Carl Jung’s Portrait of the Visionary Artist

Art is kind of an innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him.

Carl Jung, “Psychology and Literature,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 169


Jung on Cover of Time, Feb. 14, 1955

Jung on Cover of Time, Feb. 14, 1955

My choice for the lead-in quote above is intentionally ominous. According to Jung, Visionary Fiction, largely the unvarnished chronicle of the Hero’s Journey, does not accommodate faintness of heart in either its writers or readers. While a profoundly uncomfortable notion even if  kept in proper context, it offers a deep enough truth to warrant considerable mental roiling.

Since Jung’s ideas and their phrasing require little editorializing by his student, I’ve largely limited this article to a concatenation of some of the more memorable quotes from “Psychology and Literature.”

In a previous 2-part article, “Carl Jung and Visionary Fiction, (see Part 1 and Part 2 on this site), examining Jung’s 1929 seminal essay, which introduced the concept of visionary fiction by name, focus was on the visionary work itself; but, as he points out in the lecture’s introduction, its complete study must be twofold:

 We may expect psychological research, on the one hand, to explain the formation of a work of art, and on the other to reveal the factors that make a person artistically creative….

In the case of the work of art we have to deal with a product of complicated psychic activities—but a product that is apparently intentional and consciously shaped. In the case of the artist we must deal with the psychic apparatus itself. In the first instance we must attempt the psychological analysis of a definitely circumscribed and concrete artistic achievement, while in the second we must analyze the living and creative human being as a unique personality.

Although these two undertakings are closely related and even interdependent, neither of them can yield the explanations that are sought by the other. It is of course possible to draw inferences about the artist from the work of art, and vice versa, but these inferences are never conclusive. At best they are probable surmises or lucky guesses.

 Causal analysis, even though it can be applied with some benefit to both the work of art and the artist, is bound to fall short, Jung says, “because the creative aspect of life which finds its clearest expression in art baffles all attempts at rational formulation. Any reaction to stimulus may be causally explained; but the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will forever elude the human understanding. It can only be described in its manifestations; it can be obscurely sensed, but never wholly grasped.”


Portrait of the Visionary Artist (It isn’t a pretty picture.)

Visionary 1When the art form is specifically visionary fiction, which addresses those primordial experiences that arise “from timeless depths; it is foreign and cold; many-sided, demonic and grotesque,” as Jung describes VF in the first part of this lecture, its channel for manifestation, the writer, is bound to be a paradox in character.

Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other side he is an impersonal, creative process. Since as a human being he may be sound or morbid, we must look at his psychic make-up to find the determinants of his personality. But we can only understand him in his capacity of artist by looking at his creative achievements.

While the visionary artist does not function in any official capacity, the opposite being nearer the truth, he nevertheless resembles, Jung maintains, the English gentleman, military officer, or cardinal “who function as such in an impersonal role, and their psychic makeup is qualified by a peculiar objectivity.”

The specifically artistic disposition involves an overweight of collective psychic life as against the personal. Art is kind of an innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense—he is “collective man”—one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being….

The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. The lives of artists are as rule so highly unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side, and not because of a sinister disposition. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.

With the exception perhaps of the few human beings who have mastered the tightrope between genius and madness, all visionary writers experience the chaos that their vocation imposes on their personal lives. We all come endowed with a certain capital of energy, Jung posits. “The strongest force in our make-up will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it. In this way the creative force can drain the human impulses to such a degree that the personal ego must develop all sorts of bad qualities.” This argument won’t score a second invitation to hobnob with polite company, but it may help the artist to tolerate his personal limitations.

The Realm of the Mothers

What prize might prompt a human being, with a perfectly normal existence available, to flirt with a life that could well be an absolute hell? It isn’t for the money. As Jung noted, “the reading public for the most part repudiates this kind of writing.” To answer this legitimate concern, Jung draws not from his psychological research but from his understanding of the human soul. His conclusions will not resolve the VF writer’s angst but should likely stimulate him or her to continue the quest, come what may.

