TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Psychoanalysis is a good system for those of us that like structure. Even the unconscious, that vast cauldron of libidinal dreams and desires, is structured like a language as Lacan reminds us. After all, there are but three psychical structures in psychoanalysis: the pervert, the psychotic, and the neurotic. I must admit that I find the psychotic the most interesting when considering the artist. It was after all James Joyce, the psychotic artist par excellence that gave Lacan the material to discover that, “the unconscious is the real”, an insight that foregrounded the symptom as both the source of knowledge and ultimately as that which defies interpretation, as it is always caught within the real.[1]

But I don’t wish to look at Joyce. I’m interested in first looking more generally at the idea of the psychotic artist. If we take these structures seriously, we should pause to situate them as a part of all psychical reality. It is only by varying quantity that we experience their structures. Freud makes this claim as early as his work on Dora, the hysteric whom he and Breuer diagnosed in the late nineteenth century.

As Foucault developed towards the end of his great work, Madness and Civilization, following the enlightenment, madness represents a privileged source of truth. To break with the regime of rationality became the source of creative activity, and truth always involves accessing the inverted side of the rational social order. But we ought to be careful not to fetishize the “artist as madman”, wandering adrift yet in touch with the invisible forces of nature, in touch with some form of truth that is inaccessible. After all, truth has “the structure of fiction” for Lacan, and as such, any interpretation must ultimately be a construction out of the repressed core of the subject’s symptom, which is the source of all knowledge. Of course the mad artist has had their day (Artaud, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Nietzsche).

At the outset, it’s important to distinguish the neurotic artist from the psychotic artist. At some point, I want to generate a list of psychotic and neurotic artists. Of course to statically situate an artist as either psychotic or neurotic is misleading: many exhibit both structures, but I’d assume that it’s fair to suggest that individual poets experience these two structures, not poetic or artistic movements. I want to suggest that the distinction is helpful as it enables us to operationalize some deeper structural tendencies for all artistic production and aesthetic truth, and subjectivity.

The Psychotic and the Neurotic: What’s the Difference?

The neurotic seeks a harmony that does not exclude dissonance, while the neurotic is able to approach dissonance through analytic procedures and discern the disorder in nature, metaphysics, etc. One always writes for the other under neurotic complexes, but under psychoses, one writes for oneself.

The goal of the psychotic artist is to develop an absence of the morbid state, while the neurotic artist approaches their problems psychoanalytically, constantly trying to figure their problems out through others, by creating characters, for example that represent elaborate problems and the solving of those problems in their art. For the psychotic, the subject is usually a closing, not an opening, as we find in the neurotic. The psychotic artist reproduces an inner universe, which is why the surrealists referred to psychotic art as realist. Yet as Lacan comments, the psychotic is unable to produce poetry. We find with one of the most famous and well-studied cases of psychoses, that of the early twentieth century German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness was the basis of Freud’s formulation of psychosis as a repressed homosexual desire, and for Lacan, psychosis became a result of strained Oedipal relations.

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

Friederich Hölderlin’s psychosis should be read universally. As the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche comments in his authoritative text on Hölderlin, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father: “the question whether he is schizophrenic because he is a poet or a poet because he is schizophrenic loses its meaning, if it ever had one”.[2]

Hölderlin emerges as a young poet and novelist in Germany during a period (1790 – 1796) of ripe intellectual and poetic collaboration, entering as he did on the heels of the Sturm und Drang movement. This late Romantic Movement consisted of poets and philosophers in Germany who placed intense emotions and a focus on inner states at the center of their art.

Key to understanding their rejection of the enlightenment’s rationalism was the concept of Bildung, or the desire for an education rooted in experience, beauty, and artistic maturity. Bildung is the tendency to give form, to ripen oneself. Like all German idealists, bildung is a central goal of the artist, and as Hölderlin comments in his novel the Hyperion, it also presents a dialectic that is traceable in individuals and civilizations. Hölderlin’s obsession with this idea of conflating the inner self with society, revealed the way that his schizophrenia would prevent him from completing this dialectic, it would prevent him from completing the fully formed subject of romantic education and maturity.

