MythBlast | There and Stuck Again: The Creative Darkness of the Soul

Writer's Block
Writer’s Block by Isabelle Gallino (used through a Creative Commons license)

Time and again, as artists and writers we come to a point in our development where that proverbial “block” on the road of creativity is thrown our way and we feel stuck, as though abandoned by our creative instinct. It may be after years of study and professional development, having amassed a vast array of knowledge and technical proficiency, or just at the point where we are starting to learn something new; our egos get stuck, imperceptibly swallowed by a black hole in our souls, where that dreaded “negativity” of the unconscious psyche is waiting for us like an old friend. Enveloped in this darkness, our “healthy” ego inflation becomes depressed, the air goes out of our bubble of certainty, and we feel unmotivated to make our mark, unable to say a new word or paint a new image. 

I wonder what Campbell might say to us given this state of affairs. What advice would he give us in our most depressive hour?

In his correspondence with Angela Gregory, a sculptor and dear friend with whom he maintained a correspondence his entire life, Campbell had an occasion to share his thoughts on the matter. After Angela had sculpted her famous bust of a young Campbell in Paris where they met, she returned to the United States and found herself in such a mood, staring at that black hole of the self, or as she put it, “a certain blankness” that engulfed her and sapped all her inspiration. Campbell immediately picked up on his friend’s sad tone and with great affection decided to address her feeling of emptiness:

I know that the constant drumming of things around one can upset the pulse of one’s heart. Environment can engulf us in pleasures and pains. But after all it’s inside our own hearts that beauty reposes. Pleasures and pains affect the body; and if our dreamings have never released our souls, then pleasures and pains will upset our mental and emotional tranquility. Correspondence by Joseph Campbell - coverAggravations and disappointments—and even a certain blankness can help the soul to grow in understanding, once the soul has learned to feed upon whatever comes its way.

Marcus Aurelius was a very wise man, and if you’ll pardon me a moment I should misquote something which he wrote once.— When a flame is young it must be carefully guarded, and fed with things which will help it to grow. But when the flame has reached a certain height, and attained a certain vigor, then everything which comes its way is its food—everything helps it to grow. The soul is like that. (Correspondence, 13)

The soul as the flame of creative being is itself all-consuming, unrelenting, and does not shy away from death and destruction or the negativity of the unconscious; quite the contrary, once it has grown to a certain maturity, the soul feeds on the emptiness of pure being as it does from the fullness of life, for it needs both in the process of becoming. Campbell was aware of the fact that the true life of the soul is not to be found in the realm of pain and pleasure alone but in an activity beyond it, where the soul has its true home: the understanding of being itself

Often people underestimate how strong they are in the face of this non-positive darkness of the unconscious, where the creative flame of the cosmos burns on and on. Often under the spell of positivistic jingoisms, we do not have the courage to acknowledge the very existence of the unconscious psyche, the dark continent of our inner lives, as the Other in ourselves. For an awareness of the unknown origin within us implies the negation of our conscious grasp and certainty (the “un” of the unconscious), acknowledging everything that is not under our control. 

The problem does not reside with the profound negativity of the creative spirit as such but with the childish attitude we take towards it. Campbell’s advice, therefore, is not to “think positive thoughts” in the face of this darkness; positivistic imagery in this realm only helps to obscure the true “negative” nature of the psyche, the fact that it does not exist in a positive sense. But instead of helping us to attune—or atone—our attitude to the psychic negativity of the soul, naive positivism functions as a kind of defense mechanism against the unknown. In this sense, the true purpose of “positive thinking” is to keep the actual soul at bay, to maintain the status quo of ideology within us, without daring to question our own belief systems and their sense of positivity. As Jung has expressed the paradox of true psychological self-awareness: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.” (Alchemical Studies,  paragraph 355). Or as Freud put it even more succinctly (without Latin surrogates): Wo es war, soll Ich werden, or “Where it was, there I shall be” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 80).

Let us return to Campbell’s letter and his advice for his angelic friend, wherein he ends by encouraging her native ability to brave these depths, advancing the peculiar notion of a plurality of souls living within the nurturing self:

Angel, I think that chez-vous [in you] and chez-moi [in me] there are souls which have attained a certain vigor. Our mental attitude—our wisdom should help these souls to grow—to mount with every experience. When we shall have lived this intensely we should have truth in our hearts and beauty—then our work will be great because we shall be great ourselves. (Correspondence, 13)

Yours,

Norland Tellez, PhD

Norland TellezNorland Tellez is an artist and teacher with over 20 years of experience in the animation industry. He graduated from CalArts in 1999 and went on to work as a 2D animation artist for Walt Disney Feature Animation as well as Warner Brothers. He also completed a Masters and Doctorate degrees in the study of mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute with a dissertation on the Popol-Vuh, a classic of Mayan mythology. He was the recipient of the Joseph Campbell Research Grant in 2006.

As a writer and director, Norland has helped to produce award-winning educational properties, most notably the Once Upon a Sign mini-series for DawnSignPress and SignWorldTV, which features deaf actors using American Sign Language with voice-over acting.

As a teacher of Life Drawing and other animation-related fields, Norland has taught at CalArts and Santa Monica Academy of Entertainment and Technology, as well as the Art Institute of California Los Angeles.

Find out more at NorlandTellez.com