Creative Perception and the Mechanism of Identification in Art (1997)

(from the book "The Creative Process an Psychoanalysis")


In his essay ‘The Doors of Perception’, Aldous Huxley, probably driven by a powerful inner desire to fathom some of the great secrets of the human soul, gave an account of his experiences under the influence of the drug mescaline. At that time, it was a common belief that this drug stimulated psychic changes equal or very close to schizophrenia. These changes were, and still are, believed to generate positions for direct communication with the deepest strata of human psyche, with the domains of the unconscious.

At one point in this experiment, he observed ecstatically that the objects in his surroundings, in the setting in which he conducted the experiment, began changing their shapes before his very eyes, attaining a new and magically exciting life. Huxley continues by explaining that a drapery, previously unnoticed and without great importance to the space, overpoweringly attracted his attention with its folds and he began travelling through its newly discovered forms. Filled with excitement and admiration, he felt as if he were a part of it, confined in a powerful lasting bond. Then he reports that as a result of that experience, for the first time he could understand and reach the power of the great artists who perceive, experience and undergo something that ordinary men could only rarely experience.

This unexpected experience of a person who was himself a creator can serve as a good introduction to the interpretation of certain mechanisms in the creative process without which it could not produce a valuable work of art. At this point I feel the need to distance myself from any possible wrong conclusions at which the reader might arrive by relating the creative process with schizophrenia and drugs. I do this on account of my still powerful impressions accumulated at my public lectures dedicated to the creative process and psychoanalysis,5 where, on a few occasions, such wrong associations were assumed by some of the attending experts – psychiatrists. I was even accused of promoting artists as mentally ill persons, which deeply hurts my feelings of deep respect for artists and their choice to dedicate their entire lives to creativity. As fate would have it, and as is often is the case here on the Balkans, a few years later,one of the listeners attending those lectures appropriated some of those events as his memory.

It seems that in an attempt to illuminate the event in which Huxley partook we should focus on two points in particular. The first is the specific change in his psychic apparatus chemically induced under the influence of a drug. The second is the unusual relation established between the writer’s person and the objects in his surroundings, followed by unusually intense experiences. Huxley’s ecstatic enchantment is indicative of the absolute novelty and uniqueness of his experiences.

In his place, an experienced clinician or a classical descriptive psychiatrist would have easily solved the riddle, considering it non-existent, finding a simple explanation in the intoxication of the central nervous system which causes perceptual distortions in the person under the influence of a drug. But this mechanistic-organic explanation cannot meet the requirements and aims of this essay, because it is indisputably verified and certain that such states of specific perceptive and experience potential exist and are realized in artists and real creators without any use of drugs or the development of a psychopathological condition.

This information that the same or similar experiences are induced in the course of the creative process without ‘intoxication of the central nervous system’ leads us further to analysis of the complex mechanisms and changes in the psychic apparatus of the person who, for creative purposes and aims, temporarily enters the world of such experiences. We will try to locate the power of the artist and the creator in general, primarily in the second of the two previously mentioned moments. We ask: ‘How is it possible to establish such relation with a curtain? In what kind of a relation does the person identify himself with the object he sees, with the sound he hears, with the touch he senses, with the movement he follows, with the information he receives, with the notion he creates about a situation, real or imaginary? So that this feeling which suddenly enthuses him opens the door of the creative process and generates at the other end a work of art or leaves it as an imaginary unfinished creation?! It is a state that is uniquely lived through in limited time and in the space of the inner and external reality.

The single psychological methodology which can embark on interpretations of such states is psychoanalysis. From a psychoanalytic point of view, these states indicate an achievement of a complete identification of the creator’s ego with the object involved in a relation with his person. It is a case of application of the mechanism of identification, which is the basis of creativity. At the same time, this mechanism is an inseparable element of proceedings within the psychic apparatus of all living beings, most developed in humans, and present at all stages of his general development and mental maturation. This mechanism includes temporary identifications of the person with certain objects from his inner and external reality which then initiate a chain of internal experiences, and in dependence on the quality of these experiences, it can result in different emotional reactions and behavioural changes. The realization of this elementary type of communication, which exists as a biologically inherent potential in all of us, will depend on the inner constellation of the person who aspires to establish contact with the objects important to him.

