The Unconscious Factor


By this term I designate principally, not exclusively, what ordinary

speech calls "inspiration." In spite of its mysterious and

semi-mythological appearance, the term indicates a positive fact, one

that is ill-understood in a deep sense, like all that is near the roots

of creation. This concept has its history, and if it is permissible to

apply a very general formula to a particular case we may say that it has

developed according to the law of the three states assumed by the


In the beginning, inspiration is literally ascribed to the

gods--among the Greeks to Apollo and the Muses, and in like manner

under various polytheistic religions. Later, the gods become

supernatural spirits, angels, saints, etc. In one way or another it

is always regarded as external and superior to man. In the

beginnings of all inventions--agriculture, navigation, medicine,

commerce, legislation, fine arts--there is a belief in revelation;

the human mind considers itself incapable of having discovered all

that. Creation has arisen, we do not know how, in a total ignorance

of the processes.

Later on these higher beings become empty formulas, mere survivals;

there remain only the poets to invoke their aid, through the force of

tradition, without believing in them. But side by side with these formal

survivals there remains a mysterious ground which is translated by vague

expressions and metaphors, such as "enthusiasm," "poetic frenzy,"

"possession by a spirit," "being overcome," "having the devil inside

one," "the spirit whispers as it lists," etc. Here we have come out of

the supernatural without, however, attempting a positive (i.e., a

scientific) explanation.

Lastly, in the third stage, we try to sound this unknown. Psychology

sees in it a special manifestation of the mind, a particular,

semi-conscious, semi-unconscious state which we must now study.

At first sight, and considered in its negative aspect, inspiration

presents a very definite character. It does not depend on the individual

will. As in the case of sleep or digestion, we may try to call it forth,

encourage it, maintain it; but not always with success. Inventors, great

and small, never cease to complain over the periods of unproductiveness

which they undergo in spite of themselves. The wiser among them watch

for the moment; the others attempt to fight against their evil fate and

to create despite nature.

Considered in its positive aspect, inspiration has two essential

marks--suddenness and impersonality.

(a) It makes a sudden eruption into consciousness, but one presupposing

a latent, frequently long, labor. It has its analogues among other

well-known psychic states; for example, a passion that is forgotten,

which, after a long period of incubation, reveals itself through an act;

or, better, a sudden resolve after endless deliberation which did not

seem able to come to a head. Again, there may be absence of effort and

of appearance of preparation. Beethoven would strike haphazard the keys

of a piano or would listen to the songs of birds. "With Chopin," says

George Sand, "creation was spontaneous, miraculous; he wrought without

foreseeing. It would come complete, sudden, sublime." One might pile up

like facts in abundance. Sometimes, indeed, inspiration bursts forth in

deep sleep and awakens the sleeper, and lest we may suppose this

suddenness to be especially characteristic of artists we see it in all

forms of invention. "You feel a little electric shock striking you in

the head, seizing your heart at the same time--that is the moment of

genius" (Buffon). "In the course of my life I have had some happy

thoughts," says Du Bois Reymond, "and I have often noted that they would

come to me involuntarily, and when I was not thinking of the subject."

Claude Bernard has voiced the same thought more than once.

(b) Impersonality is a deeper character than the preceding. It reveals a

power superior to the conscious individual, strange to him although

acting through him: a state which many inventors have expressed in the

words, "I counted for nothing in that." The best means of recognizing it

would be to write down some observations taken from the inspired

individuals themselves. We do not lack them, and some have the virtue of

good observation. But that would lead us too far afield. Let us only

remark that this unconscious impulse acts variously according to the

individual. Some submit to it painfully, striving against it just like

the ancient pythoness at the time of giving her oracle. Others,

especially in religious inspiration, submit themselves entirely with

pleasure or else sustain it passively. Still others of a more analytic

turn have noted the concentration of all their faculties and capacities

on a single point. But whatever characteristics it takes on, remaining

impersonal at bottom and unable to appear in a fully conscious

individual, we must admit, unless we wish to give it a supernatural

origin, that inspiration is derived from the unconscious activity of the

mind. In order to make sure of its nature it would then be necessary to

make sure first of the nature of the unconscious, which is one of the

enigmas of psychology.

