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Mad genius

Martin Gayford examines the extraordinary lives — and deaths — of great artists and suggests that there is a link between manic depression and creativity

28 May 2005

12:00 AM

28 May 2005

12:00 AM

Martin Gayford examines the extraordinary lives — and deaths — of great artists and suggests that there is a link between manic depression and creativity

In the summer of 1667 the architect Francesco Borromini — one of the most brilliant figures of the Italian baroque — fell into what was later described as a ‘hypochondria’, complicated by fever. ‘He twisted his mouth in a thousand horrid ways, rolled his eyes from time to time in a fearful manner, and sometimes would roar and tremble like an irate lion.’ Doctors and priests were consulted, all of whom agreed that he should never be left alone, should be prevented from working, and all efforts made to encourage him to sleep so that ‘his spirit might calm down’.

But these efforts were unavailing; the patient grew worse. The failure of his servants to obey his orders enraged him. On the night of 2 August he asked repeatedly for a light, a pen and some paper, but on doctor’s orders was refused. Tossing in agitation, the great architect was heard to exclaim, ‘When will you stop afflicting me, Oh dismal thoughts? When will my mind cease being agitated? When will all these woes leave me? …What am I doing in this cruel and execrable life?’ He rose, found a sword — a standard piece of domestic equipment in that time and place — fell on it and pierced himself through the body from front to back.

However, he did not die immediately. Borromini lived for several hours, during which he saw his confessor and dictated an eminently lucid and detailed account of the extremely irrational process of thought by which he had come to kill himself. It describes how at around five or six in the morning he woke up and asked his servant Francesco to light a lamp, who replied, ‘Signor, no.’

‘And hearing this reply, I suddenly became impatient and began to wonder how I could do myself some bodily harm.’ Eventually, he remembered the weapon hanging at the head of the bed among consecrated candles, so he ran himself through. ‘Because of the wound I began to scream, so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor.’ Only then, having described his own death, did Borromini die.

It is a terrible and gripping story, the narration of which was one of the high points of Anthony Blunt’s lectures at the Courtauld Institute in the days before he was unmasked as a Soviet spy. There are distinct echoes in the botched and unmotivated suicide, the subsequent death-bed rationality, of the fate of Vincent van Gogh. But has it got anything more to tell us?

It is hard to avoid describing Borromini’s action as unhinged (though difficult to deny that his subsequent narrative is apparently sane). He was a man of eminently creative and original mind, and marked mental problems. It is noted that he fell into a deep melancholy because of the successes of his rival Bernini. When a man was found damaging the fabric of his new work at St John Lateran in Rome, he ordered him to be beaten so severely that the vandal died — an action that suggests, in the terms of psychiatry, ‘poor impulse control’ and irritability (though architects to whom I have told this story invariably sympathise with Borromini’s action).

The master was 68 at the time of his final crisis, and had designed some of the most original buildings not only of the 17th century but of all time. In his mind the language of Greek and Roman architecture became — so to speak — fluid and malleable like clay. He remodelled it in innumerable complex and beautiful ways. But was there a relation between his mental peculiarities and his imaginative achievements? For that matter, was there in the case of Van Gogh? Is there, to put it bluntly and in old-fashioned terms, a link between madness and creativity? In various ways, some direct, some complex, perhaps there is.

This association is, of course, one of the most common in the history of the arts. Lord Byron, speaking of his fellow poets, remarked that, ‘We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all more or less touched.’ When he made that remark, the thought was already centuries old.

The Elizabethan Michael Drayton wrote in praise of Christopher Marlowe, ‘For that fine madness still he did retain/ Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.’ Michelangelo frequently talked of the ‘pazzia’ — or madness — ‘which they say is in my nature’.

Dryden put it most famously and succinctly, ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide.’ This link between madness and creativity was a venerable idea, indeed, properly speaking, a classical one: it goes back to Plato’s belief that poets are inspired by ‘divine fury’ and Aristotle’s observation that philosophers, poets and men outstanding in the arts tend to be ‘melancholic’.

In the 19th century, the madness of poets and artists became a more fashionable belief, not only in the world of the arts. It was given serious consideration by the rising profession of psychiatry. The Frenchman Paul Möbius (1853–1907) studied what he called the dégénérés supérieures, a category that was accepted with enthusiasm by many artists and writers, who proudly considered themselves degenerate.

Marcel Proust, developing this line of thinking, declared that ‘everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded religions and composed masterpieces.’ In his book The Insanity of Genius (1891) the Englishman J.F. Nisbet accumulated a lengthy list of men of letters with greater or lesser mental problems, including Swift, Byron, Samuel Johnson, Cowper, Southey, Shelley, Charles Lamb, Edgar Allan Poe, Rousseau, Chatterton and Tasso.


