Tag: Creativity

Music and embodied creative space

  • Zvonimir Stephen Nagy


Article 6 | pages 6474

Issue Copyright © 2020 Tinkr

Article Copyright © 2020 Zvonimir Stephen Nagy

ISSN: print/2334-1149 online

DOI: 10.18536/jge.2020.01.06

Music and embodied creative space

Zvonimir Stephen Nagy

Tarleton State University


This article places the compositional work of Johann Sebastian Bach in the context of present day practice of creating music. It uses images and places from the art of memory to the act of making music in order to closely examine the relationship between musical creativity and embodiment. While focusing on the central hypothesis that exposure to specific musical practices leads to the formation of multimodal creative agency, an argument is made for the emergence of an embodied creative space. The embodiment of musical creativity is defined as a cognitive and performative causality: a relationship between the cause and effect when composing, performing, or listening to music. Expanding on this model, music making is further considered to be an embodied activity that stems from the causality of these interde-pendent attributes of creativity: the cognitive actions controlled and sustained by our mind, and the performative interactions mediated by our body and the environment. By exploring the actions and interactions commonly associated with composing and performing music, this article defines the embodied creative musical space as an interactive agency that lives at the threshold of cognition and performativity. As a result, the nature of musical creativity as an embodied, lived experience extends the social and collaborative concepts of creativity, as it becomes an interactive creative contingency. Delivered from the perspective of a compos-er, performer, and music scholar, the paper contributes to the growing interdisciplinary discourse on musical creativity.

Keywords: musical creativity, embodiment, memory, creative space, musical composition and

Zvonimir Stephen Nagy | Tarleton State University (Texas A&M University) | College of Liberal and Fine Arts, Stephenville, Texas, United States | Correspondence: znagy@tarleton.edu

Note: The author attests that there are no conflicts of interest, that the data reported here are not used in any other publications and, there are no infringements on previous copyrights.

Before Bach

If we were attending a symposium in ancient Rome, we would not have many note taking abilities at our disposal. We would not have portable electronic devices and apps to take notes or Moleskin type notebooks to jot down important ideas and concepts heard during the talks and presentations, much less a way to record each other’s feedback, ideas or suggestions. Rather, we would have been expected to develop sophisticated skills for remembering the information we heard. Known as “the art of memory”, this cognitive ability was taught as an important prerequisite in the practice of rhetoric. In order to become a successful orator or to convey important information or experience, one was trained to develop the skills to remember, by literally saving on one’s mind memory hard drive various places or images that would have been analogous to the information attempting to be stored. It was the relationship between two types of images, one for things and one for words that Cicero, a Roman orator, referred to when he described the imprint of those loci and imagines, or places and images, as inner writing. This resulted in an activity that proved to be known as a type of creative rhetoric space in which, as the English historian Frances Yates (1966) documented, “the places [were] very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery like the reading” (p. 7).

Despite this inner or psychological process of training one’s memory skills, as I consider the above analogy, I couldn’t help but think of the physical, spatial objects, regardless of their de-liberate use in facilitating the art of remembering, could also signify the interactive nature of the human creative experience. Here I suggest we extend these images and places from the art of memory to the act of making music, in particular to the creative work of one of the most influential composers of Western classical music, that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach consid-ered compositions to be musical objects, or “artfully composed things” (Bach et al., 1994, p. 66; cited in Wolff, 2000, p. 331). In fact, I would say that Bach’s musical compositions embodied both conceptual or cognitive, as well as the contextual or performative processes: Bach considered his musical pieces, or things, as if they were spatial entities. For that matter, Bach seemed to conceive of his music in a very experiential way, engaging not only in the creative action of making music but also in the creative interaction with the production and realization of his musical material. This very well may have enabled Bach to fully take advantage of his creative ideas by composing music which continues to this day to sound well crafted and fresh, while still relevant within contemporary musical culture. Given the unique creative agency that is lived experience, Bach seemed to have arranged images of musical objects in the memory of his music. This apparent interdepend-ence between perception and cognition, movement and emotion, music and language, and interac-tions with the environment, invites us to consider Bach’s musical creativity in a situated or embodied creative experience.

Bach composed six cello suites between 1717 and 1723. The Prelude from Bach’s Suite no. 1 for unaccompanied cello in G major, BWV 1007, remains among the best-loved works in the classical music repertoire1. Perhaps one way to understand what prompted Bach to make certain decisions in his creative process is to think beyond the role of memory, and at the role that prior experience may play in creating and listening to music. What is compelling here is that some captivating attributes continue to permeate our listening experience so that no matter how many times we hear this piece, the majority of us somehow don’t get tired of listening to it! Could it be that Bach composed music in a way that made him consider the interactions of larger chunks of music, as well as the melodic and harmonic units, musical schemas, or groupings of individual notes as words or images, not so different from the idea of letters introduced in the earlier quote by Cicero? Or by the same token, could it be that we as listeners, through the questioning of our very sense experiences, engage in a unique form of inner or mental perception that demands from us attention and intentionality towards lived past musical situations, objects, or circumstances?

I explored these questions a while back when I wrote about the apperception of musical creativity (Nagy, 2015). The term apperception comes from the Latin, ad-: “to, toward” and percipere: “to feel, gain, learn, perceive, secure.” My concern was to argue to what extent our prior ex-perience contributes to our understanding of ritual and self-realization in musical creativity. As a multimodal or transformative process of perception, apperception concerns the attributes of the cognitive domains acquired in one’s mind through prior lived experiences.

Indeed, culturally our music is one governed by our past experiences: elements of musical tradition gathered through various forms of musical education, concerning what musical information may live in one’s memory. It may not come as a surprise that Descartes’s saying ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’) remains an important cornerstone of musicians’ relationship with creativity. Could it be that if something is known, it is a made thing; it possesses a musical image or place?

After Bach

The attributes of apperception may account for the creative mechanisms and processes of creating music. Two examples are useful here. Composers today work hard on forming a musical language that resonates with audiences at various levels. For many, their compositional language and style also have a different level of novelty, that more than ever finds its place between tradition and innovation, thus suggesting the apperceptual link with prior musical experiences (Nagy, 2015). Meanwhile, performers also often unintentionally use bodily gestures and movements to convey emotion and meaning of music. This inevitably becomes contingent upon the multimodality of creative experience, suggesting a type of embodied reciprocity of actions and interactions while making music.

To illustrate this point further, it is instructive to examine a present day composer who turned to Bach’s music not only as inspiration but as the main source material for his compositions. Peter Gregson (b. 1987) is a renowned Scottish cellist and avid composer. In 2008 Gregson re-leased his latest CD album, entitled Recomposed by Peter Gregson – Bach: The Cello Suites (Gregson, 2018), in which he took on Bach’s six cello suites and reinterpreted, or recomposed them, so that they became completely new compositions.

Scored for solo cello and performed by Gregson himself and an ensemble of five cellos, this new take on Bach is further enhanced with a mirage of sophisticated electronic sounds, which further exemplify Bach’s musical material while placing it in the context of contemporary classical music. This apparent fusion of old and new was achieved by applying a more traditional approach to using electronic synthesizers by amplifying them as if they were traditional instruments. Yet, I believe that for Gregson, as it was for Bach in his time, the art of creating music was also an art of shuffling through the memory of their prior experiences: the art of finding the creative space that would allow the composer to carve out the musical place of his composition, distill musical notes, rhythms, and harmonies from the constructed musical images, and ultimately deliver his musical creation by performing and recording it. According to Gregson, “rather than thinking about Bach’s compositions as a two-dimensional painting, I thought of them as sculpture. So although the object is the same, if you turn around it and see it from a different angle — shine the light on it in a differ-ent way — you get different textures coming out; different shadows get cast”.2 What is more, Greg-son’s relationship with space also implied a more interactive or collaborative agency, in which understanding the room acoustics, the properties and placement of musical instruments, as well as relationships with other musicians and producers, played a huge part in shaping the composer’s creative process. This also echoes the idea of creating in reverse introduced by a Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne, when in his book How Music Works he made a persuasive argument that musicians create works that fit their intended venues and sound good to their intended audiences (Byrne, 2017).

If you compare Gregson’s version of the original prelude by Bach referenced earlier, be mindful of not only the similarities, but also the differences between Bach’s original score, and Gregson’s new, modern rendition. As you listen to the music3, pay attention to how Gregson groups and repeats different melodic fragments into units, enabling you to experience them as if they are a series of unfolding images.

Introduction to
Embodied Creative Space

I acknowledge that creativity in music, like in any other domain, must fulfill three main require-ments. Musical creativity and its processes and products must be innovative and to some extent also new in their appearance. Creative musical activities and ideas and their outcomes must also be well constructed and recognized to be of the highest quality. Moreover, yet, while conceptually well made, creative music-making, regardless if it is composition or performance must be eventually contextualized in order to become relevant to the nature and purpose of music expression (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2010). I also accept that the act of creativity is a psychological pursuit, in which the creative actions and processes take full advantage of cognitive and perceptual mechanisms (Sawyer, 2012). As a result, I also find the act of creativity, especially in music, to be embodied both as an active mechanism that draws on the interrelations of our body and the environment, as well as on the interactive experience of creating musical forms, objects, or products.

I wish to take the above premise and develop it further. My goal is to contribute to the growing interdisciplinary discourse on the connection between musical creativity and embodiment, extending the social and collaborative concept of creative experience. I thus invite the reader to approach this article from a more exploratory perspective as we construct what may be a new take on creativity — a formation of embodied creative space that I hope proves to be well thought of and relevant to our contemporary understanding of creative music making. Most of these topics deserve fuller treatment than I can give in this article, especially given the space and introductory nature of my topic, so my concern here is just to lay out a basic, if wide ranging argument.

As a composer and scholar, my focus is on the psychological foundation of musical crea-tivity. In my book entitled, Embodiment of Musical Creativity: The Cognitive and Performative Causality of Musical Composition, I offered an innovative look at the interdisciplinary nature of creativity in music (Nagy, 2018). In that publication, I defined the embodiment of musical creativity as a cognitive and performative causality: a relationship between the cause and effect when com-posing music. I presented an argument for the psychological attributes of creative cognition whose associations become the foundation for an understanding of embodied creativity. Besides propos-ing a model of compositional creativity, I also developed methodologies from humanistic and sci-entific disciplines aimed at identifying a relationship between musical creativity and the acts of the practice and teaching of musical composition.

As I continue to build on these ideas and concepts, I wish to look beyond this creative causality by searching what initially may have manifested itself as a creative residue, a multifaceted field of actions and interactions within a network of creative potentiality. Hence, to extend the mod-el of the embodiment of musical creativity developed in my book, I re-examine the notion of em-bodiment as a catalyst for the emergence of creative musical space — a cognitively embodied creative space that becomes a multimodal agency, a lived creative experience that interconnects musical mind and body with the environment (Shapiro, 2017).

The issues that prompted me to explore the idea of a creative space came from two somewhat relat-ed areas of creativity research. Considered today to be very influential in shaping the discourse on how to think of creativity, they originated on opposite sides of the Atlantic. It was the multiplicity of creative manifestations common to both approaches that inspired me to think of creativity as having interactive and spatial qualities, that while singular in their conception, result in a network of interrelated creative representations and manifestations.

First, I was able to notice the multimodality of this approach in the work of Howard Gardner (2006). Based on the study of the mind and the brain, Gardner introduced the concept of multiple intelligences to describe human cognitive competence in terms of a set of abilities, talents, or mental skills. By making a case that individuals come from different backgrounds and in turn have various levels of aptitude for particular skills and their combinations, Gardner (2006) introduced a multimodal approach to creative thinking, whereby “an intelligence entails the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community. The problem-solving skills allow one to approach a situation in which a goal is to be obtained and to locate the appropriate route to that goal. The creation of a cultural product allows one to capture and transmit knowledge or to express one’s conclusions, beliefs, or feelings” (p. 6). Hence, Gardner offers the framework that is provided for understanding musical creativity and how it emerges from real practice across a set of different, but mutually interdependent creative abilities. Those abilities stem from real-life experiences and also involve one’s attentiveness and awareness to networks of social interactions that may enhance or hinder creativity.

More recently, Burnard (2012) provided a unique appraisal of the social and cultur-al dimensions of musical creativity. Similar to Gardner, she also focused on teaching and learning creativity, while at the same time unfolding her discussion across many different musical practices and traditions. For example, a range of creative musical contexts that Burnard examined in her study included original bands, singer-songwriters, club DJs, contemporary classical composers, improvisational performers, and the interactive audio designers who create video game soundtracks. Burnard demonstrated how the behavior and practices of musicians working in widely di-verse genres also embody a divergent set of musical creativities, making a strong argument that there is no one single way to be musically creative today, thus suggesting a layered representation of creativity. As Burnard (2012) suggested, this coexistence of musical creativities may be defined, “in terms of practices corresponding to music’s social and technological mediations: that is, how musical creativities produce their own varied social relations in performance, in musical associa-tions and ensembles, in the musical division of labour and in social practices” (p. 8). This approach appears to be firmly rooted in musicians’ collaborative approach to creating music as well as their interactions with each other and the environment.

What is interesting to me about both Gardner and Burnard’s contributions is, as noted earlier, a multilayered, almost multidimensional psychological sense of creative experience. In fact, what the models of multiple intelligences and creativities have in common is that they also imply an operational network, or a route as Gardner suggests, of creative actions and interactions. This al-lows for a creative experience that embodies a collection of creative aptitudes and predispositions, once again calling for a multiplicity of human creative abilities. Here every new creative act be-comes a plateau of creative possibilities whereby music creators explore a network of creative pathways, rather than thinking of the one size fits all approach to composing or performing music.

