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Kelley A. Raab - Creativity and Transcendence in the Work of Marion Milner - American Imago 57:2 American Imago 57.2 (2000) 185-214

Creativity and Transcendence in the Work of Marion Milner

Kelley A. Raab


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. 1 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, 2 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 [End Page 185] 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). [End Page 186] 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's insights were not fully appreciated by Klein (Dragstedt 1998, 443). Klein's work on the early unconscious phantasy life of the infant and small child strongly affected Milner's own thinking, as did Klein's theories on transference and counter transference. In addition, Milner was attracted to Klein's notion of the depressive position and its relation to adult mourning processes. For Milner, mourning was a vehicle for the creative impulse.

Because Milner and Winnicott had a close personal relationship, it is more difficult to separate their respective influences on one another. Winnicott was friend, mentor, and colleague to Milner. Both Milner and Winnicott were interested in creativity, and for a brief time Winnicott was Milner's analyst. Dragstedt suggests that perhaps Milner was Winnicott's "muse"--that she planted seeds for some of his inspirations (Dragstedt 1998, 450). 3

As we can see, the corpus of Milner's work demonstrates a longstanding interest in the workings of the creative process. Personally, Milner came to understand creativity in terms of what could be called a "religious" pursuit. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigan calls Milner a "body mystic," a term that suggests there is no contradiction between transcendence and embodiment in her work. In his view, her writings explore ways that "mysterious depths" are linked with "everyday surfaces." Symbolically, Milner uses metaphors of the dying god, emptiness, nothing, and yin-yang to describe aspects of creative processes (Eigan 1998, 14, 32). The first stage in the creative use of symbols, in her view, must be a temporary giving up of the discriminating ego, which in turn opens the way to oceanic differentiation. Excessive fear of undifferentiation can prevent ego regression to an oceanic state, thus making impossible a creative use of symbols (Ehrenzweig 1957, 14:202, 204). Apparently Milner herself experienced terror of the unknown as a primary restriction of creativity. She had difficulty, for example, sitting with uncertainty long enough for the fullness of a painting to [End Page 187] emerge into conscious awareness. Milner was convinced that an inner experience of "emptiness" was integral to the creative process. She compared emptiness, or "expectant waiting," to certain states of awareness described in eastern meditation practices. From states of emptiness, according to Milner, moments of transcendence could arise (Dragstedt 1998, 481-482).

II) Milner's articles on Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job

Milner wrote two articles focused on Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. According to Dragstedt, Blake's poetry stimulated her interest in the relationship between mysticism and madness as well as the origins of joyfulness in living. His Book of Job served as a template for her explorations of blocks in creativity in her patients and herself (Dragstedt 1998, 457). In her article "The Sense in Nonsense (Freud and Blake's Job)," Milner prefaces the discussion by commenting that Blake's illustrations deal with the sorts of issues she encountered when studying schools and their educational systems (Milner 1956b/1987, 168-169). She also refers to Blake's illustrations in her work with her schizophrenic patient Susan in The Hands of the Living God and in other writings. In discussing her perspective on Blake's illustrations, it is helpful to sort out the "layers" of interpretation involved: the plot of the biblical story of Job, Blake's spin on this ancient Hebrew tale, and Milner's own perspective on Blake's Job.

Like most of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, the biblical story of Job underwent several revisions before it became canonized in its present form. An early version, for example, did not contain an account of God's restoration of prosperity to Job. The canonized version was written sometime after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon in 537 B.C.E. and prior to the intertestamental period. The story is generally thought to be a critique of traditional wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and Song of Solomon, that give prescriptions for God's granting of blessings of prosperity and numerous offspring. Those familiar with the story will know that it begins in [End Page 188] a bet: Satan cajoles God into allowing Satan to destroy Job's children, health, and prosperity in the hope that Job will lose his faith and curse God. Job, however, does not curse God, only his own life, and instead demands a hearing before his creator. In the biblical account, Satan disappears from the story after bringing ruin upon Job. Job's friends turn against him, accusing him of having sinned before God. When God does speak to Job from the whirlwind, Job realizes his own ignorance and insignificance and takes back his plea for his "day in court." God, in turn, restores Job's fortune and children to him as well as his good name.

As stated, while the book of Job was most likely meant to dissuade the Israelites from the notion that they were the proximate cause of any and every evil that befell them, it has been one of the most controversial biblical texts regarding explanations of theodicy. Why would a good and all-powerful God let Job suffer so? Blake was not satisfied with the view that Job's disasters were brought on by a bet in order to test Job's fidelity, so he reworked the story so that Satan became an "internal Accuser," and Job's sufferings a "disease of his soul." This was not the only aspect of the story that Blake reinterpreted, however. Instead of the story being about Job's quite correct persistence in his innocence, Blake puts Job in error. While Blake's Job has not broken any law, his faith is misplaced. He believes in the letter of the law (symbolized by open law books), but not in its spirit (symbolized by musical instruments). His sin is his secret pride. For Blake, Job must recognize and humble his secret pride before his humanity can be awakened. In addition to altering the plot by finding fault with Job instead of God, Blake's 18th-century rendition of the Job story is "Christianized." For Blake, Christ, or Divine Imagination, embodies the spirit of the law. Blake's typological interpretation of Job bears a striking resemblance to the New Testament writer Paul's understanding of Jesus' teachings and mission: we are not justified by works of the law, but by faith.

