The Untouched Key

Let this title solidify in your mind for a moment: the untouched key. What does this banal phrase actually signify? What could Alice Miller have meant when she selected these words to designate her treatise on the psychology of mankind's greatest geniuses?

The (one and only) Untouched (unseen and ignored by all save the author) Key (which unlocks meaning vital and previously unknown)

Published in German in 1988, Alice Miller's The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness is (in many circles) a celebrated exemplar of the power of modern psychology to explain and contain the past, to minimize the awesome power of 'myths' like Genius and Creativity and to illuminate the accepted idea that, in fact, these things are not the result of work or talent, and are as such to be found in all of us. When your teacher tells you that your finger painting is a beautiful and valuable expression of your voice, she is demonstrating the potent effects that this school of analysis has had on the West. It is now widely accepted that every individual is as creatively 'valid' as any other, and that talent is the product of societies and upbringing, not the individual.

In this 170 page text, Miller dissects the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz, Buster Keaton, and others. Her methodology is simple: she looks to a subject's biography, particularly his/her childhood. She isolates incidents that, to the modern reader, seem traumatic, humiliating, unpleasant, and sad, and then searches the subject's adult work to reverse-engineer the effects of those childhood difficulties.

"...I wanted to demonstrate that the works of writers, poets, and painters tell the encoded story of childhood traumas no longer consciously remembered in adulthood. After having made this discovery in...the writings of Franz Kafka, I was able to test it against other life histories. I wanted to share what I had found with biographers and psychoanalysts, but I soon learned that I was dealing with forbidden knowledge, by no means easy to share with 'the experts.'" (1)

Her work on Nietzsche illustrates very clearly her general approach to criticism. She begins by mentioning that the reason she is publishing her discoveries about Nietzsche has to do with the Nazis: "Sentences from Nietzsche could never have been misinterpreted in support of fascism...if people had understood his words for what they were: the encoded language of the child who was forbidden to express his true feelings."(2) She continues by discussing Nietzsche's youth: his father and mother were strongly religious, the children both of Protestant ministers, and evidently "forbade certain feelings and severely punished (their) son for expressing them."(3)

From this quite common biography, she continues:

"...In adolescence his once suppressed feelings burst forth, resulting in works that would deeply move young people of later generations. And then, at age forty, when he could no longer bear his loneliness and, since he was not able to see that the roots of his life history went back to his childhood, he lost his mind and everything became 'clear': historians locate the cause of his tragic ending in a venereal disease he supposedly contracted as an adolescent. The outcome is in keeping with our moral standards: the just, though delayed, punishment, in the form of a fatal disease, for having visiting a prostitute. This is similar toward the present attitude toward AIDS. Everything seems to turn out for the best, and hypocritical morality is restored."(4)

It is no exaggeration to describe the above paragraph as one of the dumbest I've ever read. Her meaningless digressions and stupid evocation of AIDS fail to camouflage the paucity of thinking behind her theory. Nietzsche's loneliness? To what does she refer here? And what does she mean when she says everything became clear? Is she suggesting that Nietzsche sat silent and still for almost ten years just thinking about his childhood and how shitty it was? Damn!

She goes on to discuss Nietzsche's "hopeless attempt"(5) to connect with his childhood, which evidently took the form of some of history's greatest philosophical thinking (I wish my hopeless attempts to do things were so productive). Ultimately, she analyzes very little of his work, which she seems singularly incapable of understanding, but does talk quite a bit about repression, injustice, "hypocritical morality," his misogyny, his "God Complex,"(6) and the like.

Throughout the book, Miller paints her subjects as imbeciles unable to recognize their neuroses, which she is nonetheless able to easily detect, describe, and dispatch. A little therapy here, some trust exercises there, and Picasso wouldn't have had to waste so much time painting.

But the arrogance implicit in an author reducing so many works of art and writing to the problems of childhood (which, after all, we all encounter) seems almost deranged. Lost in her analysis are the conscious and laborious struggles of the thinker to address his time and its ideas. To Miller, these subjects are pathetic clinical patients, whose lives lay open and intelligible before her trained eye, and any potential dissent is brushed aside as the fury of someone else with a repressed childhood memory, defensive in the face of the truth. As Ernest Becker said, this sort of theory is "not a fair game, intellectually, because (the author) always hold(s) the trump card. This type of argument makes psychoanalysis seem unscientific to many people, the fact that its proponents can claim that someone denies one of their concepts because he represses his consciousness of its truth."(7)

But the fact remains: reductionist, posthumous psychologizing from someone who seems uninterested in anything other than the politics of childhood and morality has nothing to do with art, philosophy, or anything else that won't be forgotten in 100 years. (To Miller, e2 would be nothing more than the manifestation of its members' desire to strike out into the void and carve an identity for themselves, freed from the humiliations of their real lives, and I think that only applies to me.) Personally, I think Miller's work is an obvious attempt to visit revenge on artists in general, probably because she was once dumped by an intellectual for a preacher's daughter.


1. Miller, Alice. The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness. Double Day Books, New York: 1990. p. 73
2. Ibid. p.75
3. Ibid. p.79
4. Ibid. p.77
5. Ibid. p.90
6. Ibid. p.190
7. Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. The Free Press, New York: 1973.