How can we doubt that it is his art that explains the artist, and not the insufficiencies and conflicts of his personal life? These are nothing but the regrettable results of the fact that he is an artist—that is to say, a man who from his very birth has been called to a greater task than an ordinary mortal. A special ability means a heavy expenditure of energy in a particular direction, with a consequent drain from some other side of life.

It makes no difference whether the poet knows that his work is begotten, grows and matures with him, or whether he supposes that by taking thought he produces it out of the void. His opinion of the matter does not change the fact that his work outgrows him as a child its mother. The creative process has feminine quality, and the creative work arises from unconscious depths—we might say, from the realm of the mothers. Whenever the creative force predominates, human life is ruled and molded by the unconscious as against the active will, and the conscious ego is swept along on a subterranean current, being nothing more than a helpless observer of events. The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe.

Participative Mystique

Carl Jung quoteBut the last line above prompts a further question: for what purpose would Goethe submit to Faust transforming the original Goethe? Was he not good enough? Jung answers this question of purpose as applied to both visionary writer and reader:

The work of the poet comes to meet the spiritual needs of the society in which he lives, and for this reason the work means more to him than his personal fate, whether he is aware of this or not. Being essentially the instrument for his work, he is subordinate to it, and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us…a great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal…to grasp its meaning, we must allow it to shape us as it once shaped him. Then we understand the nature of the experience. We see that he had drawn upon the healing and redeeming forces of the collective psyche that underlies consciousness with its isolation and its painful errors; that it has penetrated to that matrix of life in which all men are embedded, which imparts a common rhythm to all human existence, and allows the individual to communicate his feeling and his striving to mankind as a whole.

The secret of artistic creation and of the effectiveness of art is to be found in a return to the state of participative mystique—to that level of experience at which it is man who lives, and not the individual, and at which the weal and woe of the single human being does not count, but only human existence. This is why every great work of art is objective and impersonal, but none the less profoundly moves us each and all. And this is also why the personal life of the poet cannot be held essential to his art but at most a help or hindrance to his creative task. He may go the way of a Philistine, a good citizen, a neurotic, a fool or a criminal. His personal career may be inevitable and interesting, but it does not explain the poet.

Participative mystique–what a delicious phrase to characterize the entire process of creating a visionary work. It brings to mind a dynamic concert in which author, book, and reader each contribute their unique portion, which then blends, as if by magic from another realm, into a breath-taking whole that far surpasses the sum of its parts


About Victor Smith

Victor E. Smith, a lifelong generalist with a diverse resume, sees himself as a scribe of the realm “in-between.” Writing largely visionary and historical fiction, he seeks to observe, absorb, and express those close encounters between the spiritual and material universes that form the unique adventure called human life. Vic is the author of The Anathemas: A Novel of Reincarnation and Restitution (2010) and Channel of the Grail (May 2016). He is a core team member of the Visionary Fiction Alliance. For further information, visit his website,
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28 Responses to Carl Jung’s Portrait of the Visionary Artist

  1. esdragon2 says:

    As a long-time fan of Jung, having discovered him in the early 60s after reading Modern Man in Search of a Soul, I then went on to read every book that he had written, including the boring ones! I happened to live close to the library in Islington, London, and borrowed them for free. However ……. at that time I was a 'struggling' artist having just left the Royal College of Art, and finding my way, groping my way towards what it meant to be an artist. Confused and not at all confident in myself. Now, 50 years later I feel rather different about myself and about art. — and about Jung!

    Can I pick up on one thing I've just read in the above on the subject of The Mothers. Are we to conclude, C. G., that The Mothers feminine quality is necessarily unconscious? And would a Conscious feminine not be feminine at all? And what of the Unconscious Masculine? Are we to conclude that by dint of his masculinity he is never Unconscious? O M G! Isn't it The Unconscious male that is forever wrecking the sort of havoc and destruction we see all around us in the World at present?


    • Thank you for comments, Esme.

      On the "one thing" you point out, it's important to make clear that in his essay, Jung often uses the word "consciousness" to mean the normal waking analytic
      consciousness in contrast to intuition as well as sub- or super-consciousness. Nowadays we use consciousness in a broader sense. See his clear differentiation between psychological (ordinary or rational consciousness) and visionary (the realm of the mothers) fiction in the earlier two essays cited above. I wouldn't worry: you, Carl Jung, and I (for that matter) are on the same page.

