Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence-whether all that is profound-does not spring from disease of thought-from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
(Edgar Allan Poe, Qtd. in Jamison, 62) Throughout the years, many people have shared Edgar Allan Poe’s skepticism about a correlation between creativity and madness. Glancing back through history, evidence of mental turmoil relating to the artistic temperament can be dated as far back as the Ancient Greeks. Plato said that “creativity was a divine madnessa gift from the gods.” (Qtd. In Neihart, 48aol1) Aristotle asked: “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?” (Aristotle, Qtd. In Gutin, 75aol2)
Creativity can be defined in infinite ways. It may be expressed as abstract thinking or the production of something both honored and new. Creativity was emphasized by Greek philosophers as, “a willingness to cross and re-cross the lines between rational and irrational thought.” (Neihart, 73aol3) Creativity can be assessed as the ability to maintain bold and restless moods, experience a deep variety of emotions, and focus intensely on ideas. “Madness may be defined as serf destructive deviant behavior.” (Neihart, 47aol4)
History may paint the idea that mental turmoil and creativity go hand in hand with its many examples of poets, artists, musicians, and novelists with eminence of major mood disorders. Lord Byron, the 19th century poet was thought to have a “volatile temperament,” which, “frequently set of sparks of poetic imagination.” (Bower, 378aol5) Byron was one among the many writers who were believed to have endured a major mood disorder. Other poets and novelists who wrote about their “savage moods,” include: William Blake, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrel, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Roethke, Henry James, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, and Virginia Woolf. Many of these poets were confined to an asylum for depression or mania; others committed or attempted suicide. Artists, who were thought to have painted the picture of insanity included: Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Kirchner, Ernest Josephson, Georgia O’Keefe, Max Ernest, Jackson Pollock, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Gaugin, Edvard Munch, Michelangelo, and Mark Rothko. Composers Robert Schumann, Charles Mingus, Peter Warlock, Peter llich Tchaikovsky, and Sergy Rachmaninoff also suffered from probable mood disorders. (Jamison, 267-270)
Manic-depressive illness, major depression, cyclothymia, and hypomania are among the many mood disorders that are thought to plague artists. Manic-depression, or bipolar disorder, is a strongly genetic disease, which can be characterized by an intense depressive state and a hyperactive realm of euphoria. A manic-depressant experiencing a manic state tends to exhibit very irritable, driven, impulsive, overconfident, and often psychotic or destructive behavior. In a depressive cycle, they may have suicidal tendencies. Cyclothymia and hypomania are milder forms of manic-depression. Depression causes changes in thought patterns, sleep habits, and energy levels. Major depression prompts concentrated melancholic spells. (Jamison, 63)
“Could such disruptive diseases convey certain creative advantages?” speculates Kay Redfield Jamison, (Jamison, 62) author of Touched with Fire: manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. Studies in fact indicate that mental illness corresponds with the artistic temperament, although it is also proven that many artists are not mentally ill, or most mentally ill people are not artistically inclined. “Lunatics have always been objects of art.” (Porter 46aol6) Over the years we have kept a consistent stereotype that artists are all mentally ill, or all go insane at some stage of their lives. Hearing that a poet slit his wrist or died of an overdose is no surprise to us. However, is it simply our known reputations of artists that persuade us to believe that creativity and madness form a tangible connection?
The notion that a link exists between creativity and madness may originate from the artists themselves. One popular and shared belief among many in psychiatry is that painting, drawing, writing, composing, or any other artistic method all demonstrate a means of self-understanding and emotional stability. In exploring their creative inner world, artists may learn to better understand their own destructive inclinations. Manics and schizophrenics are said to create the most honest forms of art because “the mad are more closely self oriented and in touch with their inner selves than are the sane.” (Gutin, 77aol7) Another shared belief is that artistic exertion heals the artist, whose work then provides a healing source to others. The idea that the suffering artist creates to compensate for his suffering is a wide spread conclusion pertaining to the idea that art is therapy. (Gutin, 77aol8) There are many examples of artists whose work has saved them from their selves. “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness,” wrote Anne Sexton, who was confined to an asylum. (Qtd. In Jamison, 122) Artist Jackson Pollock used his large canvas drippings as a way to sort out the insanity in his life. (Neihart, 49aol9)
Other explanations of the link between madness and creativity describe psychological unease. For example, the “outsider status,” construes that feeling isolated or not “fitting in” can lead one to means of expression through creativity. Bob Klitzman of Columbia University states, “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the madness, you may feel like an outsider because you’re gay, or a woman, or African-American. Anything that gives you the sense that the world you see isn’t the world that others see can motivate you to want to tell your own story.” (Qtd. in Gutin, 80aol10)
Another idea that psychological unease pertains to creativity is characterized by the influence in the culture from which one is raised. Perhaps a painful childhood experience may elicit confusion or discomfort, providing a means to clear ones mind through an artistic outlet. Ludwig refers to this instability as “a kind of restlessness, need to express oneself, emotionally healthy creative people have it, and attach it to a problem, when the problem is solved, it motivates them to seek out a new problem to work on. The mentally ill have it too, but their unease is more pervasive and free-floating, they have more trouble putting their psychological lids back on.” (Ludwig, Qtd. In Gutin, 78aol11)
Many more modern investigators have taken part in researching the enigma of creativity and madness. Among the many include Nancy Andreasen, Kay Jamison, Arnold Ludwig, and Albert Rothenberg.
