Analyst and author Ann Belford Ulanov draws on her years of clinical work and reflection to make the point that madness and creativity share a kinship, an insight that shakes both analysand and analyst to the core, reminding us as it does that the suffering places of the human psyche are inextricably?and, often inexplicably?related to the fountains of creativity, service, and even genius. She poses disturbing questions: How do we depend on order, when chaos is a necessary part of existence? What are we to make ...

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Madness and Creativity

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Analyst and author Ann Belford Ulanov draws on her years of clinical work and reflection to make the point that madness and creativity share a kinship, an insight that shakes both analysand and analyst to the core, reminding us as it does that the suffering places of the human psyche are inextricably—and, often inexplicably—related to the fountains of creativity, service, and even genius. She poses disturbing questions: How do we depend on order, when chaos is a necessary part of existence? What are we to make of evil—both that surrounding us and that within us? Is there a myth of meaning that can contain all the differences that threaten to shatter us?

Ulanov’s insights unfold in conversation with themes in Jung’s Red Book which, according to Jung, present the most important experiences of his life, themes he explicated in his subsequent theories. In words and paintings Jung displays his psychic encounters from1913–1928, describing them as inner images that “burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me.”

Responding to some of Jung’s more fantastic encounters as he illustrated them, Ulanov suggests that our problems and compulsions may show us the path our creativity should take. With Jung she asserts that the multiplicities within and around us are, paradoxically, pieces of a greater whole that can provide healing and unity as, in her words, “every part of us and of our world gets a seat at the table.” Taken from Ulanov’s addresses at the 2012 Fay Lectures in Analytical Psychology, Madness and Creativity stands as a carefully crafted presentation, with many clinical examples of human courage and fulfillment.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

ANN BELFORD ULANOV, a Jungian psychoanalyst in private practice, is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Memorial Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
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Madness and Creativity

By Ann Belford Ulanov

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Ann Belford Ulanov
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-995-3


Personal Madness

Madness belongs to all of us. It comes in many forms and many degrees, from the craziness at the bottom of our neurotic symptom to a derangement that engulfs our whole life. Madness is simpler than it looks: it is our effort to express unbearable pain. Pain of shame, of humiliation for "not having the goods"; pain at being annihilated as a person with agency over her own life, treated as of "no account, so no accounting is necessary"; pain of catastrophic anxiety, so one goes dead to communicate being made dead; pain of being treated as another's object, at their disposal, like a prop for sexual release or burst of violence, filling their need to get ahead, steal one's land, annex one's country.


Madness springs from the shattering of our self. We communicate this loss by living in a void, a no-man's land. We use supervigilant control to prevent our flying into myriad fragments. But that control stretches to a vibrating extreme and then snaps. We become confetti. Or madness shows in an engulfing fog of abysmal confusion, obscuring any orienting direction of north and south or time sense of then and now. We cannot represent in word or image what is happening to us. We spin into outer space, out of body, out of mind. In dread of disintegrating panic, we do not go outside, lest its terrific force fell us in the supermarket, as one man said, leaving him lying in the aisle as women push their grocery carts over him. Madness on the way to recovery digs up parts of us left in shadow that are unadapted, still archaic, so that we feel as bizarre to ourselves as we appear to others. Yet we need just this primitive energy to find our way through madness.

I am aware that this subject introduces strain. Speaking of madness brings it near, felt, breathed in again, with all the dissolving of meaning that madness inflicts. Through the generosity of my analysands, who give permission to cite some of their words, we can feel the theme of madness and associate our own specific variations. To bring in as well Jung's experience described in The Red Book bolsters our courage to look into our madness, to see what is there and not there for us. Something happened to Jung that took him down, gripped by necessity to find what he missed. For us to read this volume is to fall into a world that astonishes, for we are gripped as well. We can take courage from Jung's saying he also felt "violent resistance ... and distinct fear" to engage these erupting fantasies.

To approach madness in the more customary way, through clinical terms for disorders of mental distress, puts it at a distance and removes us from the scene, as if madness happens only to the other guy. I do not want to do that for two reasons. Labels such as borderline, narcissistic, and the like make us feel judged; we recognize bits of ourselves in these disorders and feel fear when put into categories of craziness. Also, madness is not ours alone, but part of the human condition; we cannot segregate it over there apart from our own lives. Jung asks, "What is there, when there is no meaning? Only nonsense, or madness." But, his soul declares, "Nothing will deliver you from disorder and meaninglessness, since this is the other half of the world." Any meaning we find or construct must, then, include this other half, too. Recognizing that bears huge implications for our shared existence in society and for our religious attitude, whatever that is, including our rejection of religion and things spiritual.

Trying to speak and write about madness induces its felt impact: words slip, slide, and break, fall into nowhere. Disorder defeats any clear line of exposition. Like a spell or a fog or pollen in the air, to speak of madness is to be infiltrated by experiences of its derangement that we both know and deny. I do speak and write about madness precisely because it is a country we share.

