Rumor has it Michelangelo did know a little something about creativity and art. His poem not only adds clarity, but brings to mind a parallel observation by Campbell:
There’s that wonderful picture of Death playing the violin to the artist, by a Swiss painter named Böcklin. The artist is there with the palette and brush, and Death is playing the violin. That means that the eyes should be open to something of more cosmic import than simply the vicissitudes and excitements of your own petty life. Hearing the song that is beyond that of your own individual life cycle is the thing that opens you to wisdom. You can hear it in your life, interpreting it, reading it, not in terms of the calamities or boons of your individual existence, but as a message of what life is.”
“Mythic Reflections: an interview with Joseph Campbell,” by Tom Collins, which appeared a little over a year before Campbell’s own passing.
Neither Michelangelo nor Böcklin had the benefit of psychoanalytic theory; they derived their understanding of the relationship of creativity to death from their own experience. Though Freud may have supplied the terms, the libido and the death drive (aka todestrieb / thanatos / mortido / destrudo, depending on what theorist one references) did not originate with him, but are inseparable from the human experience.
We do seem to live in an endlessly creative universe. One difference between humans and other species, however, would seem to be that we are conscious of (or, perhaps, self-conscious about) the fact that we are going to die.
I’d like to toss into the mix another little nugget from Campbell, excerpted from a yet-to-be-published manuscript I’ve been editing. Asked where myths come from, he responds:
It’s the experience of death that I regard as the beginning of mythic thinking—the actual seeing of someone dead who was alive and talking to you yesterday—dead, cold, beginning to rot. Where did the life go? That’s the beginning of myth.
That’s what happened, I think, in the Paleolithic caves when burials came in. “I thought that was all you were, but now, my gosh, there’s another dimension to this.” And if that can be recognized after death, well, to have it recognized before death, look what it does!
In The Flight of the Wild Gander, that’s what I called the mythological dimension. It’s a little shift of focus, so that you and I sitting here, we are in the foreground of something. Back behind us one life is living in both of us, isn’t it? And consciousness—otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to talk. That’s what’s taken for granted somehow, but in mythology it isn’t taken for granted. The accent goes there, and then all of life takes on new perspective.
It is intriguing that those Paleolithic caves Campbell mentions mark the beginning of a creative explosion, one that continues to propel the human experiment to this very moment.
Another question comes to mind for you. For those of us who may not be artists or mystics, of what practical use is this knowledge? What possible difference does it make to know this? Hearkening back to the beginning of your essay, how does this dynamic relate to one’s personal life experience? Or to the culture at large?
Is this where psychology enters the picture?