Anthony Storr (1920-2001)

Andrew Brink, Psychohistory Forum Research Associate

The late English psychoanalyst and writer Anthony Storr would have preferred being a musician or composer.  Storr wrote, “All my ambitions outside psychiatry were concerned with music, and I still regret that I was not gifted enough to pursue music professionally.”  (“Psychotherapy,” Perspective Series, Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Vol. 10, June, 1986, p. 143)  Accomplished with piano and viola, Storr had the largest collection of classical recordings I have ever seen.  At that time, Anthony and his second wife Catherine Peters lived in the Vale of Health, Hampstead, a village now part of London. Later they moved to Oxford, where their house was equally welcoming and filled with music.

Mozart and Handel are appreciated in his first book, The Integrity of the Personality (1960), the creativity of composers is prominent in The Dynamics of Creation (1972), and his Music and the Mind (1992) is a full enquiry into the nature and meaning of music. To Storr, music was the highest and most healing of the arts:

We are all deprived; we are all disappointed; and therefore we are all, in some sense idealists. The need to link the real and the ideal is a perpetual tension, never resolved so long as life persists, but always productive of new, attempted solutions. The pattern of tension followed by resolution is perhaps best discerned in music.  (Dynamics,p. 237)

This statement linking creativity with psychological healing is the essence of what Storr had to say about the arts, but it was not very agreeable to scholars and critics. I remember contacting, for an interview, on Anthony’s behalf, an eminent biographer of Franz Liszt or Robert Schumann only to be told in effect, “Psychoanalysis has nothing to say about musical genius.”

There was something of the inscrutable psychoanalyst about Storr and, while warmly attentive to others, he didn’t talk much about himself.  His father was Vernon Faithful Storr, Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey in London. Anthony was 20 when his father died, leaving the family unable to pay for continuation at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Anthony had gone in 1939 following a classical preparation at Winchester College.  His tutor at Christ’s was the physicist and novelist C.P. Snow, who seems to have taken over as surrogate father.  “I had to go to Snow to seek permission to attend my father’s funeral.”  Snow saw merit in the “diffident and insecure young man,” finding college funds to help Storr on his way.  (His father’s friends found further funding for medical school, where Anthony followed an elder brother.)  When he remarked to Snow that he thought he might like to be a psychiatrist, the reply, “I think you’d be very good at it,” shaped his entire future.  (Storr, “C.P. Snow,” Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind,1988, p. 105; “Psychotherapy,” p. 142)  Reflecting on Christ’s College, Storr says, “It was a marvelously exhilarating and different atmosphere from the Victorian, clerical household in which I had been reared.”  (Churchill’s, p. 106)

Storr’s personal analysis was Jungian, and he remained loyal to Jung, although moving away from the fractious politics of London Jungians.  A remark of Storr’s on Jung applies equally to himself: “Jung … discovered, in childhood, that he could no longer subscribe to the orthodox Protestant faith in which he had been reared by his father, who was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church.  It might be alleged that the whole of Jung’s later work represents his attempt to find a substitute for the faith which he had lost.”  (The School of Genius, 1988, p. 192, published as Solitude: Return to the Self in the U.S.) For someone schooled in Latin and Greek, and whose English heritage was ancient Norse (Storr means “big”), the tug of Jungian mythology must have been great.  Jung’s ideas of the psyche as self-regulating, of “individuation” as the self’s life task, and especially of the possibility of creative “active imagination” as a way of preventing mental illness, are found throughout Storr’s own writings.
Yet Jung’s obscurity as a writer, his failure to say much about the childhood origins of emotional disorder, and his “deep distrust of women”, beginning with his mother, made Storr wary.  (Storr, Jung, 1973, p. 8)  In The Integrity of the Personality, Storr explained that while he had been trained “in the school of Jung,” “It has long seemed to me probable that the analytical attitude to the patient is far more important than the school to which the analyst belongs….”  (p. 20)  The intellectual freedom of Cambridge and the empiricism of medical training set up critical habits of mind.  Had Jung written more positively about music, Storr might have been less skeptical over all.  Instead of entering the great cathedral of Jungian mythography, Storr set out to consider fairly every possible version of psychodynamic theory that might bear on his profession of psychotherapist — and illuminate his lifelong questioning about creativity.