Milner spent considerable time studying Blake's illustrations (she mentions twelve years), and even made her own rough copies of several of the pictures in order to better understand their "feeling" dimensions (Milner 1956a/1987, 212). [End Page 189] In "Psychoanalysis and Art" (1956), she writes that she was not able to fully face the significance of the terror of the "Christ figure" as shown by Job's friends (in Blake's illustrations this is God, depicted in glory up above when Job's friends are accusing him of sin) prior to writing the article. Milner states: " Now I can link it with the fears roused in the logical argumentative mind by the impact of the creative depths, and see that the anxiety is not something to be retreated from, but that it is inherent in the creative process itself" (Milner 1956a/1987, 212). Milner felt that Blake's Job is the story of what goes on in all of us when we have become sterile and doubt our creative capacities: in essence, it is about the emergence of Imagination. In her psychological interpretation of Blake's illustrations, Milner largely agrees with Blake on two central points: 1) Job, not God, is in error, and 2) Christ is the redemptive answer to Job's troubles. On a biographical note, it is important to know that while Milner distrusted organized religion, she was very attracted to the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. In her book An Experiment in Leisure, for example, Milner conjectures that perhaps the gospel stories are concerned not with what one ought to do, but with practical rules for creative thinking, a "handbook for the process of perceiving the facts of one's experience" (Field 1937, 135).

Milner finds Job to be at fault in three ways: 1) he does not recognize his own internal rage and destructiveness, 2) he does not recognize unconscious processes (i.e., he does not look inward), and 3) he has not accepted "femaleness" within himself. Regarding this last point, Milner believed Blake wished to point out that Job's "one-sidedly male outlook" is mistaken and that we all need a balance of maleness and femaleness. As Milner states, "Thus Job is shown not only as obeying the letter of the law and thinking that is all there is, but also as a successful patriarch, a man of power . . . " (Milner 1956a/1987, 201). While Blake's "proto-feminism" is a point of debate among literary critics, true to the biblical account in the illustrations he does have God restoring Job with daughters instead of sons (and even giving them a share of his inheritance). According to Milner, because Job believes only in the conscious life, he consistently denies there could be any [End Page 190] destructiveness in himself. Not surprisingly for her, the turning point of the story is Job's recognition that the cause of his troubles lies within rather than without: his own internal "Father-God" (which he constructs in his image) contains destructiveness. It is only when he begins to look inward that the omnipotence of the conscious intellect (i.e., Satan) can be cast out and Job begins to recognize his own denied rage. As Milner puts it, when the violence of his inner whirlwind is no longer denied, he can channel its energy for creative ends.

We now are at a point to discuss how Milner describes the relationship between creativity and transcendence in Blake's illustrations. Similar to Blake, in Milner's view Jesus signifies Imagination. In "Psychoanalysis and Art," Milner explains that Blake brings the figure of Christ into the Job story because he believes the teachings of Christ have something to do with the creative process: in poetic terms, Christ was really talking about creative contact with the unsplit depth mind (Milner 1956a/1987, 201). Job's "sin" has cut him off from both Jesus and his own creative power. It is significant for Milner that the appearance of Jesus occurs only after Job begins to discover the existence of unconscious processes (Plate 12 of Blake's illustrations). Plate 14 of Blake's illustrations, which has been titled both "Morning Stars" and "Job's Senses are Opened," represents a kind of "transfiguration" in Milner's view. In the picture we see God in the middle, in cruciform position, with the sun, stars, and angelic beings above; Job, his wife and friends are below. To God's right and left are the Greek moon-goddess Selene and sun-god Helios, representing day and night. Sequentially, this illustration is placed after God has appeared to Job in a whirlwind, and depicts Job 38:4-7, God's account of creation. Milner explains: "When anyone discovers how to stop seeing the world with the narrow focused attention of expediency, stops interfering and trying to use it for his own purposes, then says Blake, something like a miracle can happen, the whole world can become transfigured" (Milner 1956b/1987, 178). She proceeds to discuss "Morning Stars" as depicting a particular kind of imaginative concentration--a "widespread contemplative attention." This state, she observes, is sometimes spoken of in Freudian language as "cosmic bliss." [End Page 191] Milner interprets Blake as conveying the notion that "perception of the external world itself is a creative act, an act of imagination . . . " (Milner 1956b/1987, 179). She adds that this state is surely known at moments to all of us in childhood but is often lost in adulthood because of our purpose-driven lives.

