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Erich Fromm on Spontaneity as the Wellspring of Individuality, Creativity, and Love

“Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness… for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.”

Erich Fromm on Spontaneity as the Wellspring of Individuality, Creativity, and Love

Those of us accustomed to making life livable by superimposing over its inherent chaos various control mechanisms — habit, routine, structure, discipline — are always haunted by the disquieting awareness that something essential is lost in the clutch of control, some effervescent liveliness and loveliness elemental to what makes life not merely livable but worth living. Perhaps the most succinct shorthand for that counterpoint and counterpart to control is spontaneity. Ancient Eastern philosophy held it at the center of the enlightened life through the concept of wu wei, loosely translated as “spontaneous action.” The Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century recognized its vital antidote to the self-limiting compulsion for control in Emerson’s assertion that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

In my own push-pull struggle with spontaneity — the longing for its unloosing of joy, the terror of its loss of control — I was reminded of some immensely insightful and encouraging passages by the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) from his first major work, Escape from Freedom (public library) — his classic 1941 inquiry into how to cope with our moral aloneness.

Erich Fromm

A capacity and willingness for spontaneity, Fromm argues, is the railroad switch that shifts our life-track away from what he terms negative freedom — our impulse to escape from freedom rather than to it, overwhelmed by the tyranny of possibility — and toward its opposite, positive freedom. He writes:

The realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.

In a sentiment that has only swelled in relevance in the near-century since, Fromm observes that ours is a culture so predicated on control and the compulsions of achievement that it has rendered spontaneity a rarity. And yet among spontaneity’s scarce practitioners we find the model for the life most worth achieving:

While spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture, we are not entirely devoid of it… We know of individuals who are — or have been — spontaneous, whose thinking, feeling, and acting were the expression of their selves and not of an automaton. These individuals are mostly known to us as artists. As a matter of fact, the artist can be defined as an individual who can express himself spontaneously. If this were the definition of an artist — Balzac defined him just in that way — then certain philosophers and scientists have to be called artists too, while others are as different from them as an old-fashioned photographer from a creative painter. There are other individuals who, though lacking the ability — or perhaps merely the training — for expressing themselves in an objective medium as the artist does, possess the same spontaneity. The position of the artist is vulnerable, though, for it is really only the successful artist whose individuality or spontaneity is respected; if he does not succeed in selling the art, he remains to his contemporaries a crank, a “neurotic.” The artist in this matter is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary throughout history. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.

Art by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

Fromm argues that we recognize spontaneity as a supreme existential art and are drawn to its electric allure on some primal level, beneath the surface of our culturally conditioned evaluations:

There is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.

[…]

Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person — in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.

In this spontaneous activity, Fromm insists, lies the answer to the paradox of freedom — our longing for it and our terror of it, expressed in his dichotomy of positive and negative freedom. Decades before contemporary chronopsychologists uncovered how the interplay between spontaneity and self-control mediates our psychological experience of time and our capacity for presence, he writes:

Negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship to the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Spontaneity, Fromm suggests, is both the prerequisite and the proof of the most universal yearning of the human heart — the yearning for meaning, manifested in the two core experiences of love and work:

Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness — and yet that individuality is not eliminated. Work is the other component; not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation. What holds true of love and work holds true of all spontaneous action, whether it be the realization of sensuous pleasure or participation in the political life of the community. It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom — the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness — is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.

[…]

Ours is only that to which we are genuinely related by our creative activity, be it a person or an inanimate object. Only those qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and thereby form the basis of its integrity.

Escape from Freedom remains a superb read in its totality. For more of Fromm’s uncommon and enduring insight into the human experience, revisit his wisdom on the art of living, the art of loving, the superior alternative to the laziness of optimism and pessimism, the six rules of listening and unselfish understanding, and the key to a sane society.

BP

Rilke on Inspiration and the Combinatorial Nature of Creativity

“One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others… One must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…”

Rilke on Inspiration and the Combinatorial Nature of Creativity

The task of creative work is to weave something new and wonderful out of the tattered threads of culture and convention. On the enchanted loom of the mind, our memory and experience, our personal histories and cultural histories, interlace into a particular pattern which only that particular mind can produce — such is the combinatorial nature of creativity.

In describing the machinery of his own mind, Albert Einstein called this interweaving “combinatory play.” It cannot be willed. It cannot be rushed. It can only be welcomed — the work of creativity is the work of bearing witness to the weaving.

The inner workings of that unwillable loom, which we often call inspiration, is what Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explores in a beautiful passage from his only novel — the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library), which also gave us Rilke on the essence of art.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Decades before pioneering psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner noted that “in the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding,” Rilke writes:

For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one has long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents that one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illness that so strangely began with a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars — and it is not yet enough if one may think of all of this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises.

More than half a century before neurologist Oliver Sacks enumerated “forgetting” among the three essential elements of creativity, Rilke adds:

And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

Complement The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist, the life-expanding value of uncertainty, how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves, and what it really means to love, then revisit physicist David Bohm on creativity and Lou Andreas-Salomé — the world’s first woman psychoanalyst and Rilke’s great muse — on overcoming creative block.

