The Creativity, Introspection, and Pacifism of Andrew Brink

Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College and the Psychohistory Forum

Brink is the author of Loss and Symbolic Repair: A Study of Some English Poets (l977), Creativity as Repair: Bipolarity and Its Closure (l982) — a study using Fairbairn’s account of the split and repressed ego as starting point for consideration of what creativity may be about, Bertrand Russell: The Psychobiography of a Moralist (l989), and Obsession and Culture: A Study of Sexual Obsessions in the Modern Novel.  (l996).  His first edited book was The Life of Reverend Mr. George Trosse, Written by Himself (l714) (l974) — a spiritual autobiography of a non-conformist minister who recovered from alcoholism and delusions, an important English historic example of diagnosing and treating mental illness, and he co-edited The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. I (1983) and Vol. XII (1985).

PHE: Please tell us about your early childhood.

AWB: I was born by Caesarean section.  The important fact is that my mother almost died in giving birth and was debilitated for the first year of my life.  Nursing was sporadic and mostly unsuccessful, despite her wish to give the best maternal care.  Fortunately she regained full health and entered mothering with dedication, but the risk had been frightening, as she later told me.  It is evident why, when I later discovered John Bowlby’s attachment theory of anxious attachment, my reaction was “Aha!  This is it!”

PHE: Tell me about your illustrious ancestry and its impact on your interest in history.  What impact did your Dutch and British ancestors have on your development?

AWB: Family history and genealogy have always fascinated me.  My father made certain that I knew all my Canadian relations and remained connected to them, as did my mother.  My mother’s Scottish forebears, who began settling in Ontario in the 1830s, were well documented and I was introduced to them early.  My mother was one of three daughters in the third generation of a Woodstock industrial family. Her grandfather, Robert White-law from Roxboroughshire, Scotland, learned the foundry trade near Hamilton and in l856 established the Whitelaw Foundry at Beachville.  Upon moving it to Woodstock in l870, he became the city’s leading manufacturer of heavy machinery — steam engines, turbines, and, eventually, roller mills for wheat in western Canada.  My grandfather carried on the business, but as his daughters did not take up careers as industrial managers, after my grandfather’s death, my father sold the Whitelaw Foundry.  As the only male descendant, and named for the family, I was nonetheless not destined to inherit the business.

My father was descended from late 18th-century Upper Canadian (Ontario) pioneers from New Jersey and New York; he was born and brought up on a farm near Woodstock (west of Toronto).  I was slower to realize my father’s colonial New York heritage, although it, too, was well documented.  Pursuing New Netherland family history has become a passion, and I assisted Laurel Shanafelt Powell compile A Brink BookSome Descendants of Lambert Huyberts and Hendrikje Cornelisse… (539 pages + charts, privately published, 1996).  Lambert Huyberts Brink and his family left Wageningen, Gelderland in 1660 and settled to farm in the mid-Hudson Esopus territory, now Hurley, New York.  From 1666 he was ex-Director Peter Stuyvesant’s designated farmer on some of the most productive lands in the colony.  The presence of Dutch settlers, however essential to food production, was a disaster for the indigenous people.  My family were involved in one of the worst genocidal wars, the Second Esopus War of l663.

Historical studies, such as Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes (l993), force a new realism about such episodes in the European settlement in North America.  Using psychohistorical precepts, I am trying to go beyond conventional history to discover the motives of certain ancestors whose lives were formative in the colony.  The first of these is my “The Ambition of Roeloff Swartwout, Schout of Esopus,” (de Halve Maen: Magazine of the Dutch Colonial Period in America, Vol. LXVII, No. 3, Fall, l994).
A second historical reconstruction, “The Van Schoonhovens: Enterprising Immigrants,” will appear in the Spring, 1999 issue of de Halve Maen.  From 1651-1654 my ancestor Claes Hendricks Van Schoonhoven from Utrecht was one of the first developers in the Wall Street area of Manhattan, and he continued in Fort Orange (Albany, New York).  Briefly successful, Claes’s self-aggrandizing drive took him beyond his financial means and eventually beyond ability to manage his multiple holdings in Albany.  Over-extended and in debt, he died at 32.  This is really a psychohistorical reconstruction but without any theoretical trappings.
These forebearers excite and unsettle me because of their assumed right of conquest and displacement.  They exhibit a state of mind which has gone on to dominate and despoil nature at a rate which should have been predictable.  The family connections appearing in A Brink Book are but a small sample of New Netherland, but they are fully enough documented to allow some conclusions about states of mind leading to rampant development in North America.