A specific Jungian view of what promotes healing includes knowing that our particular suffering partakes of human suffering. The personal and impersonal meet, and that nexus counteracts the horrible isolation madness imposes on us. We feel crazy, and no one can understand and we cannot explain; that conviction is itself a symptom of the madness that afflicts us. To know in fact that we share in a larger human problem relieves our humiliation of being caught like a rabbit in a trap and softens the isolation we feel from being subjugated to a force outside our agency, tempering our judgment that we are insane. Seeing our madness as part of the human condition restores dignity of meaning to our suffering. We are working on a human problem, in our own small version of it. Insofar as we find solutions and release, we contribute this healing to others; we do our small part to contribute to the healing of suffering in the human family.

To know and accept our role in the community quiets our strain and may even replace it with curiosity about this state of being, a being-state that feels like nonbeing, a nothing state. One analysand describes it as a life lived in an airport, arriving from nowhere and departing to nowhere, just wandering to and fro in nonexistence, triviality, emptiness. This description echoes Jung's in The Red Book of Hell: "There is nothing but motion.... Everything merely surges back and forth in a shadowy way. There is nothing personal whatsoever."

Madness is traumatic; it tears us from our familiar self, leaving a gap so big that it threatens us with no return once we fall into it. Trauma brings its own vocabulary, which we learn bit by bit in the aftermath of the shocking event that instigates it, such as a murder or suicide, a mugging, a rape, a terrorist attack, or that cumulatively doses us over years with dread of its recurrence, such as incest. Or trauma can result from lack, what is not there, what was not done and should have been given, such as being welcomed, noticed, picked up and loved, not blocked out by another's depression or tragedy. Our defenses of our fragile selves can hurt others; our failures to thrive can eclipse the life-giving warmth of emotion to our children; our fearful withholding can blight the growth of affectionate living with our partners.

Madness springs from hurt that goes deep, that ruptures our sense of self, leaving us helpless to shelter the person we are becoming. We lose a sense of agency over our own life and fall victim to how another defines us. Our thread of going on being is broken, and we live with this gap in our identity. Our sense of being alive feels intruded upon and disturbed; there is no rest for us anywhere.

The specific vocabulary such traumatic experience leaves in its wake is a complex of images, emotions, and behaviors that differ among us but hold in common a sense of being in the grip of a force that compels us to go round and round with obsessive thoughts about what happened or should have happened, what we failed to say or do in response. We feel utterly defeated, unable to verbalize or find an image for what has happened to us; instead, we walk around dazed, mute, caught in an abyss of confusion. We feel obliterated, cast aside, discarded like so much trash, not merely rejected, but annihilated. We feel blanked; no meaning is graspable, no value in our self, but vacated, a no-thing.

The lost good object is our self. We can make nothing of what has happened to us. We lose the world, too, the connection to others, to any sense of space between us, to meanings we inhabit together. In analysis, this mad state may express itself in staring blankly, or weeping uncontrollably, or falling into futile silence. What Jung calls a complex is what we inhabit now, but a complex of imagery, emotion, behavior that is no longer a normal part of our psyche, but abnormal in that it overtakes our ego functioning. We are in it, pushed round and round in a washing machine without end, with no release into fresh perceptions laundered of madness, but only the lunacy of retelling the hurt, the insult, the injury, the being treated as a worthless object in another's sight or in society's disposal of us into unemployment, a psych ward, an item in a psychoanalytic theory. An analysand who became a scientist grew up in a ghetto where he heard from the cops, schoolteachers, adults on the street that he was nothing and would always be nothing.

Psychosis is a modern word for such affliction of nonbeing, such loss of heart, such loss of soul, so urgent that Jung found he had to go looking for it and, indeed, came to see this was the search for all of us, the plight of "modern man." Analysts with different theories know about this gap and write about it as basic fault, deadness, false self, fusion complex, or centers within us of not-I-ness.

Knowing and Not Knowing: A Complex

Madness yields a strange knowing and not knowing, inducing in us separation from whole areas of experience that something in us knows but that we do not consciously register. We do not represent this experience of disorder to ourselves in word or image. It is dissociated, not repressed, because it never was conscious. The meaning exists in us in our body and shows in our behavior, so we repeat destructive actions, knowing and not knowing we are doing this.

For example, a woman continues to see a man who, while with her in a restaurant, is asking the waitress's phone number. His disregard for my analysand made her feel suicidal. Her continuing to see him made her feel caught in lunacy. Only in willingness to take on the pain of painstaking work to look into this mad repeated behavior did she become conscious that the emotional abandonment he inflicted dragged into light her earliest abandonment. She knew about that loss as abstract information but never registered its deep suffering. At birth her mother left her with her grandmother for three years. When the grandmother died, without explanation to her three-year-old self, she was whisked back to her mother. Her current reenactment that made her feel mad, exposing herself to this man's destructive behavior, she came to see was her effort to feel the connection between what was happening in the present and what had happened in the past. Unconsciously her compelling behavior pushed into consciousness a coherent complex that in effect stated, I feel emotionally abandoned and want to kill myself. Achieving such clarity of image, affect, behavior allows a complex to cross over into consciousness, where we can relate to its symbolic meaning. We can find words to talk with ourself and communicate with another what we suffer, find images of distress, recognize impulses that we can behold and study. Space emerges between us and our former compulsive behavior. We find its meaning.

