The Necessity of Madness: Creativity’s Curse

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” — Aristotle

Greatness, especially in the arts, has often been correlated with madness—or at least a touch of it. Artists in general have a reputation for being eccentric, obsessive, and unstable, and the really legendary ones are often perceived to have straddled “the fine line between madness and genius.”

Image courtesy of eduArd via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Image courtesy of eduArd via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Writers are no exception. I had heard of how several great writers suffered from some form of mental/emotional instability (usually depression), and how several of them had committed suicide. Ernest Hemingway shot himself with his favorite shotgun at age 61. Virginia Woolf, suffering from a relapse of depression, wrote “I feel certain I am going mad again” in her suicide letter, and filled her pockets with rocks before walking into the River Ouse at age 59. Poet Sylvia Plath, who also struggled with depression, sealed herself in her kitchen and snuck her head in the gas oven, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning at age 30. David Foster Wallace, after also battling depression for 20 years, hanged himself at the age of 46. And the list goes on.

“Creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. All you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone of really magnificent, creative minds who died young and often at their own hands. And even the ones who didn’t literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts…And somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted, collectively, this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked, and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.” Elizabeth Gilbert

 …

The Scream by Edvard Munch (Image courtesy of Ian Burt via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch [Image courtesy of Ian Burt via Flickr CC BY 2.0]

 “Every one of my books had killed me a little more.” ― Norman Mailer

Now, it may be true that it was these creatives’ inclination to artistry that heightened their tendency for mental and emotional instability. But as in many chicken-and-egg dilemmas in psychology, we may also consider the reverse to be true—that it is this very tendency towards instability which sparked their creative drive to start with.

“I am come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind enacted at the expense of general intellect.” — Edgar Allan Poe

 …

Artists are communicators of emotions, and the sort of art that truly impacts people are usually the ones born of great emotion in the artist. The best artists have the capacity for getting across deep emotions raw and real, precisely because they had experienced it themselves. Only those who feel deeply can write deeply. Only those who had undergone suffering can authentically describe such suffering to others. Ultimately, the maximum depth of emotion the artist can communicate is equal only to the depth he has experienced himself.

 …

“Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” — Anaïs Nin

Image courtesy of Ian Burt via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Weeping Woman (1937) by Pablo Picasso [Image courtesy of Ian Burt via Flickr CC BY 2.0]

Great writing is thus not so much mastery of language as it is mastery of emotion. It demands the capacity to dive into the depths of emotion, and yet not drown. To go into the thick of the dark forest, and yet not get lost. It is (1) the daring to go to the edge—the very edge of what is dark and difficult and dangerous—combined with (2) the capacity to linger just at that edge, long enough to capture its essence, and (3) the ability to pull back, always to pull back before tipping over to the pit within which no light and no salvation can evermore pierce.

 …

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”— E.L. Konigsburg

 …

The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, declining an offer for psychiatric help by psychoanalysis, famously said, “Don’t take my devils away, because my angels may flee too.” This speaks of the way artists often have to endure their demons to continue being with their angels, so to speak—to feed off the energy, even negative energy, that fuels their artistic drive. But do we encourage succumbing to mental/emotional instabilities then—to the point of becoming mad—as a way to creativity and prolific artistry?

Not necessarily.

The key is in the ability to entertain “madness” and emotional chaos within oneself, without ultimately being consumed and defeated by it.

 …

Image by Andre Villers courtesy of dou_ble_you via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Picasso, Villa Californie, Cannes 1957 [Image by Andre Villers courtesy of dou_ble_you via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

The point here is that normality and stability are rarely the way of artistry. The very nature of art and creativity demands that one go beyond what is conventional and instead explore the unfamiliar, the strange, the anomalous, the abnormal. Even in studies of personality, creative people have generally been found to score higher in Psychoticism, a dimension of personality indicative of how much a person is likely to be rebellious against the system, and to develop a psychotic illness.

Thus, a certain form of deviance from the norm must inevitably exist in the artist—a strange way of seeing things, an odd way of doing things, even an anomalous way of feeling. If the artist existed in a state of internal equilibrium — very stable emotions, conventional thoughts, regular way of perceiving things — I doubt there would be any drive or need to create art anymore, much less the capacity to do so.

 …

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” — Nietzsche

 

The above line by Nietzsche beautifully captures the essence of the matter. Note that though the artist must have chaos within him, he need not be the chaos.

There is a difference, see. The battle of the artist is to remain just the vessel of that chaos, sometimes immersing in it, but never fully melding with it.

Thus, though he derives his creative power from the ability to plunge into depths of emotion, his very survival lies in his ability to swim back up to the surface, always. Though he must go into the deepest, darkest forests of thought and possibly human suffering, to get out alive, it must be within his capacity to maintain a light within, no matter how faint.

Therein lies the unique power—and the salvation—of the creative who can indulge the madness if he will, but who can always pull back to sanity, when he must.

• ♠ •

Alice: Do you think I’ve gone ’round the bend?
Charles: I’m afraid so… you’re mad. Bonkers. Off your head… but I’ll tell you a secret…all of the best people are.

~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

• ♥ •

Updated: If you liked this post, you will love Cody Delistraty’s The Depressing Downside of Creative Genius (formerly titled The Neurological Similarities between Successful Writers and the Mentally Ill). I got to read it months after I wrote this (I hope I had read it earlier though; could’ve quoted a lot of his lines within this post), and figured I gotta include a link of it here. It’s definitely worth a read.

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17 thoughts on “The Necessity of Madness: Creativity’s Curse

  1. I read your well-worded comment to Cody’s 11/27/14 essay on this topic and that brought me here, where I enjoyed reading your essay as well. Cody recently wrote a new piece as well:
    http://delistraty.com/2015/04/17/is-social-rejection-the-key-to-creativity/
    I first came across an exploration of this subject when I read Thomas Mann’s semi-autobiographical “Tonio Kröger”. There he writes, “Good work only arises under the strain of a miserable life; he who lives cannot work, and only after having undergone death can one completely become a creator.” I would highly recommend reading that novella for a perspective into the mentality of an artist from the point of view of Mann.
    I’m a New York banker who writes novels whenever finding spare time. I published one and am working on another. For me, the change that brought me to becoming a writer was my first difficult period of unemployment when I felt like I was no longer living and as if totally apart from the world and the activities of all its people.
    I saw similarities in the histories of many writers; there was a lot of suffering at the same time as a lot a creativity in the lives of Baudelaire, Gogol, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Heine, Leopardi, von Kleist, and Turgenev.

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