[Princeton University Press, 234 pages]
This is not a new, but rather a timeless book. Erich Neumann was a Jungian analyst who lived in Israel until his death in 1960. I’m writing this review because I just completed my third “pilgrimage” into its two main essays since the volume was first pointed out to me—by an intuitive fascination—in a bookstore more than twenty years ago. It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject of creativity. In some ways, it’s the only prose I’ve come across that truly approaches a full understanding of this mystery. (Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet probably comes in second.) Artists, poets, and composers, and possibly chefs, flower-arrangers and anyone else who seeks to enter the temple of creativity has a good chance of finding transformative inspiration here.
When I say “inspiration,” I don’t even mean “fertile food for thought.” Neumann’s discussion of the spiritual depths of the 20th century, in his essay, “Art and Time,” produced such a strong feeling in me during this latest reading that I had to get out a notebook and pen, and two hours later I had birthed one of the best poems that’s come out of me in recent memory.
Art and the Creative Unconscious actually consists of four separate but related essays. Of these, “Art and Time” and “Creative Man and Transformation” are epochal. They are rounded out by “Leonardo and the Mother Archetype” and “A Note on Marc Chagall,” commentaries applying Neumann’s insights to the work of two specific artists.
“Art and Time” has to do mostly with the artist’s relation to the “psychic field” or external milieu in which he or she works—the social whole and the character of the particular age. It includes the aforementioned discussion of what we call the “modern” era, and Neumann’s original, somewhat iconoclastic take on the rise of the Renaissance.
“Creative Man and Transformation” is about the individual psychology of what Neumann refers to as “the creative person.” He convincingly presents a sense of the internal world of the artist, and elaborates on the factors which compel a painter to return to a blank canvas or a poet to a blank page, again and again and again. This seems like almost impossible subject matter, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve never come across anything else in print that comes close to articulating it this well.
In my attempts to recommend this book to friends, I may have made one mistake: mentioning Neumann’s suggestion that “the creative person” is special and somehow different from “a normal person” (his designations). “Everyone is special!” came the responses. Ever wary of “artistic ego” and of any form of elitism, I agree by temperament. I wish Neumann was here to respond. But whatever the case, I also conveyed my appreciation of the book by saying, “All my life I felt like an outsider, and never came upon any ‘map’ that seemed to fully include me. While reading Art and the Creative Unconscious, I rejoiced to have finally found ‘a map that shows where I live’—a mirror of my ‘odd’ psyche!”
Neumann uses a smattering of Jungian terminology—“archetype,” “shadow,” “collective unconscious.” A few might find this a bit off-putting. I won’t pretend the material isn’t dense. For me, however, these few Jungian terms don’t impede my enjoyment of the book. They’re more of an appropriate shorthand that enables Neumann to develop his original contributions in a concise manner.
Someone also asked me, “Were you really so enthralled?” I could only reply with the truth: “With every sentence, I sat on the edge of my seat in excitement.”