Or, after many years a man divorces his wife to whom he had to devote time and energy to take care of her because of her mental distress. He marries another who needs his constant care for her physical distress. The known-unknown thing he attends to in his partners moves around to different locations, first the mind, then the body, but his repetition of choice in a partner bypasses consciousness because the trouble still locates in the other, not himself. Our somatic problems can carry unlived psychic afflictions trying to get into consciousness. Legitimate physical maladies, often chronic and grave and arising from physical origins, get made use of to signal unfelt psychic contents or actions—for example, sorrow that needs to be lamented consciously, not wept out through blistering, weeping sores of the body.

The complex rules us and traps us in its repetitions; yet the complex tries to communicate something we know and do not know, need to know, to unravel and find symbolic representation for, so we can be freed from acting it out and discover what precious part of ourself has been sheltered there. These dissociated behaviors are painful to endure—symptoms of losing things, of getting sick before social engagements or professional presentations, of leaving preparations to the very last minute or even losing opportunities because of procrastination. We feel trapped in their iterations and defeated again and again. Yet the complex, like a good dog, keeps at us, herding us toward the opening into consciousness to receive its communication. Hiding there are dots of light. Madness and creativity coexist.

Social Effects

Our madness is not ours alone but infects others, often gravely. We drive each other crazy. Clinicians know this and have long training to recognize their countertransference in order to have in mind their own potholes where sanity gives way to insanity. Yet clinical work in depth requires the analyst really to experience where the analysand is caught in knowing-unknowing, like the woman who knew perfectly well not to continue seeing the man who flirted with other women under her nose, but she did it anyway.

In another example, a man whose multiple wives and lovers all end up refusing to talk to him goes on presenting himself to himself and others as reasonable and commendable, dismissing his partners as "these difficult women." He remains unknowing of the poison he inserts into them. He sounds rational, friendly, innocent, all the while emotionally abandoning the woman, removing himself from her, thus making her feel crazy, destroying her grasp of the situation. The clinician has to go into the analysand's mad state to look around, feel its power, to see that things are not what they seem and locate with him the path to consciousness, which is a dangerous role to be in. Sue Grand describes what every clinician feels when we cannot do this: "I could not fall through the holes in my known world," that is, into the mad world of the analysand. When, together with the analysand, we connect with the area of madness, "new forms of subjectivity make their appearance." Schwartz-Salant sees madness as an overwhelming, disordering inner state that occurs when we seek new forms of order. How does one suffer chaos without losing one's mind? How does one find that imaginal space to make hidden meaning visible? That is the work of therapy; that is the message the repeating complex is trying to deliver.

Not only do we contaminate each other with what makes us feel demented, uncentered, inferior, that is ours to look into; we also instead locate it in the other. You are the problem, even you whom I love, not just you who are my enemy; the other group is deranged.

The effect of our madness in the larger society stems from its being contagious. We can derail those who love us from plain speaking. They become wary strategists to get around the elephant pit of our complex. If they are the mad ones, we defend against their madness, urge them to "move on," "get over" the hurt and anger instead of trust truth between us to win through. Without a shared container of meaning, those with larger rations of psychotic elements in themselves act out publicly the mental illness. They strap on bombs to get rid of evil we all fear, that they have translated into the narrative of their own madness. They transmogrify their own life into a weapon to kill others, to make deadness in the name of serving a living God, a cause, or a collective vengeance. The madness is not just personal but extends to whatever we believe is our guiding meaning, to hold it now as a religious duty to enforce. Our madness connects with our religious attitude, what we say is the good, the true, the worth dying for. Even if our cause is to wipe out religion, the passion of devotion is as if to a god.

The Ruling Principle

Jung calls this guiding meaning our "ruling principle," our version of the good we heroically seek to embody and enforce. This does not work because we want to ascend "to become part of its magnificence" and leave out the bad, because the "good and the beautiful freeze to the ice of the absolute idea, and the bad and the hateful become puddles of crazy life." In making our version of the good, the principle that should rule, we make a god and try, with "unconscious cunning and power," to coerce our neighbor to serve it: "Enamoured of our own design ... we ... demandingly ... force others into following the God." We fail to see its one-sidedness, its implicit exclusion of others who have different guiding principles. Others must believe in our good, our cause, or they are the violent ones; we are serving truth. Jung says we must accept the violence as part of ourselves lest we kill in our neighbor, literally or through discrimination and prejudicial laws, what we cannot accept in ourselves.


Excerpted from Madness and Creativity by Ann Belford Ulanov. Copyright © 2013 Ann Belford Ulanov. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Series Editor's Foreword, David H. Rosen,
PART ONE: Madness,
1. Personal Madness,
2. Collective Madness,
PART TWO: Creativity,
3. Compelling Complex,
4. Creative Return,

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