If we think of this creative experience in more multidimensional terms, could we then talk about a creative space, not so much as a mere metaphor for this argument, but as an instance of the embodied, or if we borrow Clark’s (2008) term, extended creative experience?

Music and Embodied
Creative Space

Just what is creative space? What does it represent when we think of music? Is it a physical or environmental, or cognitive or mental creative space, or both? Moreover, if we talk about this creative space, are we referring to a person, process, place or product; or to all of them simultaneously? These questions may once again remind us of Csikszentmihalyi’s contributions to our understanding of creativity. Exploring the psychology of creativity, he introduced what is known today as the flow model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Csikszentmihalyi advocated for a synergy of awareness and action within the creative process as one of the prerequisites for this highly immersed creative experience. Does not this reciprocity of awareness and action through an almost spatial image of a flow, or a field, remind us of our discussion of the art of memory from earlier – the “projection” of images into places, as the French phenomenologists would say (Merleau-Ponty 2013, 15): the images of things and words, or the musical themes and notes?

When we think about the creative space experienced when making music, we may think first of the physical spaces designed to perform or listen to music. However, the very nature of the embodied musical experience points as well to the cognitive or mental spaces that are inscribed in our creative experience. This once again evokes Csikszentmihalyi’s (1993, p. 127) ideas of creative surroundings and inspiring environments, arguing for the importance of creating in the right place at the right moment (also see Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).

Perhaps another way to describe this working idea of a creative space would be a dynamic type of embodied mediation of our mind and body via musical sound, from the inside towards the outside world, a process that may contribute to the emergence of a particular creative agency when partaking in a musical act. From this perspective, I suggest that this manifestation of embodied cre-ativeness grows out of the more situated or embodied creative space where the mind, body, and our interaction with the environment, may coexist as an integrated whole. Hence, from this phenome-nological perspective, the concept of embodiment here too implies a multimodal representation of the body’s relation to the self and to the world. Thus, questioning the cognitive and performative correlation of creative experience, could we propose the hypothesis that may account for the em-bodied contingency that forms a framework for a more dynamic nature of creative musical experience, characterized by continuous and ever changing creative activity?

Here I wish to make an argument that making music is indeed an embodied activity that forms a link that emerges from the causality of two attributes of creativity: the cognitive actions controlled and sustained by our mind, and the performative interactions mediated by our body and the environment. Considering those actions and interactions commonly associated with composing and performing music, I define the embodied creative musical space as an interactive agency that lives at the threshold of cognition and performativity. Cognition and performativity may also be seen as two sides of the same coin; one can’t exist without the other. Together, they constitute that causal relationship with the interactive, and most importantly, a collaborative network of embodied creative experiences.

In Music as Creative Practice, Nicholas Cook makes a case for a social approach to creativity that he believes can bring a new understanding of creativity in music, an approach that, as he says, “sees an interaction between people as the core of the creative practice” (Cook, 2018, p. 11). If making music is a set of creative processes and behavioral patterns that are often shared within a group, then music making, with its actions and interactions, could certainly be placed into this crea-tive space. I would say that in this way, the embodied creative musical space is a synergy of individualist and sociocultural approaches to creativity.

Embodied musical space is thus defined by this extended reciprocity whereby it’s not only cognitive and performative causality that represent this creative space, but most importantly, it is also the interactive contingency principle within that causality that constitutes the very continuum of embodied creativity. Informed by interactive communication, the interactive contingency princi-ple denotes a dynamic and complementary exchange of information and ideas between and among the participants. As Cook once again reminds us, this conveys, “the sense of people making music. In so doing, it figures creative practice as not just based on, but made of human actions and interac-tions” (Cook 2018, p. 1). This exchange between humans, and even machine or art forms, is con-sidered active and interactive with the causality of affecting one another.

Another way to explain the interactive contingency principle is to use ideas from cognitive semantics. For example, exploring the construal operations, or how individuals perceive, compre-hend, and interpret the world, one can understand how individuals structure their experience in-volving language formation (Croft and Cruse, 2004). I argue that by looking at what cognitive and performative operations are used in a creative endeavor, we may be able to account for how creative processes convey a sense of embodied creative space.

Having a closer look at music and embodied creative space, at its core, the field of this musical ex-perience is an exploration of form, place, and space. As I look back to Gregson’s re-evaluation of Bach’s Prelude, I’m deciding to use these terms as a structure — not necessarily an instance of mu-sical structure, but a multi leveled structural foundation of the embodied creative musical space. Seemingly interchangeable, these three words — form, place, and space, refer to nuanced elements of creating music that embodies the very act of music-making. As a practitioner and teacher of mu-sical composition and performance, I have spent nearly all my professional life as a composer and performer thinking about these ideas, and it was relatively recently that I discovered how crucial their interconnectedness is with our sense of embodied space. Yet, because of the inherent com-plexities of this embodied creative experience, or as I signaled earlier in this article, of multiple creativity types, it seems fitting to spend time breaking apart the layers of this creative space, and its forms and places.

Forms and places may be seen as the unifying concept of creativity, and on their most basic level, they refer to the essence of creative activity. It is where I begin to compose or perform music; it is where musical creativity happens. It is also somewhat an ambiguous term that may refer to formal musical structure, design, and technique, or the work environment spaces intended to com-pose and perform music in. In fact, as the composer, Mahnkopf (2002) suggested, musical struc-ture may unfold in four dimensions. In addition to the acoustical space, Mahnkopf distinguishes other three dimensions of linearity/horizontality (melodic dimension), planarity/verticality (harmon-ic dimension), and what he calls the front/back dimension of musical timbre (orchestration dimen-sion). Despite this clear distinction between the two, we can also think of forms and places as image-schemata, accounting for the ways composers structure, understand, and “assemblage”, as Cook may suggest, the elements of their experiences driven by their embodied senses. Because of that, musical forms and places may contain multiple layers of meaning, especially now, when placed in the context of creativity.

Similar to physical space that can be measured or altered, creative space can also be charac-terized by various levels of depth. And yet, creative space is often an intangible entity that is both dependent on and complementary to space. When musicians think of space, they may think of two creative spatialities: one related to the cognitive, mental, structural shapes and forms of the music that they’re composing or performing; and the other to the process of composing or performing music within the actual work environment space where the activity is taking place. However, it is precisely a setting that one can take part in, either individually or collectively, actively or interactive-ly, that evokes a sense of embodied creative spatiality, or for that matter, through an interplay of cognitive and performative actions and interactions. We could now also make an argument that mu-sicians take up space by shaping musical experience and its signification. Looking at Leman’s (2008) theory of embodied music cognition, we can here attest that musicians also conquer and repurpose the space by their corporeal articulation, imitation, and intentionality.

Embodied creative space is not given; it is created — composed and performed: the musi-cians’ actions and interactions define the experience of space. Creative musical space is thus a living, embodied space. In this respect, this concept of embodied creative space further resonates with Leman’s theory in which the creative mediator (the body) can be extended – acted or interacted upon with human and nonhuman environmental mediators. If we consider this analogy as forming a structural network of creative endeavor, which here too can be mapped onto musical creativity, would it then also be possible to talk about creative structure as the epitome of creative space? The Oberlin Conservatory music theorist, Arnie Cox, investigated some of these issues in his recent interdisciplinary study on embodied music cognition (Cox, 2017). In it, Cox introduced what he termed the mimetic hypothesis, based on the premise of embodied imitation — the contingency of the musicians’ mental and physical efforts engaged when listening, thinking, moving, and feeling music.

As a composer and performer of music myself, I am also trying to understand, reevaluate, and depict form and place in my creative work. For me, form and place interact in a consistently fluid creative space, adjusting to creativities based on my prior experiences of making and experiencing music. This embodied fluidity first requires me to work out the very fundamental structural elements to compose a piece of music, or performance technique required to perform a musical work. Secondly, and what is more important to our discussion today, an embodied sense of making music also denotes a network of interrelated creative mechanisms and processes that enable me as a composer and performer to have my unique, lived creative experience in making music. In turn, I find myself engaging in a multimodal space of creative possibilities that while dependent on a cognitive and performative causality, also allow me to enter a new realm of creative possibilities. Creative space affects the way composers and performers experience music, and as we get to know our creative space, we may shift our perception of it, forming a setting for creative exploration and discovery.

Implications in Music Composition and Performance

What are the elements and common processes a composer draws upon when making a piece of music? Composing music has become such a multi-faceted process and takes ideas about structure and content from many disciplines: mathematics, astronomy, literature, and visual arts, to name a few. As such it requires extensive mental resources and experience from the composer. Many start-ing points in musical creativity are often not based on sound at all; more and more musicians create music by interacting with physical gestures, movement, proportion, visual relationships, art, and literature. This interdisciplinary approach suggests a more interactive model of making music in which composers are not only interacting with the other composers and audiences they’re compos-ing for, but also with musical objects, such as instruments and computers, and other composition materials, which in turn become new instruments. In fact, as Cook (2018) suggests, “the materials with which composers work ‘talk back’ to them: in this way [we can understand creativity] in terms of the same social, network-based models” (p. 11).

Similarly, when performing, the musical instrument necessitates the kinesthetic nature of the interactive experience. It is similar to the difference between watching someone play the piano and actually playing the instrument yourself. It is only through the playing, touching, and hearing that one can experience and “feel” how the piano sounds. Again, as Gardner (2003) reminded us, “even an apparently straightforward role, like playing the violin, transcends reliance on musical in-telligence. To become a successful violinist requires bodily kinesthetic dexterity and the interper-sonal skills of relating to an audience and, in a different way, of choosing a manager; quite possibly it involves an intrapersonal intelligence as well” (p. 22). It may be interesting to develop a methodology that models a performer’s experience of physical balance and gestures when playing the instrument. This may further situate my present inquiry in the context of embodiment and offer an object specific consideration of the relationship between performance and creativity. Indeed, having an awareness of how our mind and body interact with musical objects (and other musicians) allows the musician to network creative agency into inherently variable, adaptive actions and interactions that combine into unique and often continuously differentiated fields of creative space.

Beyond Bach

Musicians come with a variety of creative backgrounds and interests. As it becomes more often the case, it’s possible for someone to start at a different place, and then gain creative fluency and profi-ciency in due course. It is the idea that musicians come to experience creativity with varying de-grees of knowledge of the technical aspects of music: musicians are inded informed and guided by a number of different types of musical creativities (Burnard, 2012).

A few years ago, I composed a musical epigram on Bach’s cello prelude, this time scored for an ensemble of four cellos, entitled Epigram Variations (Nagy, 2016). I invite the reader to listen to yet another re-composition of Bach’s cello Prelude4, and to think of the interplay of musical images, objects, and notes, as well as the actions and interactions that extend the music into an em-bodied creative experience.

What embodied creative actions contribute to the composition and what interactions to the performance of the music? Do we hear the embodied creative space? While both creative actions and interaction played a significant role in composing the piece, one of the implications was that my compositional process turned into an expansion of Bach’s original score into a new piece of music, inevitably becoming another instance of a recomposed musical work. By questioning and rethinking the given musical material, I collaborated with Bach’s music by elaborating it. What is more, through careful listening, analyzing, and experimenting with the newly constructed musical struc-tures, this creative process of recomposition also became rather experiential in nature. In turn, it became an elaboration study project on given musical schemas found in Bach’s Prelude, thus invoking the cognitive aspects of creative space. On the other hand, by relentlessly searching for idiomatic performance techniques and practices, I was able to decide how to best score my new piece for an ensemble of four cellos. During the later stages of composing the piece and its preparation for its performance, I was able to interact with the performers, further enhancing my general ap-proach to the instrumentation and scoring of the piece. Most importantly, I was also able to score the music in a way that incorporates the performer’s personal preferences and predispositions, thus suggesting the performative aspects of the embodied creative space.

Closing Remarks

In an attempt to answer the question “to whom or what do we attribute creative responsibility and agency”, Clarke and Doffman (2017, p. 2) argued for what they call distributed musical creativity. Examining a broad scope of creative practices encompassing many musical styles and cultures, the authors dispute the traditional boundaries between composers and performers, arguing for interac-tive, and in turn more collaborative shaping of music making. This approach allows musicians to also shape their own creative developments and their own musical creativity within a more inclu-sive creative space. Along the same lines, as more recent debates in creative entrepreneurship sug-gest, creative success in any domain does not depend anymore on a sole genius or on the speciali-zation in a single area of interest — instead, it is the generalists, and not the specialists, who are be-coming poised to be more creative and successful in their career pursuits (Epstein 2019). On that note, an awareness of the embodied creative space and an eagerness to explore its interactive poten-tialities may further enhance musicians’ creative potential.

Much more could be said about the creative experience in music: imagination, inspiration, innovation (Hargreaves et al., 2012), the list could go on; not to mention creative constraints, as well as effects of work life and environment on musical creativity (Amabile et al., 1996). Hopefully the ideas presented in this article may resonate with musicians and scholars alike, thus complementing the existing literature on the topic of musical creativity, as well as providing a different perspective on making music. Building on mounting empirical and conceptual evidence of the importance of psychological contexts in understanding creativity, this article is an ongoing exploration, and as a launching pad for future research.


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Nagy, Z. (2015). “The Apperception of Musical Creativity: Performance as Ritual, Composition as Self-Realization.” Creativity Research Journal: 27(1), 1–8.

Nagy, Z. (2016). “Epigram Variations: for four cellos (2016)”. Liquescence: Music by Zvonimir Nagy. Albany, NY: Albany Records.TROY 1699, CD.

Nagy, Z. (2018). Embodiment of Musical Creativity: The Cognitive and Performative Causality of Musical Composition. Abingdon, UK: Routledge (An Ashgate Book: SEMPRE Series in the Psy-chology of Music).

