26 May 2005

A tolerance for irrationality

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence – whether much that is glorious – whether all that is profound – does not spring from disease of thought – from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey vision they obtain glimpses of eternity...They penetrate, however rudderless or compassless, into the vast ocean of the light affable.”
(Edgar Allan Poe, cited in Galloway, 1986, p. 243).

Talking of Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway or Sylvia Plath, and trying to make sense of their lives and their work, always leaves me puzzled. Is there a link between creativity and madness? Is genius and insanity irretrievably interlinked?

There seems to be an alleged association between creativity and madness, say psychologists all over the world, citing cases all the way from Plato and Aristotle. Reportedly, Sigmund Freud himself believed that great works of art and literature contain universal psychological truths, and that, the study of lives of artists and writers reveal basic psychological truths in persons of heightened sensibility and talent.

Observations from psychiatric studies suggest that there are three characteristics common to both high creative production and madness: disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality. In “Creativity, the Arts, and Madness”, Maureen Neihart, a clinical psychologist, alerts us, “Disturbance of mood appears to be present in a high percentage of talented visual artists… Many of them committed suicide.”

According to Ms Neihart, “Artists argue that they strive to keep contact with their primitive selves because it is from their core self that they draw the energy and inspiration needed to do their best work.” She suggests, creativity provides a way to structure or reframe their [the artists’] pain and acts as therapy… a means to self-understanding, emotional stability and resolution of conflict.

But what about the creativity of Rabindranath Tagore? With a collection of over a thousand poems, eight volumes of short stories, eight novels, a dozen or so plays, many more essays, over two thousand songs (both lyrics and music), and national anthems of two countries (India and Bangladesh), was he not a creative genius? Reportedly, he even held his ground in debates with Albert Einstein over quantum mechanics and chaos theory. What signs of madness did he display?

2 comments:

pH said...
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pH said...

that's manic-depressive (bipolar mood disorder)...