The door through which this psychologically complex process could be entered is that of perception, i.e. the changes that occur at the perceptual level and at the level of correlation between the sensory systems and the other psychological functions of the person. These changes begin with the focusing of the perceptive apparatus through selective attention and increased concentration on certain contents objects from external or the inner reality. These can be images, sounds, thoughts, vibrations, associations, sensory stimulations, and their combinations with certain elements of psychomotoric actions. In time, the other cognitive functions should be disconnected, such as: the analyzing and synthesizing function, the function of reality testing, the memory in its sense of associating current stimulations with previous experiences, etc. Having disengaged from these functions, the perceptive apparatus is free and fluid, and as such in a position to establish contact with contents and experiences which spontaneously penetrate from the inner and the external world. In such a state, the person of the creator can follow and perceive notions which emerge authentically and freely at that very moment.

Examining the state of the person of the creator at this level, we can observe that, in relation to the identity of his person, some changes occur in a sense of its temporary disappearance. The person is completely devoted to perception and through it to the contents with which it is currently in contact.

This is already a state of altered ego, an ego which at that moment is first transformed into a mirror and then into an imitation of the phenomenon with which the perception communicates. In this state, the form introduced and projected into the inner world by the perception is automatically adjusted. The ego becomes the symbolic ‘it’ which was perceived, temporarily restructuring the matrix of its inner boundaries and the form of its concretization, in accordance with the contents it incorporated. Analytically observed, this altered ego is completely identified with the subject of the perception and reflects this in its form. In a symbolic fashion, the creator’s ego re-creates a segment of the inner and the external world. This could suggest that Man’s psychic apparatus has the capacity to reflect everything which can make contact with his sensory apparatus. Then again, psychoanalysis and analytic psychology indicate that Man’s unconscious, alongside its individual, familial and collective layer, encompasses other as yet unresearched potential which the creative process communicates in its own specific manner.

Great riddles and magical elusiveness still obscure this area of human potential. It is still largely in the interpretive employ of occultism, parapsychology, but also of paganism which is again in high demand in contemporary culture. We are aware that Sigmund Freud consciously refrained from interpretation of these states and from analytical insight into their meta-psychology, except for a part of their essence intended for categorization and phenomenological integration into a complex of certain psycho-pathological entities. Nevertheless, we should still stress that in one of his works, in which he analyzed two telepathic dreams, he observed that ‘a transfer between two persons at an unconscious level’ might exist. He renounced any further speculations in favour of the strict observance of scientific principles in the development of psychoanalysis and stayed as far as possible from occultism, which he believed would impair the acceptance of psychoanalysis by the academic institutions of the time. Still, from this historical distance, we can observe that Freud accepted the possibility that, in future, this area could become accessible for psychoanalytic interpretation and elucidation.

Jung, on the other hand, unrestrained by aspirations to strictly controlled and procedural science in his illumination of the essences of human psyche, was guided by the empiric in his detection of the deep strata of the human unconscious. He refers to the ‘collective’ and ‘objectively psychic’ human disposition which encompasses predetermined positions which are not only human but of general organic inheritance. He perceives the human unconscious as a ‘microcosm’ and a counterpart to the ‘macrocosm,’ which is replicated in it. When in contact with this microcosm, Man can perceive all there is in the macrocosm and communicate with it. Achieving a deeper insight into energy transfers occurring in the world of the psyche, Man can even reach quantum relations which resist logical explanations and which, according to Jung, can be a cause and a clear basis for non-temporal, non-spatial and non-causative communication. He termed this communication – ‘synchronicity’. It took him more than fifty years to risk proffering his observations about these phenomena to the public in an accessible form. In the meantime, he considered I Ching more competent, though applied in a phenomenological mode. Currently, trans-personal psychology and other trends in psychology derived from his psychology speak without fear about this phenomenon as a part of Man’s everyday existence and as an important factor in determination of his destiny.