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Yates, F. A. (1966). The Art of Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wolff, C. (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

1 The reader can access a recording of Bach’s Prelude featuring the cellist Yo-Yo Ma at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1prweT95Mo0

3 The reader can access a recording of Gregson’s piece at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIKm4TKR1l8

4 The reader can access a recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOZnhIYdlcQ

The Finnish Poet Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983)

  • Amar Annus


Article 3 | pages 2236

Issue Copyright © 2020 Tinkr

Article Copyright © 2020 Amar Annus

ISSN: 2334-1149 online

DOI: 10.18536/jge.2020.01.03

The Finnish Poet
Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983)

Amar Annus

University of Tartu, Estonia


The poet Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983) was one of the most significant Finnish writers of the 20th century. He was also a prolific translator, who received many prestigious awards for his literary production. Throughout his life Saarikoski showed evidence of a certain psychopathology and mental complications for which he was twice hospitalized. The paper argues that Saarikoski possessed a large number of autistic traits and elevated symptomatology of ADHD. The traits of these conditions are often found in persons with high creative achievement. The works of the psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald provide the theoretical background, on which the biographic evidence from Saarikoski’s childhood and adult life is analyzed. The identity diffusion under which the poet suffered can be shown as beneficial to this level of creativity. Saarikoski was an autistic writer, who visualized his poetry which eventually provided him with artistic identity. In addition to autistic traits and high intelligence, Saarikoski also sought novelty and sensation, which can be attributed to his ADHD traits.

Amar Annus | University of Tartu, Estonia | School of Theology and Religious Studies
Ülikooli 18-310, Tartu 50090 | Correspondence:

Note: The author attests that there are no conflicts of interest, that the data reported here are not used in any other publications and there are no infringements on previous copyrights.

The poet Pentti Saarikoski became one of the most important Finnish writers when in 1958 his first poetry collection was published. He was also the brilliant and productive translator of about 70 works, which made an enduring contribution to Finnish literary culture. He is the only person in history who has translated both J. Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey into a third language. He was born on September 2nd 1937 in Impilahti, Karelia. His father Simo Saarikoski was a civil servant and journalist. His mother Elli Saarikoski was the daughter of a baker. The family had four children – his elder brother Simo and two younger daughters, Sirkka and Inkeri. During his short and intensive life, Saarikoski married four times and became the father of five children. He was a well-known person in Finnish culture, occasionally an active participant in public life. He received many prestigious awards for his literary works and translations.

There is enormous quantity of biographic information available about Pentti Saarikoski. His life story is taken together into two voluminous monographs (Tarkka, 1996; 2003). Saarikoski’s youth diaries from 1956 to 1959 offer valuable information about poet’s early self-understanding (Saarikoski, 2012). The memories of his sister Sirkka provide some interesting details concerning his developmental history (Garam, 1987). In addition, there are three published reminiscences of him by his spouses (Saarikoski, 2015; Varis, 1994; Berner 1986).

From time to time throughout his life Pentti Saarikoski showed evidence of a certain psychopathology. This is in accordance with the hypothesis that generally applies across a large group of the individuals with high creative achievement, which associates them positively with psychopathology (Schuldberg, 2001; Becker, 2001; Simonton, 2014). In school Saarikoski’s impulsiveness caused the conduct problems of which the most severe case was a physical attack on his teacher of gymnastics. After this incident in 1953 Saarikoski was ostracized from the school community for some time (Tarkka, 1996). Later the mental health problems caused Saarikoski’s temporary hospitalizations in 1962 and 1968. At the age of 25, he was treated in Turku Kupittaa hospital’s psychiatric department. Saarikoski’s doctor gave him the diagnoses Persona immatura “immature person” and Alcoholismus acutus “acute alcoholism” (Tarkka, 1996). During the episode in 1968 he was treated for three weeks at the Hesperia Clinic in Helsinki. This hospitalization took place after Saarikoski had gone through the state of delirium and a series of epileptic fits. The poet had suffered from epileptic seizures since 1966 (Tarkka, 2003). In Hesperia Clinic he received diagnoses related to alcoholism like dipsomania recurrens (Varis, 1994). The main diagnosis in 1968 was Epilepsia symptomatica (Tarkka, 2003). These diagnoses were accurate according to the medical knowledge of the time and confirm the presence of the mental complications under which the poet suffered.

This paper will argue that Saarikoski’s personality possessed a large number of traits related to Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and elevated symptomatology of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to recent studies these two disabilities are often found in persons with high creativity (Fitzgerald, 2005; 2008; 2014; 2015). Autism spectrum is often comorbid with ADHD in children, which points to a shared genetic risk for both conditions (Rommelse, Franke, Geurts, Hartman, & Buitelaar, 2010). Moreover, the elevated traits of ASC and ADHD in Saarikoski’s personality can explain his excessive use of alcohol. The complications from substance abuse and epilepsy caused his early death at the age of 45. His addiction to substances was inherited from his father, who periodically indulged in drinking bouts several times in year (Tarkka, 1996). However, Saarikoski’s dependence of ethanol must be viewed in the context of his inherited traits of ADHD and ASC. A recent population-based cohort study showed a doubled risk of substance use related problems in ASC and the highest risk among the individuals with ASC and comorbid ADHD (Butwicka et al., 2017). Saarikoski belonged to the latter group of highest risk, which explains his excesses in substance abuse. However, the same traits in his persona enhanced his extraordinary creativity.

The “Asperger genius”
Pentti Saarikoski

In their book Unstoppable Brilliance, the medical experts A. Walker and M. Fitzgerald (2006) described the life histories of nine notable people from Ireland’s past, among them the writers Pearse, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. If they lived today, all these persons would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The authors asserted that this condition is the key to genius in all ages and cultures that often predicts exceptional achievement (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006). The medical label of Asperger’s syndrome was not available during Saarikoski’s lifetime: the first diagnosis in Finland was made in 1989 (Nieminen-von Wendt, 2004). However, the biographic evidence indicates that Saarikoski had the mild form of autism, which is synonymous with the syndrome.

According to the Irish autism expert Michael Fitzgerald, for creativity of genius proportions an IQ score over 120 is needed in addition to ASC (Fitzgerald, 2011). There is a consistent positive genetic correlation between autism and different measures of cognition, which stands in contrast to other psychiatric conditions (Warrier, 2018). As the Finnish example of “Asperger genius” Pentti Saarikoski fulfils Fitzgerald’s two criteria. Saarikoski was precocious and overly talented during his schooldays and entered the University of Helsinki at the age of only 16. In the last years of his life, he credibly claimed to know 13 or 14 languages at a good level (Garam, 1987). He possessed savant-like abilities, but his academic success was meagre due to his ADHD traits. The indication of Saarikoski’s autism is the fact that he did not speak until the age of three years (Garam, 1987). He occasionally suffered from epileptic fits in his adult life (Tarkka, 2003). Epilepsy is highly comorbid with autism (Baron-Cohen, 2008). His autistic traits will be fully addressed below.

Fitzgerald has pointed to ADHD as a neurological source of creativity (2008; 2014). According to him, features of attention deficit disorder are very common in great creators, who possess less linear thinking and therefore allow all kinds of ideas to float into their mind. People with ADHD possess highly divergent thinking that can be all “over the place”, which allows unusual linkages to be made (Fitzgerald, 2015, p. xxiv). The ADHD traits are applicable to Saarikoski who failed to achieve academically due to his concentration problems. His attention span was short in matters in which he was not interested. He was not interested in academic career. His nonlinear thinking style made him into a natural poet (Saarikoski, 2012). He studied literature and ancient Greek at the University of Helsinki, but never received a degree. According to his first wife, he had insurmountable anxiety of exams. After he walked away from his first examination he could not go to any further ones (Saarikoski, 2015). High anxiety often co-occurs with both ASC and ADHD. In his youth diaries he explicitly stated that he is not capable of academic achievement because of poor concentration: “I can’t focus on anything for a long time, distress and the tireless spirit of a searcher pull me right away from my action … I fly from blossom to blossom unceasingly” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 171). He had an inattentive temperament of the dreamer, who could not work according to plans and goals (Saarikoski, 2012). The symptoms of inattention, disorganization and poor academic performance relative to ability can be explained with his ADHD traits (Willer, 2017).

There are many contradictions in Saarikoski’s nature, of which he was aware. These contradictions can be partly attributed to the conflicting features of autistic and ADHD traits. He was a very shy person who nevertheless had the powerful drive to perform to others (Garam, 1987). He was good in imitating others, a capacity which is often hyperdeveloped in autism (Fitzgerald, 2018). Throughout his life he liked to be at the center of attention and even considered the career of an actor in his adolescence (Saarikoski, 2012). Persons with ADHD characteristics like to be onstage (Fitzgerald, 2008).

Saarikoski’s other ambiguity was his need for both solitude and human company which “is certainly dominant in the Asperger genius” (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006, p. 307). Saarikoski reported a profound sense of loneliness throughout his life. This was due to his autistic deficiency in the sense of social relatedness. The feeling of loneliness motivated his search for the company of others, but he failed to enjoy social gatherings without consuming alcohol. He often used to work in cafeterias and restaurants where he spent entire days (Varis, 1994). He had few intimate friends but hundreds of superficial acquaintances which is typical of an Asperger genius (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006).

Autism is negatively correlated with family relationship satisfaction and friendship satisfaction (Warrier, 2018). In his youth diaries Saarikoski confessed to feelings of loneliness and strangeness even in the company of friends. He described his life as consisting of constant back and forth escapes into solitude and out of loneliness (Saarikoski, 2012). The inner conflict built up a vicious circle, which he was unable to break away from. He wrote: “I have to be alone if I want to live. But without friends I cannot live. There is no escape from this vicious circle” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 150). From the age of 21 years Saarikoski began drinking a fair amount of alcohol every day to fight his depression and to help him socialize. At the age of 25 his daily doses increased as he started drinking from the early hours. In the same year 1962 he extensively socialized which resulted in his mental breakdown and hospitalization in Turku. The poet himself expressed concerns about his uncontrollable use of alcohol, but apparently could not do much about it. However, he was able to keep shorter periods of abstinence later in his life (Tarkka, 1996, 2003).

Various studies have found that “openness to experience” is a very important personality trait for creativity (Dollinger et al., 2004; Beaussart et al., 2014). Both high functioning autistic and ADHD persons show a fascination with novel ideas. The novelty seeking is a critical characteristic for creativity and persons with ADHD tend to be high in it (Fitzgerald, 2008). Pentti Saarikoski was a novelty and sensation seeker, which characteristics contributed to his creativity. His third wife wrote that Saarikoski needed his everyday routine but went out of the way when it had lasted for too long. According to his philosophy life had to be unpredictable, full of exceptional situations and moving towards unknowable. He much appreciated home comfort, but often disappeared to his own ways for several days (Varis, 1994). The psychological measure of “sensation seeking” contains the subscale of “disinhibition, which involves seeking sensation through social activities, promiscuity, alcohol, and drug abuse etc.” (Fitzgerald, 2008, p. 8). These components of disinhibition prominently featured in Saarikoski’s behavior except for the use of illegal substances.

Pentti Saarikoski’s Childhood

Saarikoski’s parents Simo and Elli met and married in Finnish Karelia, where they worked at the same office of a cellulose plant in Pitkäranta. In the summer 1939 the family moved to Helsinki and on the 30th November of the same year the Winter War broke out between the Soviet Union and Finland. Simo Saarikoski was commanded to war and Elli with children travelled to Norrköping in Sweden to be the guests of a distant relative of the family in March 1940. During the Winter War and Continuation War the family moved several times between Finland and Sweden until they finally settled in Helsinki in 1947.

The childhood accounts of Pentti Saarikoski point out both his sensitive and unruly nature. At the age of nine months he was a kind, quiet and easy child. In letters to his father the mother complained about Pentti’s quietness with the concern, “Does he have intellectual gifts at all when he does not speak?” (Tarkka, 1996). According to his sister, Pentti did not speak until the age of three years, when he suddenly began to formulate long, clear and flowing sentences (Garam, 1987). His language and speech development was delayed although he could be occasionally very loud. Throughout his childhood, Saarikoski remained a serious, closed, silent boy and a solitary thinker (Tarkka, 1996). At the age of 18 he retrospectively characterized himself: “I was a delicate child and often wept … even now I often want to escape from people’s gaze into a dark hole” (Saarikoski 2012, p. 384). After entering university, he became a more socially active and energetic person, but retained his love for solitude. He explained his self-imposed social seclusion: “I don’t hate people, but I love solitude” (ibid, p. 390). The traits such as preference for solitude and the delay of language are indications of autism (Baron-Cohen, 2008).

Saarikoski started school in Sweden, where he received the nickname Molotov after the prominent Soviet politician, because he never smiled at others and responded to all kinds of proposals “Nej” (“No”). Various accounts paint a picture of an isolated child, whose desire for social engagement was very limited. He went to school weeping and the process started to smooth out only when a girl classmate began to pick him up from home every morning (Garam, 1987). When the family settled in Helsinki, the 10 year old boy began his habit of going on solitary walks on the city streets for several hours. The mother became exasperated and wanted to know the whereabouts of these long absences from home, but the boy refused to explain anything. The reasons for these long walks were the need to be alone and the ADHD related trait of restlessness. Whenever possible Pentti isolated himself in his bedroom (Garam, 1987). In his childhood home he shared the bedroom with his brother, which did not satisfy his need for solitude. Although the relationship between the brothers was friendly, there are accounts of how he built a barricade of bookcases between two beds to create more privacy for himself. Saarikoski was sensitive to sounds, which explains his angry shouts at his brother on the other bed “Don’t breath!” (Garam, 1987). Sensory sensitivity to sounds, smells and touch is another facet of autism (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Autistic children can be hypersensitive to other people’s noise but can tolerate the same noise when they create it themselves (Fitzgerald, 2018).