      As one of those masculine people, I can assure you that Jung is more on your side with the compliment here than on ours.


  2. This is a post I'll come back to, but this morning as I'm peeking before going off to work, I want to say I was surprised by what followed the quote. it didn't seem ominous to me, but rather an abandonment to the Divine Consciousness. Then I though, well yes, that means the rushing river will catch all your tangles of branches and whatever is blocking the flow and push it to your individual consciousness so it can be cleared, and that's not always fun — until the end of that process and you are wider and clearer and more capable of handling the volume of the Divine consciously.


    • Do come back, Theresa. we want to hear more. That the quote didn't rattle your timbers a bit is impressive. You have evidently crossed the threshold and survived. Even better you've come back here and can go back there with comfort. Maybe there's some truth in the adage that it takes men longer than women–I'm still working on it. I still have my days when I'd rather watch football than wrestle with the "demons" of the In-between!


  3. From my perspective as a writer (let alone a visionary fiction writer), this makes so much sense. "The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire." As does this: "…all visionary writers experience the chaos that their vocation imposes on their personal lives." And this: "A special ability means a heavy expenditure of energy in a particular direction, with a consequent drain from some other side of life." Sometimes I ask myself, "Why am I doing this, when I could just be relaxing, hanging out at Starbucks, visiting with friends? Why torture myself?" And then back to the desk I go, pen in hand…


    • Amazing how helpful Jung's viewpoint is for managing one's own psyche. I wish I had known some of this earlier. I'd I have driven myself, and lots of others, less nuts and probably have gotten more writing done.


    • Admin - Eleni says:

      This resonates deep within me. I throw myself into my creative projects where I can even forget to eat. I’ve even worked through a tsunami alarm! I can't stop creating. If I do, I get this intense sense of boredom and emptiness, so art is like breathing for me. Having children taught me to be more social, e.g., volunteering my time for the Girl Scouts and other activities. My daughters are used to my spending hours working, but I make sure that I spend quality time with them. Being a committed artist can wreak havoc on personal relationships. It takes a very special partner to understand the artist, and a very compassionate artist to understand when it's time to step away and interact with other humans.


      • I like your conclusion: "It takes a very special partner to understand the artist, and a very compassionate artist to understand when it’s time to step away and interact with other humans." Staying single also works . A highly compatible team would be dynamite–but don't light any matches in their vicinity!


    • libredux says:

      Ha ha! I think most writers have been there at some point. 🙂


      • esdragon2 says:

        Hi Vic and everyone. I have just received this link:

        It came from Lindsay Clarke, a writer I know personally and who I admire greatly. In fact the only author to whom I have ever given 5 stars, when writing a review of his book, The Water Theatre. The link takes you to an Obituary of John Moat who died a few days ago. I also knew John, and correspondences I had with him form part of my book, Dreaming Worlds Awake.

        I feel that Lindsay's Obit. might have a lot to interest Visionary Fiction writers. John, in his turn was influenced by Jung. The Obit speaks about the place of Art and Imagination.


      • A most impressive resume, Esme, for a writer I never heard of. (Call it an example of American literary provincialism.) He evidently embodied Jung's highest concept of the visionary artist, since it was written of him: "Understanding Imagination as a life force larger than our human share in its creative powers, Moat viewed himself as the servant of its intentions and was reluctant to take credit for what had been accomplished through him."

        Also an excellent example of an artist/writer who does, if only eventually, find the special blend of solitude and relationship discussed in the above comments. Very nice–must read. Hope it's not too heavy on that "other" version of English!


