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Sounding Creativity

Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 164-172

Sounding Creativity

Melinda Haas, L.C.S.W.
Jungian Analyst

In this paper I present a Neoclassical Jungian perspective on late 20th century Western culture and the effect of that culture on creativity, and on vulnerability to cult involvement. Through examples of composers’ relationships to their own music, I offer an understanding of creativity’s locus in the depths of the psyche.

The great problems of humanity were never yet solved by general laws, but only through regeneration of the attitudes of individuals. If ever there was a time when self-reflection was the absolutely necessary and only right thing, it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch. …Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being with its individual and social destiny—here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour. (Jung, 1916, pp. 4–5)

Carl Jung wrote this statement in Europe in the middle of World War I. Perhaps inconceivable to him was the possibility that the world situation could get worse. And yet, by the end of the 20th century, his plea for “self-reflection” had gone largely unheeded. Western culture had devolved into a fast-moving, externally validating, quick-fix, right and wrong society. The ground, turned over and tilled since the beginning of the century, was, by its end, fertile for the growth of cults. One end of the spectrum of human values and concerns had been left outside the popular culture. Cults, extreme versions of the pervasive one-sidedness that remained, easily took hold. The privileging of the rational and logical had been developing for hundreds if not several thousand of years, and even more rapidly since the Age of Enlightenment, with the rejection of religion as “irrational.” The 20th century saw the culmination of this trajectory. To the Neoclassical Jungian, the over-emphasis on logical and linear thinking, with its binary by-products either/or, black/white, inclusion/exclusion, right/wrong, has encapsulated our experience of life. We are caught within directed thinking, and we have come to define consciousness solely in these terms. Without the rich energy that lies in intuition, feeling, sensory awareness, acausal possibilities, a sense of timelessness, we are cut off from the source of our own uniqueness and thus from our creativity.

The seeking that is prerequisite to cult involvement must surely emerge in the individual who is not finding what s/he needs in the culture. Two needs seem to constellate simultaneously. One is the need for expansiveness—  spiritual, psychological, creative. The other is the need for containment and belonging. The linear, either/or, inclusive/exclusive society that Western culture has become offers neither the space nor the safety to those seekers. By the end of the 20th century, much of life energy had been caught in the demand to think in a logical, concretizing, and dichotomizing system. We could call this “ego” thinking.[1] It is as if a retaining wall had been constructed to insure no escape. Outside this encapsulation, life energy has the potential to actually be contained, rather than retained, but in a way that is inclusive, accepting, intuitive, non-linear. To exit the encapsulating ego is to access psychic energy. In other words, one is able to have a more immediate experience of “psyche.”[2]

Containing that fosters expansiveness means collecting the various aspects of ourselves, striving toward wholeness and uniqueness. For Jung, this is individuation.

There is a profound irony in this cultural/psychological situation. The cult promises to expand consciousness while at the same time providing a containing and “belonging” function. On the surface this sounds like the very antidote to our ego-driven culture. It promises a connection to psyche, for doesn’t consciousness-expanding imply a place outside of the directed, logical, linear life of the ego? And further, doesn’t the promise of containing and belonging imply the all-inclusive nature of psyche? The problem is that cult mentality is by definition limiting, and riddled with binary thinking. This binary perspective is judgmental, motivated by black/white, either/or, good/bad, inclusive/exclusive. Even though the cult sounds like an antidote, the fact is, cult thinking itself is trapped inside ego. It is unable to see things from a non-ego perspective of openness or all-inclusiveness. It leaves nothing to intuition or instinct. It must control at all costs. Cults erect walls that hold people in group houses, dismantle former belief systems, cut ties to families, change the meaning of language, and ultimately break the member’s will, through the sheer force of a stronger will—through domination by a leader. This process systematically cuts off or excludes entire portions of the personality.

In cults we see an extreme version of late 20th century Western culture. While the cult is containing, its energy is far too masculine—i.e., penetrating and judgmental (right/wrong), to allow room for real feminine energy.[3] What feminine energy does exist is encapsulated within ego’s controlling grasp. Although a cult may be collective, it does not foster authentic relationship, with oneself or with other. Neither does it support feeling. In our culture and especially in a cult, one has little experience of the deep intuitive impulses of psyche, and our experiences of psyche are collapsed into the either/or logic of the ego. In other words, our “creativity” has become co-opted by ego and is thus not true creativity. C. G. Jung writes, “The creative process has a feminine quality” (Jung, 1922, par. 159). To touch into one’s creativity is to submit to psyche, and to be willing to stand outside the safety of ego’s logic, outside its causal and directed thinking. True creativity lies in the deep and dark corners of our own uniqueness. It is the place where our uniqueness becomes expansive—free to mine the precious metal hidden way beneath the surface.