Nancy Andreasen, from the University of Iowa, completed the first of her studies on mental illness and the arts in the 1970’s. Andreasen matched diagnostic criteria with strict control groups in her efforts to examine thirty creative writers. Results indicated eighty percent of the writers had evidence of major depression, manic-depression, or hypomania among them. Compared with 30% of the people in non-creative jobs with probable mood disorders. Evidence of mood disorders or alcoholism could also be seen in the writers’ past family history. (Jamison, 63)
Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at the John Hopkins University school of Medicine, seems to be the “Messiah” of creativity and madness. In her book, An Unquiet Mind, she writes about her personal struggles with bipolar illness and provides first hand accounts of mania and the artistic temperament. Touched With Fire, also written by Kay Jamison, includes just about every famous artist with prominence of mental illness. Her research illustrates that “the cognitive processes associated with certain moods are the link between creativity and madness.” (Neihart, 51aol12) Examples of these certain moods include rapidity, fluency, flexibility of thought, restlessness, irritability, and intensified perception. Jamison suggests that depression enhances creativity. By allowing slowed thinking processes, depression may permit plenty of time for one to develop creative ideas and place feelings into broadened perspectives. Mania may also enhance creativity by increased productivity, expansive thought, and flamboyant moods.
Kay Jamison began her research of creativity and mental illness with a study of mood disorders and suicide in a successive sample of poets born within a hundred-year period. Jamison examined autobiographical, biographical, and medical records for 47 19th century British and Irish writers and visual artists. In her attempt to select the most creatively prominent artists, she selected painters and sculptors who were Associates of the Royal Academy, playwrights who had won Evening Standard drama awards, and poets represented in the “Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.” Jamison found that 38 percent of these writers and artists had evidence of mood disorders. 75 percent of the poets were treated with medication or hospitalization. (Jamison, 61,62)
Through her pretentious research, Jamison found such autobiographical findings and letters that increasingly linked artistic temperament to manic-depressive illness. A passage from poet William Wordsworth emphasizes the link as well, “By our own spirits are we defied; We poets in our youth begin in gladness; But therof come in the end despondency and madness.” (Qtd. In Jamison, 52) French composer Hector Berlioz wrote about his mania: “The fit fell upon me with appalling force. I suffered agonies and lay groaning on the ground, stretching out abandoned arms, convulsively tearing up handfuls of grass and wide-eyed innocent daisies, struggling against the crushing sense of absence, against a mortal isolation.” (Jamison, 19) The apathy Edgar Allan Poe may have felt in his struggles with manic-depression can be summarized in this passage: “I am so ill-so terribly, hopelessly ill in body and mind, that I can not liveuntil I subdue this fearful agitation, which if continued, will either destroy my life or, drive me hopelessly mad.” (Edgar Allan Poe, Qtd. in Jamison, 37)
Why is it that many other creative geniuses appear to have been emotionally stable? Some examples include Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Camille Pissaro, Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, Carl Jung, and Orville Wright. (Ludwig, 43aol13) Apparently this question must have sent Arnold M. Ludwig, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical School, on his search for an answer about the controversy between creativity and madness. Ludwig, already aware of the list of artists who were emotionally disturbed, followed a somewhat more diverged path then did Jamison in her studies. In his curiosity as to why many other so-called creatively talented people weren’t mentally ill, Ludwig decided to conduct a more broadened study. His ten year survey of a sample of 1,004 figures compared those with prominence in the arts, sciences, business, military, and social activism. Information was gathered on their childhood, careers, health, and any occurrences of depression, mania, alcoholism, anxiety, psychotic episodes, or suicide attempts. Some of the standards of Ludwig’s achievement scale included: recognition of life and eminence after death, invocation of creativity, originality, anticipation, and total extent of artistic achievement. (Ludwig, 43aol14)
Ludwig’s results were quite intriguing. He found that several people who suffer from mental illness indeed show little evidence of creativity, although creative artists still proved far more likely to suffer from mood disorders. The lifetime rate of mental illness among the people with social and business careers were 39% to 49%. 11 to 17% of architects exhibited evidence of mood disorders, while 46 to 77% of those with artistic occupations: poets, writers, composers, and painters had suffered from a form of depression or mania. (Ludwig, 43aol15) These results were twice the rate observed in persons in other fields. Depression and alcoholism were par for the course among artists, composers, actors, and writers. Actors had high rates of depression, as for higher ratings of mania and psychosis among the poets and composers. Architects and designers, however, had showed few signs of mood disorders or instability.