Storr’s contribution to the psychobiography of creative persons is substantial, yet he never wrote a full-scale biography of any creative person.  Unlike Erik Erikson on Luther and Gandhi, or John Bowlby on Darwin, Storr shied away from full-scale biographical inquiry into any of the figures who fascinated him. One would have expected a biography of, say, the composer Robert Schumann, whose bipolar affective disorder had been misunderstood. Instead, Storr offered psychobiographical vignettes to support his argument about creativity as attempted psychological integration. Many capsule biographies are stunningly insightful and stay in the reader’s mind better than the general discussions. Memorable, for example, is Storr’s estimate in The Dynamics of Creation of the novelist Balzac’s bipolar disorder driving his work, or the strange saga of Ian Fleming, who grew up without a father to become the creator of the hyper-masculine James Bond character.

Deftly constructed psychobiographical sketches abound in Storr’s books.  In his acclaimed The School of Genius (or, Solitude), there are more-or-less developed glimpses of the historian Edward Gibbon, the explorer Admiral Byrd, the painter Goya, the Baptist preacher John Bunyan, the writers Dostoevsky and Kafka, the children’s writer Beatrix Potter, and many others.  The effect is enriching yet frustrating, as many of the psychological insights deserve expansion and documentation.  But Storr was writing for an educated general readership, not for the specialist, and compromises were necessary. He was feeding the huge appetite for what psychoanalysis had to say when applied to topics of general cultural interest.  To be fair, Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind contains three more extended studies: of Winston Churchill’s creative management of his depression (inter-estingly, both Churchill and Hitler were skilled painters); Franz Kafka’s struggle, through writing fiction, with his sense of victimhood; and physicist Isaac Newton’s schizoid detachment and compensatory refuge in the realm of numbers. Admirable for changing the educated layperson’s perspective on these political and cultural heroes, Storr’s psychobiographical essays were probably not developed enough to be given the serious consideration they deserve. The mini-biography method was used again in evaluating the lives and works of prophets (ranging from Ignatius of Loyola to Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff, and Rajneesh) in Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (1996).

Storr probably did not realize that such brevity, however clinically exacting, would not persuade professional biographers to learn from psychoanalysis and psychiatry. While his wife Catherine Peters wrote outstanding literary biographies of William Thackeray and Victorian writer Wilkie Collins, Storr stayed with the psychobiographical vignette in the service of theory, because it was how he thought.  I remember being at dinner in London’s Saville Club with Anthony Storr and his friend, the analyst Charles Rycroft.  Almost forgetting my presence, they fell to discussing a patient, only to realize that he was probably recognizable. Having recently read the novels of William Golding, I had recognized him but said nothing. Their exchange was in brief, cryptic statements, undeveloped and without much context, focusing on psychopathology. Later Storr wrote about Golding’s fiction in “Intimations of Mystery”, but he had said much more that evening about the seriousness of the author’s disorder.  (Churchill’s, Chapter 8)

My relationship with Anthony Storr began when I contacted him shortly after the publication of his Dynamics of Creation in 1972. It was exactly the book I wanted and needed for my own understanding of creativity, the major area of my research.  Not long after, while my wife and I were on sabbatical in London, we met and remained in touch ever after. When back in the UK, we found Anthony and Catherine in Oxford and sometimes met in London; otherwise the relationship was by correspondence. When I had difficulties in the Bertrand Russell Editorial Project at McMaster University, Anthony was a great help to me as a listener. He always liked and upheld my writings, working to help me find a larger audience. I tried, without success, to bring Anthony to McMaster as a visiting professor of psychiatry. Anthony supported my decision to take the Toronto offer to Coordinate the Humanities and Psychoanalytic Thought Programme and eventually he came there and lectured my students on Freud.  He would have accepted other invitations had his health allowed.

