Elvis, Beethoven, Arthur Miller and Kafka also told their lives through art

Have you ever wondered what would go through the head of an author, an artist or a composer when doing a certain job? It’s not the only one.

Within psychology, psychobiography is gaining more and more value. We could define it as the efficient use of psychological theory to turn the life of a subject into a coherent and illuminating story. This research method has traditionally focused on politicians, social movement leaders and artists.

Regarding artists, psychobiographers discover and analyze the development, evolution and change of their personality, the relationship between this and their work and even the possible dumping of their internal conflicts in artistic works, among many other data.

Regarding the latter, let’s see some examples.

Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe and the crucible

The renowned psychobiographer James W. Anderson, who throughout his career has studied artists and psychologists, published several works on the figure of Arthur Miller (1915-2005).

In his article The Psychology of Artistic Creativity: With Reference to Arthur Miller and The Crucible he shared that the playwright was well aware of the personal burden he had placed on his work.

Arthur Miller in a 1966 photograph.
Eric Koch/Dutch National Archives

his famous work the crucible either Witches of Salem tells a story that takes place during the 17th century Salem, Massachusetts trials of women accused of witchcraft. Through this argument, Miller was depositing his fears and experiences during McCarthyism, the persecution carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s in the United States in which people suspected of being communists.

But not only that, but there seem to be parallels between the sentimental themes of the protagonist of this story with his own. John Proctor, the protagonist of Witches of Salem, he feels guilty for having slept with Abigail, his young servant. Abigail, obsessed with Proctor, accuses her wife of being a witch in order to have a “free way”. In addition to the context of the narrative, Miller declared that the soul of the work was the guilt that John felt for having been unfaithful to his wife.

By then, Miller, who was married, had already met Marilyn Monroe and was fascinated by the actress. This made him feel like a true traitor towards his wife. Although he tried with all his might to forget her, he eventually ended up divorcing her first wife and marrying Monroe.

Kafka was also a son

The prolific psychobiographer Todd Schultz tells in his article Behind the masksthat when reading Kafka’s short novel Sentence –in which a father argues strongly with his son, sentences him to drown, and the son jumps into the river to fulfill that wish– it is logical to think that in the writer’s real life there would be some kind of conflict like that.

Well, in your letter to father, published a few years later, Kafka reproaches his father for the emotionally abusive treatment he has towards him, among other things. In that letter, the author himself compares himself to vermin, which makes clear how his father made him feel.

This in turn connects with his great work Metamorphosisin which the protagonist undergoes a sudden transformation into an insect, which causes him serious difficulties in communicating with his environment.

elvis loneliness

Elvis Presley was primarily an interpreter of the musical compositions of others. Although he didn’t write the songs he recorded, he sometimes adapted the existing ones for his own purposes and modified words, phrases and entire lines of some lyrics.

In the chapter “Twelve Ways to Say “Lonesome”: Assessing Error and Control in the Music of Elvis Presley“ by Handbook of PsychobiographyAlan Elms & Bruce Heller perform an analysis of the interpretation of the song Are you lonely tonight?.

Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, suggested this song to the singer, mainly because it was one of his wife Marie’s favorites, and he agreed to add it to his repertoire.

But the interesting thing comes next: Elvis tended to “destroy” this song during performances, whether deliberately or not. He usually did it with errors in the lyrics or with laughter in the middle. In his last live version he was about to completely caved in. He made it to the end of the song with much difficulty.

Elvis performs ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ in it ’68 Comeback Specialthe fifth performance analyzed by Elms and Heller in their study.

What Elms and Heller discovered when analyzing the different live performances of “Are you lonely tonight” is that in the parts of the song where the lyrics connoted loss of control and vulnerability, the interpretation errors were many. But when the message implied control and power, the errors decreased remarkably.

In other words, the mistakes that Elvis made seemed to have a psychological explanation behind it. Elvis was protecting himself. The singer was very afraid of loneliness throughout his life, and this caused him difficulties when singing this song that he liked so much to his audience.

Beethoven and death

In my psychobiographical research on the figure of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) it was very difficult to find an evident transfer of his story, particularly his emotional experiences and inner conflicts, to his work. Was it a dissociation or just a healthy ability to separate the professional from the personal?

It is also true that they were other times. The romantic period was just beginning and it was still not customary to express emotions explicitly in musical works. However, some other composition exemplifies his feeling.

Beethoven suffered from a myriad of illnesses, some more serious than others. With a stoic attitude he left all of them, but there was an occasion in which he believed that he would soon stop seeing the light of the sun. He felt the artist’s fear that he knew he still had a lot to offer the world and that he couldn’t leave.

When he managed to recover, he composed one of the most beautiful movements of all his work; the third movement of his 15th string quartet in A minor, which he called Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an der Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart – can be translated as “Song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the divinity composed in Lydian mode”–.

The Danish String Quartet performs the third movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, (Molto adagio).

Creators, researchers and psychobiographers, we speak from experience in our different fields of the almost impossible separation that can be made between what one is, suffers, yearns for and what remains in artistic works. However, the reflection is not always so direct or clear, but sometimes more symbolic or metaphorical. And of course, not all artists are aware that they do it. Some speak of the muses, as if the artistic work came to them from some remote place totally alien to them…


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