Saarikoski was a restless and impulsive person, who could not stay in one place for long. In his own words, “I feel at home only when being en route” (Tarkka, 1996, p. 47). This is a facet of restlessness, which can be attributed to his ADHD traits (Fitzgerald, 2008). The permanent feeling of restlessness is well expressed in the following quote:

I have to be in motion, move quickly from one place to another, otherwise I will become restless. I feel myself best on vehicles, on a bus, train, boat, or airplane. If I were rich, I would always travel, I would not stay anywhere for any length of time. If the environment changes all the time, I feel as if I’m at home (Tarkka, 1996, p. 416).

During his childhood Saarikoski constructed a niche of privacy in his domestic life. He did not participate in the family’s activities, assuming the role of an idle boy. In an adult letter to his sister he remembers of having never cleaned his room neither washed his garments nor dishes (Garam, 1987). This kind of disability is a deficit of the executive function affiliated to the ADHD traits (Fitzgerald, 2008). Severe inability in practical matters permeated his life to the end. Despite his limited capacity to maintain romantic relationships he always needed a woman to do practical things for him and could not live a single day without help with cleaning, cooking, banking etc. (Varis, 1994). An inability to manage practical life is a hallmark of “Asperger genius” (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006).

From early on there are accounts about Saarikoski’s food intake problems, which can be used as the evidence for his ASC (Tarkka, 1996; Attwood, 2007). The poet retained low body weight for his entire life, which became a precarious combination with his alcohol consummation habits. His third wife well understood the health risk and supported him with a special diet (Varis, 1994). During his hospitalization period in 1968 his body weight increased from 57 to 62 kilograms, which significantly improved his health (Tarkka, 2003). The food avoidance and selective eating have a sensory basis in autism (Fitzgerald, 2018).

Pentti Saarikoski’s
Quest for Himself

For several periods in his life Saarikoski wrote diaries, many of which have been published. The diaries from his young age were written during 1953-1957, when he was 16 to 20 years old (Saarikoski, 2012). During this time the young poet much reflected upon his relationship to religion, fellow human beings and himself. The main theme in these diaries is the search for self. The questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” resound on the pages of diaries in many variations (Saarikoski, 2012). According to the later recollection, Saarikoski began writing diaries at the age of 13 with the incentive to answer the question “Who am I and of what kind, and what is the reason?” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 380). The intense occupation in this matter reveals his identity diffusion, which has a neurological basis. People with autism have a weak sense of personal self (Fitzgerald, 2018).

According to Fitzgerald, for great creativity in arts, a degree of identity diffusion is very necessary. In the arts identity is not a fixed construct, because there is no ultimate reality in the fictional world. The artist starts the creative process with a diffuse identity and the art is an attempt to find something real, to heal his/her own identity diffusion. During the process of this search, much creative work is accomplished. Meanwhile, masks and stage identifications become a substitute for a real personality (Fitzgerald, 2015). For a creative person with identity diffusion this fixed construct of the self is achieved only temporarily:

The great artist starts out with a diffuse identity and his art is an attempt to find something real, an attempt to heal his own identity diffusion. If the great artist started out with a clear personal identity, it would be impossible for him to become a great artist (Fitzgerald, 2015, p. xxvi).

The persons with high creative capabilities are constantly searching for an authentic sense of self, but because of their brain wiring they never achieve it as a permanent condition – they tend to have only a partial identity and little self-knowledge (Fitzgerald, 2015). The corresponding autistic trait in the social domain is “lack of self-awareness” (Baron-Cohen, 2008, p. 79). Autistic persons may be aware of their identity diffusion and reflect upon it to find a solution. This was prominently the case with Saarikoski, who admitted that “I am a bigger mystery to myself than to others” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 277). Sometimes he felt that he is an odd person, a stranger or an animal because the powers driving his spirit seemed so inexplicable. This was especially sensed when encountering other human beings. He claimed to be the spirit searching for the unusual and interested in everything abnormal. He complained about his perverse imagination and abnormal sexuality and wondered whether he might be homosexual. He did not like himself and wanted to be a normal human being (Saarikoski, 2012). Unusual sexual interests can be a part of autistic personality (Fitzgerald, 2018). Here Saarikoski exemplifies the autistic identity diffusion and dissatisfaction with himself, which motivated a creative healing process. Fitzgerald has written about fragmented sense of self that is often found in artistic creativity:

Identity diffusion or a fragmented sense of self is also a feature of creative people. … This identity diffusion or compartmentalized brain is caused by excessive local nerve connections and reduced long-range nerve connections. This leads to an unintegrated brain (Fitzgerald, 2014, p. 127).

Although the sense of self is weak in autism, autistic individuals turn much attention to themselves and often assume self-centered attitudes (Fitzgerald, 2014). The main objective of Saarikoski’s youth diaries was to find his real self, which goal closely associated with his aspiration to become a poet. This was the quest for artistic identity and perfection. For him there was “a scientific interest with which I follow my development … I am a problem in the first place to myself” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 165). He was a keen self-observer as is common to autistic minds (Grandin, 2006).

Saarikoski in his youth diaries often wrote about masks that he wears for different social occasions and reminded himself not to forget the search for the real self. In search for his identity Saarikoski could watch himself in mirror and practice acting for hours. He wrote that some of the masks he had created for himself have deeply grown into the skin of his face (Saarikoski, 2012). This means that certain self-induced social roles became compartments of his personal identity (Attwood, 2007). His identity diffusion manifested itself in very different roles that he could perform: “in my nature unite hermit and dandy, mocker and prophet” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 66). One of his most prominent mask was that of a clown. According to Fitzgerald, autistic children often become “class clowns” which role gives them particular pleasure and the attention that they crave (Fitzgerald, 2018).

As an autistic person Saarikoski demanded honesty in his search for truth but noticed himself to be a social pretender. Saarikoski was cognizant of his identity diffusion and not happy with it: “I am too contradictory a human being, a complete enigma for myself as well as to others” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 95). Occasionally he wrote with more self-confidence: “I love the chaos of my soul” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 114). More often Saarikoski held his ego as sick and abnormal and complained about his childishness and immature nature. He wondered whether he would stay a child forever (Saarikoski, 2012). According to Fitzgerald, the great creators show a high level of curiosity during childhood and retain their immature personalities throughout their life. They see the world through the eyes of a child, which is important for great creativity (Fitzgerald, 2015). Saarikoski retained his childishness, he could not manage everyday life and lived only for poetry. According to his wife Tuula-Liina he lacked the social and practical skills that are self-evident in the general population (Varis, 1994). He never matured emotionally and therefore could get along with children very easily. He maintained a warm, sincere and respectful attitude in regard to children who also much loved him in turn. However, he was unable to function as the caregiver to his children (Varis, 1994). People with autism frequently relate much better to children than to adults (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006).

Saarikoski wrote in his youth diaries that he is the honest seeker of truth which he can only find within himself. In the final part of these diaries, he claimed success in finding his real self. He reported “a newborn’s feeling of happiness” when he wrote on 23th of February 1956: “I am aware of my mission now, because I became aware of myself” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 366). This is the testimony for development in Saarikoski’s self-understanding, which took place at the age of 18. However, frequent questioning about the self-identity did not cease in the diaries after that date. On March 10th, 1956, the poet explained his better self-knowledge with the visual insight that replaced his earlier conceptual and verbal approach:

No, I have not answered that question (i.e. about my real self) in any satisfying manner. But my relationship to myself has become so complicated that it is best for me to give up the attempt to chain my personality into the net of words. … I have now a VISION about myself and I can express it only with the aid of poetic images (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 380).

The autistic persons are very often highly visual who think in pictures (Grandin, 2006). Saarikoski explained: “I don’t think – I see” (2012, p. 261). He discovered around the age of 18-19 that he was the natural poet who could see his poems like in a dream. When writing a poem, every moment brought the new swirling images that could eventually obscure his sense of self completely. According to his new knowledge the truth can be captured in image, truth means seeing things in the right way (Saarikoski, 2012). In the end of this search period he declared self-knowledge as the poet: “I think that I have found myself. I know my job and I am aware of its difficulty. A man passes lightly if he can bear a burden” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 498). He wrote that to conduct creative work is his only way to stay alive (Saarikoski, 2012). Finding his self was the momentous occasion in the life of young Saarikoski, when he became a poet.

Saarikoski’s identity diffusion was also manifest in the easiness with which he embraced other identities. When he read Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote he soon felt like a wandering knight himself and made compliments to his girlfriend in the congenial style. When he listened to the radio play Macbeth he suddenly sensed seeing Shakespeare and gradually turned into him (Saarikoski, 2012). When being unfaithful to his first wife, he identified with the Roman poet Catullus, who had behaved similarly (Tarkka, 1996).

The ability to pick up new identities did not disappear with age. When visiting Iceland, he craved to become an Icelandic nationalist. When reading the biography of the composer Sibelius, Saarikoski became Sibelius. His wife Tuula-Liina described: “He became somewhat majestic; he walked with dignity his brow furrowed, hands behind his back and gave orders to everybody.” She asked him to stop the imitation of Sibelius. This comment amused the poet and he appreciated his wife’s detecting of copying (Varis, 1994, p. 218). The camouflage and taking different roles also guided Saarikoski’s social behavior. He had several roles in Finland, for which he was well known – the hero of restaurants, the mocker of bourgeoisie, bohemian, young genius, eccentric poet etc. (Tarkka, 1996). Contradictory identities can cause confusion in others. For a part of his life Saarikoski assumed the identity of a communist, although in his youth he explicitly rejected this ideology as “a dangerous religion” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 442). This is another instance how rapidly a compartmentalized mind can switch between identities. Fitzgerald has pointed to similar multiplicity of identities and masks in the persona of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (2005).

In his diaries Saarikoski once commented on the ancient Delphic maxim “Know thyself” writing that knowing is only possible when another character is allowed to enter the person but never otherwise (Saarikoski, 2012). T. Grandin has pointed to discrepancy between the thinking self and the acting self in autistic individuals (Grandin, & Panek, 2013). This feeling of self-separation was a prominent feature in the personality of young Saarikoski. He wrote: “I’m monitoring my behavior all the time. I see myself as if being somewhere outside, as if I were some other human being, who is and is not me” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 297). The seeming separation of mind and body is result of the lack of a fully integrated brain in autism, which can also bring about the feelings of isolation and exile (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006). Saarikoski wrote: “My personality is simply not firm enough. I do not sense my actions as my own. I am a sort of test person” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 502). Saarikoski’s autism provides the explanation for such unusual sensations of self and body (Grandin, & Panek, 2013).

Saarikoski’s Theory of
Mind and Social Behavior

Saarikoski’s diaries offer many self-descriptions relating to his social behavior. He had social relationship problems which qualify as theory of mind deficiencies. Saarikoski stressed the importance of staying honest even at the cost of worsening interpersonal relationships (2012). Brutal honesty, the inability for diplomacy and white lies are characteristics of autism (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Saarikoski’s relations with other people lacked reciprocity and cognitive empathy due to his ASC. His sister wrote in retrospect:

I admit that he was a prodigy and genius, but in one respect Pentti’s development remained at a childish and infantile level – in human relations. … It was impossible for Pentti to understand that an interpersonal relationship is a mutual one and needs care – he was the one who needed the care! Can you always understand, forgive, forget, if in return you get indifference and distrustfulness? I understand well that Pentti’s intimates became tired (Garam, 1987, p. 116).

In his diaries Saarikoski complained that he is as if forced to offend people whom he actually likes and friendships tend to break down (Saarikoski, 2012). He explained that “my coarseness and unpleasant arrogance are a cover” to protect his sensibility (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 76). Sometimes he speaks too much and gets too excited in social contexts so that he asked himself in diaries, “when will I learn to be silent and to listen?” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 375). He gradually became more self-critical about his social deficiencies:

I am still not free of my sensuality, which I cover up with irony and insulting words. Do I ever become a decent social person? Earlier I imagined that the fault can be in the others; I gradually realized that it is within me, in my nature, which avoids any contact with the outside world. I want to live with myself and for myself (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 179).

The company of other people usually caused the young Saarikoski to be in a bad mood. He needed solitude to calm down. He admitted to being the self-centered person who cannot love anybody else but himself. The self-centredness is an autistic trait (Baron-Cohen, 2008). In solitude he discovered his inner world, but the fear of being deserted could ensue with the feeling of emptiness. He called his lifestyle “ascetic solitude” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 136). Solitude is one of the most effective emotional restoratives for someone with autism and being alone can be a very effective way of calming down from anxiety (Attwood, 2007). Saarikoski could be verbally very harsh when his need for solitude was not met, which the following outburst in his diaries exemplifies:

Let me be alone. Why are you persecuting me, for what do you ask me? You people are thieves and murderers. With the smile of love and friendship on your lips you come to me – to kill me, to suck my power. Go away. Did I invite you? The white cloud of heaven is my friend, the cheerful mountain river my beloved, the sun my god – what can you give me? The peace you carried away without giving me war. You are vultures, empty and soulless animals. Go, do not stop at the threshold, I meant what I said. I want to live and die alone, my only companions are a dream and a poem (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 182).

Saarikoski writes that he loses himself in the social company when adapting too easily to other people. He changes into a similar person with whom he is in contact – that he has “a face” to everybody and he can never enjoy being himself (Saarikoski, 2012). This facet of identity diffusion he had in common with W. B. Yeats, who “presented multiple faces to whoever he met” depending on the person and circumstances (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006, p. 245). Saarikoski indicates his unusual eye contact with the following statement: “when I have a conversation I don’t look at my partner, my eyes are drilled into the black cement floor as if to break it” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 220). Saarikoski often failed to make an eye contact with his conversation partner, which is a trait of autism (Attwood, 2007).