By looking closely at Hölderlin’s Oedipal object relations, we see that he suffered from a strained libido because of intense pressure he developed through two figures in his young artistic life: Friederich Schiller and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Oedipal terms, Fichte came to represent the law with his mastery over a perfect metaphysical system, which was the pinnacle of philosophical achievement for the German idealists in pre-French revolution Europe. Hölderlin attended his lectures with great admiration at the precision of his totalizing system of thought. Schiller represents the father for Hölderlin, with his unmatched greatness, poetic achievements, and his ability to go beyond what Fichte was able to achieve in what Hölderlin perceived as an overly rational system of thought.

But Hölderlin placed the law not in Fichte, but in Schiller. Eventually the law (symbolized by Fichte’s metaphysical system) broke down, and Hölderlin fell into what psychobiographer’s refer to as his “Jena depression”. This anxiety of influence built up so intense that he was forced to flee Jena and live with his mother. Jena is a university where he and these figures lived in central Germany. Even though the Jena period gave him access to minds and spirits such as Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Fichte, his life was filled with utter despair. This hole in his psychical composition is what Laplanche has referred to as Hölderlin’s “center” – the place of the dead father.

Fleeing Jena and his depression, Hölderlin would fill this empty center in his psychical life in his penetrating novel, Hyperion. This lack of a center is filled over at times in a completely imaginary relation, which is precisely what ends up leading to his schizophrenic outbursts. At other times, Hölderlin was reliant on a dual system between the law and the father (Fichte and Schiller), what we might refer to as good and bad object relations, using Melanie Klein’s concepts. The lack in his center (distance from Schiller) that Hölderlin continually sought to fill over, became the basis of his concept of proximity.

It is this proximity that Hölderlin would develop towards the center that led his artistic creation following his post Jena period, and it enabled Hölderlin to persist without Schiller’s proximity. As he writes his most famous novel, the Hyperion, his schizophrenia developed rapidly. The psychoanalyst Paul Matussek, the space of the empty center involves the absence of any space between the object of anxiety (in this case Schiller) and the imaginary object. Once Hölderlin escapes the proximity to Schiller, his paternal object collapses and he no longer requires the same degree of proximity. Without Schiller, Hölderlin would have to sublimate the absence of the lack.

We can generalize this specific tendency to fill over the lack of the psychical center to the idea, which we find in Harold Bloom, of the anxiety of influence. Once the psychotic artist is able to develop a certain proximity to the absent center, I would argue that a pride of influence replaces the anxiety of influence. The pride of influence refers to the way in which you can enlarge yourself by admitting others into your own conversation in imaginary ways, even though you have distanced yourself from your source of influence, i.e. even though you have distanced yourself from your anxiety.

Hölderlin, lacking an object to fill his center after fleeing Jena and developing distance from Schiller, sought to fill the center with his mother, which eventually grew to replace the position of the father. In his published correspondence with his mother, it’s clear that Hölderlin sought to fill the empty place with the love from his mother, a love that would expand to represent nature, totality, and salvation in the Hyperion. The obsession to fill the center, yet being at peace with the reality that the center can never be filled opens up Hölderlin’s conception of infinity and the unlimited. This desire to fill the center into a totality was of course embodied by Diotima, who becomes the figure in the Hyperion that Hölderlin would use to cover over the lack of the center.

What we find occurring in the proximity to the center is also highly significant for Hölderlin’s work on the Gods. The Gods as they have come to be understood by humanity are, according to Hölderlin, “another humanity by which humanity devotes itself”, and as such, Gods are invented in order to escape from what is too difficult for man to think – its own contingency in the universe. This inability to think contingency is, one might suggest, the inability for humanity writ large to think the center.

Yet, it was also the twilight and darkness that nature (the mother) aroused in Hölderlin, a darkness that he refused to walk away from in his writing. This passage from the “Thalia Fragment” is telling of the proximity that Hölderlin suffered from in his writing:

Then, one day recently, I saw a boy lying by the roadside. His mother, who was watching, had carefully spread a covering over him, so that he should sleep in soft shadow and not be dazzled by the sun, But the boy did not want to stay there and tore off the covering, and I saw how he tried to look at the friendly light and tried again and again, until his eyes smarted and, weeping, he turned his face to the earth. Poor boy, I thought, others fare no better; I myself almost resolved to desist from this audacious curiosity. But I cannot, I must not! It must out, the great secret that will give me life or death.

