“Speaking in Primordial Images” Part 1: Jung on Creativity and the Creative Process

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.



“Speaking in Primordial Images” Part I:

Jung on Creativity and the Creative Process



“We would do well… to think of the creative process as a living thing implanted in the human psyche.”

Jung (1922)[1]


“The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”

Jung (1922)[2]


“… when we discuss the psychology of art, we must bear in mind these two entirely different modes of creation,… introverted and… extraverted. The introverted attitude is characterized by the subject’s assertion of his conscious intentions and aims against the demands of the subject, whereas the extraverted attitude is characterized by the subject’s subordination to the demands which the object makes upon him.”

Jung (1922)[3]


Jung was the author of hundreds of essays, dozens of books, numerous speeches and articles,[4] as well as a skilled artist, as both the Red Book and the murals and stone carvings around Bollingen attest.[5] He knew what it meant to be an artist and he wrote about the creative process from decades of his own personal experience of creating.[6] In this two-part essay we explore Jung’s definitions of creativity, his sense of the creative process, and features of creativity (in Part I) and his concept of art and the artist, and his thoughts on the role and impact of art in society (in Part II).


Definitions of Creativity


The dictionary defines “creativity” as “the quality of being creative; ability to create,” and “create” as “to cause to be; bring into being; make… by giving a new character, function, or status to; to give rise to; cause.”[7] When I “create” a new blog essay for this Web site each month, I give a new character to Jung’s words, toward explicating a topic or idea (often a topic or question posed by a Jungian Center student).

Our modern society tends to regard the “quality of being creative” as something special, i.e. we assume that not all people are “creative.” Most people reserve the term for writers, artists, playwrights, dancers etc. But Jung had a very different idea: He felt creativity was an “impulse” found in everyone:

“… I would like to emphasize that from the psychological standpoint five main groups of instinctive factors can be distinguished: hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity.”[8]

Jung was not certain that “instinct” was the right word for describing the creative capacity inherent in people, but he felt that

“the creative instinct is something that deserves special mention…. We use the term ‘creative instinct’ because this factor behaves at least dynamically, like an instinct. Like instinct it is compulsive,… I prefer to designate the creative impulse as a psychic factor similar in nature to instinct, having indeed a very close connection with the instincts, but without being identical with any one of them….”[9]

In regarding creativity as something “compulsive, Jung might have been drawing on his own experience (something, as an empiricist, he tended to do): He often found himself “in the grip of the daimon”[10] as he wrote his books and essays. I too have had the experience of being caught up in some creative endeavor, losing all track of time or bodily functioning, just “zoning out” in “the flow.”[11] This is not common, it doesn’t happen all the time; unlike some instincts (e.g. hunger), it is not a daily occurrence.

The important point to note is that Jung recognized every person has the potential to be creative and this “impulse” must be both respected and expressed. This is not to say that Jung felt everyone is equally gifted artistically. He recognized that only some people have the skill “to do it properly.”[12] That is, there are gifted writers, painters, dancers, actors, etc. and those who lack the “technical gift”[13] of, say, a T.S. Eliot, a Rembrandt, a Misty Copeland, or a Meryl Streep. In a letter to H.J. Barrett in 1956, Jung noted that

“Such people [i.e. unskilled creators] are pretty frequent… the creative man has to create and make visible in spite of the fact that he cannot do it properly. He may be a painter who cannot paint or a musician who cannot compose, not even play the piano. But he ought to do it nevertheless like the Jongleur de Notre Dame and ad maiorem Dei gloriam.[14]

“To the greater glory of God”–we offer whatever form our “creative impulse” takes as a form of worship to the instigator of that impulse, i.e. the Self. Creativity, in other words, is an inner force that we must recognize, respect and allow to express, even if our efforts only get hung in the closet, recorded on GarageBand, or witnessed by family members. Just as everyone has the capacity for sex and reflection, we all can participate in the creative process.


Jung’s Sense of the Creative Process


But we don’t do so in the same way: Just as our behaviors and preferences are related to our psychological type,[15] so we engage our creativity in ways congruent with our type, especially with our orientation: Introverted or Extraverted.[16] Just how we go about creating depends, in part, on whether we are an I or an E.