In sum, it seems Milner believes the teachings of Jesus have the power to open one to creativity in a way that adherence to a prescribed morality does not. Creative capacity, in turn, is made possible by the recognition of one's unconscious processes. The capacity to create may also be about something more, since Milner states that moments of "cosmic bliss" are known by everyone at some time during childhood. Later in the essay I will explore further the possibility that Milner is arguing for a "primal creativity," and an inherent "search for transcendence." Jesus represents Imagination, because Imagination allows one to be aware of the world in a different way, one which could be described as transcendent or mystical. In addition, Milner believes that recognition of the "feminine" is necessary for the full flowering of creativity. Finally, according to Milner, experiences of creativity only come after recognition of one's own destructiveness, or, in theological terms, one's potential to sin. Thus, Milner's reading of Job infers that transcendent moments are not experienced unless one has fully acknowledged one's humanity.

III) Eternity's Sunrise

Milner wrote three books which can be characterized as personal journals or diaries: A Life of One's Own (1934), An Experiment in Leisure (1937), and Eternity's Sunrise (1987). The inspiration for all three books' style of self-observation may have come from nature diaries written during Milner's adolescence, and Dragstedt suggests that her unique personal writings in turn inspired many in England to take up journal writing as a kind of "poor person's psychoanalysis" (Dragstedt 1998, 426, 436). In her second and third diaries Milner refers to points made in her earlier ones, examining them years later after additional life experiences. Since Milner did not begin [End Page 192] her own Freudian analysis until a year after the publication of An Experiment in Leisure, only Eternity's Sunrise reflects actual experience with psychoanalysis (both as a client and as a psychoanalyst). The latter was published when Milner was 87 years old.

In this final diary, Milner takes up the notion of what she calls "Answering Activity." She speculates that An Experiment in Leisure was really about Answering Activity, although she did not use the word at the time. Milner explores religious issues throughout An Experiment in Leisure. For example, she describes the experience of going to a bullfight as a "religious experience": it conveyed to her the inevitability of death in a "moment of truth." As well, the bullfight gave her insights into creativity, namely, that there is always a moment of truth before the imaginative mind can bear fruit (Field 1937, 116-121). Milner also explains that she has found images concerned with finding out the truth of the experience of being alive in religious traditions (although organized religion, in her view, has not been conducive to acceptance of these new truths of experience). Certain religious symbols are in essence concerned with the creative spirit of humanity (Field 1937, 146-148).

Imbedded in the text of An Experiment in Leisure is a lengthy fairy tale about bringing up a skeleton from the depths of the ocean. Milner refers to the fairy tale in her later book, On Not Being Able to Paint, in connection to a picture she had drawn entitled "Skeleton under the Sea." She notes that in the fairy tale she had given no explanation of why the skeleton was there; the story had been chiefly concerned with how to "bring it to life." Milner believes the picture sheds light on the origins of the skeleton in the earlier fairy tale: "for surely it showed ideas of how an alien force from above could freeze up the flow of life, congealing and fixing the free movement of feeling into a pattern of outwardly correct behaviour and inner lifelessness, as a young rabbit is frozen at the approaching shadow of a hawk" (Milner 1950, 46-47). She states that imposed rules, authority, and orderliness can be "fixing" instead of supportive, and that authority, "appearing as an absolute and deadening tyranny," in this case could only be [End Page 193] dealt with by "committing it to the depths of the ocean" (Milner 1950, 47). The "flow of life" and the "free movement of feeling" to which Milner refers are prototypes of what she later investigates as "Answering Activity."

In Eternity's Sunrise, Milner explores the nature of Answering Activity, or A.A. as she sometimes calls it, in part by attempting to name it. The "love of God," "goodness and mercy," "grace," "indwelling Christ," "Divine Body" are some alternative titles she suggests. Others are the "inner 'Other," "inner voice," "creative unconscious," and the "good internalised object." She quotes from An Experiment in Leisure: "Certainly I had found that there was something--not one's self in the ordinary sense of the word 'self'--that could be a guiding force in one's life; but I thought it would be insolent to call this God" (Milner 1987a, 47).