PHE: Some Psychohistory Forum researchers have been struggling with the issue of identification with a particular parent and achievement.  In your experience and life, are high achievers more identified with their fathers, or mothers?

AWB: Both parents broke ties with Protestant (mainly Calvinist) upbringings, angering some members of their families by becoming “freethinking” agnostics.  They left rural and small-city Ontario, Canada, for the U.S.A. to join a progressive elite then forming in the biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  They were attracted to progressive ideas but not to religion, so I was brought up to be sceptical of revealed religion.  As a child, I was given Darwin, Huxley, and H.G. Wells to read on evolutionary theory.  When I began thinking for myself about religion, I was attracted to the Society of Friends (Quakers) mainly because of their “peace testimony.”  I still have strong sympathy with the “universalist” sort of Quakers, although my practice is Buddhist Vepassena meditation.

My parents remained together in a long but unbalanced marriage.  My father far outpaced my mother who suffered neglect and ill health, and predeceased him by many years (I was age 30 at the death of my mother and 52 at the death of my father).  My mother loyally helped my father socially and raised his children, but she did not share his science.  Starved for affection she turned to me, and later to my sister, adopted when I was six, for companionship.  She had good women friends, clubs, and social causes, but her real needs and hopes were not met.  She loved her house and garden; she read widely, valued historic architecture, and surrounded herself with antiques, mainly from her family.  She created an exquisite little realm of house and garden, but it was emotionally empty except for associations to the past and to her children.  My father had his farm to which he was devoted, and he ran it as a business through a manager.  My mother was little interested in the farm, preferring her rock garden and wood lands at the Madison (Nakoma), Wisconsin, house.  She often turned to me in her emotional neediness; gentle and bright, she was good company.  But the need for emotional closeness became too much, and I felt impinged upon, especially as her health worsened.  My own two serious childhood illnesses are, in part, attributable to having internalized tensions between my parents; in both sicknesses, my recovery depended on my mother’s intensive care.

We were all devastated by her breast cancer when I was about 15.  She had a massive mastectomy and survived, but recovery was exceedingly difficult.  My father was deeply frightened but, always reliable, he saw us through the crisis.  I was shocked by what had happened, and was not as willingly available to my mother as was my sister.  I had powerful empathy but also withdrew as never before.  My mother’s need for me to “witness” her scarred chest was not unwelcome, but it was emotionally laden and still reverberates through my imaginative life in ways needing exploration.  A long developing ambivalence became a feature of my inner life and has remained so.  There was enough residual awareness from my childhood analytic treatment for me to realize that I was over-stimulated, and I began reading psychoanalysis at about this time.  But the reading was sporadic (centered on Neurotica, a magazine from New York), and I knew that my imagination was activated in worrying ways.  I began looking for correlatives in the fine arts and literature.  This pursuit has been of long duration, and I was finally able to make a statement about the obsessive male imagination and literary creativity in Obsession and Culture: A Study of Sexual Obsession in the Modern Novel, with studies of H.G. Wells, Hermann Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles and John Updike.  I have not forsaken my mother — all that she valued is what I value — but she is “anxiously” internalized in ways that are still motivational and need to be better understood.