I put aside all the discussions on the subject as tiresome and useless

for our present aim. Indeed, they reduce themselves to these two

principal propositions: for some the unconscious is a purely

physiological activity, a "cerebration"; for others it is a gradual

diminution of consciousness which exists without being bound to me--i.e.,

to the principal consciousness. Both these are full of difficulties

and present almost insurmountable objections.

Let us take the "unconscious" as a fact and let us limit ourselves to

clearing it up, relating inspiration to mental states that have been

judged worthy of explaining it.

1. Hypermnesia, or exaltation of memory, in spite of what has been said

about it, teaches us nothing in regard to the nature of inspiration or

of invention in general. It is produced in hypnotism, mania, the excited

period of "circular insanity," at the beginning of general paralysis,

and especially under the form known as "the gift of tongues" in

religious epidemics. We find, it is true, some observations (among

others one by Regis of an illiterate newspaper vender composing pieces

of poetry of his own), indicating that a heightened memory sometimes

accompanies a certain tendency toward invention. But hypermnesia, pure

and simple, consists of an extraordinary flood of memories totally

lacking that essential mark of creation--new combinations. It even

appears that in the two instances there is rather an antagonism since

heightened memory comes near to the ideal law of total redintegration,

which is, as we know, a hindrance to invention. They are alike only with

respect to the great mass of separable materials, but where the

principle of unity is wanting there can be no creation.

2. Inspiration has often been likened to the state of excitement

preceding intoxication. It is a well-known fact that many inventors have

sought it in wine, alcoholic liquors, toxic substances like hashish,

opium, ether, etc. It is unnecessary to mention names. The abundance of

ideas, the rapidity of their flow, the eccentric spurts and caprices,

novel ideas, strengthening of the vital and emotional tone, that brief

state of bounding fancy of which novelists have given such good

descriptions, make evident to the least observing that under the

influence of intoxication the imagination works to a much greater extent

than ordinarily. Yet how pale that is compared to the action of the

intellectual poisons above mentioned, especially hashish. The

"artificial paradise" of DeQuincy, Moreau de Tours, Theophile Gautier,

Baudelaire and others have made known to all an enormous expansion of

the imagination launched into a giddy course without limits of time and


Strictly, these are facts representing only a stimulated, artificial,

temporary inspiration. They do not take us into its true nature; at the

most they may teach us concerning some of their physiological

conditions. It is not even an inspiration in the strict sense, but

rather a beginning, an embryo, an outline, analogous to the creations

produced in dreams which are found very incoherent when we awake. One of

the essential conditions of creation, a principal element--the directing

principle that organizes and unifies--is lacking. Under the influence

of alcoholic drinks and of poisonous intoxicants attention and will

always fall into exhaustion.

3. With greater reason it has been sought to explain inspiration by

comparison with certain forms of somnambulism, and it has been said that

"it is only the lowest degree of the latter state, somnambulism in a

waking state. In inspiration it is as though a strange personality were

speaking to the author; in somnambulism it is the stranger himself who

talks or holds the pen, who speaks or writes--in a word, does the

work." It would thus be the modified form of a state that is the

culmination of subconscious activity and a state of double personality.

As this last explanatory expression is wonderfully abused, and is called

upon to serve in all conditions, preciseness is indispensable.

The inspired individual is like an awakened dreamer--he lives in his

dream. (Of this we might cite seemingly authentic examples: Shelly,

Alfieri, etc.) Psychologically, this means that there is in him a double

inversion of the normal state.