For example, in the Introverted form of the creative process, the creative products “… spring wholly from the author’s intention to produce a particular result.”[17] The Introverted artist

“…appears… to create of his own free will without the slightest feeling of compulsion. He may even be fully convinced of his freedom of action and refuse to admit that his work could be anything else than the expression of his will and ability.”[18]

The Introverted creator, according to Jung,

“submits his material to a definite treatment with a definite aim in view; he adds to it and subtracts from it, emphasizing one effect, toning down another, laying on a touch of color here, another there, all the time carefully considering the over-all result and paying strict attention to the laws of form and style. He exercises the keenest judgment and chooses his words with complete freedom. His material is entirely subordinated to his artistic purpose; he wants to express this and nothing else. He is wholly at one with the creative process, no matter whether he has deliberately made himself its spearhead, as it were, or whether it has made him its instrument so completely that he has lost all consciousness of this fact. In either case, the artist is so identified with his work that his intentions and his faculties are indistinguishable from the act of creation itself.”[19]

The Introverted form of the creative process, in other words, is more under the conscious control of the writer, painter, sculptor–whatever the form of creative expression.

Quite different is the experience of the Extraverted creator: She or he tends to experience the creative process as

“works [that] positively force themselves upon the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement. The work brings with it its own form; anything he wants to add is rejected, and what he himself would like to reject is thrust back at him. While his conscious mind stands amazed and empty before this phenomenon, he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being. Yet in spite of himself he is forced to admit that it is his own self speaking, his own inner nature revealing itself and uttering things which he would never have entrusted to his tongue. He can only obey the apparently alien impulse within him and follow where it leads, sensing that his work is greater than himself, and wields a power which is not his and which he cannot command. Here the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it, as though he were a second person; or as though a person other than himself had fallen within the magic circle of an alien will.”[20]

For the Extravert, the creative life is not under the ego’s control, and, given the Extravert’s tendency to downplay or ignore his/her inner life,[21] she or he is often unaware of the “alien impulses” that lie within. Even when the person has self-awareness he or she can be “taken captive by his work.”[22] This, even to the point where the

“… the creative urge is often so imperious that it battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary human happiness.”[23]

As I read these words of Jung, I found myself recalling my reading of his Red Book, in which he recorded his years of wrestling with his unconscious, and how he had to “obey the apparently alien impulses…”[24] and follow them wherever they wanted to lead. The result of this process presented Jung with images of Salome,[25] Philemon,[26] his trickster[27] and puer,[28] along with centering mandalas,[29] and his “inner city”[30]–a “magic circle,” indeed!


Features of the Creative Process


Alien impulses, powerful archetypes, and imperious urges are just some of the features of the creative process. Others include:

_ possession by the inner creative force, what Jung termed the daimon.[31] Jung was clear that “… man does not possess creative powers, he is possessed by them.”[32] and more than once Jung found himself “in the grip of the daimon” as he wrote his books and essays.

_ the “capricious and willful character”[33] of the creative impulse as it has its way with us. Creativity can be autonomous, i.e. not under the ego’s control, and it can sweep us “along on an underground current,”[34] catching us up in “the flow.”[35]

_ a certain “feminine quality,” as the creative work arises “from our unconscious depths–we might truly say from the realm of the Mothers…”[36]

_ irrationality: the creative process “eludes our attempts at understanding”[37] with our logical, linear ego mind, because creativity transcends left-brain thinking

_ transcendence and transmutation: when we are caught up in a creative process we “escape from the limits of the personal,”[38] and move into the transpersonal realm, which is how creativity can speak to people of different cultures and can nurture our souls

_ holding the tension of opposites:[39] the process of creation is both objective (impersonal) and subjective (personal, able to call up strong feelings).[40] It also brings together the consciousness and unconsciousness of the artist,[41] and entails both construction and destruction. Jung was explicit on this score:

It is impossible to create without destroying: a certain previous condition must be destroyed in order to produce a new one. The most sympathetic creation is inevitably also an act of destruction. The typical Hindu God of the creative forces is Shiva who dances in the burial grounds; he is the great destroyer because he is creative life, and as such both creative and destructive…. Then if you look at it psychologically, the life of a creative individual contains any amount of destruction, even of self-destruction.[42]

_ an immersion by the artist “in the state of participation mystique…”,[43] i.e. an ineffable sense or feeling of identification with something larger than ourselves, which Jung regarded as the explanation for “the effect great art has upon us…”.[44] We consider Jung’s sense of the impact of art, as well as his thoughts on art and the artist, in Part II.





Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Giannini, John (2004), Compass of the Soul. Gainesville FL: Center for Applications of Psychological Type.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Hunziker, Mark (2016), Depth Typology. np: Write Way Publishing Co.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1992), “Complete Bibliography of C.G. Jung’s Writings,” CW 19. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1998), Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ed. James Jarrett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2008), Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2009), The Red Book Liber Novus, ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W. Norton.

Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Kroeger, Otto & Janet Thuesen (1988), Type Talk. New York: Dell.

Lammers, Ann C. & Adrian Cunningham (2007), The Jung-White Letters. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Myers, Isabel Briggs & Peter Myers (1980), Gifts Differing. Palo Alto CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Rosen, David (1996), The Tao of Jung. New York: Penguin.

von Franz, Marie-Louise & James Hillman (1971), Jung’s Typology. Dallas TX: Spring Publications.


[1] Collected Works 15 ¶115. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid. ¶130.

[3] Ibid. ¶111.

[4] For a full list of Jung’s published works, see CW 19. Scholars who have examined Jung’s archives think there might be just as many essays etc. as yet unpublished! The non-profit Philemon Foundation is endeavoring to publish some of these works; cf. Lammers & Cunningham (2007) and Jung  (2008) for examples of what Philemon has already put out.

[5] For photographs of these cf. Bair (2003), between pp. 370 & 371; and Rosen (1996), plates 15, 16, 21-24.

[6] As befits an empiricist, Jung drew on his own observations and experiences in formulating his hypotheses.

[7] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 467.

[8] CW 8 ¶245.

[9] Ibid.; italics in the original.

[10] Jung (1965), 356.

[11] CW 15 ¶110.

[12] “Letter to H.J. Barrett,” August 1956; Letters, II, 321.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] For an in-depth discussion of Jung’s psychological types, see CW 6. For how others have developed his ideas, cf. Myers (1980), Giannini (2004), Keirsey & Bates (1984), Kroeger & Thuesen (1988), von Franz & Hillman (1971), and Hunziker (2016).

[16] CW 15 ¶s 109-115.

[17] Ibid., ¶109.

[18] Ibid. ¶115.

[19] Ibid. ¶109.

[20] Ibid. ¶110.

[21] CW 6 ¶563.

[22] CW 15 ¶114.

[23] Ibid. ¶115.

[24] Ibid. ¶110.

[25] Jung (2009), plate 155.

[26] Ibid., plate 154.

[27] Ibid., plates 109, 119, 122 and 129.

[28] Ibid., plate 113.

[29] Ibid., plates 45, 79, 102, 121, 127 & 159, for some examples.

[30] Ibid, plates 125 & 163.

[31] Jung (1998), 167.

[32] Ibid., 40.

[33] CW 15 ¶115.

[34] Ibid. ¶159.

[35] Ibid. ¶110.

[36] Ibid. ¶159.

[37] Ibid. ¶135.

[38] Ibid. ¶107.

[39] Jung wrote to multiple correspondents about the need to hold the tension of opposites; cf. “Letter to G. Meyer,” 20 May 1933, Letters, I, 121, and “Letter to Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn,” 20 August 1945, Letters, I, 375.  Jung spoke about the importance of holding the tension of opposites to his students, in one of most tense times of the Cold War; his remarks were recorded by Barbara Hannah; Hannah (1976), 129.

[40] CW 15 ¶162.

[41] Jung (1998), 47.

[42] Ibid., 39.

[43] CW 15 ¶162.

[44] Ibid.

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