  4. esdragon2 says:

    For many, many years, (as I've indicated above,) Jung has had an enormous influence on me. However … a 'but' coming up! .. now that I've reached this great age, (lol) I feel the need to distance myself both from his views on artists, i.e painters and sculptors, and on writers Visionary. One thing I really believes is that to be an artist we need to trust our own individuality – our originality. Our Divine spark, if you like. And one thing I'm learning is that when I open myself to my inspiration, and consciously let go my 'head stuff', that is my ability to rationally analyse, I don't experience any of those 'demons', conflicts, chaos, etc. I simply paint. I may experience a pang of disappointment when the finished painting before me appears to be unsuccessful, but that, I'm glad to say, doesn't last very long. I put it behind me and look forward to having another go sometime in the future.

    This may be swanking a bit, but I have recently been asked to hold an exhibition of my work. Years ago, this would have been a nightmare, wondering if my work would be seen as 'good enough'. Now, I think, I'm beginning to take the offer in my stride. Well, we'll see, won't we?.


  5. libredux says:

    Vic, thanks for linking us to your previous two-part article on Carl Jung and Visionary Fiction. I missed them back then so I'll certainly read them.

    I confess I've never studied Jung, so this was an educational read for me. There is certainly a truth to his views that "the work of the poet comes to meet the spiritual needs of the society in which he lives", and that "a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire". But he also suggests that the artist is practically a slave to art and so, even as Jung says an artist both "carries *and* shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind", in the same breath he contradicts himself by saying the artist has somehow lost his "free will". This I can't agree with, insofar as free will and creativity are both defining qualities of homo sapiens. Free will is in fact an inherent part of creativity. If it was not, wouldn't the rest of nature would be freely creative in exactly the same way that humans are?


    • I have to believe, from evidence elsewhere, that Jung's statement re an "artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him" requires a profound differentiation between the free will of the "self" and that of the higher "Self." If the statement is read as a theory or injunction before some form of transformative experience, it hurts the ego to much to be true. Once the self has tried on the Self and experienced the pleasure of that broader view, it is easier to give up the restricting free will of the self.

      When I am too shaky about the whole surrender thing, before I jump I remind myself, "What the heck, why not try it? I can always go back to the old way." Sometimes I do, mostly not. The pain and effort involved in creation vanishes with the pleasure of both process and accomplishment. But we have to know ourselves and our own pace. Too much ambition can ruin the ride.


  6. Vic, I love your opening quote from Jung. I don't think it refers to free will in the existential sense, but rather, a process that occurs with many writers, especially VF writers. For me, it is something that when I surrender to it, carries me along into creative outpouring. On the outside it may look like I'm an obsessed slave to my writing, yet it truly is passion and devotion to the thing being created and emerging from my soul. Yes, from the realms of the "mothers', the feminine principle of the depths, the Divine Feminine is a perfect way to describe this well source that captures me and flows from me.


  7. drstephenw says:

    I'm glad it took me a while to get to reading your excellent post, Vic, because it is really enhanced by the comments that followed it in the last two weeks. I love the different perspectives on how we identify/grapple with Jung's depiction of the artist caught in between daily life and relationships on the one hand, and the vision and creative drive on the other. It was comforting to read a psychological master having an understanding of all my years of obsessional behavior, juggling family, work, and creation, and concocting schemes to gain a few more minutes to write on the train.

    That said, I have to add one dissenting view. Sometimes the 'lack of free will' is painful, obsessive, or manic, but often that obsession is fun, joyous, and ecstatic. Would we choose this life, or rather let this life choose us, if it were only for a higher vision at our expense? It is also compelling, fascinating, addictive, and pleasurable.

    My day job is improvising music for modern dancers; for years it felt like a minor gig I had to do for a little money, and then I realized my job was actually to bring a group of people to physical and spiritual ecstasy. Now I love it, and the dancers are teenagers! By the same token, for years I struggled with prioritizing creative with daily tasks, felt enormous tension around the amount of time I spent with creative work vs family. More recently, I just do it all; it's all important and fulfilling, and the fretting about it just diminishes the positive experience. Thinking of ourselves as visionary artists can help us accept our pleasurable obsession with joy, love, and peace.


    • Took me a bit to see this comment but it rates kudos, if late. I agree that there is turning point where the calling turns from "painful, obsessive, or manic" to "fun, joyous, and ecstatic." What I perceive as a sacred and welcome second wind. Thanks for pointing that out, my friend.


