the writers, singers, poets, philosophers, artists - all the geniuses I
love - were mad or alcoholic, prone to rages, losers, substance abusers,
self centred, loners, women harassers, manic depressives, suicidal.
Virginia Woolfe. She dashed off almost a dozen novels, charted a new
course in English literature. She is remembered for her beauty - flame
cheeked and green eyed - for her precocious command of language, for her
literary connections, her publishing company. Then one day she heard
“voices” in her head, dreaded going mad again. (She was in and out of
sanatoriums all her life.) She
filled her pockets with heavy stones and drowned herself in a river. Her
diaries reveal her pull towards darkness, depression, death - “the one
experience I will never describe”. Her great novels - all classics - lie
in front of me. In them, madness and anguish are inextricably bound with
creativity and genius.
took opium for blinding headaches, and Byron had rages. Friedrich
Nietzsche the German philosopher went mad, died mad. Their cries of pain
are indistinguishable from their talent. Sylvia Plath was only 30 when she
put some milk and bread beside her sleeping toddlers, shoved newspaper in
the space between the door and the floor, and gassed herself in her oven.
In the months preceeding her death she had written her darkest and most
brilliant poems. Poems published in Ariel. Ironically her poems on death
made her immortal, placed her work forever alongside all great poets.
Lady Lazarus she writes:
Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well. I do it so
it feels like hell/ I do it so it feels real/ I guess you could say I’ve
they are hopelessly misunderstood, as Nina Simone resonates in an almost
unbearably powerful and beautiful voice. “Baby, understand me now, if
sometimes you see that I’m mad, Oh lord please don’t let me be
five definitive studies may help us understand them. They are cited by
Melvin Kroner in Why the reckless survive and other secrets of Human
Nature. Its other spellbinding chapters on Minding the Pain, Genes and the
Soul, The Many Faces of Madness, Hands and Mind shed some light on the
more puzzling aspects of human behaviour.
instance in the chapter Art of Darkness he establishes once and for all
the link between creativity and madness. It begins: “Robert Lovell
regarded by many as the best poet since World War II was repeatedly
hospitalised for mental illness to his death, in 1977. Severe periodic
mood swings dragged him from the abject depths of despair to the heights
of flighty unreasoning, and, paradoxically, often painful elation.”
Konner also cites the examples of Newton, Beethoven, Dickens, and van Gogh
all of whom suffered from mood disorders. And quotes Socrates who wrote
centuries ago: “All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy,
politics, poetry and the arts are melancholic.”
Plato who says the poetry of sane men is “beaten all hollow by the
poetry of madmen.” Yet Konner tells us despite the evidence suggesting
the connection between creativity in madness, it was only in mid 1980s
that this was confirmed in five studies.
of the studies identified major artists and writers and examined their
rate of mental illness. The first study was published in 1987 by Nancy
Andreason, a biological psychiatrist. Sixty subjects participated. Thirty
came from America’s most distinguished writing programme - The Iowa
Writers Workshop. Thirty others were taken from a variety of occupations
including lawyers, administrators, and social workers. She found an
unexpectedly strong link between creativity and severe mental illness.
Andreason identified mental illness peculiar to creative people.
Depression where despair is so total as to prevent all action, and
hospitalisation is required.
In the manic phase, elation may give way to delusional risk taking
- speeding violations, shopping sprees, petty thefts, compulsive sexual
indiscretions and grandiose poorly planned business ventures.
Psychotic thought patterns - “The CIA is watching me through the
television” - are not unusual.
point could not have been proven more strongly. While the study was being
done two members of the creative group, the Iowa Writers Worshop,
committed suicide; 24 writers suffered from one of the other disorders
explained above and 30 were alcoholic. Of the 30 varied group of
professionals, only nine had any mental illness.
cites four other studies which demonstrate roughly the same thing, but the
chapter ends on a note of hope. Today affective disorders related to
creativity can be successfully treated. Major depression he says responds
to antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy and electroconvulsive shock, with
lithium issued to prevent mania. But there is no saying whether the drugs
also block the creativity.
hopes that modern treatments can “take a classic manic depressive and
push him into a range in which artistry is enhanced rather than
damaged.” Konner concludes, “As we refine those treatments fully
recognising at last the partial connection between art and madness, we may
release newer purer, more sustained wellsprings of human creativity.”
How I wish Plath and Woolfe, because I am fond of their work, could have
been around for that.
studies are vital in that they help us understand the artists around us -
and I use the term loosely to include film makers and video editors,
potters and sculptors, actors and musicians, photographers, writers and
poets. Too often we tend to judge them by yardsticks that don’t apply to
them. A “normal” life - a mortgage, 2.2 kids, marriage - is often
anathema to their art.
good ones that is, mirror the world for us. Theirs is a necessary gift -
feeding our souls - because they seek out little flints of light in an
essentially unhappy world and light us up. And a selfless one - scraping
out that creativity takes its toll, whole patches of skin may come off
with one poem, or a play. Theirs is the gift of premonitions, and we
should judge them in this context. They may be rotten fathers, or
drunkards or womanisers, whatever. (And there are exceptions.) I have no
sympathy for bad artists with attitudes. But the real geniuses I’ll
defend to death, because to them we owe innumerable truths and laughter
and a sense of the absurd and intelligence - the very breath of the human
soul. Their gifts to us are precious and immeasurable.