A.A. is integrally related to the body for Milner, and it is contacted by directing one's attention to the body. She uses the term "incarnation" to describe its presence:

Incarnation, that's what it is. But just when does it happen? I believe, if living properly, it happens every morning when one wakes. For then the imaginative body, which has been doing all kinds of things in its dreams, has now to descend to indwelling in its own flesh and bones . . . For me, it often begins with telling myself that I can feel the weight of my feet on the bed, detail by detail, the heel, one instep against the other foot, the big toe joint etc., etc., and then in a minute or two, the answering activity comes . . . If attention is held long enough then gradually every cell comes to be alive. (Milner 1987a, 67)

Anyone familiar with meditation practices would be likely to say that the above passage is concerned with self-awareness. In fact, Eternity's Sunrise can be read as an account of Milner's experiences with meditative practice. At the beginning of the book, she notes that it is her effort to develop a method of trying to decide the high points of each day's experience by capturing them into words (Milner 1987a, 12). She does this [End Page 194] by attending to inner silence, stopping inner chatter, wiping her eyes free of images so that she can accept emptiness (Milner 1987a, 38). Emptiness is a central concept in Buddhist meditation. Emptying one's mind of self makes possible the experience of a greater consciousness. It also enables self-awareness. I have mentioned that Milner believed that an experience of emptiness was necessary to the creative process. It was also essential to the emergence of A.A. Thus, one way that A.A. could be contacted, for Milner, was through meditative practice, which involves attention to the body and cultivation of an inner emptiness. As we shall see, this practice is similar to her notion of prayer.

In part, I would say that A.A. is self-awareness for Milner. Yet it is more than that. It is an inner "voice," showing her path in life, her own unique way of knowing. Milner is fond of using the term "Kingdom of God" from the teachings of Jesus to describe this inner, personalized way. A.A. is both part of her and separate from her: "there's an 'other' within that is not just the Freudian repressed unconscious, but an UN-conscious which is yet far more conscious, this answering activity which is both 'I and not I' " (Milner 1987a, 150). A.A. is found in the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal (Milner 1987a, 96), and it is connected with "bodily resurrection" (Milner 1987a, 142).

How does Milner's Answering Activity illuminate the relationship between creativity and transcendence? To call A.A. the "creative unconscious," a term Milner uses several times, is useful for exploring this question. First, the creative unconscious is equated with God and Christ. The creative unconscious is a guiding force, an inner voice. It is the Kingdom of God within. Second, the creative unconscious is rooted in the body. It is significant that Milner uses the term "incarnation," which in a Christian context usually refers to Jesus but more generally connotes "divinity in the flesh," to talk about the creative unconscious or A.A. Third, creative unconscious as experienced through meditation enables awareness of a "greater" or universal consciousness.

Is Milner's creative unconscious a vehicle for glimpses of the transcendent, or is it in some way transcendent itself? [End Page 195] Milner suggests that "plugging into" the creative unconscious is really a form of prayer, which might suggest the former. Milner's description of prayer is as a kind of bodily concentration--not unlike the way she discusses incarnation:

But just what do I mean by praying for someone? It's really holding the image of the person, usually in my middle. Not saying anything, usually. And routine praying, Church praying, isn't any good, for me, for turning the captivity [of egocentric preoccupations]. But it's also like remembering to plug into the Answering Activity, which is also like suddenly remembering to open a kind of little trap-door inside and finding a great expansion of spirit. (Milner, 1987a, 52)

Prayer, for Milner, seems to be a kind of bodily attentiveness from which the creative unconscious emerges or is "contacted." She laments that at times she cannot "find it," and that in these cases, she feels as though she is alone in her own "ego-island." Milner faults herself for occasions of absence of the creative unconscious, for in these cases she has not been able to give herself over to it, "wanting one's conscious thought and endeavor to be all there is" (Milner 1987a, 57). In this she is like Job: she wants to deny the force of the unconscious mind. In the Job story, God appears simultaneously with Job's recognition of his creative unconscious. Thus, I believe Milner wants to suggest that A.A., at the least, is an urge towards or seeking of transcendence, in the way she would define it.

IV) The Hands of the Living God

Interestingly, Milner's account of her work with a schizophrenic patient, Susan, can be read as a record of the process of coming to depend on "unconscious creativity" or an Answering Activity. Dragstedt observes that Susan's analysis with Milner occurred over a period of at least eighteen years, beginning when Susan was 23 years old (Dragstedt 1998, 486-487). Previous to the analysis Susan had received two "E.C.T." (Electroconvulsive Therapy) [End Page 196] treatments while under medical supervision. These E.C.T. treatments proved extremely destructive to her psychological well-being. In her first session with Milner, Susan claimed that she "had lost her soul" since receiving E.C.T. and that "the world was no longer outside her" (Milner 1969, xix). She also felt that since the E.C.T. she had had no inner world or internal perceptions as well as had lost the power to grow mentally or spiritually (Milner 1969, xxix, 24). Milner believed that much of Susan's pathology could be traced to a deep splitting tendency: her disturbed childhood had produced in her an extreme and excessive concentration on "logic and outer things at the expense of reverie and fantasy" (Milner 1969, 41). Milner also refers to the split as one between "articulate and inarticulate" levels of functioning, an "ecstasy-giving 'God'" and "death-giving horror" (i.e., a "devil" who "thinks he does it all himself" and her desire for "primary undifferentiated wholeness" while at the same time needing to face the real world of separateness) (Milner 1969, 34, 37, 41).