When we talk, then, about inclusion and containment at the psychic level, we are speaking of the way psyche holds the parts of ourselves together. When we speak of relatedness, we are in part referring to how these parts relate to one another. Gustav Mahler once wrote, “The symphony is the world. It must contain everything within it” (Greenberg, 2001). He is telling us about psyche. Our definition reminds us that psyche contains everything, including ego. Surely one cannot produce a “creation“ without using ego functions. Where would the artist be without technique; without tools, instruments, rules, rights and wrongs; without relying on what he or she knows? But if the creator stops there, the result will be a commodity, an ego product that has not been allowed to make the intuitive leap into the unknown.

In 1940, the French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. While imprisoned, he composed his Quartet for the End of Time, and premiered it in Stalag VIII-A (POW camp) on January 15, 1941, with a cello that had only three strings, and a piano whose keys stuck when played. Messiaen was thirty-three years old and already an established composer. He was a devout Catholic and fascinated with mysticism. Thus, when he entered this confinement, he had a pre-existent relationship with psyche’s guiding importance, and with his own creative impulses. Although he was imprisoned by the one-sidedness of Nazi mentality, and although he was in enforced “retainment” rather than containment, surrounded by depression and suicide, he was able to “escape” into his own creative, generative world. “Attesting to the eternal freedom of the spirit over the temporal captivity of the body, the piece illustrates how captivity paradoxically set free a work that became a testament to creativity…” (Rischin, p 6).

We could say that the subtext of all music is Time. It unfolds over time (unlike a painting, for example). It metes out time in measured increments; it divides and dissects time. The detailed process of differentiating and partializing is an ego function. Father Time’s way of conceptualizing and dividing time lies in great contrast to the feminine Great Round that is cyclical, non-linear time. “The dual meaning of the title … rests not with the notion of the interminability of captivity, but with the composer’s desire to eliminate conventional notions of musical time and of ‘past and future.’” (Ibid., p. 52). Messiaen himself spoke this way:

Rhythm is, in essence, alteration and division. To study alteration and division is to study Time. Time—measured, relative, physiological, psychological—is divided in a thousand ways, of which the most immediate for us is a perpetual conversion of the future into the past. In eternity, these things no longer exist. (p 52)

Messiaen was able to take his long-standing relationship to psyche with him into prison. Perhaps he was compelled to compose in order to feel the comfort and containment he had always known when he encountered psychic energy. He wrote this piece of music not only from a deep place in psyche, but about psyche; about the all-inclusive sense of Time without end, the cycle of birth-death repeating on into eternity. From this example, and that which follows, one begins to see how a person’s internal and external conditions can play a part in restricting or enabling creativity.

In a recent interview on NPR, Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, mused about Beethoven’s brilliance and its relationship to his physical condition. How do we explain his ability (or imperative, really) to push music to places it had never been? Alsop wonders if deafness might have resulted in a “more extreme form of creativity.” Did it perhaps compel him to “take more chances”? Arguably, as he grew more and more deaf, his compositions grew more adventurous and more beautiful, even more ethereal. Might he have been “hearing on a level beyond normal? An imagined, heightened hearing, all in his head?” Let us remember that ego is the function we use to relate to the world. If we look at Alsop’s musings through the language we have been exploring, we would say that as Beethoven’s relationship with the outer world became more and more difficult, he climbed further and further in to psyche, to a deepening and expanding relationship with himself. “That he could not, with comfort, communicate with the outside world, forced him to discover all that was within himself, to search the depths of his genius” (Rosenbaum, p. 8). And the Beethoven scholar Thayer writes, “[w]ho can say that the world has not been a gainer by a misfortune which stirred the profoundest depths of his being and compelled the concentration of all his powers into one direction” (Thayer, p. 297). The consciousness he attained, especially in creating his late work, was certainly not solely ego consciousness.[4] His creations broke classical rules, suspended right and wrong, demanded that the container (form) be flexible and supple; in short, burst through the surface, sounding another kind of consciousness that lies deep within psyche.

There are aspects of these composers’ stories that are similar to cult experience, and many aspects that differ. Both were imprisoned—Messiaen from the outside, and Beethoven from the inside. Beethoven grew increasingly isolated as his hearing declined. He writes:

I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years now I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people, I am deaf. If I had any other profession I might be able to cope with my infirmity, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. (Lockwood, p. 112)

It is not hard to imagine that Beethoven feared a change in perception of his identity, thus triggering both embarrassment and shame, and causing his increasing isolation. Yet even if this was an accurate reading of what the outside world would think, Beethoven was not prey to what Lifton called an “assault upon identity” (Lifton, 1989, p. 67), since the assault did not come from an outside attempt to break down his identity, to remake him into someone else. In contrast to Beethoven, Messiaen experienced a group imprisonment, controlled by an external totalitarian mentality. He was detained, even subjected to awful conditions, but not sent to a concentration camp, and not forced to think in one particular way. As distinguished from cult involvement, mind control was not an overt method of control in Messiaen’s experience. Some of the German soldiers that imprisoned him were themselves products of a classical education that valued music. They let him compose late at night in the latrine, and even helped to organize the performance of the Quartet. Even that degree of lenience is foreign to most typical cult experience. Further, both Messiaen and Beethoven had established an intimate and trusted relationship to psyche and to their own creativity by the time each was incarcerated. Though they spent their lives “seeking,” they had by this point in their lives located enough self-identity to be able to use that knowledge as resource, even to sound its depths, during their imprisonment. This pre-established connection is often not the case for cult members. When it is, it might serve them as it did these composers, perhaps to help protect a sense of integrity while in a cult, or to support a recovery process.