For social situations Saarikoski learned to perform tens of roles. Much of Saarikoski’s social behavior concealed the communication difficulties with the camouflage in which the person behaves as a natural actor using a script (Attwood, 2007). This is the autistic coping strategy, which may require considerable cognitive effort and can lead to increased stress, anxiety and depression (Lai, et al. 2016). As a well-known person in Finland many of these roles were familiar to the general public. His public image of the eccentric poet was well captured by a Finnish journalist after one cafeteria meeting in 1962:

It seemed that the restlessness of the whole world was centered on this one person who spoke quickly, spun his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and peered back as if waiting for something. He was looking like he could suddenly rush up, turn over the table and chair and jump through the roof; he seemed to give a show rather than to relax (Tarkka, 1996, p. 510).

Due to his ADHD traits and much energy Saarikoski was successful in acting out his characters that he did not naturally possess. However, this strategy had a cost. Most often he was able to face other people only under the influence of alcohol. When social anxiety increased Saarikoski could not leave home for several days often believing that he had committed embarrassing actions during his drinking bouts (Tarkka, 1996). His levels of social stress were overwhelming – he never appeared in public without using alcohol and many of his acquaintances and friends never saw him sober. Only among his immediate family he was able to relax and to talk a fair amount. Without the influence of alcohol he became extremely shy, a completely different person. For example, he could not answer to phone calls when home alone and unplugged the cable from the wall (Varis, 1994). His father had also been a very different person during his drinking bouts, which indicates inheritance of this trait (Garam, 1987). These enormous problems with social relations and understanding were rooted in Saarikoski’s autistic traits.

Saarikoski’s relationship
with women

The young poet Saarikoski was an attractive person, who much liked to be in the company of women. According to some descriptions he had “enchanting eyes of a warlock” (Tarkka, 1996, p. 128). Fitzgerald points out that autistic gaze often has the “piercing eyes”, which seem to look through people (Fitzgerald, 2014). His third wife, who met him first time in 1960 at a literary event describes her first impression of Saarikoski: “the head was large and round, somewhat heavy looking on the flimsy neck … his voice was a bit tense and he was terribly serious” (Varis, 1994, p. 22). Macrocephaly is a physical trait of autism, which is due to accelerated brain growth in early development (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Many clinicians also refer to unusual pitch of voice in autistic individuals (Fitzgerald, 2018). During the brief meeting at the literary event Saarikoski impressed his future wife with seriousness and quietness (Varis, 1994). Selective mutism is a characteristic of autism (Attwood, 2007).

Saarikoski began to court his first wife Tuula Unkari at the regular youth events of their Christian congregation in 1952. The adolescent Saarikoski liked the girl but his shyness prevented him to approach her directly. He chose the stalking strategy that is common in autistic adolescents (Attwood, 2007). He followed the girl at the distance of about 10 metres and tried to hide himself every time she turned her head backwards. This approach irritated Tuula and after it had lasted for several weeks she insisted to Pentti either to walk beside her or to disappear. They started to walk side by side, but it took some more weeks before the boy became able to speak with her (Tarkka, 1996). This story exemplifies the unusual mating strategies that autistic people sometimes use with success.

During his life Saarikoski was married four times but none of these relationships lasted. His capacity to maintain intimate relationships was limited due to his autism. He confessed in his youth diaries that he does not understand the meaning of the word “love” and his relationships with other people are unstable (Saarikoski, 2012). The course of life events did not change this aspect of Saarikoski’s personality. In the diaries that he wrote after moving to Sweden in 1975 he still complained about his inability to become attached and love the people close to him. He confessed that he is prone to closer emotional ties with birds and animals than with human beings (Garam, 1987). This proclivity is typical for autistic individuals (Grandin, 2006).

Due to his disinhibition problems Saarikoski was often unfaithful to his partners. As a famous person in Finland he had more than average opportunities to be unfaithful. The young Saarikoski seemed to forget all his romantic commitments in the company of beautiful women. He would like to kiss and embrace almost everybody (Saarikoski, 2012). During his first marriage he became concerned about the behavior pattern, which forced him to chase all the wonderful ladies he met. He was also prone to erotic adventures with persons of male gender (Saarikoski, 2015). In his moral consciousness he acquired the book Don Juan authored by the Spanish physician Gregorio Marañón, who wrote biological essays exploring human passions through historical characters. His motivation for reading the book was “to understand himself better” as he explained to his wife (Saarikoski, 2015, p. 53). However, from this book he only gained more self-confidence. Saarikoski’s promiscuous behaviors can be explained with his fragmented sense of self and identity diffusion, which are often found in creative individuals. The compartments or modules of the autistic brain communicate poorly with each other, which is the factor that leads to the identity diffusion (Fitzgerald, 2014). Diffuse self-identity may result in weak attachment to others who are close. For much of his life, Saarikoski also neglected his parents (Varis, 1994).

In Saarikoski’s case the gender dysphoria or sexual identity diffusion is also found. Gender dysphoria is a frequent finding in people with autism (Fitzgerald, 2018). Saarikoski reveals his gender agnosia already in youth diaries when asking himself “Am I woman?” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 80). This is the motif found also in his poetry, e.g. “I stand on the street and I don’t know my gender” (Tarkka, 1996, p. 410). His third wife wrote that Saarikoski’s character was quite feminine both as the poet and person. Saarikoski had dependency on women, was attached to them and appreciated them. He always had better contact with women than with men (Varis, 1994). Similar trust patterns can be found in many men with autism (Fitzgerald, 2005). In romantic relationships he was always the passive partner and behaved more like a typically female (Tarkka, 1996). The woman with whom he shared the home had to be secure like mother’s lap (Varis, 1994).

His wife Tuula-Liina describes the sober periods of domesticity of the poet, which deeply shocked her in the beginning. The profound change in his persona took place, when all of a sudden the poet became very quiet, absent-minded and gave very short answers to questions. He sat all days at his table, stared out and wrote. The wife became suspicious of a relationship problem between them, but Pentti explained on the third day: “I am always like that when sober.” He was silent, thinking, serious and infinitely hard-working with a fixed and slow gaze (Varis, 1994). Without stimulating substances he completely lost his socially active side, which happened at home.

Pentti Saarikoski was unable to deal with practical matters due to his ADHD and autistic traits. He needed someone to give him clean clothes, he did not know where the things were in their home. He had no understanding of money. He was not capable of long-term planning. Only his working desk and his books on shelves were always in a perfect and pedantic order (Varis, 1994). For Saarikoski his work was the highest priority before family life. However, it was “so strangely easy” to be with him (Varis, 1994, p. 49). He was the honest person who always spoke his mind. He could not keep domestic and personal secrets from others and sometimes revealed them inappropriately. These theory of mind particularities are common in people within the broader autism phenotype (Fitzgerald, 2018).

Due to his autism Saarikoski did not cope with unexpected changes. There are many examples of his temper tantrums. He fell into long and reckless drinking periods after every divorce. The closure of his favorite restaurant Hansa where he used to work in Helsinki was a serious blow for him. The housing change soon followed, which caused the heightened stress that eventually led to the divorce from his third wife (Varis, 1994). His relationship status was rescued with a happy accident when the Norwegian sociologist Mia Berner came to Helsinki to interview him. She had fallen in love with him after seeing his photo in a bookshop window. She took Saarikoski with her to Sweden where he spent the rest of his life since 1975 (Berner, 1986).

Pentti Saarikoski’s
Literary Style

Pentti Saarikoski was an autistic poet, who visualized his texts that he composed. He wrote approximately 20 collections of poetry. He was able to write always and everywhere (Varis, 1994). He kept notebooks where he wrote down everything important that crossed his mind (Tarkka, 1996). This is common to creative persons with autism (Fitzgerald, 2014). The poems represent his experiences of the world as he explained in diaries: “I express myself through images … objects and things are more important for me than their essence or meaning” (Saarikoski, 2012, p. 374). According to his wife Tuula-Liina he used no hidden symbolism behind his poetic images, the poems always exactly mean what they say (Varis, 1994). For Saarikoski’s poems the experiences expressed are more important than general semantics and symbolism. Saarikoski’s editing of his texts was meticulous about details and laborious.

Pentti’s way of making his own text … seems sometimes easy but more often it is difficult, distressing and at some stages agonizingly monotonous. He is pedantic, he studies spaces for commas, he grinds and planes. … Even a typo in the text will force him to squeeze the paper out of the machine and rewrite the entire page (Varis, 1994, p. 105).

This level of detail focus is a characteristic of ASC (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Most of Saarikoski’s literary production was poetry, but he also published the collection of satirical essays The Nose’s Columns (1960) and a couple of works in prose. However, the prose books he wrote were not novels but the series of everyday sketches in the travel accounts like The Time in Prague (1967) and The Edge of Europe (1982). Saarikoski was an empirical writer like James Joyce, who recorded the environment and facts of human nature with great precision and detail. The capacity of autistic authors to write novels may be limited due to their weak central coherence (Roth, 2008). The autistic narrative can be a fragmented discourse with lack of coherence. Autistic writers may have little capacity for plotting. Nevertheless the genre of novel requires a sustained development of ideas. Therefore the novels that James Joyce authored are strikingly plotless, hanging together with a structured approach (Walker, & Fitzgerald, 2006). The same applies to Saarikoski’s prose works, which are the plotless narratives and diaries describing certain environments and events. In the letter to his sister from February 2nd, 1979, he described his relationship to writing in prose as follows:

I cannot write novels or short stories because I am not able to imagine. For me people are without history who walk in space, the creatures making body movements and gestures that cease to exist when they are no longer visible to me. This is not to be understood as a hatred against humanity, I mean just my manner of writing (Garam, 1987, p. 163).

Saarikoski reveals here his behavioristic understanding of human characters that is typically autistic (Baron-Cohen, 1989). He had little talent for imagining minds and histories of individuals. He possessed limited social and interpersonal imagination, but enormous autistic imagination (Fitzgerald, 2014). The cognitive capacities for writing prose such as sustaining control over the continuity and unity of narrative can be impaired in people with autism. They have cognitive processing bias toward parts rather than wholes, which makes writing of a novel difficult. Saarikoski’s autistic cognition was more appropriate for writing poetry, where the fragmentation of language and images can have positive impact adding to its appeal. The ability to leap from one idea to another conveys more attraction to poetic language, which becomes tantalizing and intriguing for readers (Roth, 2008).

Saarikoski was a hyperkinetic type of a creative person – the autistic wanderer as described by Fitzgerald (2015). His favorite literary character was that of the wandering Odysseus, who escapes from home and searches for home at the same time. This contradiction is essentially autistic. Saarikoski often made journeys to different places in Europe to concentrate on certain works. He travelled to Dublin, where he wrote The Letter to my Wife (1968), which describes his loneliness. His home during these travels was his native tongue, the tool to produce literature and to counteract his sense of alienation and loneliness. He nevertheless needed these feelings to be able to write. He was more comfortable abroad, where his autistic sense of being a stranger more precisely matched the actual situation. As the outsider he did not need to deal with things that disturbed his concentration at home (Varis, 1994). This behavior of wandering is conditioned by autistic novelty seeking (Fitzgerald, 2015).

His wife Tuula-Liina remembered from their common journeys that Saarikoski had the uncanny ability to absorb himself into the atmosphere of a foreign city in few days and then to behave and live there like a local resident. The faculty to pick up new identities in novel places was due to his identity diffusion and flexible mind. While abroad he was more relaxed and consumed less alcohol. He did not need not to perform his stressful roles as in Finland (Varis, 1994). He used his hypersensitivity to describe the new environments with great precision in his prose works. His wife commented on the book he wrote in Prague, 1967 as follows:

He seems to hear, see and sense so much … nobody has perceived the seemingly stagnant but under the surface restless time of Novotny before the Prague spring in the same way as Pentti did in his work The Time in Prague (Varis, 1994, p. 106).

Fitzgerald (2014) writes that persons with autistic brains perceive a huge amount of raw details without the higher meaning and possess a heightened sensitivity to parts without recognizing the whole. Concept formation is impaired in autistic minds (Snyder, Bossomaier, & Mitchell, 2004). Autistic individuals have less mental models or conceptions and therefore they can be more aware of novelty. Persons with autism have “continuous infantile awareness of raw sensory data which produces a vastly increased number of conscious sensations” (Fitzgerald, 2014, p. 9). The strength of autistic creativity lies in the persistent ability to experience the world and oneself with fresh details and novelty (Fitzgerald, 2014). Persons with autism can be less prone to dogmatism and less dependent on current theories, which gives them the better position to move towards new methods and theories. They may achieve the ability to use this autistic creativity mechanism and produce literature in which novel sensations abound. This well applies to Pentti Saarikoski, who established new forms in Finnish literature by writing original poetry. ASC and ADHD traits enhanced his creativity but made his everyday life difficult in many respects.


The Finnish poet Saarikoski well conforms to the description of highly creative persons having elevated levels of ASC and ADHD traits (Fitzgerald, 2008; 2015). Creativity of genius proportions can be found in the combination of high intelligence and autistic traits (Fitzgerald, 2011). These criteria well apply to Saarikoski. The paradox of persons like Pentti Saarikoski, who have extremely high intelligence but also substance abuse problems can be assessed with the reference to heightened anxiety and novelty seeking that arise from the combination of ASC and ADHD traits. Genetics will eventually provide the final answer to the question about the relationship between various forms of psychopathology and high creativity. However, elevated risk for ASC and ADHD traits is expected to figure in the genotypic data of many highly creative persons.


Work on this paper was supported by a personal research grant from the Estonian Research Council (PUT 1466). The author is grateful to Christopher Badcock for discussion.


