February 07, 2005

Reading Log: Joanna Field

Does the right of self–expression need to be earned? British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton thinks (via Good and Happy) that self–expression is only worthwhile if one has “gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn't done that is just embarrassing.” This leaves those of us who aren’t as gifted as Milton abashed and at a loss.

One twentieth–century self who surely earned the right of expression even under the most stringent Scrutony was British psychoanalyst Marion Milner. Using the pen name Joanna Field she wrote three explorative, soul–baring books about her struggle to become a free, creative human being. (Under her own name she studied children and did fieldwork on the learning process in schools.) These books are ancestors of today’s pop self–therapy books: they’re more demanding, less programmatic, and more idiosyncratic. They give off the flavor of a real person's ambiguous battle, not of a shrewd marketable triumph.

The first, A LIFE OF ONE’S OWN, is a report on her experiment in discovering what she really thought and felt and liked, as opposed to what others wanted her to think and feel and like; and to derive values that were her own, not automatically inherited from her culture. She pursued this project when she and the century were both in their twenties.

The sequel, AN EXPERIMENT IN LEISURE, describes her attempt to find out what she would do if her time were her own. What really made her happy?

Then, in middle age in the late 1940s, she undertook an investigation of creativity. An amateur painter for much of her life, she felt blocked by inhibitions and anxieties and by the felt need to paint the way other people wanted her to, the way other people painted, the way other people had taught her. In the tradition of her first two books, she asked herself how she would paint if she did not heed those external messages but only put down what she felt and genuinely observed. The result was a book I love and have underlined over and over in my own endeavor to become a writer: ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT. (Actually most of the art work she analyzes is her drawing, not painting. But she picked the better title!)

This is one of those rare books on the artist’s creative process that focuses not on the masterpieces of the great but on the trial–and–error fumblings of a more or less talented ordinary person. And because of that, it is all the richer. She is not talking about making perfect paintings; she is talking about creating a fuller life.

Unembarrassed, she reproduces many of her rather amateurish drawings (and goes into too much detail about their technicalities, for my taste). But the core of the book is not in the descriptions of her drawings as such, but her analysis of the emotional content and philosophical implications of the artistic process. Clearly she spent more fruitful time thinking about why she felt dissatisfied drawing one kind of line and pleased about drawing another, than she did actually drawing the lines themselves. She analyzes the “orgiastic” pleasure that can accompany the making of art, and why that pleasure is not a reliable guide to the quality of the finished product. She relates artistic inhibitions to the fear of losing one’s separateness from the world. She comes to understand the necessity of what we today call “down time,” daydreaming, absentmindedness. Perhaps most importantly, she discourses on how losing our inhibitions about creativity enables us—artist or not—to make ourselves into beings who are truly alive, and to transfigure the worlds in which we live.

This is not a how–to book, but it can help anyone who is trying to create—to create anything, from a building to a math theorem to a saxophone solo. It is not part of the inspirational genre, but it may very well inspire you. Many of its broadest ideas may be available in simplified form in the emotional pabulum put out by creativity entrepreneurs like Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. But Joanna Field does not spoon pabulum into you. Her books must be reread to be fully grasped. Her discussion may be too psychoanalytical for some readers today, but it is not doctrinaire, just deep. A discovery of Joanna Field might even renew respect for psychoanalysis—not as a scientific theory but as a humane outlook and a bold venture—not an outdated set of dogmas with quaint labels for dubious drives and unverifiable psychic compartments—but a way of entering and uncovering the hidden soul.

The 1957 second edition of ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT was reissued by Jeremy Tarcher in 1983. A LIFE OF ONE’S OWN was reprinted by Tarcher in 1981, and AN EXPERIMENT IN LEISURE in 1987. You can find them by using the amazon search button on the sidebar of this blog.