Only a creator culture can save us

Between the years of 1914 and 1930 the psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology Carl Gustav Jung undertook what he later termed a ‘voluntary confrontation with his unconscious’. Employing certain techniques of active imagination that became part of his theory of human development, Jung incited visions, dreams and other manifestations of his imagination, which he recorded in writing and pictures. For some years, he kept the results of this process secret, though he described them to close friends and family as the most important work of his life. Late in his career, he set about collecting and transcribing these dreams and visions.

The product was the ‘Liber Novus’ or ‘New Book’, now known simply as The Red Book. Despite requests for access from some of the leading thinkers and intellectuals of the 20th century, very few people outside of Jung’s close family were allowed to see it before its eventual publication in 2009. It has since been recognised as one of the great creative acts of the century, a magnificent and visionary illuminated manuscript equal to the works of William Blake.

It is from his work on The Red Book that all of Jung’s theories on archetypes, individuation and the collective unconscious stem. Of course, Jung is far from alone in esteeming human creativity. The creative capacity is central to the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget and the constructivist theory of learning, and creativity is increasingly at the heart of our models of economic growth and development. But Jung provides the most satisfying explanation I know for why the people I worked with got so much out of discovering their own creativity, and why happiness and the freedom to create are so closely linked.

Jung dedicated his life to understanding human growth, and the importance of creativity to that process. It seems fitting that the intense process that led to the The Red Book should also have been integral to Jung’s own personal development. Already well into his adult life, he had yet to make the conceptual breakthroughs that would become the core of his model of human psychology. In quite a literal sense, the process of creating The Red Book was also the process of creating Carl Jung. This simple idea, that creativity is central to our ongoing growth as human beings, opens up a very distinctive understanding of what it means to make something.

Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively

Anyone who has performed any significant creative feat, whether writing a novel or founding a business, will acknowledge the element of inner transformation inherent in the act. The person who attends a writing class in her 20s isn’t the same person who completes a great novel in her 50s, and it isn’t only day-to-day life that shapes her in the meantime: the creative process itself will have been at work. The growth that comes from progress through the stages of any artistic discipline provides a backbone for our intellectual and emotional development as human beings. And it is as a framework for growth that our creative endeavours should be judged. Commercial success more often than not follows growth, but it can become a fatal distraction from it, as we see in the trajectories of celebrities who ape creativity to achieve fame but remain stunted as human beings.

This point raises difficult questions about our society. Much about the way we have chosen to organise our lives, often with the goal of maximising material comfort, is bad for creativity. These problems are most pronounced for the bulk of the population who work inside the structures that support the creativity of others: the factories, offices, shops and other parts of the system of consumer capitalism.

If you are a production line worker at a Foxconn factory in China, a retail operative at Walmart or a call-centre assistant at the Next offices in Leicestershire, the chances of finding any measure of creativity in your work are slim. They are sure to be less than those of the graphic designer using the Apple iPad, the billionaire inheritors of the Walmart fortune, or me sitting here typing this essay on my laptop. As much as our social hierarchies are about limiting and controlling access to wealth, they are also about limiting and controlling access to creativity. Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively.

And yet, perhaps internal factors are the greatest barrier to creative fulfilment for most people. We are driven creatures. While our lust for status, money, power and sex can be harnessed towards creative ends, it is more likely to block any spark we might have had. Our consumer culture is happy to cater to these drives. We lose decades of our lives chasing money to buy luxury goods and climbing through artificial hierarchies in the workplace. We struggle with the health problems caused by high-calorie, high-fat diets. We become caught in webs of addiction, trying to distract our minds from the emptiness left by our lost creativity. The novelist Don DeLillo wrote that ‘longing on a large scale is what makes history’. Our longings shape our lives and they shape the world around us. But it is our longing to create that is our deepest drive, and the one that makes us the most human. We ignore it at our own cost.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

8 thoughts on “Only a creator culture can save us

  1. I literally cannot agree more. You’ve touched on, and even greatly expanded, concepts that I outlined recently in a post about the Three Critical Conditions of being human and our sense of fulfillment. Yes, yes, and yes, creation is key.


  2. Reblogged this on The Spirited Soul and commented:
    I say, “The Creative Force IS the Source. Please don’t out-Source your Force!” :)

    This brilliant article, one that I’m happy to ”re-blog”, touches on the topics that interest me most: Creativity, culture, health & well-being; how one person can make a difference; even quotes by Carl Jung & Einstein.

    Let me know if it touches on your concerns as well…



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s