Hermann Hesse: Artists & Psychoanalysis

[Psychoanalysis] demands a truthfulness toward oneself to which we are not accustomed. It teaches us to see, to recognise, to examine, and to take seriously exactly those things that we had been most successful in repressing in ourselves.

For some of us there’s nothing of higher value in the pursuit of the meaning of life than to find out who we really are and to reconcile ourselves to it.. That sounds like a cliche to many and dead serious to others. The intention of this blog post regarding psychoanalysis is not the excavation and presentation of any unconscious matter, but to show the importance of one’s becoming acquainted with one’s unconscious. Even though the essay I’m going to refer to is addressed to artists, I would like to recommend it to anybody who is seeking their own way of self discovery. I personally see the exploration of the role of the unconscious - personal and collective - vital for the integrity of a human being. 

Please find below the synopsis of Hermann Hesse’s essay titled “Artists and Psychoanalysis” back from 1918. 

Since analytical psychology has turned directly to folk myth, to saga, and to poetry, a close and fruitful relationship has existed between art and psychoanalysis. […]As was to be expected, artists in particular were quick to take up this new and variously productive way of seeing things. A great many of them, neurotics themselves, had a personal interest in psychoanalysis. […]

I see three sources of corroboration and encouragement that the artist can draw upon from analysis.

First of all, the basic confirmation of the value of fantasy, of fiction. If the artist looks at himself analytically he cannot fail to see that among the weaknesses from which he suffers are these: a doubt about his calling, a distrust of fantasy, an alien voice within him that agrees with bourgeois views and education and rates his whole activity as ‘only’ a pretty fiction. But it is precisely analysis that emphatically teaches every artist that what he at times is inclined to regard as ‘only’ fiction is actually of the highest value, and reminds him loudly of the existence of fundamental psychological demands as well as of the relativity of all authoritarian standards and evaluations. Analysis justifies the artist in his own eyes. At the same time it throws open to him in the analytical psychology a realm of pure intellectual reality. These benefits of the method are, of course available to anyone who simply studies it objectively. 

There are two other values, however, that are only open to one who tries out analysis thoroughly and earnestly in his own person, to whom analysis is not just an intellectual interest but becomes an experience. […]

Whoever has followed for some distance the path of analysis, the search for psychological causes in memories, dreams, and associations, retains as a permanent gain what may be called the ‘inner relationship to his own unconscious’. He experiences a warmer, more fruitful and passionate interchange between conscious and unconscious; he brings up into the light much that would otherwise remain ‘beneath the threshold’ and waste itself in unregarded dreams. […]

Before everything else, analysis impose an important basic demand, whose evasion or neglect brings instant retribution, whose goad penetrates very deep and inevitably leaves lasting marks. It demands a truthfulness toward oneself to which we are not accustomed. It teaches us to see, to recognise, to examine, and to take seriously exactly those things that we had been most successful in repressing in ourselves, the things that generations have repressed under continuing coercion. This at the very outset of analysis is a powerful, indeed a monstrous experience, a shock that reaches to the roots of one’s own being. Whoever withstands this and presses onward sees himself more and more alone with every step, further separated from convention and accepted views, confronted by questions and doubts that have no limits. In return for this, however, he sees or surmises behind the collapsing theatrical scenery of tradition the inexorable image of truth arising, of nature itself. […] By way of father and mother, by way of peasant and nomad, by way of ape and fish back into time, in no fashion can the descent, affiliation, and hope of mankind be so earnestly, so shatteringly experienced as in a serious psychoanalysis. […]

Now no one is likely to find this stimulating, educative, goading power of analysis more beneficial than the artist. For his concern is not with the most comfortable adjustment to the world and its ways but rather with what is unique, what he himself means. 

In conclusion I shall quote a poet whom we usually number among the pure idealists, to be sure, but not among the strongly intellectual artists. […] The following passage [is from] a letter by Schiller [where] Schiller is writing to Körner, who had complained of a failure in productivity:

“The cause of your complaints, it seems to me, is the compulsion that your intellect imposes upon your imagination. It seems to be a bad thing, disadvantageous to the creative activity of the soul when the intellect examines too closely, as though at the very threshold, the ideas that stream towards it. An idea considered in isolation may seem very unpromising and even fantastic, but perhaps it will become more important through another idea that comes after it, perhaps in a certain combination with others that may appear just as absurd it can supply a very important connection: all this cannot be judged by the intellect unless it keeps hold of an idea long enough to examine its association with others. On the other hand, in a creative mind, it seems to me, that intellect has withdrawn its guards from the gates, the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does the intellect survey and criticise the whole assembly.”

This is the classical statement of the ideal relationship between intellectual criticism and the unconscious. Neither by suppression of the material streaming out of the unconscious, out of uncontrolled fancy, dreams, and the byplay of the mind, nor by permanent surrender to the unshaped infinity of the unconscious, but rather through affectionate attention to these hidden sources, and only afterward through criticism and selection from that chaos - thus have all the great artists worked. If any technique can help fulfil this demand, it is that of Psychoanalysis. (Hermann Hesse, 1918)


The stars are a free show / oil on canvas / 60x60cm

Notes from the attic is exactly what it says. I’m living in a tiny attic, the place of the creative joy and struggle of my life. These blog notes are timely fragments of the books that make me wonder about life, about the journey between my birth and death. This journey seems to have only one purpose: to find the way to myself. You are welcome to explore my paintings on this website  and connect with me through instagram or facebook, or you can subscribe to the monthly newsletter to hear about new works or notes from the attic.


