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Madness and Genius Are Close Relations in the Creative Arts

Van Gogh With Self-Mutilated Ear - Web Museum
It’s often said that there is a fine line between lunacy and brilliance, but mental illness can actually be an artist’s inspiration.

Writers, painters, film makers and composers are often assumed to be barking mad, or they wouldn’t create. Comedians suffer the same misapprehension. The fact is many creative people experience periods of mental illness and mood disorders, like depression and bipolar, Asperger’s and other forms of autism. Others draw on the results of thought experiments and mind-games to confuse, twist and alter normal perception.

Savant Syndrome is characterised by remarkable artistic, mathematical or musical skills. UK’s Stephen ‘Human Camera’ Wiltshire has perfect pitch and paints uncannily detailed cityscapes from memory after short viewings.

Madness is a somewhat outdated, catch-all phrase to describe behaviour which some see as eccentric, strange or plain weird. The music of Leonard Cohen is frequently described as the soundtrack to suicide. Keats’ poetry arose from his need to be miserable. US poet Sylvia Plath’s suicide arising from her mental torture has become indistinguishable from her verse.

The Madness May Not Be Permanent

Sufferers may have a brief and invented bout, like David in the Bible, (1 Sam. 21.13), where to escape a fearful situation he feigned insanity, making marks on the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. This prompted one of the funniest lines in the Bible from King Achish of Gath, who demanded of his servants ‘“Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?

People can suffer mental illness at some point in their lives, rather than being permanently afflicted. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was inducted into the US Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as “one of the few undisputed geniuses in pop music”. Overwhelmed by cocaine, over-eating, chain smoking and neglect, unable to cope with fame and lead-creativity in the band, he suffered growing detachment, acute depression in the late 60s, early 70s.

Controversially prescribed antipsychotic drugs over a long period, he was dismissed as a madman, out of it, fried. More recently, his health has been restored. Others suffer mental breakdown through bereavement, war, fear, situational and relationship pressure. Contemporary English poet Geoffrey Hill, suffering an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder was treated with anti-depressants. Suddenly his poetry began.

Fictional Madness

There are fictional characters who experience insanities. Shakespeare recognised the creative power of lunacy. King Lear goes mad. Macbeth, after murdering King Duncan and hearing prophetic utterances from the witches goes over the edge, as does his wife, unable to mentally wash her hands free of the blood she shed.

Hamlet successfully convinces others he is mad, yet perhaps his problem is that he sees things too clearly. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) is a novel by Audrey Niffenegger, in which the central character suffers a genetic disorder obliging him to disappear into his own and his daughter’s past and future. He and those around him are condemned to see little clearly, but to be at the mercy of his brain function.

Filmed in 2009, it’s classified as both romance and science-fiction. Either way, it’s unique insanity creates literature. Equally, UK’s Mark Haddon wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) about Asperger’s Syndrome, among other issues like acceptance/difference. His play Polar Bears (2010), includes bipolar disorder amongst its issues.

Ken Kesey’s (novel 1962, stageplay 1963, movie 1975) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came after he took peyote working as an asylum orderly. The central character fakes insanity to escape prison.

Some Creatives May Have Suffered

Among creatives believed to have suffered Asperger’s or other conditions on the autism spectrum, are artist Andy Warhol, Irish poet WB Yeats, writer George Orwell (real name, Eric Blair), composers Beethoven and Mozart and all-round creative genius Michelangelo.

English poet John Clare (1793-1864) spent years incarcerated in mental asylums, suffering depression and delusions, yet created what is now regarded as some of the greatest rural poetry about an England in change and a man isolated from reality.

The state of mind of any artist dead for more than a century is subject to debate and controversy. Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is believed to have suffered a range of conditions, starting with bipolar disorder, evidenced by his feverish output of paintings followed by manic depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide.

It could have been temporal lobe epilepsy, because he experienced seizures, and was addicted to absinthe. Treatment by digitalis can cause the patient to see in yellow or yellow spots. It may have been poisoning by thujone, from absinthe, or lead poisoning from paint or drinking kerosene to kill himself, which causes light to be seen in circles like halos.

Some believe his leaving over 800 letters is evidence of hypergraphia, a disorder linked to epilepsy and mania, causing one to write continuously. Even sunstroke is cited as a cause of his mental turmoil, since he frequently painted outdoors and had a lot of stomach problems.

Whatever the causes, he left behind a body of work that is unique to this day. The question is, does the making of art send people mad, or do only mad people become artists in the first place?

First published on Suite 101, 31 May, 2010.

Photo: Van Gogh With Self-Mutilated Ear – Web Museum

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One Response to "Madness and Genius Are Close Relations in the Creative Arts"

  1. […] episodes of hearing voices, which is occasionally an experience of both creatives and eccentrics. Madness and genius have always been close […]

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