At any rate, the only empiric methods which have so far managed, partially but more directly, to indicate the possibility of Man’s perceptive apparatus making contact with these contents are those of hypnosis and trance. Hypnosis and trance trigger changes in the world of the psyche and these changes are identical in one of their aspects to those previously described. Through a correct and purposeful introduction into a hypnotic state, with the help of certain techniques suggested by the hypnotist, attention and perception are concentrated on a designed object or notion from the external or the inner world. This induces ‘contracting of the consciousness’ aimed at the redistribution and condensation of psychic energy in the direction of notions and sensory stimulations of dominant interest for the perceptive process at that moment. Further intensification of the contact between perception and the notions created by the hypnotist’s instructions usually leads to disconnection of ‘the awareness of one’s self and its surroundings’; that is, to extinguishing of the synthetic function of the ego due to its complete energic disinvestment. Clinical psychoanalysis considers this state a ‘partial disintegration of the ego’. The function of the ego is effectively reduced only to that component which maintains contact with notions or sensory stimulations through its perception. The phenomenological definition of these changes is a state of trance. In it, the ego surrenders entirely to the dynamics of the ‘primary process’ which rules the world of the unconscious, uninhibitedly adopts the identity of the actual stimulations and notions with which it communicates, and ‘transforms’ into them. At this point we can only guess what possibilities exist for contact and ‘journeying’ with contents open for the ego, which, absorbed by the momentary experience, is boundlessly fluid in the timeless world of the unconscious. In this manner and in this state, the ego can reach everything that is reached by the unconscious.

This explains the states experienced by Huxley, Castaneda, and many other creators, known or not, who applied chemical stimulation to their own psychic apparatus. Nevertheless, these states are a privilege of a great number of gifted people, who can reach them without artificial stimulus and communicate with the contents of their unconscious. It seems that without such aptitude and willingness on the part of the artist, there is no real creativity.

These contacts are ‘on the other side…’ of ordinary reality. They are incomprehensible and challenging for the everyday logic of the averagely integrated ego and the culture of collective consciousness founded upon interpretations of the world and its events based on the principle of cause and effect, especially when observed from the point of view of ‘normal adaptation’. For this reason, these contacts are still dominated by occultism and mysticism which, through their magic-animistic method of thinking and interpretation, establish symbolical projections of the infantile-unconscious aspirations to omnipotence on the part of their adherents. At the same time, this is encouraged by the illusory belief that this dogma generated in a paradoxical regressive contact with primary narcissism is socially acceptable.

In the creative process, the mechanism of identification helps the creator’s ego to feel unrestrained by rigid and defined boundaries, to be mobile in its contacts, that is, to be spontaneous. This allows for a sense of personal freedom and opportunities to gain new spiritual resources through this mode of communication. However, there is always the danger that this might inspire a desire in the Ego to desert its social roles, previously constructed through the application of adaptive mechanisms in the culture of collective living and through the creation of a personal place within the collective conscious. This undisclosed potential proffers an illusion of an endless game. By pursuing this illusion, the ego would dissolve into the unconscious, losing its social integrity and all its other hard-earned benefits form the secondary process. Therefore we could claim that the creative process is at times on the verge of becoming a ‘dangerous game’.

The communication achieved through the mechanism of identification can cause different reactions in the creator’s person. These reactions can be temporary imitations within the duration of this mechanism, accompanied by superficial experiences, or they can lead to profound identification which generates intense experiences and internal restructuring. At the same time, the quality of these inner reactions will depend on the compatibility between the experience resulting from this communication and the existing constellation of the inner world. If these experiences correspond with inner needs, the person accepts them as his own authentic parameters and as an integral part of the already existing structure of the person. The objects that are the subject of the mechanism of identification can simultaneously be of a double, triple or multiple meaning for the person of the creator. Introduced in the inner world, they become a component of his reality and then influence his other internal structures and his entire identity. The person accepts the attributes it considers positive and rejects the negative.

Alongside this much-simplified model of communication which can be reduced to the system of acceptance–rejection, the mechanism of identification also proffers a model of learning; that is, an acknowledgment of observations which, after the process of identification, are encoded in the structure of the person who is temporarily or permanently changed by this knowledge. At the same time, together with the adoption of the form of the object of identification, its contents are also experienced and compared with personal contents. This leads to the preparation of the person for adaptation and to raising the level of its ability to find and express the most adequate form in a specific situation and to charge it with an adequate energy content.

