Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul

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Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul explores cultural, clinical, and scientific discourse on human psychology and its influence on twentieth-century writers, artists, and thinkers. Tracing important themes in the lives and work of key figures and artistic communities represented in the Beinecke Library’s Modern European and American Literature collections, the exhibition documents a range of imaginative encounters involving the arts and the study of the mind. The books, manuscripts, and visual works in Psyche & Muse represent aesthetic and philosophic lineages from the late nineteenth century to the postwar era; the exhibited materials reveal ways in which the study of psychology and core concepts of psychoanalysis were both intertwined and at odds with artistic production throughout the twentieth century.

As indicated by the title of one section of the exhibition, Psyche & Muse is an exploration of “mixed narratives,” problematic stories, disrupted analyses. Documenting creative processes, intricate personal interactions, and the development of thought and insight, archives can provide a singular vantage from which to view and understand complex relationships and tensions between creativity, memory, dreams, love, and human psychology. But inevitably archives tend toward the incomplete, the fragmentary. Rich and vibrant as the archival record may be, it often tells us only part of a more complicated history, giving a hazy image, part of which remains out of focus. In this way, archives resemble subjects of endless interest to psychology—dreams, language, memory. Providing views of passionate collaborations and painful ensnarements, Psyche and Muse itself can be understood as an “entanglement” of a sort; an attempt to document personal and artistic associations, the exhibition enacts as it records the problems of language and the realities of anxiety. The exhibition reveals unfixed and evolving meanings as it recounts the unusual cases and fraught stories at the intersection of creativity and modern psychology.

There is a resonant tension in Psyche & Muse between the language of the “case study” as a research methodology providing objective analysis of a subject in depth and in context, and the use of “display cases” to exhibit treasures. Are the stories told here curiosities, entertainments, exemplary creative models, or carefully documented studies of pathology? Does the archive reveal a comprehensive record available for study? Or is it a too-personal trace, telling its story with a decided slant?

Psyche & Muse considers these tensions in its exploration of many adjacent subjects documented in a broad range of materials in the Beinecke’s collections. Case Studies: American Writers Encountering Psychoanalysis illustrates the enthusiastic adoption of psychoanalytic ideas in the writings and lives of citizens of bohemian Greenwich Village in the nineteen-teens. Mixed Narratives and the Problem of Language: Homosexuality and the Search for a “Cure” outlines psychoanalytic dialogues about homosexuality from Freud’s early attempts to posit same-sex desire in the range of human sexual expression through 1950s mainstream psychiatry’s defining homosexuality as an illness in need of a psychological cure. H. D. and Freud, the Poet and the Professor illuminates a sustaining collaboration between artist and analyst. The Influence of Anxiety: Race and Writing in Jim Crow Times highlights African American writers’ use of the trope of madness and the language of existentialism and psychoanalytic inquiry in order to make sense of the conjoined taboos of race and sex, and of a “democratic” nation painfully divided.

Conflicts between Freudian and non-Freudian analysis as vehicles to contain or liberate revolutionary artistic energies are evident in Art Therapy: C. G. Jung and the Modernist Aesthetic and From Symbolism to Surrealism: Dreams, Madness, Insurrection; the fraught interactions depicted demonstrate ways in which psychiatric and psychological drives to control renegade imaginations have generated wildly divergent artistic responses. The Strange Case of Dr. Ferdière considers Gaston Ferdière’s controversial treatment of artists Antonin Artaud and Isidore Isou and the resulting fallout in European avant-garde circles.

Extending the exhibition’s exploration of both sides of the tense relationship between psychology and the arts into the cultural and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Anti-OEdipus: Psychology, Dissent, and the “Death of the Soul” considers Michel Foucault’s critique of psychology in relation to movements promoting the civil rights of mental health patients and Jacques Lacan’s refashioning of Freudian psychoanalysis and its ramifications in feminist and neo-Marxist liberation movements. Dr. Froyd: Psychoanalysis in the Popular Imagination features critical and creative treatments of Freud and psychoanalysis in historical fiction, poetry, movies, and works of visual and textual punning, demonstrating Freud’s still controversial legacy in American culture. If each of the exhibition sections is itself a “mixed narrative,” together they suggest something of the extraordinary possibilities to be found in points of contact between the arts and the study of the mind.

Psyche and Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul features materials from the Beinecke Library’s Modern European Books and Manuscripts Collection, the Yale Collection of American Literature, and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters; figures represented in the exhibition include: Antonin Artaud, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andre Breton, A. A. Brill, Jean-Martin Charcot, H. D., Mabel Dodge Luhan, Max Ernst, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Moss Hart, Isidore Isou, William James, Carl Jung, Lawrence Kubie, Jacques Lacan, George Platt Lynes, Eugene O’Neill, Wilhelm Reich, Jean Toomer, Glenway Wescott, Edmund White, Richard Wright, and Gregory Zilboorg.

Nancy Kuhl
Curator of Poetry
Yale Collection of American Literature
Psyche and Muse Coordinating Curator

Louise Bernard
Curator of Prose and Drama
Yale Collection of American Literature

Kevin Repp
Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts

Timothy G. Young
Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts


Images: Psychoanalysis, New York, N.Y.: Tiny Tot Comics, c1955 Editors of the comic book Psychoanalysis aimed to “portray, graphically and dramatically, the manner in which people find peace of mind through the science of psychoanalysis.”  Each analysis is “telescope[d] … into three to five issue-sessions” because, though a real analysis could take several years, listening to actual sessions might cause “boredom beyond all endurance.” Readers are further warned: “this magazine is not intended to fulfill the function of a psychoanalyst.” Tiny Tot Comics was also known as E. C. Comics, publisher of Tales from the Crypt and Mad; E. C. Comics created Psychoanalysis and other “educational” titles in response to broad condemnation of comic books as a corrupting influence on American youth.

Written by Rebekah Irwin

March 1, 2011 at 3:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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