Origins of Evil: Denise Levertov & Otto Rank on Creativity

The origin of evil among humans comes from our deep intelligence and vast creativity or imagination.  We can chose to put these gifts to work for the common good and for love and compassion, or we can put them to the service of evil, as Deuteronomy proclaimed: “I put before you life and death.  Choose life.” 

Julia Entin, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, evacuates Holocaust survivors and other vulnerable Jewish Ukrainians from the conflict zone. Report by ABC News Live “Humanitarian Heroes” series.

Creativity is a choice and using creativity for life’s sake is a choice.  So too is using creativity for death’s sake (ask Mr. Putin).

The poet Denise Levertov and the social-psychologist Otto Rank have spoken profoundly to such truths.  Levertov declares that 

Man’s capacity for evil, then, is less a positive capacity, for all its horrendous activity, than a failure to develop man’s most human function, the imagination, to its fullness, and consequently a failure to develop compassion. 

How wonderfully she is naming the relationship between the Via Creativa and the Via Transformativa (justice) in this statement!  Creativity finds its fulfillment in service of the common good.

“What will be tomorrow in the minds of young people/Some have hope, some have fear…” Ukrainian rockstar Svyatoslav Vakarchuk performs for evacuees at the railway station in Lviv. Video by News of Ukraine and the World on NPR.

Otto Rank also speaks meaningfully of the Via Creativa and how we put it to use—or not—and its impact on developing a healthy self and a healthy society.  Indeed, his very definition of neurosis is a person who either ignores his or her creativity or uses it to beat up on oneself (or to beat up on others).  Thus, the artiste manque.  The misuse of art or creativity.

Whereas the average person largely subordinates himself, both socially and biologically, to the collective, and the neurotic shuts himself deliberately off from both, the productive type finds a middle way, which is expressed in ideological experience and personal creativity.  But he warns that finding a balance “is difficult, impermanent, and in all circumstance painful.” 

Ukrainian artist Anna Miller of Jacksonville, FL, portrays the conflict in her homeland through paintings while pressing for aid to Ukraine. Video by First Coast News

Shortly before his death, Ernest Becker, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Denial of Death, commented that Rank’s Art and Artist was the most important book he had read in his entire lifetime.  And he said that of all his works, “Art and Artist is the most secure monument to his genius.”

Rank warns of the danger of psychologizing religion and education. 

Education or art can no more be supported on psychological ideologies than religion can be replaced by psychology.  For psychology is the individual ideology par excellence….


Adapted from Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet, p. 37;

and Matthew Fox, “Otto Rank on the Artistic Journey as a Spiritual Journey and the Spiritual Journey as an Artistic Journey,” in Matthew Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, pp. 207, 200, 212, 202.

To read the transcript for Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: “Solidarity with Ukraine,” first of a series of anti-war murals, was created on the wall next to the Gdańsk-Jasień Pomeranian Metropolitan Railway station by Piotr Jaworski, a Gdańsk street artist, through a government/cultural partnership. Photo by elnina on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree with Levertov that humanity’s “most human function” is our imagination and that its purpose is to embrace compassion?  And with Rank that choices we make regarding our creativity are “difficult, impermanent, and in all circumstance painful”?


Recommended Reading

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

Wrestling with the Prophets: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life

In one of his foundational works, Fox engages with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets in profound and hard-hitting essays on such varied topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interfaith or Deep Ecumenism and more.


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9 thoughts on “Origins of Evil: Denise Levertov & Otto Rank on Creativity”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, You begin today with the words: “The origin of evil among humans comes from our deep intelligence and vast creativity or imagination. We can chose to put these gifts to work for the common good and for love and compassion, or we can put them to the service of evil…” And so we see that the Via Creativa needs to be informed by the Via Transformativa. In the video you quote a phrase by M. C. Richards, which speaks of “moral imagination.” The imaginations that came up with the atom bomb, were not imagining something that would be moral or for the common good–just apply Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” that is roughly stated, “Do not do anything that you would not want to become a universal law.” In other words, “Don’t be making bombs to blow up others, if you don’t want others to bomb you!” Genesis 6:5 says about the time of the flood, “And God saw the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually.” Well, I don’t think that the world is to that point, BUT it sure looks like that is a true description of some of our world leaders at this time (i.e. Putin and Kim Jong un)?
    As for your “Queries for Contemplation” you ask: “Do you agree with Levertov that humanity’s “most human function” is our imagination and that its purpose is to embrace compassion?” I do. Imagination is one of the things that make us human, and yes, it needs to be embraced by compassion–that is how we keep our imaginations purposed for good rather than evil.
    “And with Rank that choices we make regarding our creativity are ‘difficult, impermanent, and in all circumstance painful’?” I feel that the “choices we make regarding our creativity are difficult and impermanent, but I have had very few experiences where this was “painful.”