Storr made repeated efforts to think and write psychohistorically, but with debatable results. It will be said that he missed the essence of psychohistory in the changing modes of childrearing, and that he underestimated the decisive role of child abuse and trauma in producing adult destructiveness. Although aware of Lloyd deMause’s writings, he made no attempt to engage with them directly. Nonetheless, in his own way, Storr addressed the same questions that occupy psychohistorians. World War II had jolted Storr into asking why violence became rampant after the comparatively tranquil post-World War I England of his youth. As he explains, “My history of asthma precluded my being ‘called up’ to serve in the Forces; but I saw something of one aspect of war by being in London for some of the worst air-raids.” Although finding fire-watching on the roof of Westminster Hospital exhilarating, “My adolescent pacifism inclined me toward a profession which demanded that I should repair and heal rather than maim and kill.” (Churchill’s, p. 142)  From 1941 to 1944 he therefore remained in medical school, preparing to be a psychiatrist.
His writings on healing and “repair” are undoubtedly better developed than those on conflict and violence, but Human Destructiveness, first published in 1972 and updated for re-publication in 1991, still deserves consideration. As he says at the outset:

the original newsreels of Belsen and the other concentration camps constituted the most shocking experience to which [I] had ever been exposed; even more shocking than the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Those concentration camp pictures profoundly altered my view of so-called civilized human nature. (p. 4f.; see also “Why Human Beings Become Violent,” Churchill’s, Chapter 13)

Since so many men and women were needed to run concentration and extermination camps, it seemed unlikely that all were psychopathic. How could Germany, a cultured nation, perform such barbaric cruelty against its Jewish citizens, let alone start a world war?

Admitting to “squeamishness,” Storr nevertheless read many accounts of concentration camps, hoping to find clues to the cruelties he could hardly believe. The book is therefore somewhat labored, dutifully considering meanings for the term “aggression,” and drawing on the writings of others to make his case. Deciding that “aggression” is necessary to maintaining life, Storr is hard put to explain vicious cruelty and destructiveness without limits. By arguing that neglect and disparagement of efforts at self-realization may produce excessive aggression, Storr tentatively joins the “frustration-aggression” theoretical camp.  The book is strongest in describing aggressive personality disorders, sadomasochism, and paranoia, but it lacks an explanation for the prevalence of paranoiac fantasy in groups such as Nazis which persecute minorities and make war.  Hitler was diabolically successful in exploiting historic paranoiac fears of Jews, but why did so many Germans go along with him? Storr’s discussion of cruel and neglectful childrearing, leading to abuse, is exemplary but too brief. (Human Destructiveness, pp. 102-105)  There is no mention of Alice Miller’s brilliant analysis of authoritarian and punitive German childrearing in relation to Hitler’s racist politics and war-making. (For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence appeared in English in 1983.)  Nor does Storr mention the many studies of the rise of pathological politics in Germany that have appeared in the Journal of Psychohistory.  The chapter on “Sado-masochism” in his Sexual Deviation (1964) would have been a good starting point for a historical analysis of what happened in inter-war Germany, but there are better studies of human destructiveness than Storr’s, for instance Felicity De Zulueta’s From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness (1993).  De Zulueta’s grasp of theory lacks Miller’s historical specificity, but it incorporates her thinking and gives us the most convincing guide to psychohistory yet published: “violence can be seen as the manifestation of attachment gone wrong.”  (p. 188)