This passage shows the conflict of the empty center and the merging of the symbol of the mother enveloping it with that of nature, and the casting of the night all the while refusing to succumb to the tragedy of what it portends.


[1] Thurston, Luke. Re-inventing the Symptom. In the Wake of Interpretation: “The Letter! The Litter!”  Other Press, New York, 2002.

[2] Laplanche, Jean. Hölderlin and the Question of the Father. ELs Editions Publishing, 2007 Pg. 118.

To get free latest updates, just sign up here

Daniel is an activist and philosopher focusing on continental philosophy and psychoanalysis. He is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a blogger for the Huffington Post religion section. You can learn more about his work at

View all contributions by

  • Pigsnout2 January 12, 2012, 9:09 am

    I enjoyed this article, especially its neat, almost blithe division into neurotic and psychotic. Of course, you are not speaking of a clinical diagnosis (Holderin excepted) but of a neurotic and psychotic repetoire– a towards and an away. Towards the self (what Barthes would call the writerly) or away from the self ( an audience oriented art). Neurotic art tends towards orientation towards an audience, what Kenneth Burke defined as form: the building up and the fulfillment of a desire on the part of the auditor (audience). Psychotic art might be defined as a performance towards the self and its empty center which may or may not please an auditor, and if so, only incidently– perhaps in so far as the towards the self has interesting or fantastical aspects– voyearistic worth.By the way, Bloom stolemuch of  his idea of the anxiety of influence from Nietzsche’s idea of the “combat” in his first book .
        I have a minor disagreement with you. I believe in the concept of occupational psychosis (Vebler, and further developed by Burke) in which an occupation becomes grooved in such a way as to render it incapable of perceiving reality through any perspective save through that of its psychosis. Furthermore, I believe in social constructs. In a production oriented economy, neurotic art would tend to predominate. In so far as artists in the romantic period were thrown into a crisis by Kant’s use criteria (art had never before suffered the question of its usefulness), the cult of science, and the inudstrial revolution, it turned away from appeal to an audience in certain of its aspects towards a subjectivity and self-orientation that, with the modernists had two tendencies: to embrace the inhuman, the machine, the process of dynamo (inward gear turning toward the empty center), and a sort of Pater inspired precision– the gem like flame, the idea of art being devoid of romantic nationalism, or the petty tastes of the mob, and turned towards an  ever more perfect and detached refinement of style (Flaubert, James, Bely, Joyce, Stevens). In Joyce we see both the inhuman, the hyping of routines or schtick, mime, and parody (He is a comic afterall) and the Pater-like concept of the artist as priest– the priest who guards and represents the gem-like flame– art as detachment both from self and other– the book about nothing, the book free from both the auditor and the author (Flaubert: “the artist should be like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible). The comic is performative, but his perfomance depends always on discounting, ridiculing, or deconstructing his audience. The priest is at a further remove– detached by his representative aspect. A preist need not have a congregation, but may make his gestures and sacrifices towards the void. Unlike a minister, a priest does not live in relationship, but in process: he performs a ceremony, a routine, a precision of procedures based on the charism of sacrament. This comeeian and priest may have a process we can indeed call psychotic, following some of the tendencies of modern, post-modern and contemporary art:

    1. Obsession as opposed to relationship.
    2. Domminance/submission as opposed to the more neurotic forms of courtship. In this sense, the nuance of courtship is replaced by the certainty of power/victimage: sado-masochism, the cruel and the grotesque as forms of beauty, lieberstod (love/death) emotional affect — a sort of Asbergian tendency to the hyper-literal, towards sociopathic, and algorithmic isolation of object, and event, away from priority and towards radical disconnects (the soul of surrealism and dada is not irony or strangeness, but what Rimbaud called a derangement of the sensse– the absense of priority, and the hypertrophy of incongruity).
    3. Process as value in its own right, or what we might call means as end.
    4. Material as subject.
    5. Fetishism and semiotic invocation, as opposed to agreed upon symbol systems.
    6. A disdain for empathy as being merely a construct, and a belief shared  with Frued that all minds are abormal which leads to the wonderful cultural construct of normative abnormality (being able, for example to place all art in a neurotic or psychotic frame work).
    7. The idea that it is normal for the artist to be abnormative– a sort of necessary sickness. Nietzsche: “Art may be of use as an innoculation as it were– a dose of wickedness injected into an age– to keep a culture from becoming too hopelessly, too rigidly itelf (I am paraphrasing here).