We have considered the yearning for expansiveness and the need for containment. In addition, I contend that true creativity can only come through a connection to one’s deep self and the singularity and uniqueness that lie in wait there. That journey to one’s unique self is a journey through psyche, outside of ego. It requires withstanding the discomfort of not knowing. Only then is one open to the expansiveness of the never-before-encountered. This is especially uncomfortable territory for cults and cult leaders, where the rules and parameters are specifically designed around knowing—the “truth,” the language, the “right way.” In cults, containment has been achieved, but at the expense of expansiveness.

If we are in contact with psyche, and are able to resist being encapsulated in ego’s exclusionary and rigidifying energy, we are able to recognize that nothing, including cult involvement, is black and white. I have written in broad terms, perhaps leaving out the nuances of individual experience. Surely exploring one’s beliefs, living collectively, meeting a life partner are all creative acts that might take place within a cult. But when they happen in a cult, they are experienced within the retainer of rigid domination, rather than in the container of psyche. Only when one sets one’s own limits, discovers and struggles with the fear of psyche’s limitlessness, is one on one’s own path. That path, with its nonlinear twists and turns, is the progressive pull of the psychic process to become the most one can be. Stepping onto that path is, I believe, the only way to enter fully into one’s creative life. And yet, it is very difficult, in our present hyper-rational and logical culture, to develop an intimate relationship to psyche. There is a constant pull toward causal, directed thinking that precludes the freedom to explore the unknown, and perchance to stumble upon a creative spark. Cult members are seekers, caught in the constraints of contemporary Western culture, attempting to right the imbalance in themselves and in the world. Unfortunately, the cults themselves are products of that same imbalance. If as a culture we are able to break down some of the walls that surround ego and open a pathway to psyche, I imagine there might be less “need” for cults within our society.


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010, Page

[1] Ego—In Jungian usage, ego developed out of the inchoate into the rational and subjective. Its historical trajectory suggests the history of Western culture itself. During the 3,000-plus years of the patriarchal era, we have increasingly privileged the rational, the causal, the linear over all else. We have chosen to define ourselves by those attributes, and to eschew others such as body, instincts, intuition. The “I” that meets the world is this chosen conglomerate, leaving the other aspects in the dark, as if they were not there at all. The current hyper-rational postmodern condition of our culture is a vision of ego in its extreme state.

[2] Psyche—In Jungian usage, psyche surrounds ego and contains all in its domain. Thus this includes intuition, acausal events, nonlinear thinking, cyclical time, sensory awareness, and also ego. Psyche is process, motion. This process is purposive and progressive. It is in this forward motion that creativity may be found.

[3] Masculine and feminine energy—These terms are a way of describing kinds and qualities of energy. It is merely a limitation of language that has merged these terms with gender. To be a whole person, male or female, we are all in need of both masculine and feminine energy. Masculine energy is direct, penetrating, and assertive in an aggressive mode. Its thinking is linear, causal, and differentiating often to the point of binary—built upon either/or, black and white. Feminine energy is round and containing, in contrast to the either/or, linear system of masculine energy. Feminine aggression is less direct and pointed, although surely just as powerful, as the ferocity in defending one’s young will attest.

[4] Consciousness—In Western culture, we have come to associate all consciousness with ego consciousness. This description therefore limits consciousness to the purview of ego’s attributes; thus, the conflation of thinking (rational) and consciousness. Rather than calling psyche the un-conscious, we might posit that psyche has a different kind of consciousness that exists outside of ego.


Alsop, Marin. Interview on Weekend Edition. NPR. February 2, 2008.

Greenberg, Robert. (2001). Great Masters: Mahler—His Life and Music. The Great Courses on [CD]. Virginia: The Teaching Company

Jung, C. G. (1916–18). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. CW 7. Princeton: Bollingen.

Jung, C. G. (1922). On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry. CW 15, Princeton: Bollingen.

Lifton, Robert Jay. (1989). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Lockwood, Lewis. (2003). Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: Norton.

Rischin, Rebecca. (2003). For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. New York: Cornell University Press.

Rosenbaum, Victor. (1960). “Beethoven’s Deafness—Its Effect on the Man and His Music.” Unpublished paper.

Thayer, Alexander W. (1921). The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven. Vol. I. New York: The Beethoven Association.

About the Author

Melinda Haas, L.C.S.W., is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in New York City and Vermont. Previously, she was a psychotherapist at the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York; and prior to that, a professional musician.