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The Legendary Creativity of Hayao Miyazaki and Shigeru Miyamoto as a Product of Metacognitive Awareness, Family, and Environment

  • Mike McClelland


Article 2 | pages 1521

Issue Copyright © 2020 Tinkr

Article Copyright © 2020 Mike McClelland

ISSN: 2334-1149 online

DOI: 10.18536/jge.2020.01.02

The Legendary Creativity of
Hayao Miyazaki and Shigeru Miyamoto

as a Product of Metacognitive Awareness,
Family, and Environment

Mike McClelland

University of Georgia


This article compares two eminent programmers, Shigeru Miyamoto and Hayao Miyazaki, and their respective works, the video game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and the film Princess Mononoke. It discusses their creativity in the context of their above-average access and opportunity to metacognitive skill development, ideation, production, and influence in relation to methods recommended in the research on creativity and genius. This article also looks at how their individual creativity was nurtured by family and scholarship, influenced by birth order and parental relationships, and enhanced by their geographic location and work place. The article concludes that all of these factors combined to allow Miyamoto and Miyazaki to reach legendary levels of creativity, with remarkable similarity to one another.

Keywords: Creativity, Metacognition, Gaming, Anime, Japan

Mike McClelland | Department of English | The University of Georgia | 254 Park Hall, Athens, GA 30602-6205

Email: michael.mcclelland@uga.edu | Twitter: @magicmikewrites

Note: The author attests that there are no conflicts of interest, that the data reported here are not used in any other publications and there are no infringements on previous copyrights.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s current co-Representative Director and the creator of many of the most memorable video games of all time and Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of famed film animation studio Studio Ghibli, are two of the world’s leading creative talents, internationally famous in their fields and superstars in their native Japan. What led these two men, born 11 years and 400 miles apart, to their legendary creative genius? Did their awareness of their own creativity lead to its growth? Was it innate or were they shaped by their upbringings, their schooling, or their surroundings? Does the fact that they are both from Japan play a factor in their shared ability to unlock the delight of childhood? While asking such questions inevitably lends itself to wild speculation, it is indisputable that these two men are seen as creative geniuses both in terms of their entire careers and a great number of specific projects. For the purposes of this article, Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke will be considered specifically. Coincidentally, these two projects were released just over one year apart from each other. In examining their entire careers in broad terms and these two projects in specific, it is likely that whatever innate creativity Miyamoto and Miyazaki were born with grew because of their active engagement in metacognitive skill development as discussed by Hargrove (2013), was mechanized because they metacognitively moderated their creative ideation and production in the style described by Puryear (2015), was assisted by metacognitive cultural intelligence in the way described by Yunlu, Clapp-Smith, & Shaffer (2017), was nurtured in them in the style outlined by Michel & Dudek (1991), was shaped by their birth order and parental relationships as described in Gute et al. (2008), was enhanced by their work environments in a examples that Stokols et al. (2002) would swoon over, and was magnified by the fact that they worked in the great creative cities (as defined by Florida (2003)) of Kyoto and Tokyo.

For the purposes of this article, the personal background of the creative achievements of both Miyamoto and Miyazaki will be presented in offensively but necessarily short summary, with a particular focus on the specific projects The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Miyamoto) and Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki). The format of these summaries is similar for effect and for the demonstration of how closely they relate.

Childhoods of Nurtured Creativity, Early Careers in Creative Cities, Late Careers of Creative Legend

Born in Sonobe, Japan in 1952, Shigeru Miyamoto was the youngest of two children. The son of a traditional mother and friendly, English-teacher father, he spent his childhood days playing and exploring the forests and fields outside of his family home. His family was financially comfortable. According to a profile in The New Yorker, his creativity was encouraged by his parents, who also nurtured his interest in activities like manga drawing and gardening. He moved to Kyoto in 1976 after completing art school. At that time, Kyoto had a booming and growing student culture. Students gathered in cafés and spoke heatedly about art and politics (Nikai and Nishiyami, 2005). His relationship with video games began through a position as an apprentice at Nintendo in 1977. By 1980, he was the company’s first artist, and was tasked with projects related to the company’s new videogaming endeavors. His first game, Donkey Kong, was inspired by the popular cartoon Popeye. His success enabled him to spread his wings, and his interests directly influenced the legendary franchises he created, such as forest adventuring (Zelda), sibling cooperation (Super Mario Brothers), and even gardening (Pikmin).

In 1998, computer technology became advanced enough for Miyamoto to create what many consider to be his masterpiece (George, 2011), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Though it was the fifth game in the Legend of Zelda series, it represented Miyamoto’s first chance to create large, three-dimensional worlds and puzzles. The game was a unanimous critical and commercial success upon its release, with audiences, critics, and scholars praising its creativity. It is widely-considered to be the best videogame of all time (Gilbert, 2017).

Born in Akebono-cho (a village within Tokyo’s borders) in 1941, Hayao Miyazaki was the second of four sons. The son of a stern and intelligent mother and friendly, businessman father, he spent his childhood days escaping into books, particularly fantasies, because World War II had made things very frightening (Talbot, 2005). His family was very wealthy. According to McCarthy (2002) his creativity was encouraged by his parents, who also nurtured his interest in activities like reading, drawing (particularly manga), and aeronautics. He moved to Tokyo in 1963 to work at Toei Animation. Tokyo was, at the time, a hotbed of student life, rife with cultural shifts, business booms and protests. His relationship with animation began through a position with Toei, but his first film, The Castle of Cagliostro wasn’t released until 1979 and was based on the Lupin III manga series. In 1985 he founded Studio Ghibli, which is now an iconic brand in Japan and around the world. The studio’s success enabled him to spread his wings, and his interests directly influenced the legendary films he created, such as steampunk (Castle in the Sky), aeronautics (Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises), and lost childhood (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle), a result of his own childhood being influenced by the war and by his mother’s illness.

In 1997, technology became advanced enough for Miyazaki to create what many critics consider to be his masterpiece (IndieWire Staff, 2014), Princess Mononoke. Though he had long been an expert in animation, the advancement of CGI allowed Miyazaki to create the large scale and wild, natural movements of the mythical forest creatures he had imagined as a child. The film was released to unanimous critical and commercial success upon its release, with audiences, critics, and scholars. It is widely-considered to be one of the best animated films of all time, sitting alongside Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away.

Literature Review

The similarity between the two men’s backgrounds and the crossover of themes in their work are impossible to ignore. Is this the formula for maximum creative success? From a metacognitive standpoint, one developmental asset that both men had was that they were both put into creative positions that required problem solving from the very beginning of their careers. Hargrove (2013), suggests that artists who begin analyzing their creativity in an academic environment may actually end up being stifled by it, explaining that cognition is “stifled by the rigid framework of many university design programs. Students are often told how to think about the design process, without explicit and purposeful instruction that allows for self-regulation of cognitive processes.” (491-492). Though Miyamoto attended art school, both he and Miyazaki immediately thrown into professional environments where they were forced to not only explore their creativity but to experiment with it and eventually share it. In their early days at Nintendo and Toei Animation, respectively, both men were tasked with growing and understanding their own creative thinking in order to develop their employers’ business interest. Hargrove (2013) explains that creative thinking “can be defined as a metacognitive process—of generating novel or useful associations that better solve a problem, produce a plan, or result in a pattern, structure, or product not clearly present before” (492). Because creativity was a skill that Miyamoto and Miyzaki had to develop, they had to understand their own creativity, and that understanding subsequently to engage in more complex and strategic creative endeavors. Both men were asked to take a metacognitive approach to their own skills, and as a result Miyamoto and Miyazaki actually became more creative in the process.

Puryear (2015) further cements this idea with his Cognitive-Creative Sifting Model, which explains that ideas go through a cognitive “sifter” on their way to becoming finished thoughts or products. One conclusion that Puryear’s study suggested was “that individuals in the higher percentiles for ideation may specifically benefit from training in metacognitive awareness. Incorporating cognitive interventions aimed at developing these skills may improve the efficacy of programs aimed at the creatively gifted” (Puryear, 2015, p. 340). Studies such as this that creative thinking is a muscle that is best exercised through metacognitive exertion, and in their very first professional positions both Miyamoto and Miyazaki were given the opportunity to engage in such endeavors.

Flavell (1979) subdivided metacognitive knowledge into three areas: knowledge of persons (either intrapersonal or interpersonal), knowledge of task, and knowledge of strategies (Flavell, 1979, p. 907). Pureyear (2015) interpreted this in the context of creativity, explaining that “in a cognitive-creative sifting framework, this relates to abilities in valuing potential creative options either to oneself or to others” (Puryear, 2015, p. 336). Because of the nature of their personalities, their positions, and the culture of their era and locations, Miyamoto and Miyazaki were both perfectly suited to approach creativity in ways that related to task, strategy, and other people. Because it was the nature of their respective businesses right from the beginning, they were immediately tasked with not only valuing and encouraging. creativity in themselves but also in those around them.

This ability to stoke creativity in both themselves and others was vital to each man’s creative growth. Yunli, Clapp-Smith, & Shaffer (2017) expand on this idea in connecting cultural intelligence (CQ) to individual creativity. CQ is defined as “a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts” and is “a form of situated intelligence where intelligently adaptive behaviors are culturally bound to the values and beliefs of a given society or culture” (Earley & Ang, 2003) and it comprises four dimensions: metacognitive, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral. In a study, Yunli, et. al., found that metacognitive, cognitive, and motivational CQ were positively associated with creativity. Miyamoto and Miyazaki’s exploratory youth and necessitous-creative career beginnings fostered in them a high CQ, which further bolstered their already above-average creative development.

The striking similarities between these two men become even more evident when adding creative studies to the aforementioned metacognitive analysis. The sample size is far too low to say, but it is possible to see where Miyamoto and Miyazaki’s backgrounds overlap with the theories and research of major scholars in the study of creativity. The first thing to acknowledge is that this strongly relates to the idea that the idea of what creativity is and can be comes from within the context of cultural (Glaveanu, 2010). The cultural context for both men – from home culture, to national culture, to Post-WWII culture, to manga culture they both loved – was eerily similar, and that similar culture led to similar creative sensibilities.

Their relationships with their mothers appears at a summary glance to be very much like the ones like Michel & Dudek (1991) describe as ideal for creativity. And while their nurtured, creative childhoods suggests an environment antithetical to those described by Gebart‐Eaglemont & Foddy (1994), both men spent a great deal of time in isolation as youngsters. They were educated and began their professional careers in cities filled with the characteristics Florida (2003) describes as exemplary of a creative city. And as cherished second children whose natural abilities and affinities were nurtured from a young age, both Miyazaki and Miyamoto fit into Gute et al. (2008)’s assertions of the relationship between family and creativity.


What makes creativity legendary? For the purposes of this article, it is the simple fact that Miyamoto and Miyazaki’s specific respective projects The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Princess Mononoke are considered to be the very best products in two fields generally thought to require creativity. Videogames and animated films require both artistic and technological creativity to stay current in ever-changing fields, yet twenty years later both Ocarina and Mononoke are considered to be standard-bearers. The specificity of this argument ignores the pertinent fact that neither project was an anomaly. Both Miyamoto and Miyazaki are notable for the consistent quality of their output and both have multiple projects, even dozens, that compare in quality to their most famous works.

This genesis of this project came from a question of geography, whether the fact that two of the more prolific, prominent living creative minds came from the same region of the world. That question, of course, expanded the era in which they worked – particularly the era in which they began working – and then dove into the specifics of their lives. The most consistent point that came across in both their biographical information was that their creativity was consistently encouraged – by their families in a children and young adults, by their employers as junior employees, and by the coworkers and society at large as they grew into leaders in their fields. Even their locations in creative cities constantly encouraged them to reflect on and develop their creativity. This marries perfectly with both metacognitive and creativity studies, many of which emphasize the fact that creativity grows as it is used, developed, reflected upon, and experimented with.

Conclusions and
Future Study

While Miyamoto and Miyazaki fit the creative standards laid out by an abundance of metacognitive and creativity research, there are also areas that beg for further exploration. While the work of Hargrove (2013), Pureyear (2015) , Flavell (1979), Yunli, Clapp-Smith, & Shaffer (2017) was all discussed as it related to Miyamoto and Miyazaki’s creativity, a vital next step would be conducting historical and ethnographic studies of Nintendo and Studio Ghibli through a metacognitive lens. Additionally, the individual success of both men pushes back against the thought that success in Eastern societies is group-based, however the working methods of both and the “Westernization” (noting the problematic nature of the terms Eastern, Western, and Westernized) suggest that they do perhaps fit within the suggestions of Yao, et al. (2012) work in some ways. Further exploration, specifically with regards to the work of Kurtzburg & Amabile (2001) and Florida (2002) and Florida (2003) would surely be a fruitful endeavor. Also, both Miyazaki and Miyamoto were nurtured by their parents, which goes against the findings of Gebart‐Eaglemont & Foddy (1994), but the fact that Miyamoto spent a great deal of time in isolation and Miyazaki spent a lot of time with a bedridden mother perhaps does suggest some overlap with their work.

Creativity can often seem like a paradox, simultaneously appearing to be entirely personal yet also universal, and never more is that paradox more evident than it is in the work of Shigeru Miyamoto and Hayao Miyazaki. Over the years, their creative work has been defined by their childhood experiences, their open-minded visions of the world, their relationship to their cities of Kyoto and Tokyo and even, in ways, to the commonalities of regional experience. Their creative force has been particularly evident by the fact that best work was shaped not only by their imaginations, but by their ability to use the most current technology to compliment it. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it appears that their metacognitive approach to their own creativity allowed them to not only nurture said creativity in themselves, but also in the people and cultures around them.