Even if his formulations were not always successful, Storr accurately sought trends in the social and cultural applications of psychoanalysis.  His discriminating intelligence worked through competing theories and claims to help bemused readers.  “I am neither temperamentally nor intellectually fitted to be a scientist,” he wrote, but Storr was quick to understand and articulate in layman’s terms both psychoanalytic theory and psychiatric research. (Churchill’s, p. 142) He was among the first to explain clearly the difficult post-Freudian psychodynamic theory of Ronald Fairbairn, and he wrote with sympathetic lucidity about both Jung and Freud, from whose differing ideas of human nature dissent became rife. That “Neither Jung nor the psychoanalysts consider the possibility that man’s inner world of myth and fantastic image may be both a residue of infancy and also adaptive in the biological sense….” was a view Storr expanded in his writings on creativity and therapy.  (Jung, p.74)  Freud also missed the primacy of developmental adaptations of children to parents or caregivers. “With Freud, sex comes first, attachment afterwards. With John Bowlby, now established as the most important of the object-relations theorists, secure attachment comes first, sex afterwards.” (Freud,1989, p. 112)  Storr repeatedly paid tribute to Bowlby’s redirection of psychodynamic theory, noting how the research he inspired is giving “a much better idea of how far early environmental stresses or deficits are really responsible for later psychiatric problems.” (Churchill’s, p. 144)  Bowlby is further commended in The School of Genius (pp. 8-11, etc.), and when Bowlby died in 1990, Storr wrote a fine appreciation, concluding, “Posterity will recognize that John Bowlby’s contributions to psychiatric knowledge and to the care of children mark him as one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the twentieth century.” (“John Bowlby” typescript for “Munk’s Roll,” p. 2)

Yet no more than Freud or Jung could Bowlby satisfy Storr’s requirements for cultural nourishment.  As a rigorous scientist setting out to prove the power of “attachment” to explain normal and abnormal development, Bowlby slighted its linguistic and symbolic dimension. Bowlby does “less than justice to the importance of work, to the emotional significance of what goes on in the mind of the individual when he is alone, and, more especially, to the central place occupied by imagination in those who are capable of creative achievement.”  (School, p. 15)  Storr wrote about the implications of early parental loss for later creativity and did his best to follow attachment research as reported by Mary Main and others, but differential potentialities for creativity in different anxious attachment styles (ambivalent, avoidant and dismissing) are not mentioned, leaving the field open for further study of creativity as an adaptive response to anxiety.  Instead, Storr followed the lead of D.W. Winnicott’s paper on “The Capacity to Be Alone” (1958) to recommend reflective solitude, in which aesthetic contemplation is enhanced, over excessive concern with good relationships and sexuality.  The book resonated with those wearied by the “permissive society” but unwilling to affirm right-wing dogmatism about return to a repressive sexual morality and traditional roles in the family.  In his later years, Storr saw a place for contemplative enrichment, which didn’t exclude other people but recognized their need for similar disengaged experiences.

Storr’s challenge to the Humanities has been largely disregarded. Literary and art critics, together with biographers, are disinclined to re-import questions of personality formation and creativity back into the arts, whence they were banished long ago. Not being trained in modern literary or art historical studies, Storr probably did not realize the strength of the ban on states of mind or emotion. From T. S. Eliot who argued that the creative state-of-mind is separable from the poem itself; to The Personal Heresy: A Controversy, a debate in 1939 between literary critics C.S. Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard; to Northrop Frye’s literature as an ever differentiating “order of words”; and to Michel Foucault’s and Roland Barthes’ finally proclaiming “the death of the author,” the trend has been away from psychology of literary creation.  Backed by psychoanalysis, Storr argued just the reverse and, when affirming attachment theory, he accepted the “personal heresy” without realizing his “error.”  Had his theory of artistic creativity as the artist’s attempted self-integration by symbolic means been put in terms familiar to academics, he might have been received more warmly.  To assert that “the motive power of much creative activity is emotional tension of one kind or another,” that is, tension in the creating personality, runs counter to what is acceptable in the profession where “texts” are sovereign.  (Dynamics, p. 191)  When Freudian criticism faded in literary criticism, it was replaced by the arcane theories of Freudian interpreter Jacques Lacan, whose doctrine that the “unconscious is structured like a language” suited literary critics far better than psychobiography could.  The flight in the Humanities from affect became so determined and pervasive that Storr’s unprofessional protestations were easily evaded.  The criticism of David Holbrook in England and Louise De Salvo in the United States illustrates what Storr was after, but it is a rare exception to the recent reign of “theory,” with its depersonalization of art.

