back to us if we pay enough attention. Therapists can help us in this regard, by helping us interpret our creative work.

In his book, The Restoration of the Self,(7) Heinz Kohut wrote at length about psychically wounded people and the therapeutic methods he used to help them. He found none more effective, or so essential, as creative work. He found, importantly, that it made no difference whether the creative work was deemed good or artistic by any standards. The simple process of doing creative work helped restore the self. It is as if nature plants within us a built-in remedy for our worst affliction, the affliction of being separated from large parts of ourselves. We experience this separation as a kind of inner civil war that divides us internally. It produces the pain and suffering inherent in any civil war, whether in our internal world or outside. It seems that the human urge to do creative work, to use all our stones to heal and restore our wholeness, is a compensatory impulse and blessing that arises from the psychic civil war that wounded us. In my own work as a psychoanalyst, I have witnessed the truth of Kohut’s findings. I have watched patients grow in wholeness as they began to work creatively in a variety of media that helped them recover and restore cut off parts of themselves.
The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for Wholeness
Creative work actually serves as a kind of inner parent that compensates for the flawed parenting we may have had as children. Creative work mirrors us in a way we were often not mirrored by our parents. Creative work mirrors us for the simple reason that we can see projected in it, if we look and interpret carefully, our own psychological and spiritual selves. Mirrors in all their manifold guises help restore the wounded self.

1    Jung, C.G., Collected Works 14, par. 206
2    Shakespeare, William, Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Grosset & Dunlap, New York.
3    Puccini, G., Tosca.
4    Crash Paul Haggis (director/writer/producer), Lion’s Gate Films (2005).
5    Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean (director), Robert A. Harris and Sam Spiegel (producers), Columbia Pictures (1962).
6    A Civil Action, Steven Zaillian (director), Walt Disney Studios (1999).
7    Kohut, Heinz (1983), The Restoration of the Self, New York, International Universities Press, especially pp. 53-54, 10, 17-18, 40, 158 and 289.


This article by Lawrence Staples is an excerpt from Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way.


Lawrence H. Staples, Ph.D. is the author of the popular Guilt with a Twist and the recently published
The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for Wholeness


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