  8. esdragon2 says:

    I love your last, (but one!) sentence; 'Just do it all; it's all important and fulfilling .. etc." I certainly endorse that.


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  10. jamborobyn says:

    I'm simply flabbergasted! I know it's not a recent post, but I also want to let you know that I didn't find the opening quote ominous at all. It gave voice to a suspicion I have had – a suspicion about who's driving this bus – for a very long time. A Quick-Eze moment!

    Many times I have awoken to find myself reciting a poem that appears to have been written in my sleep because it definitely wasn't in my brain when I went to bed.

    I simply have to write when I receive a clue. I can't seem to concentrate on anything else for more than 5 minutes because something is going around and around in my head and it's LOUD. Such as two words, half a memory and a feeling – none of it is obviously connected and I am impelled to define the mystery and give the feeling a form. Sometimes I have to refer to the dictionary because I don't even know what the word means! Obviously I have cause to occasionally wonder what the hell is going on with this process/method and where all this stuff is coming from. Strangely I don't waste much time trying to oppose this state of affairs, my best learning comes from writing.

    Most important is that I am not entirely comfortable with the fact that I will choose time in this creative state over almost any social engagement if I think I can get away with it. So it's very difficult to have properly interactive relationships because I begrudge time away from writing. Plus I don't (or didn't until reading this post) think of myself as a writer and it's quite possibly the last thing I would tell someone about myself – it wouldn't seem relevant. It's not a job. I can't list it under hobbies. I am only aware of one person who reads my writing and has actually met me in person.

    So thank you very much Victor, you have enhanced my world today.


    • A beautiful tribute to the visionary idea and to yourself, Jambo. Just keeping listening to that inner voice in whatever form it comes, and write as Spirit moves you. At times I've written something that took years to understand completely. But when the time came I had it there and then enjoyed an aha moment. Stay with us, keep commenting. Welcome to the VFA.


  11. I resonate with these words:

    "With the exception perhaps of the few human beings who have mastered the tightrope between genius and madness, all visionary writers experience the chaos that their vocation imposes on their personal lives."

    My own Path has taught me how to walk the tightrope, for brief spells, with much chaos still swirling 'round, intent on hearing the inner Voice…

    Many years ago, I spent a long time studying Jung because of the way Dane Rudhyar utilized Jung's ideas…

    The greatest Gift Jung gave me was his inclusion of the Spiritual as a central function of Psyche…


    • Thanks for your comment, Alexander. Ah, to master that tightrope! Looking back over 6 decades of working at it, I'm glad that, starting out and while on the way, I had no idea how many hours of practice it would take. But, as can be seen from those who have commented here, there is quite a collection of people among us who have had a remarkable degree of success. Visionary writing is evidently a valid yoga for many of us, and Jung did a good job of indicating why.


  12. I feel the most engaged yet also distant when I am a willing slave of the Muse (which is usually conceptualized as a feminine force) or a participant in the mystique of the creative process. I have also called it taking dictation from God as I have the definite belief that the words come through me not from me. Jung talks of the spiritual needs of society and the creative process as overcoming the profane lives we live to serve the artistic creation but as you say there is a fine line between genius and madness (as a hospital chaplain, I saw this on the psych ward) but somehow we must stay grounded in order to continue to create without giving over our human experience of engagement with others so completely to the rigors of creative writing. Not to be too mundane, but some of my best writing flows through me when I am cleaning the house. One can be consumed but not destroyed by the process. I find if the artist is completely mad, there are other psychological issues at play causing the breakdown. Furthermore, I do admit that I have been more productive in my creative endeavors single rather than married. Understanding partners are hard to come by if you are a writer. When we are sitting staring off into space, it does not mean we are not working or extending an invitation for company. Jung is right about the creative act ultimately being inexplicable but I don't agree that we must all pay dearly for "the divine gift of creative fire". My understanding in reading through parts of his Red Book is that he found his own lucid dreaming particularly frightening and is perhaps confusing it with an artistic creative process. Thank you for the interesting article.


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