Saturday, July 24, 2010

Psychology of the Artist as a Young Man

Inspired by current local conditions, I picked up Heat Waves in a Swamp, an exhibition volume on the works of the visionary American watercolorist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967; his Four Seasons is above). Discussing Burchfield's decision to remain in small-town Ohio and then rural western New York rather than going for the bohemian big-city life, Dave Hickey writes:

First, he was far from a genuine rustic, enamored of his isolation. His daily life was that of a cosmopolitan intellectual who has isolated himself, as a secret drinker might, to conceal his weakness. In Burchfield's case, this weakness was his bond with the landscape of his youth, a place that, for Burchfield, was less beloved than genetically imprinted--like the promise of water on a baby duck--that was less a theatrical setting for his art than an inextricable, mysterious extension of his selfhood, or he an extension of it. Over the years, I have tried to put a name to this particular malady. Many authors, writers, and performers have suffered from it. It is characterized by a shift of centeredness. The ground shifts and the barrier between ourselves and the world disappears. We feel ourselves to have become possessed--to have become an extension of the world, a particle in that whirlwind. The self is obliterated in this instant. The effect is akin to Stendhal's syndrome, to the wooziness we feel when we are captured by pictorial illusion. It is akin to dancing, to the loss of self that accompanies our giving ourselves up to the music. I call it the curse of the soft self--the unwilling dissolution of one's identity into its environment. It is the malady of painters, writers, actors, musicians, and critics. It always brings with it the terror of not being able to reassemble one's identity int he wake of having lost it.

I found this to be remarkably perceptive, and I think I can help Hickey out with the name of the peculiar malady: schizoid personality, of which this passage is an apparently unknowingly evocative description. The schizoid type's instinctive human craving for connection is in conflict with a hypersensitivity toward physical and emotional contact; what is feared is smothering, intrusion, definition by others. The world as it is is too much with them; the self is perpetually under siege. The modus operandi of the schizoid person is withdrawal into an internal world of imagination and intellectualization (William Blake's "I must create my own world or be enslaved by another man's"). Schizoids are lovers of distance, which Burchfield apparently found far from the hip, crowded art scene. As Nancy McWilliams writes in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (1994):

The most adaptive and exciting capacity of the schizoid person is creativity. Most truly original artists have a strong schizoid streak--almost by definition, since one has to stand apart from convention to influence it in a new way. Healthier schizoid people turn their assets into works of art, scientific discoveries, theoretical innovations, or spiritual pathfinding, while more disturbed individuals in this category live in a private hell where their potential contributions are preempted by their terror and estrangement. The sublimation of autistic withdrawal into creative activity is a primary goal of therapy with schizoid patients.

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