    1. Avatar

      I relate strongly to Levertov’s vision of a dynamic ‘conne-x-ion’ between Imagination and Compassion. But I find Rank’s conclusion that the choices we make about our creativity are “difficult, impermanent, and in all circumstances painful”. Levertov points to our being participators rather than observers in Reality. As such, we have the option to embellish Reality with Compassion. Rank’s somewhat surprising conclusion, perhaps taken out of context, seems to be that even compassionate creativity is too difficult/painful and ultimately fruitless. Rereading Sam Keen’s book The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving [1983] I note Keen’s persistent emphasis on the role of compassion. Without denying the difficulties and challenges associated with transcending ego to achieve compassion Keen seems to have a more positive view than Rank.

      1. Avatar
        Jeanette Metler

        What I hear in Rank’s words, which I’ve paraphrased, “The productive person finds a middle way, expressed in ideological experience and personal creativity… and yet within this process finds this balance is difficult, impermanent and in all circumstances painful,” is what unfolds, evolves and emerges, when one risks being an intuitively, creatively, imaginative free thinker. To do so, is risky, because it involves being not only vulnerable, but it also involves a certain level of really trusting oneself, one’s own intuitive, creative and imaginative inner knowing… desiring to be seen, unfold, evolve and emerge from within.

        It’s difficult to remain balanced in this middle way, because once you take the risk of birthing this… putting this out there… sharing this blessed gift with others… more often than not, it is immediately challenged… which can have a negative influence… which often impacts the way one needs to nurture this new birth… which can lead to self-doubt, self-rejection and even self-sabotage regarding that which one has intuitively, imaginatively and creatively birthed.

        This free thinking expression is difficult to carry forth and give of oneself, with hands gently open… without grasping to protect or defend what one has seen and experienced for oneself… that which desires to continue to unfold, evolve and emerge in imaginative and creative ways… when it is faced with criticisim, judgement, rejection and condemnation… which causes oneself to facilate between the fragility and possible impermance of that free thinking idea and ones needs that must be met in order to further nurture that which one has birthed… so that this may take on further focus, substance, shape and form.

        This is why I personally sense that all intuitive, imaginative, creative and free thinking experiences, expressions and manifestations of this are indeed not only joyful, but also painful.

    2. Avatar
      Alexander Lambrou

      If I have understood the discussion, from my studies or in my experience, the fire of sacrifice or pain is necessary to provide the ignition for creative (or even destructive) ideas to manifest. The pain of fasts or fasting from evil or traumas undergone provide the flames which one may not be aware of. The Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary are ever aflame, ever pierced by the twin pains of sacrifice and compassion, just as They are ever alight with joy and love. Just a thought.

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    Sharing at the table: the time has come
    By Thomas O’Loughlin | United Kingdom
    March 24, 2022

    As war rages between two “Christian” nations, leaders of the divided Churches cannot credibly talk about peace if they continue to exclude one another from the Eucharist.

    https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/sharing-at-the-table-the-time-has-come/15842#

    Religions divide the human family, “My God is BIGGER than your god!” Thus we continue to have a broken world set on self-extinction.

  3. Avatar

    I am reminded in Matthew’s DM today that the power of our moral imagination to create new social forms is closely related to the new awareness that quantum physics is teaching us of the inter-connectivity of matter and mind/spirit. Spiritually this is the creative power of Divine Love.
    I’ve recommended it before, but I’ll recommend it again — Paul Levy’s “The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality.”

  4. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    The contemplative and imaginative mystic, learns to hold the creative tension of every seeming conflict… moving beyond words… into pure, open-ended compassion… which has the potential to unify many seeming contradictions and paradoxes into a greater measure of wholeness… beyond our comprehension… yet there to be experienced.

  5. Avatar

    Well, Truth Is Freedom was sure Harder to Come By than Any Child Ever really Saw Coming, aren’t we All Just that. In the End. Of the Day. – & So much More. _\/_ ~ Stay Blessed. She Sees, with Two Eyes through the Dark of the Nights Storm. … This is the Story of True Love. xoxo

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