Milner chronicles much of Susan's analysis by means of interpreting selected examples of her voluminous drawings. 4 Milner viewed Susan's drawings as a "non-discursive affirmation" of her internal world. During this period Milner had also written On Not Being Able to Paint--which examines Milner's own explorations into drawing as a medium for expressing unconscious processes. Dragstedt observes that it was through drawing that Susan was able to re-enter the world for the first time (Dragstedt 1998, 496).

A number of Susan's drawings contain religious symbols: particularly devils, Christ, crosses, communion cups, as well as references to mysticism. Milner believed that before the E.C.T. Susan had bodily experiences which could be termed mystical (Dragstedt 1998, 489). I suggest that Milner's interpretations of these symbols in her drawings are consistent with her interpretation of Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. I further propose that Milner thought that both Susan and Job had similar pathologies. As stated, Milner was convinced that Susan's symptoms could be traced to a deep splitting tendency between conscious and unconscious levels of functioning. Like Job, who lived only at a conscious level of awareness, Susan was [End Page 197] cut off from her internal world. Also like Job, Susan wished to deny her dependence on others. In other words, Susan's "secret pride" was her desire to be omnipotent and to rely only on her conscious mind. The analysis thus centered around helping Susan to accept dependence while acknowledging separateness and destroying the illusion of omnipotence created by her conscious mind. Despite the similarities between Job and Susan, however, one must not forget their differences. Susan was a bonafide schizophrenic. Unlike Job's story, Susan's childhood biography was extremely troubled: "She had grown up with a psychotic mother and a violent 'uncle,' whose identity as her father was concealed from her . . . Her mother prevented her from walking by tying her in her crib until she was two-year-old [sic], out of fear that Susan would become bowlegged. . . . As a young child, Susan was involved in a lengthy series of molestations by a neighbor, an old man, and, in her adolescence, was molested by her mother's estranged husband, the man whom she erroneously believed to be her father" (Dragstedt 1998, 488). I believe Milner used Blake's Job--adding her own interpretation of this ancient biblical tale--to help her understand what had happened to Susan. In order to elucidate the spiritual themes in Susan's analysis, in what follows I summarize Milner's interpretations of a number of Susan's drawings that include religious symbols.


IMAGE LINK= Susan explained that the haloed figure in Illustration 1 is an angel, the kneeling figure a virgin, and the second from the right at the top is a devil, stating "a devil tramples underfoot everything that isn't his" (Milner 1969, 72). Milner sees both Susan and herself as the devil and the angel of the drawings; she is the devil who, by sending her away, ignores her feelings and is unfaithful to her. But the devil is also Susan, for she has to trample on Milner for not being totally her possession.

In Figure 5 (not pictured), Susan explained that one of the devils in the drawing is pretending to bow. Another is walking one way and facing the other. This devil, said Susan, is in her and what it does is "stop you seeing what you are" (Milner 1969, 75). Milner notes that the lower devil has a hat [End Page 198] [Begin Page 200] on. Susan later responded that her mother always put her hat on when she went out, saying she would never return.

IMAGE LINK= Another devil appears in Illustration 2 (second from left, bottom). When Milner noted that it wears a halo with horns, Susan replied, "'A halo is what he offers, horns is what you get'" (Milner 1969, 75). Milner pointed out that the devil has a mocking look, to which Susan responded, "'Of course he's mocking--that's what devils do'" (Milner 1969, 75). She felt she has the horned devil inside herself. Since she cannot bear the idea of being separate, a "devil-me" inside seems better than no one (i.e., bad internal objects are better than none).

Milner observes that while the shapes she has drawn are devils, Susan later said they are chrysalises. Their deepest meaning, according to Milner, must be that they have to do with a growing capacity to differentiate out her own feelings. Milner believes Susan feels that many of her denied feelings were devilish because they were aggressive and defiant, and also that to have feelings of her own is devilish because it means an active cutting herself off from her psychotic mother, claiming a right to be herself (Milner 1969, 95-96).

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= The devil's face in Illustration 3 also looks like a vulva. On the level of genital sexuality, Susan views her vulva as wicked. In Illustration 4, Milner is the mocking little devil with long earrings (better this for Susan than for Milner to be the powerful Christ-devil that Susan at times feels herself to be).


Susan had a dream early in analysis that Christ was being taken down from the cross by five men and his head was then cut off (Milner 1969, 19). Later Milner observes that Susan must have been envisaging analysis as a process of becoming freed from being nailed to the torturing internal "mother-tree," of no longer having to be the nailed-up God who sacrifices herself for the sake of a depressed mother. Was not the head a symbol of her headstrong pride in her own fantasy of omnipotence, a pride that had become crystallized into her feeling of being possessed by the devil who "thinks he does it all himself" (Milner 1969, 230-231)? [End Page 200] [Begin Page 202]

IMAGE LINK= The bottom left-hand figure in Illustration 5 looks like a baby devil; the right-hand one suggests a primitive carving of the face of Christ (horns grow out of the halo as they did in Illustration 2). Is Susan the devil who defecates out the fecal object? By the Christ symbol, is she trying to depict her sense of the power and glory in her acts of defecation (but this too is devilish because she feels she does it all herself and mocks help from Milner)? Milner notes that the Christ-devil-turd seems to dramatize the theme of omnipotence, i.e., Susan's anal need to control Milner and her dread of being controlled. Susan fears that Milner, who should be the savior, will turn her out (evacuate her).