To begin with, consciousness monopolized by the number and intensity of

its images is closed to the influences of the outside world, or else

receives them only to make them enter the web of its dream. The internal

life annihilates the external, which is just the opposite of ordinary


Further, the unconscious or subconscious activity passes to the first

plane, plays the first part, while preserving its impersonal character.

This much allowed, if we would go further, we are thrown into increasing

difficulties. The existence of an unconscious working is beyond doubt;

facts in profusion could be given in support of this obscure elaboration

which enters consciousness only when all is done. But what is the nature

of this work? Is it purely physiological? Is it psychological? We come

to two opposing theses. Theoretically, we may say that everything goes

on in the realm of the unconscious just as in consciousness, only

without a message to me; that in clear consciousness the work may be

followed up step by step, while in unconsciousness it proceeds likewise,

but unknown to us. It is evident that all this is purely hypothetical.

Inspiration resembles a cipher dispatch which the unconscious activity

transmits to the conscious process, which translates it. Must we admit

that in the deep levels of the unconscious there are formed only

fragmentary combinations and that they reach complete systematization

only in clear consciousness, or, rather, is the creative labor identical

in both cases? It is difficult to decide. It seems to be accepted that

genius, or at least richness, in invention depends on the subliminal

imagination, not on the other, which is superficial in nature and

soon exhausted. The one is spontaneous, true; the other, artificial,

feigned. "Inspiration" signifies unconscious imagination, and is only a

special case of it. Conscious imagination is a kind of perfected state.

To sum up, inspiration is the result of an underhand process existing in

men, in some to a very great degree. The nature of this work being

unknown, we can conclude nothing as to the ultimate nature of

inspiration. On the other hand, we may in a positive manner fix the

value of the phenomenon in invention, all the more as we are inclined to

over-value it. We should, indeed, note that inspiration is not a cause

but an effect--more exactly, a moment, a crisis, a critical stage; it is

an index. It marks either the end of an unconscious elaboration which

may have been very short or very long, or else the beginning of a

conscious elaboration which will be very short or very long (this is

seen especially in cases of creation suggested by chance). On the one

hand, it never has an absolute beginning; on the other hand, it never

delivers a finished work; the history of inventions sufficiently proves

this. Furthermore, one may pass beyond it; many creations long in

preparation seem without a crisis, strictly so called; such as Newton's

law of attraction, Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," and the "Mona

Lisa." Finally, many have felt themselves really inspired without

producing anything of value.


What has been said up to this point does not exhaust the study of the

unconscious factor as a source of new combinations. Its role can be

studied under a simpler and more limited form. For this purpose we need

to return for the last time to association of ideas. The final reason

for association (outside of contiguity, in part at least) must be sought

in the temperament, character, individuality of the subject, often even

in the moment; that is, in a passing influence, hardly perceptible

because it is unconscious or subconscious. These momentary dispositions

in latent form can excite novel relations in two ways--through mediate

association and through a special mode of grouping which has recently

received the name "constellation."

1. Mediate association has been well known since the time of Hamilton,

who was the first to determine its nature and to give a personal example

that has become classic. Loch Lomond recalled to him the Prussian system

of education because, when visiting the lake, he had met a Prussian

officer who conversed with him on the subject. His general formula is

this: A recalls C, although there is between them neither contiguity

nor resemblance, but because a middle term, B, which does not enter

consciousness, serves as a transition between A and C. This mode of

association seemed universally accepted when, latterly, it has been

attacked by Muensterberg and others. People have had recourse to

experimentation, which has given results only in slight agreement.

For my own part, I count myself among those contemporaries who admit

mediate association, and they are the greater number. Scripture, who has

made a special study of the subject, and who has been able to note all

the intermediate conditions between almost clear consciousness and the

unconscious, considers the existence of mediate association as proven.

In order to pronounce as an illusion a fact that is met with so often in

daily experience, and one that has been studied by so many excellent

observers, there is required more than experimental investigations (the

conditions of which are often artificial and unnatural), some of which,

moreover, conclude for the affirmative.

