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Fenichel, O. (1943). On the Nature of Ugliness and the Creative Impulse: John Rickman. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 294–313.. Psychoanal Q., 12:292-293.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: On the Nature of Ugliness and the Creative Impulse: John Rickman. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 294–313.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:292-293

On the Nature of Ugliness and the Creative Impulse: John Rickman. Int. J. Psa., XXI, 1940, pp. 294–313.

Otto Fenichel

Rickman discusses in a speculative and general way (he himself calls the paper 'marginalia psychoanalytica') some basic problems of æsthetics.

Psychoanalysis has always attacked its problems from the point of view of conflict and polarity. For example, it never investigated the phenomenon of pleasure in any other way than in connection with its adversaries pain, anxiety and guilt. Similarly, says Rickman, problems of æsthetics cannot start with abstract questions about the essence of beauty. If one is to investigate the battles between creative and destructive impulses which form the basis of artistic creation it is also necessary to understand ugliness.

What is ugly? Etymology shows that the ugly means the frightful or the hateful (German: hässlich, Hass). The child does not consider the same things ugly that an adult does. Sexual repression can explain a great part of this change in the conception of ugliness. The sight of something which is incomplete, dismembered, or of a torso in which a part is missing, especially gives the impression of ugliness, not only because of castration fear, but also out of fear of one's own aggression, because the sight of injury awakens the impulse to carry the destruction a stage further. Deformities, defective growth, unfinished things and things which contain details which give the impression of a foreign body are also considered ugly. All these antipathies are very similar to sexual antipathies.

The internal objects of unconscious destructive impulses which are so often decisive for what is felt as ugly have still other functions in art: they are the

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real audience for which art work is done whereas the psychologically related dream work has no other aim than to bring relaxation to the subject himself.

The question 'what is it that is satisfying in art?' is answered by Rickman in a threefold way. First, there is sensuous pleasure. 'Such art is a "flight to beauty": it reminds us of the struggles of the psychotic to conceive of a world more and more saturated with goodness so that he may cherish the illusion that evil does not exist in it at all.' Second, art brings 'solution of conflicts', a reconstruction of what was destroyed or a denial of the destruction brought about by unconscious sadism. Third, there is what Rickman calls the 'eternal factor': 'If we take into consideration the intensity of infantile pain, the enormous courage and endurance of the child in the face of what it feels to be great dangers to itself and to loved ones, its passionate belief that in spite of the fact that its world is reduced to chaos nevertheless it will and can put things right, its good humor due to its belief that in spite of its own evil impulses it has the power to restore and recreate a good world again and that its good objects will remain, if we reckon with the fact that the child goes through periods when the face of familiar things is changed and all that it loves and trusts is crushed by its own violence and befouled by its hate, and if with all this we reckon with the influence and power of infantile fantasy and experience upon our adult perception and emotion: then we may see how the artist can lead us into and out of the world of suffering.'

'Beautiful' is to us what seems to promise the victory of creation over destruction, of life over death; 'ugly' is what contradicts this, what wants to make us believe in the triumph of destruction and death. 'Our need for beauty springs from the gloom and pain which we experience from our destructive impulses to our good and loved objects; our wish is to find in art evidence of the triumph of life over death; we recognize the power of death when we say a thing is ugly.'

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Article Citation

Fenichel, O. (1943). On the Nature of Ugliness and the Creative Impulse. Psychoanal. Q., 12:292-293

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