    8. The mass production of the abnormative, and of difference as commodity. In this respect, occupational psychosis would hold that artists, caught in the triumph of modernist, post-modernist, and contemporary art, might be simply playing out the normative grooves and tropes of  abnormality, in which case, individual neurosis and psychosis would be grooved to a standard– an agreed upon mythos and context of the artist as either neurotic or phsychotic. Such an artist might marry, do well in his or her MFA program, be utterly prompt on dead lines, have children, shop at all the most artistic stores, eat the trendy foods (or reject them because they are trendy) and be caught up far more in an Ivan Illich type careerism of the so caledl abnormative– a sort of professional abnormativity.

        Here is where I would not put the emphasis on the self, but on the mass production of self– difference as commodity. I would agree with you on a towards psychosis in the arts, especially as I have been long interested in what I see as an increasing common ground of legal socipathy for the culture as a whole. Both the post-modernist, and the contemporary right wing/fascist embrace sociopathy. In a production oriented economy, neurosis makes sense: one is guilt ridden, and therefore, responsible to the other, producing goods for the other, and believing in self-sacrifice and the idea of “for the good of the society.” In a consumer/service economy, sociopathy makes far more sense, especially with the empty center of which you speak: one is totally entitled, detached from the other except for the other as a possible slave to one’s desires. One shops guilt free, no sooner buys a product than dismisses it for the next thing, and at the center of it all  lies a dull rage and frustration at worst, and a sort of intrinsic emptiness at best which assures further seeking without satisfaction or duration– total process, and psychotic process at that. Under the title of consumer service, all is commodity, mark, potential slave to a self that is, at its core, incapable of satisfaction. This would fit the dynamic of obsession over relationship, process as value in its own right, fetishsism, and the disdain for empathy (someone should compare Ayn Rand’s brand of selfishness and attack on altruism, with Baudelaire’s hatred and disdain for the poor and nietzsche’s concept o christianf resentiment).
         I agree that neurosis and psychosis can co-exist in an artist (Andy Warhol might be a good example). I just think we must see this in terms of fashion, commodity, and the re-grooving of an audience. Audiences for the arts no long seem to enjoy being deliberately entertained. An artist who consciously sets out to entertain or please an audience is likely to be percieved of as slavish and submissive, and thereby worthless– especially in a culture that has made disdain and contempt a semiotic indicator of erotic attraction. There are remnants of neurotic, other based art in terms of social uplift or bonding, but they have a strange algorithmic, asbergian quality to them: one empathizes according to knee jerk self interests, and coded “empathy.” One “shares.” One “relates.” One even becomes fixated on “relating”, but all of it is phatic, virtual. It is phatic empathy to which much modernism and post-modernism set up its attack. I wonder now if it is time to attack phatic sociopathy and the abnormative– the mythos of difference. Both artist and audience have been grooved for over a century towards a voyeur/exhibitionist perspective– and the repetoire of obsession and process. The
     most tired out tropes of art might be exactly those ones we deem avaunt guard. I believe there will be a return to empathy, neo-structuralism and coherant narrative, but it will differ from the past neurosis in that it will be algorithmic, comnfortable within its sense of the virtual, and it will be a hybridization of the self/other dynamic. We are already seeing forms of it in the OWS protest: virtual collectivity, a deliberate attempt at other oriented empathy. As if an android was seeking to become human without being at all conflicted about being an android. We might even see a return to some sense of “universal truth” which the artist serves– albeit I think through the new neuroscience which is finding hard wired mechanisms of seeking, caring, grieving, rage, and play, and even, a possible schema for the origins of langauge that effectively refutes the concept of the arbitrary sign. We shall see. Right now, I thank you for getting me to think. I would suggest you read Julian Jaynes theories on the bi-cameral mind and the origins of modern consciousness. Rather than being schitzoid, there might be an aspect of artist mind that is retrograde in the sense that, especially when the art is based on disconnects from society, might be more primative– more bicameral, with the hemispheres of the brain working as aufditory and visual hallucinations– but not necessarily in a psychois so much as in a conversation between self A and self B.

Leave a Comment