An excellent piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal took a retro view on the often debated question of creativity and madness. The piece by Jeanette Winterson, a novelist, offers familiarly crazy creatives — Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf — the cutters, suicides, and self-destroyers who are in the creative hall of fame.
What’s interesting about the article is that it takes such a different position from what has become the conventional wisdom about creativity and madness, a position eloquently articulated by Kay Jamison in her brilliant memoir and other work on the nightmare and tragedy of bipolar illness, a condition its sufferers have sometimes confused with an artistic muse. Jamison has served public health through her candor and courage — as a grad study in psychology she was overcome with manic attacks that put life at risk. But her work may have spawned a over-reaction on the connection between madness and creativity, as if such a connection was absurd. It quite plainly is not — and that is where Winterson’s essay enters the conversation.
No serious person would argue for the wonderfulness of naked screaming through the streets, notwithstanding Allen Ginsberg’s great poem, “Howl.” But on the other hand, there surely is a connection between the madness of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Plath, Woolf, Van Gogh and company and the radical, visionary work they produced.
The two interconnected realms need separating via common sense. It is not good to go mad, even if it feels ecstatic. Nor is there a causal relationship between bipolarity and stunning creativity — although there may well be a statistical correlation, as there is, I have heard reported, between techy nerds and asperger’s syndrome. (They all work on geek squads and in computer science labs.)
But what emerges from revisiting this old subject is that the biographies of innumerable recognized great creatives contain tales of massive pain, isolation, rejection, brutality and, yes, madness. But in case after case, these men and women were able to temporarily, or permanently, put their madness under the sublimated powers of their creativity — and so we are able to enjoy The Sun Also Rises, “Daddy” and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.