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Why are so many creative people
apparently crazy? Is mental illness, for some people, a doorway to creativity,
something that unlocks latent genius that would otherwise lie dormant? Jeffrey
Kottler attempts to answer this question in Divine Madness, Ten Stories of
Creative Struggle. The book presents ten case studies of well-known
artists, using the term in a broad sense. They are all people who have pushed
their creative talents to the limits. In most cases they finally lost the
struggle, and died at their own hand or as a consequence of drug abuse. Their
lives pose questions about creativity, about suffering, and about art. Finding
answers is very much harder.
The individuals Kottler chooses to
study are a mixed group of writers, visual artists, and performing artists.
Their names are familiar: Plath, Woolf, Monroe, Garland, Nijinski, Hemingway
and others, a roll call of the famously mad. Kottler is a psychologist. His aim
in writing this book is to explore the links between madness and creativity.
His interest, he informs us in the preface, is to find ways of helping such
people find ways of rising above their disabilities and expressing themselves
more productively. Kottler identifies two poles of discussion on this sort of
biography: "the search for "truth" or some illusion of objective
reality about what "really" happened". He aims to establish a
balance between these extremes. Thus he adopts an apparently skeptical stance,
although perhaps at the cost of accepting a bit of every explanation available:
consensus by democracy rather than adherence to a standard.
The criterion for choosing the ten
artists was the "diversity of their artistic expression". Thus we
find intuitive performers such as Nijinsky and Lenny Bruce alongside those with
a studied intellectual basis to their art, such as Hemingway and Woolf. Marilyn
Monroe is a genius alongside Mark Rothko; Judy Garland alongside Sylvia Plath.
Aside from whether these are equivalent geniuses, there are some remarkable
similarities in their lives. All suffered as children and emerged wounded into
adulthood. All had a yearning for perfection through self expression, but were
dissatisfied even as they approximated it. All sought solace in chemicals,
either at the behest of doctors, or on their own initiative, often both. And
there is little question that their lives got worse under the influence of
Kottler records his hope that in
our more enlightened time the traumatic developmental experiences of these
individuals would be acknowledged, and that any therapy would not lock them
into their past, but help them find a way to live with their continuing distress,
and to make choices that would enhance rather than inhibit their lives. He
rightly condemns the appalling breaches of ethical standards exhibited by
doctors and therapists in many of these cases. The actions of exploitative and
abusive parents, friends and spouses are also highlighted; it is hard to read
this book without a sense of anger at how vulnerable individuals were, in many
cases, continually exploited by self-interested and abusive individuals. Kottler
also recalls the kindness of lovers, spouses and others who did what they could
but were often rebuffed.
One issue that is not put to rest
in Divine Madness is that of what is to be accepted as 'madness'. Kottler
cites discoverers such as Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein as exemplifying the
notion that madness frees individuals from taken for granted ideas, and allows
insights not available to others. But this seems to stretch the concept of
madness too far if it is to serve any purpose as a synonym for mental illness.
Neither are Kottler's criteria for mental illness especially helpful. Self
defeating behavior, dysfunctional relationships, self-medication and feeling
worthless are not unique to mental illness, although they often accompany it.
But Kottler is not alone with this difficulty. Psychiatric diagnostic systems
are similarly unclear.
There is a
considerable literature that appears to confirm a link between creativity and
mental illness. There are simply too many tortured geniuses to be accounted for
by chance. But as with many well known associations, moving from correlation to
causation, or even establishing a consistent underlying link proves
problematic. One view is that an underlying predisposition may manifest as
either creativity or madness. At its most extreme this perspective holds that creativity
offers of form of 'compensatory advantage' for individuals genetically
predisposed to psychosis. But genetic predisposition to psychosis is itself
contentious, weakening any claim of a simple genetics of creativity. A less
extreme position is that both madness and creativity result from personality
traits that can lead to either creativity or psychosis. The problem with this
latter view is the Kottler's examples are those of artists who are both mad and
Divine Madness sits
somewhere between an academic work and popular psychology, leaning towards the
latter. There is a list of references for each chapter, but not every empirical
claim can be traced to a source of evidence. The writing, too, varies between
an objective authorial voice, and occasional lapses into the imagined voice of
the subject. And for all the equivocal statements about whether the individuals
were mad or just eccentric, talented, and struggling with inner conflicts,
there is a lack of critical analysis of "mental illness". Diagnoses
are generally accepted as accurate. There is little distinction made between
depression consequent on drug abuse and an underlying depressive state that
might be called an illness.
Divine Madness is a
compelling read. Each case study is richly detailed and highly descriptive. The
writing flows well, and the book avoids settling into a predictable format.
Some chapters begin in childhood, others in later life, some with key
incidents. In all cases early development is explored, almost invariably to
discover trauma, abuse and neglect. Sylvia Plath is perhaps the sole
exception. Kottler retraces each life with commendable economy given the
complexity of the individuals, the volumes written about them and the
limitations imposed by compressing a life into a single chapter. Whether you
agree with all of his interpretations or not, each case study is thoroughly
informative. In the final chapter Kottler attempts to provide a general
explanation of madness and creativity. In this chapter he retreats from a
commitment to the idea that the subjects of these case studies are mad.
Instead, he points to similarities in the language used to describe creativity
and madness. Asking how anyone could survive the sort of abuse suffered by
Monroe, Garland and Brian Wilson, he answers "lots of people"
(original emphasis). He points out that although the family trees of many mad
creative people show familial evidence of madness, they also show abundant
evidence that genetics do not provide a total explanation. He also points to
the insights gained in states of mania and depression that have informed the
art of many of his subjects. Kottler would concede, based on his
acknowledgement that not everyone would agree with his interpretations, that
his sample of ten is arbitrarily selected. These are all famous people after
all; there are others less famous who might tell a different story.
The book is an enjoyable read. If
it does not answer the questions it raises it at least brings together a group
of people who have a lot in common, although are also importantly different.
Their lives give us pause to reflect on some important issues in the
construction of madness. Divine Madness is definitely worth a read.
2006 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, M.Phil, Senior
Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, firstname.lastname@example.org