Anthony Storr was a “wounded healer” whose life was imperiled by severe asthma.  He was well aware of psychogenic theories of asthma, such as D.W. Winnicott’s of an infant’s “dangerous breathing,” or bronchial spasm, being linked to anxiety about the mother.  (D.W. Winnicott, “The Observation of Infants in a Set Situation,” 1941, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis,1975, pp. 59 and 63)  Undoubtedly, the ramifications of asthma took Storr into analysis.  In 1978 Storr published “Asthma as a Personal Experience” in Asthma: The Facts. The disorder brought him close to death on several occasions, forcing him to come to terms with its inevitability from whatever cause. In “The Fear of Death” he wrote:

A few years ago I came close to death during a very severe attack of asthma.  As I was panting away, the thought suddenly came to me that, if the attack went on, I might actually die, as I knew that I was not getting enough oxygen to maintain vital functions. For a minute or two, I could hardly believe it: then, realizing that it was true, I became quite calm and detached.  In fact, I became less distressed than before I had realized that death was a real possibility: and watched my own heaving chest as it were from a distance, wondering how much longer I could last. When, in the event, my doctor saved me, I knew that I should never fear dying again.  (Realities, August, 1973, No. 273, pp. 32-34 and 74)

Surely Storr’s meditative practice of listening to music helped him to the detached relaxation needed to survive this asthma attack.

When in 1993 I wrote in concern about his health, the reply was:

You need not be distressed about my health.  I shall be 73 in May.  I have already outlived my father, my brother, and all my uncles.  I have had a great deal of illness in my life, and have been close to death on at least four occasions. If it were not for modern medicine and the expertise of my doctors I should not be alive today, and count myself lucky to be so.  (Personal letter, January 14, 1993)

I found this straightforward statement deeply moving and hope to remember its note of gratitude for life, no matter the conditions.

Anthony Storr was a psychoanalytic educator without peer, whose basic impulse was to investigate and evaluate every claim to new insight.  He remained free to think and write, despite appointments as Clinical Lecturer in Psychiatry, Oxford University (1979-1984) and Fellow of Green College, Oxford (1979f).  His independent habit of mind had been reinforced in the private practice of psychotherapy in London from 1950 to 1974.  He was honest to a fault, always ready to listen and reserve judgment until he had thoroughly considered what was said or written. Having doubts about the Church of England, he moved out boundaries, beyond overly optimistic liberal humanism into psychological realism about human prospects. He was tough and resilient, as successful analysts must be, but he never lost benign concern for individual suffering, or that which 20th-century politics produced on such a staggering scale.  Storr did not retreat into an aesthetic mysticism induced by music, instead using it to revive and reconfigure his sense of meaning.  If art was to serve integrative therapy, it had to reverberate much beyond immediate pleasures. Storr’s best essays, such as “The Concept of Cure” are far richer than a medical training alone would allow; they are the products of cultural enrichments of many origins. (Charles Rycroft, ed., Psychoanalysis Observed, 1966)  It is easy to be critical of shortcomings in Storr’s ambitious books but, on reflection, it is better to show gratitude for all he attempted. I hope that there was music to ease his passing.

">Andrew Brink, PhD, a scholar who has worked in many genres, has made his greatest contributions as a student of creativity. He devoted most of his career to literature at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, before heading the Humanities and Social Thought Pro-gramme (now the Psychoanalytic Thought Pro-gramme) at he University of Toronto. Presently, he devotes his energies to research and publication on a full-time basis. His current historical research on the New Netherlands settlements has resulted in the book, Invading Paradise: Esopus Settlers at War with the Natives, 1659-1663.