Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke
“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.”
By Maria Popova
A woman of extraordinary intellectual and creative potency, the Russian-born writer Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) became a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated thinkers, including Nietzsche, whose masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her. Already an established poet and philosopher by the age of fifty, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first woman psychoanalyst. But perhaps the most significant relationship of her life was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who became besotted with her in his youth, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her.
Like Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the two remained lifelong friends and intellectual peers after their romance ended. Andreas-Salomé was Rilke’s most trusted confidante and, in many ways, his greatest influence.
Particularly beautiful was their intimacy around the trials and triumphs of the creative spirit, revealed over and over in Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) — the record of their decades-long, deeply poetic correspondence, which also gave us Andreas-Salomé on the relationship between the mind and the body.
In a letter from the summer of 1914, Rilke confides in her about his exponentially exasperating struggle with depression and creative block. He captures the overwhelming and vulnerable-making emotional porousness that makes us feel completely devoid of control over the anguishing invasiveness with which the world enters us:
I am like the little anemone I once saw in the garden in Rome; it had opened so wide during the day that it could no longer close at night. It was terrible to see it in the dark lawn, wide open, still taking in through its calyx, which seemed as if frantically flung open beneath an all-overpowering night that streamed down on it undiminished… My senses, without asking me, attach themselves to anything intrusive, whenever there’s a noise I give myself up to it and am that noise, and since everything, once it has been set for stimuli, wants to be set off by stimuli, so at heart I want to be disturbed and am so without end. From such exposure to an existence in public, some sort of life inside me has taken refuge, has retreated to an innermost place and lives there the way people live during a siege, in deprivation and perpetual worry… And in between, between this uninterrupted outward-addiction and that interior existence I can barely reach any longer, are the true dwelling-places of healthful feeling: empty, abandoned, cleared out, an inhospitable middle zone whose neutrality also explains why all the kindnesses of people and nature are wasted on me.
But in her response, Lou Andreas-Salomé offers some counterintuitive yet tremendously insightful consolation — the emotional porousness that makes for such despairing vulnerability, she argues, is also the wellspring of creative self-expression, as evidenced by Rilke’s exquisite articulation of his very anguish. She writes:
While you are perpetually feeling sick and miserable you are also perpetually finding expressions for that experience, and those expressions, in the distinctive form you give them, would be quite impossible unless somewhere inside you there is a flowing together, an experiencing in unison, of what you feel as so torn into one impulse fleeing outward and another burrowing inward, with only an empty, self-deserted middle space between them. Those words with which you articulate this condition, and that passage, for example, about the anemone — they are nothing if not works, works accomplished, the coming about of deepest unities in you!
In a sentiment that Anaïs Nin would come to echo thirty years later in her beautiful meditation on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, Andreas-Salomé adds:
A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs, certainly; but if it arose out of that despair, the despair of not being capable of just such poetic syntheses, there’d be a contradiction, don’t you think? To your consciousness of yourself it appears that way, your consciousness finds itself on the side of what is being blocked, and therefore is not party to those moments which show again and again that you are not so lacking throughout in unity as you feel and think “yourself” to be; you suffer yourself as a person blocked, and that piece of happiness which is lodged in this situation remains hidden from you, withheld, even though all its requirements are inside you and express themselves; for one cannot write about the anemone the way you do without some store of happiness (which is just not fully working its way into consciousness!)
At the heart of her consolation is the notion that creative block is evidence of creativity rather than of its absence. She writes:
This may not factually change anything, since one has nothing of that which eludes one’s feeling and thoughts; yet proof that it is real and is present remains important, — somewhat the way an insensate limb does not stir the same terror as an amputated one: the paralysis may be connected with processes that can at any moment resolve, and that do not block the flow of food and nourishment, etc.
Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably beautiful and poetic Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters with Lewis Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block, Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, and some advice from successful contemporary artists, then revisit Rilke on the soul-expanding value of difficulty, our fear of the unexplainable, and what books do for our inner lives.
Published May 12, 2016