But against the notion that artists are in some sense deranged there has long been stout resistance. Charles Lamb himself — despite his mental problems — wrote a work whose title, The Sanity of True Genius, speaks for itself. In this, he countered the Dryden view of great wits and madness with its opposite. ‘It is impossible’ he asserted, ‘to conceive a mad Shakespeare.’

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the view that great art is the opposite of mad. The music of Bach, for example, seems like the essence of calm, peace and emotional balance. Evidence suggests the great artists of the past in many cases — one thinks of Titian, Rubens and Raphael — were individuals of rude psychological health. I myself spend a great deal of time talking to artists, and find them — as a group — exceptionally intelligent and perceptive. To make art requires intense thought and determination as well as originality: as Lamb put it, ‘the admirable balance of all the faculties’.

None of that, however, means that making art — and creativity generally — does not exploit parts of the brain that are not used in routine affairs. There is clearly something mentally a little uncanny about artistic creativity. In his collection of essays The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks narrates the cases of Rebecca, a young woman with severe problems of thought and movement, and José, a teenage boy with autism brought on by childhood meningitis. Rebecca was unable to perform a task as simple as unlocking a door, and was clumsy and awkward in every movement — until she began to dance, at which point she became graceful. Mute for years, José turned out to communicate through drawing — at which he was astonishingly quick and accomplished.

Arthur Koestler, in his study of this subject, The Act of Creation, proposed that all true creativity — not just artistic but also scientific and comic —
resulted from a connection between two utterly disparate ‘frames of reference’. This is likely to take place not as a result of conscious, rational thought, but to pop ready-made from the unconscious as a result of reverie, dream or just sleep. A celebrated example is the discovery by the chemist August Kekule (1829–96) that the structure of the benzene molecule is shaped like a ring.

The two disparate frames of reference which his unconscious brought together were chemical structures and reptiles. Wrestling with the benzene problem, the scientist sat down. ‘I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes…. [My mental eye] could distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke.’

This might be an example of what the Greeks meant by divine fire: inspiration coming as if from nowhere in a dream or a vision. Of course, a creative dream is not what we would call madness. However, there are also reasons to believe that mental disorders that cause misery, suffering and death can also prove strangely helpful to individuals who write, paint, sculpt and compose music.

There is compelling evidence that many highly creative people both past and present suffered from manic depression — or, as it is now called by psychiatrists, bipolar affective disorder. Bipolar disorder may, in serious cases and for brief periods, cause symptoms that the man in the street would regard as deeply abnormal.

In extreme manic phases there may be hallucinations and delusions; Vincent van Gogh — whom I believe to have been manic depressive — experienced both at times, when he heard voices and saw sights that were not really there and thought wrongly that his neighbours were trying to poison him. But for the most part bipolar disorder does not cause such deep dementia; schizophrenia, which seems to have been much less common among artists and writers, does. It is a disturbance of the normal range of moods, causing deeper depression than an unafflicted person might experience, and greater highs of energy, wildly racing thoughts and euphoria. This condition recalls the mental state of Byron — a possible victim of bipolar disorder — as described by a friend.

His mind was ‘like a volcano, full of fire and wealth, sometimes calm, often dazzling and playful, but ever threatening. It ran swift as the lightning from one subject to another, and occasionally burst forth in passionate throes of intellect, nearly allied to madness.’ The composer Hugo Wolf, a bipolar case, spoke of how ‘the blood becomes changed into streams of fire’. Virginia Woolf, in a moment of bravado, claimed that ‘as an experience madness is terrific, I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about’.

This alternates with depression, characterised by bleak misery, lethargy, slowed thoughts and movements. It is a sort of seasonal change, and in fact seems often triggered by fluctuations in light levels. The 18th-century poet William Cowper compared his own depression to deep midwinter. ‘The weather is an exact emblem of my mind in its present state. A thick fog envelops every thing, and at the same time it freezes intensely.’ A great deal of art — much classical music, for example — is built round the alternation between these two opposites: the weeping and the laughter. In some cases — perhaps Van Gogh’s — it is possible to get both phenomena at the same time: the mile-a-minute-mind plus intense depressive anxiety and panic.

In her book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament Kay Redfield Jamison, an American professor of psychiatry, makes out a powerful case that numerous great figures in the arts have been to one degree or another bipolar or unipolar (that is, depressive without manic phases). She deploys a great deal of evidence to show that this is the case.