“Mental illness is not the price people pay for their creative gifts,” says Ludwig. (Bower, 379aol16) Ludwig’s results show that creators, whose work relies more on precision and reasoning, tend to be less prone to mental illness, as with the architects and scientists. In opposition, other creators whose work relies on emotional assertion and personal experience, as with poets, writers, and artists, are more prone to mental illness. “Creative people who are mentally ill find themselves, almost by default, in the arts rather than in business or the other sciences.” Ludwig remarks. (Ludwig, Qtd. In Gutin, 77aol17)
Albert Rothenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, has yet another puzzle piece to add to the perplexities of creative achievement and mental illness. His research, somewhat similar to that of Jamison’s, indicates that manic-depressant, psychotic, and highly creative people all undergo similar thought processes. He also confirms that psychosis plays an extreme role in creative endeavors. Rothenberg suggests that “translogical types of thinking characterize both psychotics and highly creatives.” (Rothenberg, Qtd. In Neihart, 51aol18) “Translogical thinking” refers to extensive thinking processes, which surpass realms of ordinary logical reasoning. Rothenberg calls these ideas “janusian and homospacial processes.” Janusian thinking holds and extinguishes ambiguous objects into a single article. Homospatial processes is the mind’s capacity to hold several multiple things or ideas all at once. An example of this idea can be seen in the process of creativity. The beginning stages of creative production are characterized by janusian thinking. The homospacial thinking generates the development of the creative ideas. Rothenberg describes these certain processes as “the distinguishing factors between creative artists and us.” (Rothenberg, Qtd. In Neihart52aol19)
Although research and surveys bring phenomenal evidence supporting creativity and its relation to mood disorders, many professionals often argue with the studies as well. Many question the validity of the control groups used in Nancy Andreasen’s studies of creative writers. The fact that Andreasen completed the interviews and made the diagnoses her-self draw skeptics to believe her studies were quite biased. (Gutin, 77aol20) A lot of Kay Jamison’s research centers around autobiographies and biographies, several of which may as well contain biases. Jamison’s studies and opinions may leave one with the notion that belief of creativity linked with madness may sugarcoat the immensity and destructiveness of a disease, such as manic depression.
The list of studies completed is infinite, still, the true link between creativity and madness remains a mystery. Throughout the years, scientists, professors, researchers, and psychotherapists have picked and probed every possible aspect of several famous artists’ lives. Various surveys and case studies remain only small pinpoints in the search between creativity and mental illness. The data that is needed to resolve the possible connection is somewhat impossible to obtain. If there is a possible connection between creativity and madness how do we explain it? History reveals many melancholic artists who left wondrous works of art for us to marvel in enchantment. Where does the boundary lie between creative achievement and illness? Why is it that such talented musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin were depressive suicide victims? How is Mark Rothko, who committed suicide, a better artist than Henri Matisse, who died peacefully? Lord Byron, the melancholic and romantic poet speaks of himself and the many artists who have “sailed in the wind’s eye.” Such a passage leaves reason to marvel in awe at the realm of creativity and illness: “To those who, by dint of glass and vapor, discover the stars and sail in the winds eyeI have shunned the common shore, and leaving land far from sight, would skim the ocean of eternity: the roar of breakers has not daunted my sight, trim but still sea-worthy skiff; and she may float where ships have foundered, as doth many a boat.”