Implications for the Contemporary Debate

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As we have seen, the romantic poets and men of letters were among the first to suggest, in referring to themselves and other eminent individuals, that the ancients were indeed correct in their assessment: The demon of madness was hardly a stranger in their ranks. These pronouncements, as previously noted, played an integral part in the past in the determination of the genius as clinically afflicted. This tendency to take the gifted at their word regarding their own condition applies as well to contemporary examinations of the issue. Kay Jamison's book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, provides demonstration of this fact. Jamison builds a clinical connection between creativity and manic-depressive illness by allowing scores of artists, composers, and writers from across time in Western society to reflect on their own changes of mood ranging from melancholic states to feelings of euphoria, their obsessions and fears of going mad, their thoughts about suicide, their addictions to alcohol and drugs: those and other behaviors and mental states, in other words, identified by the author as symptomatic of mood disorders.

One of the problems of treating such self-admissions as essentially reliable descriptions of mental illness is that it tends to overlook one critical fact: These pronouncements on the part of the creative individuals may involve self-serving descriptions and projections of images that were made in the context of cultural assumptions often quite different from those of contemporary society. In light of these facts, it remains unclear what meaning should be attached to the tendency on the part of many poets and other creative persons to admit to a 'touch' of madness.

Two examples illustrate the difficulties involved in the interpretations of such admissions. The first concerns an excerpt of a poem from Drayton, a poem written in praise of another poet, Drayton's friend Reynolds:

His raptures were

All air, and fire, which made his verses clear,

For that fine madness [italics added] still he did retain,

Which rightly should [italics added] possess a poet's brain.

This excerpt is open to a number of interpretations which include the reference to the divine mania of the ancients, a condition, as previously noted, that was not synonymous with clinical madness. Rather, it was a state of mind greatly desired. Given this fact, are we justified in treating this excerpt, as Jamison did, as an essentially reliable description of illness. Or is it not equally possible that Drayton's reference to the presence of a 'fine madness' on the part of Reynolds has little if nothing to do with clinical illness and was intended as an ultimate compliment a poet could be paid, one that confirmed his membership in the tribe of truly eminent poets?

Similarly, what are we to make of Coleridge's pronouncement who, in a defense of Swedenborg, proposed that, unlike ordinary madness, his was the madness of genius: "a madness, indeed celestial, and glowing from a divine mind." Is it not likely, as Kretschmer has argued, that pronouncements such as these are confirmation of the fact that "many men of genius themselves prize madness and insanity as the highest distinction of the exceptional man." After all, Kretschmer observes, "the mentally normal man is, according to the conception itself, identical with the typical man, the average man, the philistine."

Consistent with this line of argument, the association of creativity and madness deserves to be seen as a kind of role expectation appropriate for artists and writers that originated in antiquity and received powerful reinforcement as a result of the romantics' redefinitions of the nature of genius. In the way that contemporary scientists, accountants, and engineers are expected to display attributes of objectivity, reason, and emotional stability, for poets, writers, and artists the expectations involve manifestations of intuitiveness, a fanciful imagination, sensitivity, temperament, and emotional expressiveness, in short, manifestation of a kind of madness. It is not at all unreasonable to assume that, to the extent that these expectations continue to be part of a professional ideology of what it means to be truly creative, even contemporary writers and artists, far from disavowing the label of madness, may actually invite it. Indeed, they may even inadvertently volunteer evidence of madness in diagnostic and psychological examinations. Moreover, is it not possible that these expectations may involve the elements of a self-fulfilling prophesy? In a rephrasing of a line from Orwell, "they are wearing a mask, and their faces grow to fit it."

Such possibilities have implications for the issue of creativity and psychopathology. Indeed, they may invite conclusions at odds with the conventional association regarding these two variables. One of such conclusions is associated with the existentialist philosopher, Jaspers, who maintained that the greater manifestation of mental illness in geniuses was the result of society's selective granting of fame. To Jaspers, in other words, the term genius was a socially applied label primarily reserved for those talented individuals who displayed certain attributes of sickness closely tied to the role expectations noted above. He did not believe that the notion of the mad genius was applicable to all historical periods. Rather, what distinguishes the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the seventeenth and eighteenth, Jaspers reasoned, is a general mood or inclination in Western society that craves the mysterious, the unusual, the undefinable, and the blatantly diseased. Accordingly, although the Enlightenment tended to reward creative individuals who were healthy and rational with the distinction of genius, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (since the time of romanticism, that is) have shown a distinct preference for those creative individuals who are diseased.

All of this is not to suggest that the display of symptoms of mental illness on the part of the creative are the result of nothing more than deliberate role playing and adherence to role expectations deemed appropriate for artists and writers. Rather, it is a reminder that examinations regarding the relation of creativity to mental illness must take full measure of relevant historical and socio-cultural developments as well as their impact on contemporary conceptions regarding the nature of creative individuals and the creative process. To the extent that these conceptions find expression in a pervasive societal belief in the existence of a close connection between the creative arts and some form of madness, as is the case in Western society, they are likely to be of consequence and become intimately tied to the acknowledged mind-body connection in the causation of genuine illness. As such, they are indispensible to a thorough understanding regarding the relationship between creativity and mental health.

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