IMAGE LINK= During one session, Susan made an unrecognizable scribble that she said is the tomb in which the dead Christ was put, but it is now empty. She added a cross and a confused line, and explained that it is someone waiting for Christ to turn up [End Page 202] (Milner 1969, 283). In Illustration 6, Milner observes that the Three Kings in this Nativity scene look more like prostitutes waiting at the street corner. It seems that Susan is expressing her conflict over whether to surrender her kingly state (Three Kings, Three Magi)--her magically omnipotent clinging to the "all-wants satisfied autarchy of the illusory foetal-placental relationship--and instead pay homage to the image of the God become incarnate as a helpless infant in the mother's arms" (Milner 1969, 284). There is, suggests Milner, an implied doubt over whether she might not be in danger of only a bogus self-giving (like the prostitute).


The caption in Figure 88 (not pictured) says: "Dear God, help, please do, for me to see myself as I did once, with . . . my heart. Please do. People are so silly, they think they know more than the Saints, because they won't accept their littleness. I did once, but how to again? I don't know because without a heart where are you?" (Milner 1969, 205). Milner's observation is that it is Susan herself who must accept her littleness--and penislessness.

One day Susan brought a written prayer: "Dear Lord, help me to get back my heart, please do. You did so help me once, didn't you? All the birds and trees and flowers and sky and stars and moon and everything--You were there in everything. Even the rhubarb, when I used to save it up till I really wanted to and then I liked the look of it and the scrunch when it was picked, and crunch when you cut it up--and the beauty of it." Milner's [End Page 203] interpretation is, Here was a remembered sensory pleasure. Was this God her now lost capacity for compassion (Milner 1969, 211-212)?

The sun symbol in Figure 107 (not pictured) not only represents the life-giving "other" that Susan sought contact with, but it is also a picture of the burning and rolling sensations inside her own head (the something in her that seeks to burst through the rigidities of her defenses against loving).


IMAGE LINK= The mouth of the drawing in Illustration 7 is made up of a cross with a smile superimposed on it. It seems the smile in the drawing represents denial of the cross (dependence), denial of the necessity of facing crucifixion (sorrow and suffering), denial of the "beheading " of her omnipotence required to find the true ground of her being.

IMAGE LINK= In Illustration 8, the cross itself is nailed with many nails and is resting on a square divided into four and numbered. Milner first thought of this picture in terms of Susan's nailed-up humanity, compassion, capacity for forgiveness, nailed up by her devil self, for whom to let go a grudge would be like death. Later Milner thought that her devil-self may be raging against the idea of her human self winning (If so, her hard-as nails self would have to melt). Did this show her dread of giving up the only integration she has felt sure of?

The numbers on the bottom of the crucifix suggest for Milner that in spite of everything, Susan must have been closely in touch with an inner integrating force at the time of drawing (4 and a square represent completeness). Prime numbers on the sides stand for Susan's idea of people who have achieved full psychic rebirth. Number 13 evokes the notion of Judas and the betrayal (her accepting the E.C.T. had been a betrayal because it had made her worse instead of better).

On the theme of nails, Milner suggests that it could be an expression of Susan's attempt to control her fantasies of tearing to pieces (both tearing Milner to pieces and being torn to pieces) by keeping everything immobile. She also queries [End Page 204] [Begin Page 206] whether it could express her deep intuitive awareness of how she is nailed to the cruel internal mother-me. As well, for Milner, when Susan described herself as "hard as nails," surely she was describing the defense against being moved by feelings (Milner, 1969, 230).

The eight-pointed star of figure 117 (not pictured) is made from two superimposed crosses. Milner asks whether Susan is perhaps expressing here her intuition of how two people, both having accepted their separateness (through accepting the crucifixion of their birth), can come together again in a re-discovered unity? This star is still far above Susan, for she has not yet achieved the incarnation in her body that is the crucifixion of her omnipotence.

Communion cups:

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= In Illustration 9, Susan says the cross in the top left corner also represents Christ. The dot on the circumference of the circle represents herself ("It's both inside and outside you and there whether you know it or not" [Milner 1969, 372]). She is trying to become aware of what is "behind her eyes" (the eye symbol)--without this she cannot feel safe in communion. In Illustration 10, Milner says that the cup and the bowl being placed astride the diagonal have to do with recovered sensory memories. Later Susan told her that on that day she wrote in her diary: "I am in the world for the first time for sixteen years" (Milner 1969, 375).