BP

“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity

“When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity

“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts,” Franz Kafka told a young friend ambivalent about pursuing a creative life. This prayerful quality of art and the free-flowing generosity it presupposes can only arise from a certain self-transcendence, from a place untrammeled by ego and untrapped in a static, contracted self. “The creative self,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful case for the liminal, “[asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”

That delicate relationship between self-consciousness and creativity is what A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007), a woman of abiding wisdom on the creative life, contemplates in Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections (public library) — a collection of meditations drawn from L’Engle’s beloved books and personal writings, arranged like Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, with a short reflection allotted to each day of the year.

Madeleine L’Engle (Photograph: Sigrid Estrada)

In a series of reflections chosen for the last stretch of June, L’Engle echoes the Buddhist admonition against clinging to the “ego-shell” and examines how letting go of the illusion of a static, solid self uncorks creativity:

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

A most perilous malignancy of self-consciousness is pride — something Bruce Lee knew when he observed that “the core of pride is self-rejection,” and Agnes Martin knew when she cautioned that pride destroys freedom, joy, and creativity. With a kindred awareness, L’Engle adds:

The Greeks had a word for ultimate self-consciousness which I find illuminating: hubris: pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hitler.

Creativity, she argues, is the work of absolute unselfconsciousness, for it requires nonjudgmental observation and discovery, with an element of what Jeanette Winterson has so memorably termed “active surrender.” L’Engle writes:

Creativity is an act of discovering. The very small child, the baby, is still unself-conscious enough to take joy in discovering himself: he discovers his fingers; he gives them his complete, unself-conscious concentration.

Writing at a time when psychologists were formalizing this unselfconscious creative state in the concept of flow, L’Engle adds:

The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Because this sense of being “outside self” is so central to creative flow, at the heart of this generative unselfconsciousness is the discipline of holding the self loosely, as the ever-changing constellation of values, beliefs, and habits that it is — for, as the young Borges observed in his fantastic first essay, “there is no whole self.” Echoing philosopher Jacob Needleman’s insight into the path to self-liberation, L’Engle points to what is problematic about simply giving the growing person a ready-made self-image:

I haven’t defined a self, nor do I want to. A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming. Being does mean becoming, but we run so fast that it is only when we seem to stop — as sitting on the rock at the brook — that we are aware of our own isness, of being. But certainly that is not static; for this awareness of being is always a way of moving from the selfish self — the self-image — and towards the real.

Who am I, then? Who are you?

The young Tolstoy considered this very question “the entire essence of life.” The young Emily Dickinson answered it splendidly in a perfect line of verse: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

Complement Glimpses of Grace with L’Engle on how to get unstuck and her forgotten Library of Congress lecture on creativity, then revisit Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering inquiry into how our sense of self arises.

BP

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled.”

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness (public library).

Oliver Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)

In his impressive handwritten notes on creativity and the brain, which became the basis of the essay, Sacks had enthused about — in two colors, underlined — the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of the mind engaged in creative work. But, contrary to the archetypal myth of the lone genius struck with a sudden Eureka! moment, this chaos doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it coalesces from a particulate cloud of influences and inspirations without which creativity — that is, birthing of something meaningful that hadn’t exist before — cannot come about.

With the illustrative example of Susan Sontag — herself a writer of abiding wisdom on the art of storytelling — Sacks traces the inevitable trajectory of creative development from imitation to originality:

Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled,

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.

[…]

I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.

Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation. He writes:

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

A page from Dr. Sacks’s wild and wondrous handwritten notes on creativity and the brain.

Curiously, Sacks points out, many creators don’t make the leap from mastery to such “major creativity” — something Schopenhauer considered in his incisive distinction between talent and genius. Often, creators — be they artists or scientists — content themselves with reaching a level of mastery, then remaining at that plateau for the rest of their careers, comfortably creating more of what they already know well how to create. Sacks examines what set those who soar apart from those who plateau:

Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind?

It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.

Much of the gamble, Sacks argues, is a kind of patient gestation at the unconscious level — something Einstein touched upon in explaining how his mind worked. Echoing T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the necessity of “a long incubation” in creative work, Sacks adds:

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He illustrates the detrimental absence of such a gestational period with an example from his own experience:

Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed.

I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).

In a testament to his uncommon empathic might and his endearing generosity of interpretation in regarding others, Sacks reflects on the deeper phenomena at play:

I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.

The unfortunate playwright seems to have embodied the lamentation which poet Mary Oliver so beautifully articulated in her meditation on the creative life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Sacks points to three essential elements in a creative breakthrough, be it a great play or a deep mathematical insights: time, “forgetting,” and incubation. More than a century after Mark Twain declared that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Sacks — who had previously written at length about our unconscious borrowings — adds:

All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Complement this fathom of The River of Consciousness, thoroughly resplendent in its totality, with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bill Hayes’s loving remembrance of Oliver Sacks and Sacks himself on what the poet Thom Gunn taught him about creativity.

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