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Rollo May and the Courage to Create

A latter-day psychoanalyst delivers dramatic insights with a soft touch.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

When I was in college, Rollo May was still a household name among those interested in clinical psychology. His works were not on the syllabus, though, because they did not adhere to the positivist scientific standards of the time. I never read any of his books because I thought of myself as a positivist. Now in my post-positivist stage, and with an interest in the psychology of creativity, Rollo is back on my radar. So I opened up his Courage to Create (1975), a slim volume of essays May published during the 50s and 60s. I expected to find in May a humanist much like Maslow or Rogers. Indeed, May’s style of thinking and writing is similar to these humane psychologists, yet there is a difference in emphasis and approach. May refers to himself as a psychoanalyst, but what he says about psychoanalysis is critical. He objects to the view that creativity is born of neurosis or complexes of inferiority. May is also remembered as an existential psychologist, which could mean a lot of things beyond a penchant to cite Kierkegaard & Nietzsche.

May’s point of departure, like Rogers’s, is that creativity does not come easy. There is the necessity of struggle (see also Bertrand Russell on happiness). May does not see the presence of challenges and constraints as something bad, but as essential to the creative process. The title of the book, which is also the title of the first essay therein, is a nod to Paul Tillich’s The courage to be. May stresses that courage is dialectical. It does not denote the absence of fear, but action in the face of fear. Connecting to Tillich, May proclaims that “We express our being by creating. Creativity is a necessary sequel of being” (p. 8).

The creative act is the outcome (synthesis) of various dialectics (conflicts, contradictions, and tensions; see also Krueger, 2015). In the first essay, The courage to create, May calls our attention to the tension between conviction and doubt as the foundation of the highest form of courage. Contemplate this dialectic: Someone who is fully convinced of all his or her beliefs is perfectly rigid and averse to anything new. Someone who is pandubious (skeptical of everything) is in danger of becoming paralyzed. Unchecked doubt inhibits initiative, trust, and hope. The creative individual balances conviction and doubt. In the second essay, The nature of creativity, May distinguishes between pseudo- or escapist creativity, which may, for example, come with vacuous play, and true creativity, which absorbs the person in the task in a way that involves both emotional (Dionysian) and cognitive (Apollonian) capacities. Being fully human requires an ongoing engagement of the emotional and the cognitive, and this is true in extremis for creative living and acting.

In the third essay, May seeks to overcome simplistic distinctions between the conscious and the unconscious. As modern psychology has since amply demonstrated, the two are interdependent. May refers to earlier writings by Carl Jung to argue that the polarity between the conscious and the unconscious mind is a form of dialectic interplay. Describing what is now known as the incubation effect, he notes from anecdotal experience that the unconscious mind can yield creative insight only if the conscious mind has first struggled to find a solution, to complete fragments of thought into a ‘good Gestalt.’ When the conscious mind gives up and transitions into a stage of relaxation, the unconscious mind often completes the job, and we exhale “Aha!” In the fourth essay, Creativity and encounter, May locates the birth of creation at the intersection of the subjective and the objective. His term of choice is encounter, which makes you think of Carl Rogers or Martin Buber, but May uses the word more broadly. By encounter he means a person’s open, intensive, absorbing engagement with a task, an activity, or another person. Watching TV is not encounteresque; psychotherapy or wood-turning are. Again, May points to the need for struggle and passion. An act of mere consumption cannot be an encounter.

In the fifth essay, May sounds a bit like HDF Kitto, going on about the Delphic Oracle and what it meant to Greek civilization and the Greek mind. The Oracle was – as may be recalled – crafty. Many of its ‘predictions’ were phrased in such a way that they would come true regardless. A prince asking whether he should wage war against the Phrygians would be told, for example, that he “would go, come back – not – die in war.” The two hyphens in my rendering of the prophecy were potential locations for a comma. Depending where you, or the prince, put the comma (in your mind), the meaning would be either life or death. This is brilliant, and it is not cheating, as May recognizes. What the Oracle did was to bring forth a dialectic for the seeker to contemplate. The idea was to make him think and find a creative solution to his own existential question. May goes on to note that psychotherapy, at its best, does the same thing. He credits Harry Sullivan with pioneering the technique of offering two interpretations of a clients dream. Having two incompatible solutions, the client much invest the mental work of reflection, and is thereby set on a path to creativity and healing. Merely hearing and accepting one interpretation would be an act of consumption, which would not be equal to the task.

In the sixth essay, On the limits of creativity, May explores what I consider the most fundamental dialect of creativity: the value of constraints. Without limitations or constraints, the creative capacities of mind have nothing to guide them, no problem to solve, no barrier to overcome. May tells of a conference in New York City under the title “Human possibilities are unlimited.” The effect was stifling. Observes May: “There is no real problem anymore. You can only stand up and sing hallelujah and then go home” (p. 113). In the seventh and final essay, Passion for form, May, the humanist, psychoanalyst, and existentialist, reveals his inner Gestaltist. A creative product is a good Gestalt. It is pleasing and prägnant, to use Max Wertheimer’s classic term. The good Gestalt presents itself in consciousness once we have worked out the underlying dialectics of the task. The good Gestalt is the reward we receive for having gotten off the couch and having done the hard work.

Krueger, J. I. (2015, November). Dialectics of creativity. In-Mind: Italy, 9. In English: In Italian:

May, R. (1994). The courage to create. New York: Norton. First published in 1975.

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