Bedtime Story: The story of the mouse who could leap across the sky

Many of us tend to pay no attention to folk stories and fairytales as they are seen as the realm of childhood entertainment or considered simple mindedness for a grown-up. Analytical psychology regards them as stories from below that have a deep connection to the human unconscious. I would like to share a story with you, it is known in many different variants worldwide, in most of them the protagonist is a mouse, a rabbit or a little ant. The variant below is mostly based on the Bedtime Stories told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

“The story of the mouse who could leap across the sky”

Once there was a mouse, who was just like every other mouse, except for one thing: this particular mouse could hear a special sound. After many days of hearing it she asked the other mice:  -“Brothers, sisters, do you hear a roaring in your ears?”  They all listened hard, but then shook their heads saying: -“No, we don’t hear anything”.  From then on no matter how hard the little mouse tried to distract herself she continued to hear the great roaring sound. One day - with her little cane and little pouch filled with food - she left her village to seek the source of the great sound. 

She came across the old kind racoon and told him what she was about. The racoon smiled and said: “Oh, little mouse, the roaring you hear… I know about it. I know what that is, let me take you there”. So they went together, and the racoon took her down on paths she had never seen before, and the roaring became louder and louder. And louder… Eventually they came to a great river and to the huge sound that she alone had been hearing - the sound of the great replenishing, life-giving, cleansing river. And the river rang out, and it thundered, and it roared… And it roared…

Some of the creatures of the river seeing the little mouse standing awestruck by the shore swam over and said to her: “Oh, this is the great river but there is more to see than this. If you crouch down, and then leap up as hard as you can, you’ll see something more marvellous.” […] So the little mouse leaped up as hard as she could, and she suddenly saw… just for a moment… far away the shining mountains. In that very moment she knew she must go there. “What did you see little mouse?” - asked the river creature. “Oh, I saw a sight that will never leave my heart.” - said the mouse. And so she felt called to make her way into the larger world. And she set out. 

After a long arduous journey she came upon a village where lived an entire enclave of very old mice. “Welcome” - said one of the old mice. “Stay here with us where it’s peaceful and nothing disturbing happens.” […] “Oh” - the mouse replied - “Can you see the shining mountains from here?” […] “No, not really. But it’s comfortable here. Plenty of seeds, our hidden place is safe from eagles and hawks. Forget those mountains, come stay here with us.” But the little mouse who had heard the roaring and also seen the vision of the shining mountains couldn’t stay, so she tore herself away and continued her journey. 

Gathering all her strength she ran through deserts and forests, the eagles and the hawks overhead made shadows on the land as she ran, and sometimes she had to hide to keep herself from becoming a prey. And then…

…at last before her stood the shining mountains.

It’s said that it was a sacred lake in the cleft of the mountains, in which many ideas, hopes and dreams could be seen, and if one were to climb up there one would even see further. It’s said that at different times of the night and day different understandings come to those who climb these mountains and find this lake. And it’s said that the little mouse still lives there… 

And yes, there she lives as a mouse among mice, the one who followed the roaring, while others claimed they heard nothing. Nothing at all.

Creating stories out of mud and water/oil on canvas/122x91cm

Notes from the attic is exactly what it says. I’m living in a tiny attic, the place of the creative joy and struggle of my life. These blog notes are timely fragments of the books that make me wonder about life, about the journey between my birth and death. This journey seems to have only one purpose: to find the way to myself. You are welcome to explore my paintings on this website  and connect with me through instagram or facebook, or you can subscribe to the monthly newsletter to hear about new works or notes from the attic.


Seneca: On how to live & die

“Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”

               A beautiful little book by Seneca (4BC-AD 65) fell into my hands called On the shortness of life, title which - I must say - caught my attention straight away. As for a woman in her forties - thinking about life&death has become a daily activity of mine. This mainly means searching for ways to live life with acceptance towards ageing and death and perceiving it as a meaningful progress of my human condition. Accepting the uncomfortable abyss of existence and even developing an amor fati can be beautifully challenging though, beautiful in a poetic way. Learning to perceive that death is as necessary as life - shouldn’t be overlooked. Our western culture doesn’t wish to hear about death and would rather turn towards anything else which makes one forget about it, hence the fear of it is beyond our control. Focusing on what lies around (what is palpable) with an openness towards nature itself could help perceiving our and our loved one’s existence - with its ascent and descent - as our maturing and our return to where we came from. I can’t help but quote Epictetus: what you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present

Find below the synopsis of what I’ve found meaningful in Seneca’s book On the shortness of life.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is [..] spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.

[…] It is generally agreed that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied […] since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn. But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who […] organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day[…] Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it - as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied - food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

[…] Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

[…]We are all tied to Fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and others by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds - unless you think perhaps that the left-hand chain is lighter. One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is a servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.

[…]Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them. Moreover, we must not send our desires on a distant hunt, but allow them to explore what is near to hand, since they do not submit to being totally confined. Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pursue what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognise that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance but uniformly futile within. And let us no envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.

[The wise man] does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on loan not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes, because he knows he is not his own, but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say: “I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver […] my house and my household.”

Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us, we shall say to her too: Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back, I am willing for you to have straightway what you gave me before I was conscious – take it.” What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must strip off the value we set on this thing and recon the breath of life as something cheap.” (Seneca, On the shortness of life)

The barricade (I’m still far from being what I want to be),/oil on canvas/120x90cm

Notes from the attic is exactly what it says. I’m living in a tiny attic, the place of the creative joy and struggle of my life. These blog notes are timely fragments of the books that make me wonder about life, about the journey between my birth and death. This journey seems to have only one purpose: to find the way to myself. You are welcome to explore my paintings on this website  and connect with me through instagram or facebook, or you can subscribe to the monthly newsletter to hear about new works or notes from the attic.


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