Gifts from mad artists


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Category: Reflections Date: 04 Feb 96

All 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.


Consider 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.


Coleridge 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.

In Lady Lazarus she writes:

Dying/ 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 a call.

And 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 misunderstood.”


But 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.


For 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.”


Also 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.

Three 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.

  1. Depression where despair is so total as to prevent all action, and hospitalisation is required.

  2. 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.

  3. Psychotic thought patterns - “The CIA is watching me through the television” - are not unusual.

  4. Drinking.


The 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.


Konner 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.


Konner 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.


These 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.


Artists, 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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur