Article to read;

May 7, 2010

Is there a link between madness and creativity?

Many illustrious thinkers and poets, including Shakespeare, have believed that genius is only a step away from insanity. John Walsh goes in search of evidence in our contemporary culture

“The only performance that makes it,” Mick Jagger’s rock star advises James Fox’s gangster in Performance, “is the one that achieves madness.” This embracing of derangement has been a debating-point in our experience of art for centuries, and is found everywhere today. In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, recently revived in London’s West End, a psychiatrist called Martin Dysart wrestles with the problem of “curing” the mad-but-ecstatic teenager Alan Strang: how can he force Strang to relinquish his communion with a horse God and return to an “utterly worshipless” normality? Shouldn’t the boy be “allowed” to be insane, when it gives him something to worship?

In a much-discussed TV documentary last year, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry explained that hundreds of highly intelligent, creative people have been diagnosed with the condition, before telling the world (with a hint of pride) “I have extremes of moods that are greater than just about anybody else I know.” He revealed that many victims of “bipolar disorder” preferred to endure the aching chasms of depression without therapy or drugs, because of the creative high they experienced in the manic stage. “I wouldn’t be without it,” he said “for all the tea in China.” The former pop star Adam Ant (Stuart Goddard) and the glamour model Sophie Anderton have also revealed themselves to be sufferers, as have Robbie Williams and Caroline Aherne.

At Tate Britain, where the paintings of the homicidally mad Richard Dadd are on display, we can inspect Dadd’s mysterious The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which he painted while in Bethlem Hospital, sent there after stabbing his father to death in 1843, thinking him the devil in disguise (he thought he was personally under the power of the Egyptian god, Osiris). Many art lovers have looked at his fairy paintings, at the microscopic exactness of his tiny figures, human and grotesque, and concluded that no sane person could have managed such intricacy. They are, it’s been said, “positive symptoms of insanity.”

Do the mad have access to hidden worlds of imagination, denied to the sane? Is madness the final frontier of art and science? Is genius only a step away from insanity? Many artists and writers, scientists, philosophers and intellectuals have thought so in the past. “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide” wrote John Dryden in 1681. The idea of creativity as divine afflatus, the breath of God, turns easily into the divine fire, that ignites the imagination but consumes the thinker. Inspiration may suffice for the minor thinker, writer or inventor; but only the divine furor will do for the world-changing genius.

In the 20th century, as quantum mechanics made the world of physics increasingly unknowable, the “mad scientist” and Einstein-haired boffin became comic figures, men deranged by their excessive devotion to the not-yet-known. In past centuries, poets gave themselves airs as divinely maddened. Celebrating Christopher Marlowe in 1627, the poet Michael Drayton approved “that fine madness still he did retain/ Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.” It should? William Wordsworth, never himself a candidate for the funny farm, averred, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” The first line was adapted by Eileen Simpson for her book Poets in Their Youth, a memoir of the poetic circle that surrounded Robert (“Cal”) Lowell and John Berryman in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were contenders for the title of America’s Top Poet. Lowell suffered frequent bouts of mental illness; Berryman killed himself and left a note that read, “Your move, Cal.”

Shakespeare himself identified the connection in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Theseus reflects on the creative act of turning unknown and unearthly things into words:

“The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact./ One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,/ That is, the madman…/ The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven/ And, as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.”

But what do we make, today, of lunatics and poets, scientists and fruitcakes? Do we still see a link between creativity and madness? For Professor Philip Thomas, of Lancaster University’s psychology department, the answer is a qualified yes: “It’s certainly interpreted that way. There have always been people in societies and cultures who have different experiences of reality compared with the majority, and there’s always been an overlap between people who have those gifts, or insights, and people who are identified as suffering from mental illnesses.”

What’s the distinguishing factor about the mentally ill writer or scientist? “Strangeness,” he says firmly. “It’s the strangeness of people’s experience, and what they try to communicate about it, that’s dangerous, threatening, anxiety-provoking to those of us who have conventional rationalities, if I can put it that way. Those people often seem to be visionaries, shamans, people with privileged access to a world which ordinary mortals don’t have access to – either that or they’re seen as brilliantly creative. In the past 400 years, there’s been a tendency to see certain people, from our own time as well as retrospectively, as great minds, geniuses and brilliant thinkers but also as people who showed signs of mental instability.”

Artists, he says, do not have it all to themselves; scientists suffer just as much from “manic creativity”. He instances John Nash, as played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind – a great mathematician who watched himself gradually losing his reason. “He was seeing something denied to the rest of us,” says Professor Thomas. “The trouble is, such people are trying to put the unspeakable into words. But since the time of Plato and Aristotle, we’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the rational, self-aware, speaking self, using language understandable by (omega) others. Those who experience madness are cut off from the mainstream of western thought and society.”

How does it feel from the point of view of the sufferer? Sara Maitland, 56, is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer, the author of several works of theology and gardening, and a teacher in creative writing. She has also, since her teens, suffered from visitations of mental disarray. “I was very young in the late 1960s, and there was a glamour about madness, in those Laingian days. I wasn’t eating or looking after myself or ‘conducting myself in a proper manner’,” she says, emphasising the last words with bolshy-schoolgirl scorn. “I used to react excessively to things. I’d lie down in the street and weep and wail.” She went to a mental hospital. “I wasn’t sectioned, I took myself there, though I didn’t have a lot of choice. I was on drugs off and on. Of course, this was some time before the voices.”

It’s piquant to listen to this charming, ferociously gifted woman chatting about the voices which settled in her head over the years. “I’ve never believed it’s a completely external, fully embodied voice,” she says. “Some people do. I always know that they’re something to do with my imagination. I tend to record them, write what they say in notebooks.” What do they say? “It tends to be pretty hyper; they talk in fairly Biblical language.” Are they male or female? “I’ve a set of voices and they’re very different. I give them names to make them more manageable. Not personal names, but descriptions – the Dwarf, the Angel, the Little Girl. They have vocal timbres to go with their names.” Was her writing improved by the voices? “Yes, I think they give me better insights. In my second novel, Virgin Territory, I tried to use the voices directly, to incorporate them. It was exhausting. Once is quite enough for that.”

She concedes that some mentally ill people revel in performance. “Patients get into a state where they say, ‘I’m more anorexic than you, I’m suffering more, I’m madder than anyone else.’ And writers do that too. All artists are show-offs.” Did she think mentally disturbed people produced valuable work as a result of their disability? “I don’t want to say that evil psychiatrists and the Government are trying to stop the production of wonderful artworks, because it’s more complicated than that. But I’d say there’s a connection between those kinds of excitements and imaginative excitements. Which doesn’t mean every artist has to be psychotic, nor that every psychotic is an artist.”

What is Sara suffering from? Don’t, if you know what’s good for you, mention the S-word near Ms Maitland. “I don’t think schizophrenia exists, although there’s a long list of symptoms associated with it. I’ve a friend who was interviewed by a nurse looking for symptoms of schizophrenia. She asked such stupid questions that my friend laughed – and the nurse ticked another box, because ‘inappropriate laughter’ is another symptom.” She whinnies with indignation. “If you sent a supposed schizophrenic to different psychiatric consultants around the country, no two people would come up with the same diagnosis. Well, you wouldn’t go to hospital to have your appendix out if they’d given you five different diagnoses, would you?” She sees the word as “a put-down word, that makes you lose your fundamental human rights, makes you have compulsory treatment, makes you take medicine which no one says will make you better and often makes you worse.”

What really annoys her is the way that psychiatrists lump different altered states under the same umbrella. “I said to a psychiatrist that there must be something wrong, when people are unable to distinguish between Peter Sutcliffe [the Yorkshire Ripper] and William Blake [who as a boy saw angels sitting in a tree on Peckham Rye, ‘bright wings bespangling every bough like stars’] and he said, ‘There’s no difference.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, there’s a massive difference between writing a lot of beautiful but rather strange poetry and going out and murdering a lot of women.” She wants to establish a respectable pedigree for hearing voices. “In the days of Joan of Arc, a whole range of options were advanced about why she was afflicted by voices. That range is dead. Now, if you hear voices, you’re a loony. That’s what I want to challenge.”