Research she carried out in the late 1980s on a group of eminent British writers and visual artists produced striking results. One half of the poets in the sample had been treated in some way for mood disorders; nearly 20 per cent had either been hospitalised or required electroconvulsive treatment or lithium. Even more playwrights — 63 per cent — were afflicted with depression, though had not received such drastic treatment. In comparison, biographers, novelists and visual artists showed much less dramatic signs of depression, but still well above the rates in the general population (bipolar is around 1 per cent, clinical depression around 5 per cent).

Another piece of her research, on British and Irish poets born in the 18th century, concluded that they were 20 times more likely to have been committed to a madhouse than their contemporaries, and five times more likely to have killed themselves. Somewhere between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of suicides are thought to be bipolar (which makes the very fact that Van Gogh, for example, shot himself an indication of what was the matter with him). Many more consider the step. ‘I should,’ Byron remarked, ‘many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.’

These statistics, however striking, are inevitably vulnerable to the criticism that it all depends on which sample you choose. Dutch painters, for example — poor Vincent apart — seem a level-headed crowd. Even more convincing, I find, is that Jamison is able to put forward an explanation of how manic depression, and also straight depression, might actually aid creativity.

This could happen for several reasons. Firstly, there is the enhanced intensity of experience, both ecstatic and appallingly sorrowful, that these conditions bring. Jamison, who is herself bipolar, has described her own experiences in her book, An Unquiet Mind. ‘The countless hypomanias [that is, mild manias], and mania itself, all have brought into my life a different level of sensing and feeling and thinking. Even when I have been most psychotic — delusional, hallucinating, frenzied — I have been aware of finding new corners in my mind and heart. Some of those corners were incredible and beautiful and took my breath away and made me feel as though I could die right then and the images would sustain me. Some of them were grotesque and ugly and I never wanted to know they were there or to see them again.’

Here, then, is one advantage provided by this kind of adversity. To an extent art is concerned with intense feeling, and the sufferers of these syndromes feel more — often unbearably more — than most of us.

Sanity is admirable in many ways; in comparison bipolar disorder is a terrible and quite often lethal affair. But sanity is more pleasant in part, it seems, because it is something of an anaesthetic against painful experience; or at least, it seems that the mildly depressed have a more realistic view of their lives than the non-depressed. This would help to explain the resistance that powerful art so often encounters. People do not like brutal facts, as the painter Francis Bacon observed, ‘or what used to be called truth’.

The contrary-mood mania and the milder hypomania, with their enhanced energy and racing ideas, are conducive not only to feeling but also to original thinking. If Koestler was correct in believing that creativity comes from bringing together two apparently utterly dissimilar facets — thoughts, images, objects — then it is possible to see how the manic state might help. But Jamison makes the point that all this is experienced and suffered by people who for mu
ch of the time — perhaps all — are entirely balanced and lucid.

Of course, having a mood disorder doesn’t make you creative. As philosophers say, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient: you don’t need it and just having it isn’t nearly enough. But the more one considers the evidence, the more it seems that many great artists have experienced extreme emotional states in this way. Lamb thought it was impossible to imagine a mad Shakespeare, but it is hard to read the words of Hamlet without thinking that their author knew a lot about depression and how it sucks joy and beauty out of the world like the dementors in Harry Potter.

‘I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth …indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ So, mad Shakespeare, no. But depressive Shakespeare seems plausible; and perhaps manically productive Shakespeare, too, turning out plays in a whirlwind of energy.

So what does all this tell us about Borromini? According to Jamison’s research, architects are, with biographers, among the artists least likely to experience mood disorders. This makes sense: architecture is a practical and, frequently, a conventional business. Most buildings follow a prevailing style.

But Borromini was a most unconventional architect, so much so that he became posthumously avant-garde. Successful during his lifetime, his work was denounced for centuries afterwards as being anarchic, capricious, fanciful, debauched, chimerical — in other words, too original for the age of reason. His impulsiveness, melancholia, irritability and suicide all fit the profile of bipolar disorder.

What made his buildings endlessly fascinating, however, was not just the novelty of their design, but the intellectual and mathematical rigour with which those ideas were developed. In the same way, what was amazing about his suicide was not that he did it, but how he described it. As Blunt put it, that ‘combination of intense emotional power and rational detachment’ are among the qualities that go to make him a great architect.

You might say something like that of all the poets, painters and musicians discussed here. It was not just having extreme emotional experiences and strange ideas that made them remarkable, it was also the ability to fit them into a new order. So, one might conclude, a kind of madness and absolute sanity combine in many a creative act.

‘Mélancolie’, an exhibition about madness and creativity, will be at the Grand Palais in Paris from 22 September 2005 until 2 January 2006.


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