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The Art of the Unconscious

The Art of the Unconscious

Theater, film, literature and poetry are forms of expression that allow artists and their audiences to explore the compelling issues of their lives. On a very basic level, the various forms of art are windows into the emotions and impulses that populate the human unconscious. Furthermore, art, both in its creation and its enjoyment, can be as healing for the psyche as psychotherapy. The themes explored in literature allow us to understand, from a different perspective, the difficult issues with which our patients grapple in therapy. Of all of the medical specialties, psychiatry may have the greatest affinity for the humanities. Psychiatry is inherently about the human psyche, a topic addressed by all of the arts in one way or another. Thus, psychotherapy and art are merely different approaches to the understanding of the human experience.

Drama and literature play an important role in both the professional and personal lives of psychiatrists. Art reflects our own emotional issues and provides a glimpse into our unconscious. The films, poems and plays that we find most gripping or poignant tell us something about our own unconscious world and help us reach a greater degree of self-understanding. In creating our own poetry or performing in theater, we are revealing part of ourselves to others that is important for us to share. Our reasons for creating art and our personal reactions to art tell us about who we are and what is most important to us. The decision to create is revealing in itself, but what we decide to create can be equally informative. Writing poetry and performing on stage are very different forms of expression that reflect the personality of the artist. These insights can be invaluable to psychiatrists in identifying and dealing with countertransference in psychotherapy.

The role of art in the lives of our patients is equally important. Our patients' reactions to art can be utilized in therapy. Understanding how to examine these issues can be very useful to the psychiatrist. As I said earlier, the pieces of art that we find the most compelling, the ones that we come back to over and over again, the phrases that we always remember, tell us about ourselves. These experiences can be used in psychotherapy by psychiatrists when patients describe films, poems or books that they find moving. Even if the psychiatrist hasn't read the book or seen the film, the discussion of the piece and why it was important to the patient can provide powerful insight into that individual's psyche. To illustrate my meaning, I will reflect on several pieces of particular importance to me.


One notable example is Macbeth. The initially noble Macbeth, ultimately destroyed by ambition, serves as a powerful warning. In an early scene, Macbeth argues with himself about whether to murder the king and seize the throne (Act 1, Scene 7):

He's here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself.

Macbeth recognized that--as kinsman, subject and host--loyalty and honor dictated that he should not murder his virtuous king. Nonetheless, stoked by Lady Macbeth's goading, his ambition carried the day, setting him on a path to destruction. Images of notable historical figures who, like Macbeth, destroyed themselves through their ambition, come to mind. The importance of leaders balancing ambition with integrity resonates strongly today.


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