Professor Thomas shares her views. He doesn’t believe in schizophrenia either, labelling it “a made-up 19th-century-Greek word which has no meaning and no longer has any useful value.” He talks instead about “states of mind in intense distress, that exist in a form of psychosis” but is wary of recommending standard treatments. “Some patients find psychiatric treatment helpful, and if they want that, fine. Many find it harmful, in which case they shouldn’t be forced to have it. I think psychiatry should spend more time developing ways of helping people make sense of their distressing experiences because, in a way, that’s what creativity is about. If we did, we wouldn’t get into such hassles over the need to impose treatment and lock people up.”

Like a man regretting the decline of novel reading and the rise of the DVD, Thomas sees a lack of curiosity in human psychology. “These days, as part of the wider changes in our culture, we’re less interested in ways of understanding the human condition that rely on detailed analyses of people’s inner worlds. We’re more interested in ourselves as neurochemical beings. Thirty years ago, if you were in a bar in New York at weekends, they’d be talking about what their analyst said the other day. Today, they’ll be talking about Prozac and its effects. We’re interested in more superficial, glib, easy-fit narratives as ways of understanding ourselves.”

Maitland, meanwhile, doesn’t want to lose the noisy companions in her head. “The point is not to drug the voices out of existence, but to negotiate with them. Really, it’s just the same as having a lot of ill-behaved toddlers in the house. You tell your health visitor, ‘My toddlers are driving me round the bend,’ and she says, ‘Oh, hit them over the head and drown them.’ But you don’t want to kill them. You just want them to behave.”

Ages of the mind A brief history of treatments for mental illness – from witch-burning to electroconvulsive therapy


Cave paintings from the Stone Age seem to show trepanning – drilling a hole into the skull, and suggest that people thought it would cure mental disorders.


At Memphis, the temple of Imhotep (below), became a medical school. Successful psychiatric treatment was attributed to amulets or gods.

After 460BC

Hippocrates wrote 76 treatises which are still the foundations of modern medicine and psychiatry. He described melancholia, postpartum psychosis, mania, phobias and paranoia.

After 400BC

Plato (above right) proposed a view of the soul (psyche) as a charioteer driving two horses, one noble, the other driven by base desires. The charioteer struggles to balance their conflicting impulses.

9th century

Rhazes (865-925), later called the Persian Galen, was chief physician at Baghdad hospital where there was a psychiatric ward. The Arabs had no fear of demons, so patients were treated kindly.

11th century

In Salerno university Constantinus Africanus, a Jew who became a Christian, translated Hippocrates from Arabic into Latin. The nervous system was examined and the brain seen as the seat of mental illness.

Middle Ages

In the early days of the Bethlem hospital (Bedlam), which began to care for people with mental health problems in the 12th century, patients were treated with concern and issued with arm badges to wear so that they could be returned to hospital if their symptoms recurred.

14th century

People with mental health problems were considered to be witches (above) and were the victims of persecution rather than treatment.

16th century

Johann Weyer (1515-1588) emphasised that illnesses attributed to witches came from natural causes, and made the revolutionary demand that witches should themselves be sent to physicians for treatment.

17th century

There was a belief that if people behaved like animals, they should be treated like animals. Thomas Willis, a neuroanatomist and doctor, said: “The primary object is naturally curative discipline, threats, fetters and blows are needed as much as medical treatment.”

18th century

Asylums were built to house people with mental health problems separately from houses of correction and poor houses. The wealthy could become a private patient of a doctor or clergyman. The beginnings of psychology as a separate discipline.

19th century

Several psychologists developed theories concerning neuroses. Sigmund Freud’s ideas are the basis for psychoanalytic theory today. Intravenous injections of morphine began.

20th century

Gestalt theory and behaviourism, or stimulus-response, began to merge in the techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is popular today. Chemicals were used to induce deep sleep treatment. Insulin coma therapy saw patients given insulin to induce a coma and convulsions. Camphor injections were also used to induce fits. Electroconvulsive therapy (above) was introduced as a treatment for schizophrenia and soon became widespread. Various antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Psychosurgery was used with considerable enthusiasm in the middle of the century.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: