Mental Illness and Creativity // Features

“If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” – Plato

The link between mental illness and the creative arts goes back millenia; the Muses Plato speaks of are the literal personification of the Arts and Music, the nine daughters of Zeus, the source of all inspiration for the plays, poetry and prose that lasted orally for hundreds of years in this ancient culture. The ‘madness of the Muses’ then, is the possessive state of creative fervour we associate with the great artists of the past, descended into myths. Caravaggio, driven mad by the lead in his paint, was known for celebrating a successful completion by getting drunk and roaming his native Rome wielding a sword, yelling and picking fights with strangers. These hubristic displays eventually forced him to flee Rome in 1606, and he died in 1610 under mysterious circumstances.

It seems the link between mental illness and creative endeavour has never truly left the public consciousness. Lord Byron said “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched”. There is a romantic notion of the mentally ill as being in the ‘buffer zone’ between the known and the unknown by creating art that better helps us to understand the world that we ourselves can’t quite articulate. The individual with psychotic delusions becomes a visionary abstract artist, those with depression produce heart-wrenching poetry.

It’s interesting to consider where these myths originate. The discovery of human knowledge and progress has been tied to these unconventional thought processes; even the scientific method requires this for the development of new theories that disprove the current accepted postulation. This pattern is repeated across fields, as seen in the phenomenal innovation of a company like Apple, which can only be explained by the incredible personality of Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Jobs, describes his ‘reality distortion field’, which was his immense drive and sheer force of will. This ability to draw people in to his world-scale vision turned his company into the first to be worth a billion dollars. These people who make immense discoveries in any field are often described as being cut from a different cloth, as if there is something fundamentally different inside their brains which makes their success inevitable. They can also seem to be ‘a bit mad’.

Mental illness can be viewed much the same way. It can be argued that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, particularly the more extreme conditions that seem to alienate patients the most, like psychosis, stems from the tendency of people to ‘otherise’ psychotic individuals. This is associated with the assumption that there is something inherent about their mind that makes them see the world as they do. For instance, if we look at a patient suffering from depression and suicidal ideation, this patient may have developed many rationalisations as to why ending their life is not only the only option, but even a ‘good’ choice; Dogra et al. (2008) found that aside from stressful life events, common perceived causes of suicide include perceived lack of meaning. These rationalisations form part of a worldview that has been so warped by the mental illness that they are almost impossible to argue with, the equivalent of telling a patient with psychotic delusions that they aren’t being stalked by mysterious government agents, when the nature of the condition means that this is the way the world presents itself phenomenologically.

In 1961, Ernest Hemingway, one of the most celebrated authors of modern American literature, killed himself in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.  Having served in World War II, he returned home to witness his wife, Mary, have an ectopic pregnancy. Furthermore, from 1939 to 1947, 8 of his closest friends, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, all died, the final period in a life plagued with alcoholism and anxiety. Despite this, author Susan Beegel said that “throughout his remarkable body of fiction, he tells the truth about human fear, guilt, betrayal, violence, cruelty, drunkenness, hunger, greed, apathy, ecstasy, tenderness, love and lust”. It is easy to see that Hemingway’s work touches upon something inarticulate about the human condition, tied in with a profound understanding of the nature of being.

Why not attribute this to his depression? Our love for the hero myth romanticizes his story thus; ‘the troubled author, plagued by demons, is pursued to the personal underworld of his own unconscious mind, only to return triumphant from the murky depths, clutching the glistening pearls of spiritual wisdom’. Our desire to see the good in their situations, coupled with popular misconceptions about the nature of depression, means that this isn’t an uncommon view. The tragically romantic overtones of depression in popular culture means we miss out on the real, visceral effects of it on real people in everyday life.

This is just one example of a whole host of metaphors about mental illness perpetuated in popular culture. Some can be damaging, even deadly, and more often than not they get in the way of affected individuals accessing the treatment they really need. Change in the attitudes towards mental health starts on an individual level, and there is something we can all do to help challenge the stigma around mental disorders.

This piece was inspired by Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, and a lecture/performance called The Wounded Healer by Dr. Ahmed Hankir.

James Madden