The urge to study creativity is thus attributable to anxious attachment to my mother, but the will to do so intellectually is from my father.  He was always interested in his own creativity in science, having been one of Anne Roe’s subjects in “A Psychologist Examines 64 Eminent Scientists” (Scientific American, Vol. 187, l952: 21-25).  He knew from Roe’s findings that early loss of mother was an important variable in the lives of men who distinguished themselves as biological scientists.  He had been unprepared for the death of his mother when he was 11, and it seems that he never fully mourned her loss or forgave her for abandoning him and the other children still at home.  He neglected to mention her in his autobiography for the National Academy of Sciences, and only with the greatest difficulty was he persuaded to have one of her accomplished landscape drawings framed for hanging in his house.

Early photographs of my father show an isolated, melancholic young man whose intentions cannot be read.  Over the years he relaxed and mellowed, but his intellect was always formidable, driven by great energy.  He read widely and had liberal democratic sympathies.  Scepticism about received opinions and dogmas was encouraged, as was critical inquiry into anything interesting.  Books of all kinds abounded in the household, and there was good music along with access to theater, films, concerts, lectures, and an endless succession of extraordinarily gifted people visiting or staying with us.  But he was a puritan agnostic with razor critical abilities.  As editor of Genetics, he could loudly condemn the ineptness of a submission, then see its merits and spend hours re-writing its highly technical language.  His graduate students revered him, but they were a chosen elite (he taught only graduate students).  He would go to any lengths for them if he thought they were capable of good experimental science.  He had no time for the second-rate in any part of life, and growing up with such a father could be daunting.  Unclear statements or, worse, evasions, were not allowed to slip by, and whatever I thought I knew, he knew more.  Often I felt slighted and inadequate as I wasn’t really interested in the abstractions of genetics, or even in plant breeding to which he devoted much effort.  But I spent a lot of time with my father, pollinating corn and alfalfa, and working alongside him at his farm — on his own terms, to be sure, but I enjoyed it more than I let on.  I couldn’t agree with his second marriage, yet it did not seriously interfere with our relationship which went on improving until the end of his life.

I realize now that my father’s quirky somatic symptoms and moods were a function of depressiveness never worked through.  He knew he needed treatment of some sort but never quite got around to it, realizing perhaps that in part it would be psychological.  But he was always keen to know more theory of creativity, even while resisting its implications.  I am deeply grateful to have had such a father and still miss him with an almost physical ache.  My Loss and Symbolic Repair (on poets John Donne, Thomas Traherne, William Cowper, John Keats and Sylvia Plath) was a groping attempt to understand the sort of emotional predicament from which my father suffered and which had consequences for our family life.

PHE: Tell us about your forthcoming book, The Creative Matrix.

AWB: The book is subtitled Anxiety and the Origin of Creativity, and is projected to be published by Peter Lang later in 1999.  This study shows how Freudian and Kleinian theories of creativity are giving way to an attachment model, owing to the research of John Bowlby and others into how anxiety arises in human development.  We are entering an era of rapprochement between psychoanalysis, neurobiology and attachment theory, with important implications for how the creative arts are best understood.  They are seen as attempted self-healing and ego repair in circumstances of developmental and relational impairments.  The book offers a theory of creativity as adaptational for the avoidant-controlling personality organization typically found in our culture.

It has implications for how group fantasies are formed and how they may be modified.  The book’s historical section reviews the main object-relations theories of creativity to find common pathways and to show how attachment theory enhances and sharpens their insights.  Readers of my article, “Creativity Without Dual Training” [Clio’s Psyche, Vol. 4, 2, l997:54-56], will appreciate the reasons why I continue to pursue the question of artistic creativity, and how it helps me to work with the internalizations of my mother and father.

PHE: You have devoted much of your scholarly life to the study of creativity.  Do you think your interest in artistic creativity is deepened by your strong sense, as reflected in that excellent article, on missing out on an adult psychoanalysis?  Do you think this may have heightened your fascination with analysts and seeking them out in research and at universities?

AWB: Probably I’m looking for what I know I need, or at least would benefit from, and have been “taking rides” on analytic insights not experienced myself.  I am very aware of this lack of direct transferential experience of myself in certain areas of obsessiveness.  I have not decided whether my further work depends on doing something about this.