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Sympathy for the Devil – The Creative Transformation of the Evil

  • Rainer Matthias Holm-Hadulla


Article 1 | pages 414

Issue Copyright © 2020 Tinkr

Article Copyright © 2020 Rainer Matthias Holm-Hadulla

ISSN: 2334-1149 online

DOI: 10.18536/jge.2020.01.01

Sympathy for the Devil –

The Creative Transformation of the Evil

Rainer Matthias Holm-Hadulla

Heidelberg University


Mythologies, religions, philosophies, and ideologies show that all cultures are concerned with human destructivity. The same is readily apparent in many modern creative works of eminence. In their famous song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones refer to Goethe’s Faust, where the Devil is characterized strangely as “a portion of that power/ which always works for the Evil and effects the Good … a part of Darkness which gave birth to Light”. These verses remind one of ancient myth but also of modern ideas of the interplay of creation and destruction. The poetry of Goethe, the scientific psychoanalysis of Freud, and the aesthetic enactments of Madonna Ciccone and Mick Jagger show that the creative transformation of destructiveness provides a chance to cope with evil. Through his poetic and autobiographic self-reflection Goethe described how men are composed of constructive and destructive forces, light and dark, good and evil. This dialectic of drives and activities is also fundamental for the Freudian scientific model of the mind and its interrelation with the body and the social environment. Humans can only survive when they transform their destructive inclinations into constructive activities. The creative transformation of destructiveness is also a central issue in today’s pop culture. Paradigmatically the song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ describes the atrocities humans are able to commit. The song is exemplary for the transformation of violence into music, dance, and shared aesthetic experience. This is also valid for the provocative enactments of Madonna. Behind her sometimes seemingly shameless enactments one can find a serious working through of depression and aggression. Fundamental elements of aesthetic pleasure in art, science, and social activity stem from the creative transformation of human destructiveness.

Keywords: Holy Bible, Iliad, Upanishads, Hesiod, Confucius, Laotse, Buddha, Plato, Goethe, Freud, Mick Jagger, Madonna Ciccone, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Creativity, Destructivity, Order, Chaos, Good, Evil, Construction, Destruction, Love, Hate

Rainer Matthias Holm-Hadulla

In nearly all mythologies, religions and philosophies we can find a dialectic of good and evil, order and chaos, constructive and destructive forces (Assmann, 2012; Holm-Hadulla, 2013). One of the fundamental narratives of European culture, Homer’s Iliad, begins with the following: “The hate [Μῆνιν] sing, goddess, of Peleus’s son Achilles, the accursed wrath which brought countless sorrows upon the Achaens, and sent down to Hades many valiant souls of warriors, and made the men themselves to be the spoil for dogs and birds of every kind” (Homer. 1999). “Μῆνιν“ has been translated also as “wrath” “destructive wrath”, “murderous anger”, “deadly wrath”, “destructive anger”, “deadly rage”, and “hatred” (Homer 1999, 2019).

Throughout the Greek epics, “singing” is a pars pro toto for cultural activity that should help to overcome destructivity. Around 700 the eternal struggle between constructive and destructive forces is to be found in Hesiod’s “Theogony” (Most, 2016) which is a compilation of the Greek myth of creation that influences our thinking until today. The first God Uranos kills his children until Gaia gives her youngest child Kronos a sickle to castrate his father. Out of this bloodshed emerges Aphrodite, in Latin Venus, the goddess of beauty and fertility. Kronos, in Latin Saturnus, becomes the god of creation but also of melancholy and destruction. At nearly the same time of Hesiod’s conception, the dialectics of constructive order and destructive chaos is also to be found in other cultures of the so called “Axial Age” (Jaspers, 1953). In this age the interplay of constructive and destructive forces is worked out in religion, philosophy and later in science.

The Hebrew Bible got its final shape around this time and describes the constant struggle between good and evil. In India we find in the Hindu Upanishads a description of an eternal fight between constructive and destructive forces embodied e.g. in the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Later Buddha offered suggestions on how to overcome destructivity by constructive attitudes toward oneself and the world. In China, Confucius and Laotse created philosophical and political ideas that should help to construct individual and collective order to overcome the pull of destructive chaos. The dialectics of order and chaos, constructive and destructive forces is also prominent in Greek philosophy, especially in Plato. Scientific concepts came to the fore that located the struggle between constructive and destructive forces even in physical nature, as, for example, developed in presocratian philosophy by Democritus and Heraclitus.

The change from depression into aggression has been impressively depicted in the already mentioned Iliad. Achill is deprived from his beloved Briseis by Agamemnon. He is deeply hurt and falls into a state of apathy and taedium vitae. He turns away from the world, feels hopeless and melancholic, and loses all his interests. Only when his beloved friend Patroklos is killed, does Achilles’ black depression turn into deadly rage and destructive wrath. He slaughters his enemies without any restraint and even dishonors their corpses in insensate hatred.

The creative transformation of evil by Jesus Christ is most influential in the Western world. In the biblical narrative, a new form of creation is made possible by his sacrifice: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew, 6:28-29). The fight between light and dark forces is described most drastically in the Revelation: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back … The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Revelation, 12:7-9). After this fight a new creation emerges: “…and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation, 21:4-5). Many Christians celebrate every week the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They draw hope and creative motivation out of this religious transformation of outmost destructivity: the holy is destroyed in the sake of creating a better world. Without going into details, we can suppose that the dialectics between constructive and destructive forces is a universal principle that has been elaborated in different forms again and again.

This dialectic is elaborated preeminently in Goethe’s tragedy Faust, a part of world literature that, like the works of Shakespeare, resound until today because they bear universal meaning. Goethe projects into the protagonist Faust not only his conflicts with creative striving but also the confrontation with his own destructive impulses and actions. Faust’s antagonist Mephisto, too, is a reflection of good and evil, light and dark, out of which Goethe felt himself composed, as well as human beings in general. Mephisto is introduced by Goethe as „a part of this power/ that always wants the evil and always creates the good”. This sounds at first sight like satanic cult but with a closer look Goethe shows how to overcome human destructiveness through cultural activity. Maybe this is also valid for the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. One can see it as cynical provocation when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones characterize Lucifer as a man of “wealth and taste”. But this characterization is deeply rooted in cultural memory insofar it recalls the biblical Lucifer, the fallen angel who brings the light. The central message could be that we should get acquainted with him and with destructiveness to be able to creatively overcome the evil. This is also a central issue of the later Sigmund Freud who closes his letter to Albert Einstein, published under the title “Why war?” (1933) that it is perhaps “no utopian hope” that the influence of cultural activity could finally bring wars to an end. This optimistic view is grounded on Freud’s rather pessimistic concept of destructiveness inherent in all natural processes and beings (see below).

Goethe’s creative struggle with constructive and destructive forces

The politician, scientist and poet Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe incorporated ancient myths and religions and connected these narratives with his personal experiences in a unique way (see Holm-Hadulla, 2019). He was inspired not only by Greek mythology and his Christian upbringing but also by the Hebrew Bible, the Koran and later by Persian, Indian and Chinese philosophy. Fascinated by Shakespeare and reading French and Italian literature he coined the term “World-Literature” to emphasize his striving for a cosmopolitan development of culture and politics. One central topic in his life and work was the struggle between constructive and destructive forces.

From the beginning, Goethe’s personal experiences were shaped by the dialectics of “dying and becoming”. He seemed to be stillborn and placed significance on this experience. He returned to the themes of birth and personal growth accompanied by pain and threat of death throughout his life. Besides his sister Cornelia, who was fifteen months younger, his mother lost all five younger siblings. The death of his seven years old brother Hermann Jakob was especially significant for Goethe. The reactions of the ten years old Goethe were described as follows: “It seemed strange to his mother, that at the death of his young brother Jacob, who was his playmate, he did not shed a tear; he rather seemed to feel a sort of irritation at the complaints of his parents, brothers and sisters. When his mother, sometime later asked him if he did not love his brother, he ran into his bedroom, brought out a quantity of papers from under the bed; he told her he had written all that to teach his brother” (Arnim 1861, p. 313). Goethe learned early in his life to cope with sadness and despair, and destructive feelings with creativity. This is more impressive in the run of his severe depressive crises as a student after the rejection by a young lady. He felt deeply hurt, lost all his drive, interests and hopes, and fell into a state of depression which lasted over a year. But, during this time he developed his “household remedy”: creative writing by which he “escaped the claws of death”.

In his practical life Goethe realized the interrelation between creativity, social activity and generativity. Since his appointment as a minister at the court of Sachsen-Weimar when he was 26 years old he engaged himself more in social-political activities than in poetry and later in science. Especially the situation of poor people suffering from the dysfunctional industrial capability of the duchy touched his heart and led to three decades of activities to improve their situation. Criticized that his social activities would diminish his poetic work, he noted in 1779: “The pressures of business are very pleasant to the soul; once it has been discharged, the soul plays more feely and enjoys life. There is nothing more miserable than the comfortable person without work; the most wonderful of gifts become loathsome to him” (Goethe, FA 29, p. 156: DS). Until old age Goethe cared passionately for his family. Especially his daughter in law and his three grandchildren were “really like sunny weather; wherever they go it is bright”. As an old man, the 79 years old Goethe had to take over the duty of the family head, because his son died in 1828.

Many of Goethe’s own moods, ideas and biographical experiences are reflected in his “inner fairy tale” Faust. Like in other works which contain autobiographical aspects – e.g. Werther, Wilhelm Meister, Torquato Tasso – he projects aspects of his personality and his relational experiences into the protagonist as well as into the different antagonists. This reflects the dialectics of his own creative striving. His works resound and inspire us until today because they are not only biographical reflections but bear universal meaning. Goethe himself connected personal experiences throughout his life not only with Greek myth Christian, Jewish and Islamic religion but also Persian, Indian and Chinese concepts of creativity. The central issue of his own creative development as a politician, scientist and poet was the interplay of construction and destruction, good and evil, order and chaos, light and dark.

In the tragedy Faust I, Goethe combines his personal myth of creativity with the biblical conception. He lets God say: “Man’s activity is easily exhausted,/ he too much likes to repose./ I’m therefore giving him a companion/ Who must goad and prod and creates as devil” (Faust I, verse 340-344). Like in many ancient myths a destructive force is seen as a creative principle. This resounds until today in scientific concepts of the dialectics between order and chaos (Holm-Hadulla, 2013). Goethe describes Mephisto as the “fantastic son of Chaos” (Faust I, verse 1384) and a “part of that power, which always works for the Evil and effects the Good (Faust I, verse 1334-1335). Mephisto claims his fundamental role in the process of creation: “I am a portion of that part which once was everything,/ A part of darkness which gave birth to Light,/ that haughty Light which now disputes the rank/ and ancient sway of Mother Night …” (Faust I, verse 1349-1352).

As Mephisto is not only evil, Faust is not only good. Goethe portrays his protagonist not only as striving for the good, the true and the beautiful but as a destructive character at the same time (see Holm-Hadulla 2019). Faust seduces Gretchen and leaves her pregnant behind. He is responsible for her insanity and finally her execution. He kills Gretchen’s brother with the help of Mephisto and poisons her mother.

In the second part of the Tragedy Faust invents non-funded money and produces uproar among the courtiers. His necromancy of Paris and Helen leads to turmoil as well. His son Euphorion kills himself. He fights for the Emperor with the help of the reckless Roughneck, Have Soon, Hold Tight. They kill Philemon und Baucis who are incarnations of traditional values. In the end he becomes blind but cannot stop his ruthless expansionism. Nevertheless he is eventually redeemed in a magical elevation: In the end the angels sing: “This noble member of the spiritual world/ Is rescued from the evil,/ Whoever strives and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still” (Faust II, verse 11934-11937). For Goethe it is the artistic, scientific and political engagement that can overcome human destructiveness: “Formation, transformation/ the eternal minds eternal re-creation” (Faust II, verse 11934-11937). But art, science and politics can only serve to cope with destructiveness if humans have “some sympathy and some taste” for the evil. In respect to the project of a Faust-Opera, the late Goethe said that it would need a genius like Mozart to creatively transform the repulsive, disgusting and terrible sides of the Faust into music (conversations with Eckermann, February 12, 1829).

Under these perspectives we will later understand the enactments of Madonna and Mick Jagger as artistic and erotic transformations of depression and aggression. (This does not mean that their enactments are always tasteful and peaceful). Both seem to regard life as a process of creative enhancement. This gives them the discipline to transform chaotic emotions and cognitions into art and lifestyle. On the contrary, Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison seem to have burned themselves in their creative struggle (see below).

Freud’s Biological, Psychological and Cultural Concept of the Interplay of Constructive and Destructive Forces

How human beings can find solutions for the everlasting conflict between constructive and destructive drives and actions is a central issue of Sigmund Freud’s work. He started as a neurologist and created a neuro-scientific model of the psyche that is still up-to-date (Carhart-Harris, R. L. & Friston, K. J. 2010). His model of the interaction of Id, Ego and Super-Ego is compatible with modern connectivity-theories of the interaction between limbic system, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Freud had the hypothesis that a certain coherence of these neuronal networks is necessary to bind free-floating energy. Later he combined his neurologic concept with psychological experiences and cultural studies. From his neuro-scientific “Project of Psychology” (1895) until his late cultural studies, e.g. “Moses and the monotheistic world religion” (1938) he takes a firm interdisciplinary stand, combining biological and psychological sciences with cultural investigations. This is especially prominent in his discussion of human destructivity.

In his seminal work “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) Freud condenses his theory of an interplay of constructive and destructive forces in the development of individuals and societies. His concept of Eros- and Death-Drive draws on ancient mythologies and appears somewhat mythological in itself. But his starting point is a strictly biological one. Until today life science finds in living systems an interplay of construction and destruction of structures. This can already be found on a molecular and cellular level (Krammer, 2017) and can also be seen in neuronal networks (Kandel 2012). Without the interplay of construction and destruction biological life is not possible. Freud combines these elementary characteristics of biological systems with his psychological experiences. Deeply influenced by Goethe, who is the most cited author in his work, Freud concludes that human beings are made up of good and bad parts which dynamically interact with each other. Like Goethe who inspired him from early youth until old age (see e.g. Freud 1930) Freud concludes that we have to acknowledge destructive forces in ourselves in order to overcome destructiveness.