IMAGE LINK= "Aura" (as shown in Illustration 11) emphasizes an intensity of outraying forms, the body itself rigid and wooden. Milner speculates that the moments when Susan felt transfigured (before the E.C.T.) were in part based on a process of identifying herself with an all-glorious phallus, a defense against feminine feelings. Another way of looking at the Aura drawing is that the bodily excitement (either in loving or hating) was too great to be contained within her body, so it escaped through her eyes and animated the surrounding world. [End Page 206] [Begin Page 209]

IMAGE LINK= In Illustration 12, the "Nun's treasure" drawing also has meaning in terms of Susan's interest in mystical experience. Her calling the path at its base "the way to the stars" could mean that she knew intuitively that instinct satisfaction and ego development are related. Milner states, "It was through material like this that I gradually came to try formulating her deepest problem in terms of her denial to become nothing, denial of that urge that can surely be the necessary opposite and complement of the urge to become something" (Milner 1969, 301).

Given Susan's traumatic childhood and the severe degree of her pathology, I find it noteworthy that Milner's analysis [End Page 209] with her was at least moderately successful. Susan in fact went on to enjoy a long marriage to a man who had renounced the priesthood. While their lives were supported by the Catholic church, Susan was able to hold down a job in an art museum until she reached retirement (Dragstedt 1998, 500). After exploring Milner's interpretations of the religious symbols in Susan's drawings, it is not surprising to learn that Milner had become increasingly interested in Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job during the time she was analyzing Susan. The picture in which Job's God appears as the devil (Plate 11 of Blake's illustrations) in particular held her attention, and she used it to help build her own bridges to psychoanalytic theory (Milner 1969, 53). Thus, Milner's interpretation of Blake's Job may in fact be Susan's analysis discussed through an aesthetic medium.

Susan did recover her inner world. To further quote from her diary towards the end of her eighteen-year analysis:

It is very difficult to communicate things which, although we are aware of so clearly in our minds, are somehow not transferable into words--and yet the awareness is unmistakable--the awareness of a reality that I have not been in contact with for sixteen years. . . . I can remember them now as years of blackness. Blackness in mind and heart. Being unaware of oneself and consequently of other people makes it impossible to observe and question one's own actions so one behaves as one will, with no consideration for anybody or anything. This realization is awful to be conscious of. Not only has one violated the sense concerning others, but one has also gone against any duty to oneself and one's own integrity--and if you believe in God then it is intensely against him that you have turned--and your predestined self, the self you know not of, the self which thinks and grows regardless of conscious choice, this you have had to put out of existence. (Milner 1969, 375-376) [End Page 210]

One can almost picture Blake's Job saying these words after his realization that his God has not been the true God, while reflecting on his earlier acts of "false charity" (Plate 5 of Blake's illustrations). Milner's choice of the title for the book is taken from a poem by D.H. Lawrence titled "The Hands of God": "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But it is a much more fearful thing to fall out of them." In using these lines, Milner illustrates what happened to both Job and Susan when they lost touch with modes of unconscious reality, and hence the "true God" within. Significantly, I believe Milner views unconscious modes of awareness as "feminine," as opposed to the masculine "letter of the law" discussed earlier regarding Job. Even though Job and Susan are different genders, both were cut off from their inner femininity, or unconscious creativity.

This brings me to elaborate on Susan's recovery of her Answering Activity, or creative unconscious, in her analysis with Milner. Milner states that progress was not made in analysis until Susan had become able to conceive of, through finding a symbol for, an "undifferentiated 'something' either surrounding her or supporting her" (Milner 1969, 47). Susan spoke of this as an inner surrender to "God" (Milner 1969, 408). Milner in turn states that all of her patients seemed to be moving toward a "direct kind of inner face-to-face contact with the 'other' in themselves which is yet also themselves" and suggests that this driving force (or "inner voice") be called "unconscious integrating aspect of the ego" or "primal undifferentiated ego-id force" (Milner 1969, 384). On several occasions Milner refers to Susan's rediscovered contact with a primary 'other' as a bodily recovery: where the inside of one's body becomes a source of "true psychic nourishment, once the Satanic pride in the illusion of autarchy has been swallowed" (Milner 1969, 393). Indeed, in the preface to the book Milner explains that in this record of her experience with Susan, she is attempting to communicate certain ideas essentially regarding aspects of the relation between body and mind (Milner 1969, xxii). The above descriptions sound very much like the Answering Activity presented in Eternity's Sunrise. [End Page 211]

