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Creativity and Transcendence in the Work of Marion Milner

From: American Imago
Volume 57, Number 2, Summer 2000
pp. 185-214 | 10.1353/aim.2000.0012

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American Imago 57.2 (2000) 185-214


Marion Milner was a British psychoanalyst whose life spanned the major part of the twentieth century. Unlike D.W. Winnicott, her contemporary and friend, Milner has yet to be discovered by scholars of religious studies. Like Winnicott, her work lends itself well to the study of religious symbolism from the perspective of the early infant-mother relationship. In addition, Milner wrote extensively about the nature of creativity, and, to some degree, its relationship to transcendence. In this essay I investigate Milner's view of "creativity" as a vehicle for experiencing transcendence. In the course of exploration, I also address the role of unconscious processes in religious experience. To do so I look at a portion of the corpus of Milner's work in three parts: 1) her articles on Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job, 2) Milner's last published diary, Eternity's Sunrise, and 3) her published account of work with a schizophrenic patient in The Hands of the Living God. These three foci, along with references to other works, provide a fairly accurate picture of Milner's understanding of the relationship between creativity, transcendence, and the unconscious.

I) Milner's Interest in Creativity

Marion Milner was born in London in 1900 as Marion Blackett, in a family of modest means. Since an excellent biography can be found elsewhere, in tracing Milner's life trajectory I will limit myself primarily to discussing her intellectual interests and career pursuits. When she was seventeen, Milner left school and obtained a position teaching a young boy how to read. The position was extremely fortuitous, in that Milner's work with the boy sparked her interest in how individuals discover the ability to concentrate. Milner later obtained a university degree in psychology and physiology at University College, London. Upon graduation she commenced a position in vocational guidance and mental testing for the Vocational Guidance Department of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. Two years later Milner began writing a diary exploring her own thinking processes, published in 1934 as A Life of One's Own (under the pseudonym Joanna Field). A second book, An Experiment in Leisure, was written while she was on leave from a project investigating the educational system of the Girls' Public Day School Trust. This book also examines the unconscious processes of her own mind. Milner's third book, The Human Problem in Schools (1938), resulted from the aforementioned school project.

Upon returning to the school project, Milner entered into part-time psychoanalysis with Sylvia Payne. This choice of analyst put her "neither in the analytic stream led by Anna Freud nor in that led by Melanie Klein, for I did not even know that there was a deep controversy both in theory and practice between these two pioneers of the psychoanalysis of children" (Milner 1987b, 6). In 1939, the outbreak of the war put a moratorium on Milner's work in schools, and during this period she wrote her fourth book, On Not Being Able to Paint. This work is an extension of many of her earlier ideas, and it also explores the relationship between creativity and the analytic process. In 1940 Milner was accepted for training by the British Psycho-Analytic Society and subsequently began a new career as a psychoanalyst. In addition to her many psychoanalytic papers published in The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men: Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (1987), Milner's book The Hands of the Living God (1969) makes a significant psychoanalytic contribution in its meticulous record of a lengthy analysis with a schizophrenic patient. Her final book, Eternity's Sunrise (1987), is an account of her personal spiritual journey and captures the main themes in her life experience as an artist, psychoanalyst, and spiritual pilgrim. Marion Milner died in 1998.

Both Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott significantly influenced the direction of Milner's work (Dragstedt 1998, 442-450). Klein, for example, was one of Milner's clinical supervisors, and Milner analyzed Klein's grandson. Dragstedt points out that Milner only began to be less intimidated by Klein after a disturbing experience in the grandson's analysis that revealed that Milner'...

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