Without reducing it to biological or psychological causes, Freud sees the interplay of constructive and destructive forces also at work in societies. His background is the classical interplay between order and chaos, but Freud could also refer to modern cultural studies, which show the dialectics between constructive and destructive forces in nearly all myths, religions and cultures (see Assmann 2012, Holm-Hadulla 2011). He quotes Plato’s Symposion when he sums up the forces who produce the Good, True and Beautiful under „Eros“. By assuming “erotic drives” that tame and bind the “death drive”, Freud bridges cultural and biological experiences. In his dialectical theory of constructive and destructive drives Freud elaborates two existential principles that are biological and social at the same time.

The interplay of construction and destruction became a central issue in Freud’s writings after the First World War. In “Civilization and its Discontents“ (1930) he poses the existential question of humankind whether cultural development will be able to master the human drives of aggression and self-destruction. In his article “Why War?“ (1933) that derives from a discussion with Albert Einstein, initiated by the League of Nations, Freud gives a profound outline of constructive and destructive forces in natural evolution and social development. After a brief sociological and historical analysis Freud states that the interplay of construction and destruction is fundamental in physical nature and produces the phenomena of life. This is why it would be futile to try to abolish human aggressiveness. The only possibility is to enforce Eros, the opponent of the death drive: “All what establishes emotional relationships between humans, must oppose war. These bindings can be of two kinds. First, relationships similar to a loving partner, albeit without sexual interests […] The other kind of emotional bonding stems from identification. All what produces meaningfulness and mutuality among humans causes common feelings, identifications. This is the basis of the construction of human society“ (Freud, 1933, S. 23). Freud concludes that the prevention of wars could only be possible if men would unify to establish a central power and world order that could restrain the human potential for destruction and save the world from chaos.

Coping with destructiveness was also an issue in Freud’s personal life (Roudinesco 2016). Mostly, he could transform aggressive impulses into social activity as a medical doctor and psychotherapist, and into eminent creative scientific achievements. In respect to everyday creativity as a family father he showed a remarkable generativity in the sense of Erikson (1980). As for Goethe his grandchildren were a source of joie de vivre and inspiration. But, despite oral and maxillofacial carcinoma and despite heavy surgery for more than 15 years he could not stop smoking addictively.

Overcoming Melancholy and Destructiveness by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones

Depression and Aggression are central issues for the Rolling Stones. From “Paint it Black” to “Sympathy for the Devil” they are occupied with sadness and exaltation, melancholic blues and aggressive Rock ’n’ Roll. Behind their loud and aggressive façade there is always a silent and melancholic undertone to be heard. From their first chords, riffs and lyrics as adolescents until their last album “Blue and Lonesome” (2016), recorded more than fifty years later they transform sadness and destructivity into music, lyrics and enchanting performances.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is one of the greatest pop-songs in history which fascinated millions during the last half century. As in Goethe‘s tragedy „Faust“ to which the Stones indirectly refer, the devil is described as very old figure, which “stole many a man’s soul and faith”. At first sight surprisingly the Devil is introduced as a “man of wealth and taste” who was present in the course of human atrocities. The Stones start with the torture of Jesus Christ, they describe the killing of the “Czar and his ministers” after the Russian October-Revolution. They go on with the Blitzkrieg of the Nazi-Regime “when the bodies stank” and his influence on the Hundred Years War between England and France “while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made”. The lyrical I, or better said the “poetic self” (Holm-Hadulla, 2019), “shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ when after all it was you and me”. Here, the poetic self refers to the ambiguous nature of human beings which has been elaborated most profoundly by Goethe and Freud.

The song goes on with the description of ritual murder of troubadours in India and sings about the ambiguous human nature with the following verses: “Just as every cop is a criminal/and all the sinners saints”. The poetic self urges the audience to call him “Lucifer” and interestingly mentions that Lucifer needs “some restraint”. To restrain the evil it has to be recognized. This is expressed by the verse: „So if you meet me have some sympathy and some taste”. The listeners and spectators should use their “well learned politesse” to overcome destructivity otherwise they will perish. In summary, the song aesthetically enacts human destructivity and transforms it into art. This is a model of how we should recognize evil and overcome it by creative activity.

The creative transformation of destructiveness is driven by erotic enactments. For example, in the broadly acclaimed concert “Havana Moon” (2016) a phallic stage penetrates the audience and Mick Jagger makes direct sexual allusions by body language. The audience participates in the flow of vital energy and joins joyfully into the rhythm. These shared enactments seem to be necessary for the creative transformation of aggressiveness. Under a Freudian perspective we can see a fusion of sexual and aggressive drives that leads to a certain form of aesthetic integration. But, as we have seen e.g. in the famous Altamont Concert, where one spectator was stabbed to dead, the aesthetic enactment of aggressiveness can also incite destructiveness. In this respect it seems to be an unending question which enactments of aggression and destruction lead to creative transformation and which forms of these enactments lead to violence.

The Stones’ reference to the biblical Lucifer is a hint to the universal meaning of their song. In the Holy Bible, Lucifer is at first the prince of the angels and the “son of beautiful dawn” (Isaiah 14.) His transformation into the prince of darkness is described in the prophecy of Ezekiel: “You were the seal of perfection,/ full of wisdom and perfect in beauty./ You were in Eden,/ the garden of God …/ till wickedness was found in you” (Ezekiel 28,12-15). The King of Tyrus and Lucifer respectively are violent and become the incarnation of evil: “Through your widespread trade/ you were filled with violence,/ and you sinned./ So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, …/ Your heart became proud on account of your beauty,/ and you corrupted your wisdom/ because of your splendor …” (Ezekiel 28,16-17). Perhaps Mick Jagger would smile in confronting this characterization of Lucifer that fits his performances wonderfully. But, in contrast to biblical evil he transforms evil into a song and into performances on stage. He survives because he plays creatively with arrogance and destructivity.

In contrary, after a short time of creative transformation, Jim Morrison loses his capacity to play. He does not play with destructiveness but enacts it by body and mind. He embodies the hero who sacrifices himself and is sacrificed by the others. Mythological, religious, social and biographical roots of his decay become apparent in his poetry, songs and enactments on stage (see Holm-Hadulla & Bertolino 2014).

Dance for life:
Madonna Ciccone

Throughout her artistic performances Madonna struggles with her strictly Catholic upbringing. In blasphemous performances e.g. during her Confessions Tour in 2005 she enacts herself as a kind of Antichrist. Her provocations hurt religious feelings and led to judicial charges and claims for excommunication. Her last appearance in the European Song Contest 2019 where she enacts herself as a damaged star in an apocalyptic world leads to furious protests also of her fans. We suppose that behind her deconstruction of traditional values, norms and expectations stands a constructive striving for survival and peace through creativity.

Madonna lost her mother when she was five. The family was poor and her father cared for his six children with rigor and severity. The little Madonna Louise did not despair but began to struggle for her life creatively. She began with dancing and found relief in listening to music. At school she was very diligent and remained disciplined even in adolescence when her schoolmates began to consume alcohol and drugs. As a reaction to these seductions Madonna intensified her dance training, immersed in reading books and deepened her musical knowledge autodidactically.

Emotionally, Madonna remained connected with her mother. Like a Prayer, one of her first songs, that made her famous, she expresses impressively the internal relation with her mother: “Life is a mystery, everybody must stand alone/ I here you call my name/ And it feels like home … Just like a prayer you know, I’ll take you there/ I hear your voice, it’s like angle sighing …“(Madonna, 1989). The song starts with the experience of existential loneliness and loss. In this situation the creative recollection of her mother helps the singer to overcome destructive feelings. The music reinforces the dreamlike connection with the mother and transform despair into beauty. Until today Madonna works with this song over many decades until the provocative enactment in the ESC 2019. We are reminded of Goethe with his “inner fairy tale” Faust and Mick Jagger with Sympathy for the Devil.

Madonna also transforms her difficult relationship with her father creatively. In her Songs Oh Father and Papa Don’t Preach she complains that her father could not understand her sufferings. In singing, dancing and relating to other people she emancipates herself from the stifling bonding with her father. Thereby she transforms the relationship with him and finds some kind of reconciliation. From these perspectives, sexual aggressiveness on stage also can be understood as struggle to transform destructive experiences creatively. Her biographers report a manifest sexual traumatization in adolescence. Her provocative confrontation with the Catholic church and Christianity in general can also be seen as a struggle to transform destructive personal and general experiences into constructive artistic forms – not for everyone’s taste. But her many fans sense a profound inspiration. They joyfully feel encouraged to transform the dialectics of their own constructive and destructive experiences by music, dance, sex and relationships. Songs like Everybody and Respect Yourself denote Madonna’s constructive impact on her audience.

Madonna shows in her performances and songs not only her extroverted, sexualized and provocative sides but also introverted, sentimental and caring aspects. The older she gets, the more she becomes socially active. She donates a lot of money for the poor, fights against racism and adopts African children. She cares for her daughter and her artistic family. Since 2003 she became politically active – e.g. arguing against going to war in Iraq. She sponsors organization to help poor children in Africa, engages herself for climate protection and assists anti-aids projects. Simultaneously she enjoys all the glamour – and economic success – pop-culture can offer. In 2007 she was elected by Forbes Magazine as the third most influential person of the world.

A counterexample to Madonna’s successful striving to cope with destructivity is Amy Winehouse. After a short time of creative transformation, this gifted singer lost her capacity to creatively transform depression and aggression. She enacted her emotional turmoil with heavy drinking, drugs and a toxic relationship (see Amy 2015). In the end, similar to Jim Morrison, she lost her capacity to transform destructiveness creatively and died like Jim Morrison a sacrificial death in flashlight of the media. In contrary, Madonna succeeded in transforming depression and aggression into creativity, social activity and generativity.


Interdisciplinary research shows that the dialectics of construction and destruction can be found in nature and culture (Holm-Hadulla 2013). Goethe’s personal, poetic, scientific and political struggle is documented in the 150 volumes of the Weimar edition. These documents show in a unique way that biological, psychological and social life is characterised by an interplay of constructive and destructive forces, a continuous “dying and becoming”. Since Freud’s beginnings when neuroanatomy was flourishing we can describe this interplay in neuroscientific terms. Freud’s neuroscientific model of the mind presupposes that the brain has an organizing function to integrate affects, mental representations and external sensations. This function is elementary for being able to act coherently. We can show today that neuronal networks enable the synthesis of affect, representation and external sensations by temporal synchronicity and spatial connectivity. The coherence of neuronal networks is as Freud supposed a dynamic one and depends on the quantity and quality of affects and sensations. Neuronal networks must be constantly recalibrated to order chaotic affects and sensations.

Coherent neuronal networks enable the emergence of psychic representation that can be described in psychological terms. On the psychological level we also find the dialectics of order e. g. in the interplay of convergent and divergent thinking. In the creative process fixed knowledge is in part deconstructed and associatively combined with new experiences and ideas. The interplay of construction, deconstruction and the new creation of usable forms is not always accompanied with good feelings e.g. flow but often stressful. Also on the emotional level creativity is accompanied by the interplay of bliss and despair.

This becomes apparent in cultural studies. They refer to complex cultural figurations which cannot be reduced to neuroscientific and psychological explanations without losing their qualities. To understand cultural narratives other epistemologies like hermeneutics are necessary for understanding. But interdisciplinary communication can enable one to find general concepts, which show the interdependence and complementary of neuroscientific and psychological findings with cultural experiences. The dialectics of order and chaos, construction and destruction seem to be one of those concepts that contains corresponding knowledge and can lead to practical implications.

Practical conclusions can be exemplified by the analysis of how pop stars succeed and fail to cope with destructiveness creatively. They show the necessity that the transformation destructiveness is an elementary task and that we all need to transform depressive moods and aggressive anger creatively. Creative Eros, generativity and social activity are the elementary forces to cope with existential melancholy and destructivity. This is also relevant for everyday creativity where we have to accept that we not only should strive for flow but apply techniques and rituals to overcome inhibitions and meaningless entertainment.

In summary, there is no “creative destruction” but only creative transformation. Creativity always works with existing materials, ideas and forms. Starting with children’s playful activity we can see that thinking is always new and dynamic and can be experienced as “beautiful”. All that destroys the capacity for thinking and acting constructively is destructive like heavy drinking and drugs. Toxic incoherence can lead in certain cases and circumstances to new and unusual ideas, but the capacity to work out such ideas creatively is usually impaired. This is why some eminent creative persons who consume high doses of alcohol or other drugs are not creative because of using substances but in spite of using them.

In case that special talents are combined with certain personality traits and find supportive surroundings that reinforce creative discipline and motivation extraordinary creativity can emerge. Also everyday creativity like thinking authentically, moving around, listening to music, contemplating works of art, experiencing beauty, working and loving helps to cope with destructiveness.

Thus, the recognition of the dialectics of construction and destruction can extend the definition of creativity as the production of something new and usable with the ancient idea that the novel and useful should also be good, true and beautiful.

Practical consequences can be summarized as follows:

Everyday and extraordinary creativity are fundamental to cope with depressive moods and aggressive impulses.

Innovation is not a positive value in itself. Every innovation must respect its destructive consequences. This becomes apparent in a time where powerful innovations lead to the destruction of natural and human resources and potentially to the extinction of the planet earth.

Creativity serves for peace in very different realms but remains fundamentally ambivalent. Good, true and beautiful communication is the main human capacity to cope with violence and destructiveness. Coming back to the first verse of the Iliad we can conclude: It’s not hatred that is creative, it’s singing.


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Sympathy for the Devil – The Creative Transformation of the Evil