(Second edition with foreword by Anna Freud) (Heinemann)

THE foundation of Marion Milner’s writing has remained unchanged since her first book, A Life Of One’s Own (1934), in which she set out to explore the notion that her mind “had thoughts I did not know about.” Her later books are developments of this theme prompted by her experiences in education research and in psychoanalysis – which gave her misgivings about orthodox educational methods and their effect on creativity.

In order to deepen her understanding Mrs. Milner took the unusual step of exploring a long-standing failure in creativity of her own. For years she had been trying to make original paintings and failing to achieve more than a respectable eclecticism and she now resolved to uncover the reasons for her long-standing dissatisfaction. Her Freudian background pointed a way, and she began by devising a procedure for drawing and painting that relied on the Freudian ideas of condensation and free association. The point was not to produce works of art at this stage but to bring into daylight that level of thought which exists in “confused feelings and fragmentary images” and to find out in some way if her creativity was being unconsciously sabotaged.

Mrs. Milner is acutely self-observant and reports her findings with reference to Blake, Traherne and Lao Tzu as well as contemporary psychoanalysts like Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicot. She claims, with a good deal of justification, to have unearthed some of the difficulties facing those painters and poets whose creativity has broken down, difficulties which preoccupy the over-introverted child and from which the over-extraverted child is running away; difficulties which originate in the subjects’ early oral and anal experiences and which leave a legacy of anxiety that focuses on what will happen if they stop their efforts to control their lives through the will and the intellect and trust to the sources of unwilled order that lie within.

The author’s interpretations of her drawings provide a fascinating example of the way psychoanalysis works and are remarkable for their clarity and the ingenuity with which they utilize Klein’s theories. However, Klein is given little credit. Nor, for that matter, is anyone else – an unhappy inadvertence. Can the author really claim to have discovered automatism as a method of drawing? The Surrealist Manifesto was published a quarter of a century before her book and she had been committed to Freud for years. Was it a complete coincidence that she set out to find a new set of ideas about moral education when Klein had provided them in her revolutionary book of 1932? The author’s anxiety to show that she experienced her truths at first hand, within herself, leads to a style of such homogeneity that she does not even give her own earlier books the acknowledgment they ought to have. For instance, on page 146 she claims to have come to realize the inadequacy of efforts to create through the will – but this was the central motif of her first book, A Life of One’s Own. Indeed, the present book can profitably be seen as the elucidation of certain assertions made then, when she discovered that the most fruitful introspection “meant continual expression, not continual analysis” and that there was a wisdom shaping one’s ends and “expressing itself in pictorial symbols.” In spite of all this, the author makes only one passing reference to the revolution that had been going on around her “all the time” and this she leaves until page 141.

Such criticisms, of course, do not invalidate the rich insights this book has to give the art teacher. So, how can the trouvailles of Mrs. Milner’s help in the classroom? First they point to a method of prophylaxis: their implication is that we must encourage young children to paint exactly what they want, accept unconditionally what they produce and help them to recognize and like their own stylistic quirks – so that they develop confidence in their own source of “unwilled order” and build up an artistic ego that is strong enough to weather the storm period of adolescence. Many teachers will know of the reinforcing tendency that operates when this process has begun and one important aspect of the book is that the author uncovers the unconscious reasons for the satisfactions that derive from it.

But what about those whose creativity fails? Ultimately the book has no alternative to offer but psychoanalysis. Mrs. Milner asks the question how much does the capacity to make a whole picture connect with the capacity to be a whole person, but she gives no clear answer, although all through the book she demonstrates analytically the way these dual capacities inform each other. The reality is, however, that to fill such high order abstractions with meaning they must also be considered sociologically and historically and from the viewpoint of the typology of style – a massive task that the author makes no claim to be qualified to tackle. But her avoidance of sociological considerations seriously impedes the reader’s understanding in several directions: for what part of her urge to paint was socially derived and what part of her self-criticism that followed? We all know the effect of real or imaginary audiences watching us and analysts are not immune to that experience either – while the idea that there is something particularly exquisite about the experience of “wholeness” has hovered around a certain cultural group for at least a century.

As an analyst Mrs. Milner works by changing the internal environment but teachers work principally through the social situation they engineer in the classroom. It is this fact that makes one feel there existed an answer to her problem quite different from the one she tried. And the ironical fact is that in the end the author accepts this too, for in spite of all her insights she had to find a teacher: someone of course who knew what she knew but whose function, I suggest, was to give social sanction to what she did and to reassure her that her offerings were acceptable actually and not just potentially; someone, in short, acting to legitimize which marks might be characterized as her own “individual” marks – a job that with a highly sophisticated subject could be difficult and even arbitrary (just how arbitrary might be shown in a paper on “style and Freud’s mechanisms of defense,” whereas this book is really on content and those mechanisms). It seems to me that by taking a teacher the author demonstrates the importance, for many inhibited would-be artists, of the safe social situation where one is not afraid to commit a solecism – a safety similar to that which the mother provides for the small child or which analysts provide for their patients, but a safety that even in the one-to-one analytic situation is not always easy to establish or to maintain.

Mrs. Milner’s analysis is extraordinarily astute and should be read by painters and teachers alike, but she has no panacea. No one will be surprised at that.

  1. Condensation: the occurrence of several distinct meanings in one image, especially in dreams.
  2. Free association: allowing ideas, words or images to follow each other without conscious direction.
  3. Mechanisms of defense: ways in which we avoid recognizing impulses that would make us feel anxious.