PHE: How do you see psychohistory developing in the next decade?  What can we as psychohistorians and psychobiographers do to strengthen our impact in academia?

AWB: It is unrealistic to look to universities to support psychohistory and psychobiography.  The study of motivation in history and individual actions is discouraged.  The “why” of history is still looked for in economic, political, and religious causality, not in personal motivation and group fantasy arising from modes of childrearing.

My pessimism arises from mismanagement of a crisis in the Bertrand Russell Editorial Project at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, many years ago.  I might have known that my interest in Russell’s depression and Don Juanism would lead to conflict with other editors and the university, but I was unprepared for the explosion over the Introduction to Vol. XII of The Collected Papers.  My section contained some of Russell’s most confessional essays written early in the century, grouped around his famous “Mysticism and Logic,” a cry of pain at an indifferent cosmos.  I spoke of his “existential anxiety” and “divided self” — indicating that there were psychobiographical questions but not offering to answer them in the Introduction.  This departure from portraying Russell as “the Lord of Reason” brought a near psychotic reaction from my historian co-editor which wrecked our working relationship.  While I was away, he persuaded the ambitious post-doctoral assistant to rewrite my Introduction and they tried to pass it off on the advisory editors.  The rewriting was done in secret and strings were pulled to give it official status.  The ruse was discovered and a modicum of justice was done, with the post-doctoral assistant fired and my original version mainly reinstated.

But I knew that the administration’s sympathy, and that of some on the advisory editorial board, was really with censorship.  The censorship had been so blatant that it was easily exposed, but what it represented was the will of the working editorial group and the university with its huge financial investment in the project.  Nothing suggesting that Russell had been a conflicted and, in some ways, destructive personality, could be tolerated.  I was told that if I must I could publish my opinions — as I did in Bertrand Russell: A Psychobiography of a Moralist — but they would not be welcome in The Collected Papers.  Thus, intimidation and muzzling made continued work impossible.  My resignation from the editorial project was accepted.  I was warned in a legal letter from the university president not to mention personalities.  To this day I don’t think it safe to speak in detail of the actual psychopathology underlying this eruption.

How is that for encouraging academic freedom?  This is only a small vignette of the academic world, but I regard it as symptomatic of the terror of emotion and over-control of intropunitive tendencies, which limit what can be attempted in a university.  Editing Russell opened my eyes to what is wrong with universities and why psychohistory and psychobiography are unlikely to find much reception in them.

PHE: How effective, compared to other academic education, was the training you coordinated at the Psychoanalytic Thought Program of the University of Toronto from 1988-1993?

AWB: The Humanities and Psychoanalytic Thought Program which I coordinated at Trinity College, University of Toronto, is a partial exception to the ban on study of emotion in the Humanities.  It has done better than any other initiative of which I know to break the taboo on inquiry into the genesis and operation of emotion in the study of history, religion, and literature.  It upholds psychobiographical inquiry and psychoanalytic understanding of all of human activity.  But it is still an undergraduate program centered on thought, sponsoring thinking about impulse and action via the categories of psychoanalytic theory.  Contending psychoanalytic theories is its most active area. Applied psychoanalysis need not bring in the question of who is doing the applying and why.  The program lacks an experiential component, other than the personal analyses a few of its students pursue and bring into their work.  Various attempts to make the program more experiential have met with resistance from other professors, at least in my time.  The program is chronically underfunded and cannot appoint its own faculty, other than the coordinator.  It draws upon courses throughout the university related to psychoanalysis and has very little control over them.  It runs on the enthusiasm and good will of a few committed professors, but the academic departments take little notice of its alternative way of seeing their phenomena and research techniques.  The program is a brave little sideshow with “business as usual” all around it.  I was exceptionally lucky to be part of this pioneering venture — it showed me that courage to explore the inner world is not entirely lacking in academia, but not to expect big changes soon.  I did all I could to advance psychohistory with prepared students and heard some good seminar papers.  Such undergraduate programs are the best possible way to advance the claims of psychohistory, and should be identified for visits by speakers and other approaches.