I believe exploration of the three aspects of Milner's work I have discussed--her reflections on Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job, her diary Eternity's Sunrise, and her work with a schizophrenic patient in The Hands of the Living God--suggests that she believes in both the notion of a "primal creativity" and an inherent "urge towards transcendence." As well, I think Milner would argue that both creativity and the transcendent are experienced through the interplay of conscious and unconscious modes of functioning. However, I do not believe Milner is suggesting that creativity "equals" transcendence, or that either creativity or the transcendent are "equal to" the unconscious. In my reading of her work, there is a psychological drive towards integration in all individuals, and this drive can be understood equally well in spiritual or psychological terms. Viewed spiritually, the drive towards integration manifests itself as a reaching toward, or a seeking of, transcendence. We see this search expressed artistically in Blake's Job, through the notion of Answering Activity in Eternity's Sunrise, and again aesthetically in Susan's drawings. Whether or not the transcendent is actually experienced by Blake, Milner, or Susan is beyond the purview of Milner's work, because, in my opinion--and I believe in Milner's as well--it is beyond the bounds of psychology to know.

Significantly, there are many parallels between theology and Milner's understanding of the creative process. Milner suggests that creativity in the arts, for example, is "making a symbol for feeling"; a work of art, in her view, is necessarily a symbol (Milner 1950, 148, 158). Thus, while religion offers symbols for God, art offers symbols for "feeling," or "the experience of how it feels to be alive" (Milner 1950, 148, 159). God-symbols, of course, are never perceived without affect. In addition, art, like religion, functions in the realm of illusion, facilitating acceptance of both illusion and disillusion (Milner 1950, 67). Milner has observed that " . . . what verbal concepts are to the conscious life of the intellect, what internal objects are to the unconscious life of instinct and phantasy, so works of art are to the conscious life of feeling; without them life would be only blindly lived, blindly endured" (Milner 1950, 159-160). Theologians would concur that without religious understanding, [End Page 212] individuals live "blindly," either without purpose or meaningful purpose in life. Theologically, the paradox of living a spiritual life is to be able to live "in the world but not of it"--to live as a self but without ego. Similarly, according to Milner the paradox of creativity is to break down the barrier of space between self and other while simultaneously maintaining it (Milner 1950, 144). Thus, for Milner the creative process is essentially a spiritual process.

In sum, I believe Milner's work has much to offer the field of religious studies. Her emphasis on the body offers encouragement for an immanent theology, one that focuses on body and nature. Also, by giving unconscious creativity a feminine connotation, Milner's work suggests feminine symbols for deity. As well, Milner brings together eastern and western religious teachings, finding nuggets of psychological truth in both. Her notion of art as a fundamentally spiritual enterprise has much to contribute to a religious understanding of aesthetics. Finally, Milner's idea of an inherent urge towards transcendence, originating from the unconscious but only truly pursued through an integration of conscious and unconscious forces, offers a psychological foundation for an important theological concept: that the search for transcendence is a universal characteristic of human nature. 5

Department of Religious Studies
Saint Lawrence University
Canton, New York 13617


1. I wish to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for providing me with a grant to participate in a 1999 Summer Seminar for College Teachers, "Literature, Aesthetics, and Psychoanalysis: The Legacy of British Object Relations," directed by Mary Jacobus, Cornell University.

2. Naomi Dragstedt has written an extremely helpful overview of Milner's life and work. Dragstedt, Naomi Rader. "Creative Illusions: The Theoretical and Clinical Work of Marion Milner," The Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations, 16.3 (September 1998), 425-536.

3. I do wish to point out one important theoretical difference between Milner and Winnicott. Whereas Winnicott insisted on the essential incommunicableness of the self, Milner held that because the self could be observed, it could also be known (Dragstedt 1998, 449).

4. Milner states that of the four thousand drawings, there are no exact repetitions (Milner 1969, 257).

5. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner has made this suggestion. See DiNoia, J.A., OP. "Karl Rahner," in Ford, David R., ed., The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1, 183-204. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.


Dragstedt, Naomi Rader. 1998. "Creative Illusions: The Theoretical and Clinical Work of Marion Milner." In The Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations. 16.3 (September). 425-536.

Ehrenzweig, Anton. 1957. "The Creative Surrender." In American Imago. 14.3. 193-210.

Eigan, Michael. 1998. The Psychoanalytic Mystic. London: Free Association Books.

Field, Joanna (Milner, M.). 1937. An Experiment in Leisure. London: Virago.

Milner, Marion. 1950. On Not Being Able to Paint. Madison, Conn.: International

Universities Press, Inc.

------. 1987 [1956a]. "Psychoanalysis and Art." In M. Milner, The Suppressed Madness

of Sane Men: Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis. 192-215.

------. 1987 [1956b]. "The Sense in Nonsense (Freud and Blake's Job)." In M. Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men: Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis. 168-191.

------. 1969. The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analytic Treatment. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

------. 1987a. Eternity's Sunrise: A Way of Keeping a Diary. London: Virago.

------. 1987b. The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men: Forty-four Years of Exploring

Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

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