Monday, December 5, 2011

Madness and the Creative Mind

Lionel Trilling’s essay “Art and Neurosis” appears both in “The Liberal Imagination” and “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” He writes, “it was commonly said that the poet was ‘mad,’ but this was only a manner of speaking, a way of saying that the mind of the poet worked in a different fashion from the mind of the philosopher; it had no real reference to the mental hygiene of the man who was the poet.”

Trilling then refers to Charles Lamb, “someone,” Trilling tells us who knew quite a lot about madness. Lamb’s essay “On the Sanity of True Genius” which undertook to refute the idea that the “exercise of the imagination was a kind of insanity.”

In more recent times, Trilling tells us, “the connection between art and mental illness has been formulated not only by those who were openly or covertly hostile to art, but also and more significantly by those who are most intensely partisan to it. The latter willingly and even eagerly accept the idea that the artist is mentally ill and go on to make his illness a condition of his power to tell the truth.”

In regard to those “hostile to art,” Trilling writes, “The excommunication of the arts, when it was found necessary, took the form of pronouncing the artist mentally degenerate. . . In the history of the arts this is new. The poet was always known to belong to a touchy tribe – genus irritabile was the tag anyone would know – and ever since Plato the process of the inspired imagination . . . was thought to be a special one of some interest, which the similitude of madness made somewhat intelligible . . . no one was likely to identify the poet with the weakling. Indeed, the Renaissance ideal held poetry to be, like arms or music, one of the signs of manly competence.

“The change from this view of things cannot be blamed wholly on the bourgeois or philistine public. Some of the ‘blame’ must rest with the poets themselves. The Romantic poets were as proud of their art as the vaunting poets of the sixteenth century, but one of them talked with an angel in a tree and insisted that Hell was better than Heaven and sexuality holier than chastity; another told the world that he wanted to lie down like a tired child and weep away this life of care; another asked so foolish a question as ‘Why did I laugh tonight?’ and yet another explained that he had written one of his best poems in a drugged sleep. The public took them at their word – they were not as other men. Zola . . . submitted himself to examination of fifteen psychiatrists and agreed with their conclusion that his genius had its source in the neurotic elements of his temperament. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine found virtue and strength in their physical and mental illness and pain. W. H. Auden addresses his ‘wound’ in the cherish language of a lover, thanking it for the gift of insight it has bestowed. . . and Edmund Wilson, in his striking phrase ‘the wound and the bow,’ has formulated for our time the idea of the characteristic sickness of the artist, which represents by the figure of Philoctetes, the Greek warrior who was forced to live in isolation because of the disgusting odor of a suppurating wound and who yet had to be sought out by his countrymen because they had need of the magically unerring bow he possessed.

“The myth of the sick artist, we may suppose, has established itself because it is of advantage to the various groups who have one or another relation with art. To the artist himself the myth gives some of the ancient powers and privileges of the idiot and the fool, half-prophetic creatures, or the mutilated priest. . . By means of his belief in his own sickness, the artist may the more easily fulfill his chosen, and assigned, function of putting himself into connection with the forces of spirituality and morality; the artist sees as insane the ‘normal’ and the ‘healthy’ ways of established society, while aberration and illness appear as spiritual and moral health if only because they controvert the ways of respectable society.”

“. . . the whole economy of the neurosis is based . . . on this idea of the quid pro quo of sacrificial pain: the neurotic person unconsciously subscribes to a system whereby he gives up some pleasure or power, or inflicts pain to himself in order to secure some other power or some other pleasure.”

Trilling concludes, “when we have said all this, it is still wrong, I believe, to find the root of the artist’s power and the source of his genius in neurosis.” He takes the more pragmatic view that “one cannot be and do everything and the wholehearted absorption in any enterprise, art for example, means that we must give up other possibilities, even parts of ourselves.” If one has a sufficient degree of creativity and is willing to give up a sufficient number of other things then one can hope to produce art of an adequate quality. And if one gives up everything for it perhaps one will go mad in the process, but there is the chance that this added intensity will result in the production of even better art.

The poetic achievements of Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz have never impressed me. I wouldn’t be willing to go mad in order to write the poetry that they did. Of course if one is mad anyway and through no choice of one’s own that’s another matter. Sylvia Plath was probably mad from an early age. Perhaps Lowell was as well. Dylan Thomas and John Berryman may have been a bit mad but they were also alcoholics. I recall the belief that alcohol like madness could enhance your poetry. Could they have written better poetry if they hadn’t been heavy drinkers? They could certainly have written more of it. But the post-partum depression that occurs after having written a good poem is something like a hangover. How many of those could Berryman experience before deciding to jump off the bridge?

Or Hart Crane off the fantail of a ship – if he jumped and was not thrown? (He was known for not being above importuning sailors and one of them may have been offended in the extreme).

Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions. She seems to have learned to write poetry in one of them. I don’t have the impression that her madness enhanced her poetry; although it was the subject of a lot of it. Her being impressed with the way Sylvia Plath committed suicide struck me as more willful.

Lest the philosopher congratulate himself on not being a poet, Foucault in Madness and Civilization, on page 217 wrote “If the progress of knowledge dissipates error, it also has the effect of propagating a taste even a mania for study; the life of the library, abstract speculations, the perpetual agitation of the mind without the exercise of the body, can have the most disastrous effects. . . The more abstract or complex knowledge becomes the greater the risk of madness.”

On page 285 Foucault writes, “The madness of Tasso, the melancholia of Swift, the delirium of Rousseau belong to their works, just as these works belong to their authors. Here in the texts, there in the lives of the men, the same violence spoke, or the same bitterness; visions certainly were exchanged; language and delirium interlaced. . . The madness of Nietzsche, the madness of Van Gogh or Artaud, belongs to their work perhaps neither more nor less profoundly, but in quite another way . . . from the time of Holderlin and Nerval, the number of writers, painters, and musicians who have ‘succumbed’ to madness has increased . . . but between madness and the work of art, there has been no accommodation, no more constant exchange, no communication of languages; their opposition is much more dangerous than formerly . . . theirs is a game of life and death. Artaud’s madness does not slip through the fissures of the work of art; his madness is precisely the absence of the work of art . . . Nietzsche’s last cry, proclaiming himself both Christ and Dionysos, is not on the border of reason and unreason, in the perspective of the work of art . . . it is the very annihilation of the work of art, the point where it becomes impossible and where it must fall silent; the hammer has just fallen from the philosophers hands.”

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