In cases where the attained role causes unpleasant experiences, they are suppressed; or, if the unpleasantness is exceptionally intense, the person of the creator can dissociate itself from this unpleasantness unconsciously and can further project it onto external reality, experiencing it now as an attribute of external objects. In cases like this, the adaptive potential is not realized, nor is the potential for learning and creative development. The objects onto which the inner negative charges are projected become a target for the energy released from the inner object world of the creator. They are experienced as objects which are in a certain relation to his person, perceived as a threat, i.e., the threat comes from external reality. The manoeuvre achieved through this mechanism is recognized by psychoanalysis as ‘projective identification’. In the course of this manoeuvre, the creative play between the inner and the external world and the spontaneous flow of energy are locked in a self-communicating, hermetic and stereotypical circle, which gradually grows to be more rigid and detached from the reality. This also leads to selective auto-elimination of this system.

We certainly cannot seek creativity and development in such hermetic worlds which function as a repetition of identical models of identification. In time, they can obtain the quality of forced repetition of stereotypical choices of monotonous roles achieving limited communication with the objects of the external and the inner world. Conversely, creativity is born and survives through recognition of potentials for new identifications, access to new forms, extraction of their contents and the experiences that accompany them. This communication eliminates the old boundaries, allowing for a flow of energy and its redistribution, as well as release of the energy from the previously blocked reservoirs and activation of those components of the person that can realize it in a concrete work of art. In the new play, which transpires after the elimination of the old boundaries, countless new inner relations and combinations between the released forces emerge. At a conscious level, Man experiences them as emotions, aspirations, motifs, images, sounds, thoughts, or simply as a strain on the muscles of the body, a movement, a spasm in the stomach, a change in the rhythm of the heart, disquiet, fear, pleasure…

All this, emerging in such a manner and surfacing in the consciousness, is very personal and authentic for the creator and reflects the idiosyncratic quality of his person at a certain time. The mode in which this new and inimitable game is activated is shared by all humans. Therefore we can observe that creation, as a product of the creative process, is on the one hand something very individual, while on the other it can be recognized as a general human quality, characteristic of all human beings. It is a simultaneous act of communication with one’s self and with the external world, during which process a new work is created as well as new inner relations which support the stability of adaptability.

Our analysis at this point reaches the conclusion that the mechanism of identification is a door which exists between us and the world of creativity, the joy of creating and communication itself. This door is our own. Let us not forget that in Huxley’s case this door was opened suddenly under the influence of a drug intentionally administered. Nevertheless, it seems more important to emphasize that there exist certain biological potentials and a multitude of people and creators who have opened this door spontaneously or by employing their experience from previous practised attempts which have generated an appropriate skill. This skill involves ‘being’ temporarily the form of the object seen or imagined, the sound heard or assumed, the touch which stimulates, the emotion which mounts, the thought which emerges… To enter and navigate the worlds which open before us, whether our own or others, inner or external, is different each time in some aspect from the previous worlds.

At times, this can be far too treacherous and can trigger or use up over-intense experiences, activating the fear of the unknown. Due to the importance of this mechanism for the fate of the creator, and having recognized this danger with the help of the methodology of psychoanalysis and in particular of ego- psychology, we find it essential that the ego of the creator, the bastion of his identity which must not be lost at any cost in the course of this journey, should be provided with well-mastered mechanisms and skills for entering and departing such states. After the departure, it is essential that the ego is capable of resuming control over reality, i.e. the function of the ego which psychoanalysis terms reality testing. In this manner only can a new valuable work of art be created and the precious psychological stability of the individual be preserved. This ability of integrating within the structure of the person of the creator is achieved through mastering skills and through perfecting the essential techniques which characterize the creative process. The Ego psychology terms this a ‘secondary autonomy of the Ego’, which indicates perfecting the skills to their complete autonomy in the functioning of the overall ego, ensuring that the ego is not threatened. Later, it all depends on the assets of the person of the creator - different in each case, on the inherent qualities, but also on the assets achieved through independent experiences and learning.

Referring back to the established significance of the mechanism of identification in creativity, we can observe that it is recognized as a biological model of communication between the external and the inner world, but also between the components of the structure of the inner world. At the same time, it can be recognized as an important factor in the process of growing and maturing, in the process of learning about ourselves and the reality that surrounds us, accompanied with enhancement of the adaptive restructuring. Merged with creativity, the mechanism of identification reflects its unique power to produce something new, both individual and collective.

In 1989, I presented my essay ‘The Ego in the Creative Process’ at the Days of Neuropsychiatry in the Republic of Macedonia in Skopje, while at the same event in 1990 I presented my essay ‘The Creative Process and Analytical Treatment’.