PHE: Your academic life and residency in Canada was shaped in part by your unwillingness to be subject to the U.S. draft during the Korean War.  How did you develop that stance, and what are your thoughts and feelings on war and peace today?

AWB: A leading feature of my growing up during World War II was its pervasiveness in all areas of life.  My parents were eager that the war be won against Hitler, having observed the situation in Berlin where my father did post-doctoral work in genetics.  They were apprehensive at what they saw of pre-fascist politics and were deeply upset by the persecution of Jews.  (Later my father helped Jewish scientists to relocate in U.S. universities.)  They had also lived in Britain and were distressed when London was blitzed.
As young Canadians during World War I, my parents had witnessed the terrible deaths and mutilations of their contemporaries, including family members.  My mother, in particular, believed that war is seldom, if ever, justifiable.  So I was brought up to see war as evil.  As a leading geneticist, my father was close to the nerve center of American science, and he knew a number of the physicists who built the A- and H-bombs.  He did not vilify them, but neither did he agree with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was acutely aware of the long-term somatic and genetic damage done by nuclear weapons testing and usage.  He called the H-bomb an “obscenity” and, although never high-profile, he backed U.S. scientists’ resistance to the arms race with Soviet Russia.  It is little wonder that from an early age I should have become involved in the peace movement.

I believe that there is no advance towards an understanding of what promotes a more peaceful world other than by psychohistory and psychobiography.  Human destructiveness in political strife and wars, and attacks on the environment, cannot be understood in the current categories of political science, economics, and history.  The study of motivation, the “why” of history, is essential.  The style and force of motivations depend upon dominant childrearing practices in the society under consideration.  The concept of how modes of childrearing produce characteristic “psychoclasses” is powerful, but more discriminating use by psychohistorians must be made of developmental theory beyond Freud.  Attachment theory is redefining understanding of mother-infant anxious attachments that lead to adult maladaptive and destructive motivations.  The developmental distortions of potentially “good” human nature must be understood in studies of how anxious attachments aggregate as fantasies, social institutions, and political movements.  The work of Erik Erikson, Alice Miller and Lloyd deMause is foundational, and deMause is just now in his most creative period of synthesis.

I would hope to see integration with experimentally attested psycho-biology and revised psychoanalytic theory in order to stop the drift of psychohistory away from main lines of inquiry.  It will take attachment theorists too long to come to social applications unless psychobiographers and psychohistorians force the issue.  I am myself more a psycho-cultural investigator and would urge attention to works of the creative imagination as indications of how members of psychoclasses express themselves.  They do so in ways that reveal dominant developmental maladaptations, resulting from abusive and anxious parental attachments, and calling out for correctives.  Obsessive-compulsive psychopathologies are especially prominent in Western art and literature and their developmental background needs fuller study.

PHE: Have you had any special mentors?

AWB: Special mentors in thinking about these questions have been the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr and the literary critic David Holbrook in the United Kingdom.  The life-stories of analysts such as Ronald Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, and Donald Winnicott show that childhood trauma is modifiable with analytic work, and that forces of healing and repair are present to mobilize.  John Bowlby exemplified the courage of pressing ahead with insights despite the disapproval of one’s profession.  The book that best captures the importance of Bowlby’s attachment theory for psychobiographers and psychohistorians is Felicity de Zulueta, From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness (1993).

PHE: How do you see the human condition?

AWB: The human situation is grim but not hopeless if pathbreaking lives such as those mentioned above are taken as guides by therapists, scholars, and educators.  Liberal humanism needs a tough new program of psychobiographical and psychohistorical studies, but I’m not sure just where they will come from if not the training institutes and universities.  I was fortunate to have the support of several members of McMaster University’s Department of Psychiatry (where for 10 years I was Associate Member) during battles in other sectors of the university.  I know that there are people of ability and integrity in the mental health profession who should be engaged in psychohistory to meet their wider social concerns — but how is this going to happen?

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