This form of association is produced, like the others, now by

contiguity, now by resemblance. The example given by Hamilton belongs to

the first type. In the experiments by Scripture are found some of the

second type--e.g., a red light recalled, through the vague memory of a

flash of strontium light, a scene of an opera.

It is clear that by its very nature mediate association can give rise to

novel combinations. Contiguity itself, which is usually only repetition,

becomes the source of unforeseen relations, thanks to the elimination of

the middle term. Nothing, moreover, proves that there may not sometimes

be several latent intermediate terms. It is possible that A should

call up D through the medium of b and c, which remain below the

threshold of consciousness. It seems even impossible not to admit this

in the hypothesis of the subconscious, where we see only the two end

links of the chain, without being able to allow a break of continuity

between them.

2. In his determination of the regulating causes of association of

ideas, Ziehen designates one of these under the name of "constellation,"

which has been adopted by some writers. This may be enunciated thus: The

recall of an image, or of a group of images, is in some cases the result

of a sum of predominant tendencies.

An idea may become the starting point of a host of associations. The

word "Rome" can call up a hundred. Why is one called up rather than

another, and at such a moment rather than at another? There are some

associations based on contiguity and on resemblance which one may

foresee, but how about the rest? Here is an idea A; it is the center

of a network; it can radiate in all directions--B, C, D, E, F, etc.

Why does it call up now B, later F?

It is because every image is comparable to a force, which may pass from

the latent to the active condition, and in this process may be

reinforced or checked by other images. There are simultaneous and

inhibitory tendencies. B is in a state of tension and C is not; or

it may be that D exerts an arresting influence on C. Consequently

C cannot prevail. But an hour later conditions have changed and

victory rests with C. This phenomenon rests on a physiological basis:

the existence of several currents diffusing themselves through the brain

and the possibility of receiving simultaneous excitations.

A few examples will make plainer this phenomenon of reinforcement, in

consequence of which an association prevails. Wahle reports that the

Gothic Hotel de Ville, near his house, had never suggested to him the

idea of the Doges' Palace at Venice, in spite of certain architectural

likenesses, until a certain day when this idea broke upon him with much

clearness. He then recalled that two hours before he had observed a lady

wearing a beautiful brooch in the form of a gondola. Sully rightly

remarks that it is much easier to recall the words of a foreign language

when we return from the country where it is spoken than when we have

lived a long time in our own, because the tendency toward recollection

is reinforced by the recent experience of the words heard, spoken,

read, and a whole array of latent dispositions that work in the same


In my opinion we would find the finest examples of "constellation,"

regarded as a creative element, in studying the formation and

development of myths. Everywhere and always man has had for material

scarcely anything save natural phenomena--the sky, land, water, stars,

storms, wind, seasons, life, death, etc. On each of these themes he

builds thousands of explanatory stories, which vary from the grandly

imposing to the laughably childish. Every myth is the work of a human

group which has worked according to the tendencies of its special genius

under the influence of various stages of intellectual culture. No

process is richer in resources, of freer turn, or more apt to give what

every inventor promises--the novel and unexpected.

To sum up: The initial element, external or internal, excites

associations that one cannot always foresee, because of the numerous

orientations possible; an analogous case to that which occurs in the

realm of the will when there are present reasons for and against, acting

and not acting, one direction or another, now or later--when the final

resolution cannot be predicted, and often depends on imperceptible


In conclusion, I anticipate a possible question: "Does the unconscious

factor differ in nature from the two others (intellectual and

emotional)?" The answer depends on the hypothesis that one holds as to

the nature of the unconscious itself. According to one view it would be

especially physiological, consequently different; according to another,

the difference can exist only in the processes: unconscious

elaboration is reducible to intellectual or emotional processes the

preparatory work of which is slighted, and which enters consciousness

ready made. Consequently, the unconscious factor would be a special form

of the other two rather than a distinct element in invention.

The Scientific Imagination The Utopian Imagination facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail