Sunday, September 28, 2014

You Don't Have to Be Crazy...

The notion that madness and creativity are somehow linked was one of the seminal ideas of the 19th century. Composers like Robert Schumann always seemed to be on the edge of mental disintegration and he was far from being unique. A recent article at the Chronicle of Higher Education argues for the opposite view:
Though you’d never know it from Andreasen’s lecture, or from the article she wrote recently for The Atlantic, the notion that there is an established connection between mental illness and creativity is far from undisputed. A new generation of researchers, who came of age in the era of positive psychology, frame creativity in terms of flow states and mindfulness; in other words, not as symptoms of disease but as evidence of human flourishing. Theirs is a nicer, more democratic view, one that sees creativity as a capacity to be nurtured and developed, something all of us possess, perhaps to varying degrees, rather than a rarefied ability tragically paired with affliction.
There certainly seems to be empirical evidence that a lot of writers are far more likely to be plagued with mental problems of some sort than non-writers:
Eighty percent of writers reported some mental illness compared with 30 percent of nonwriters. Andreasen also found that writers' families were "riddled with both creativity and mental illness," much more so than the families of the control subjects.
The idea that creative people tend to be a bit mad is a common meme:
The depressed writer is a stock character, like the ditzy cheerleader or the slick salesman. It’s something we believe almost without thinking about it, in part because that pathetic figure so frequently appears in books and movies, and because we can point to historical examples of artists plagued by mental illness. John Berryman leapt from a bridge. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. David Foster Wallace, a fairly new addition to this sad list, hung himself. We mull the meaning of their deaths, divine clues from the works they left behind.
We do the same with other artists. After Robin Williams's recent suicide came the predictable musings about whether his comedic brilliance was fueled by his apparent depression. Was his manic humor a tool to keep the darkness at bay?
But there is a whole new generation of researchers that take a different view:
You will have a hard time finding a creativity researcher willing to offer a full-throated defense of Andreasen’s 80-percent-of-writers-are-depressed-or-manic verdict. But that doesn’t mean they completely rule out the possibility of a more subtle connection. It depends on how you ask the question. When it comes to everyday artistic expression, what some call little "c" creativity, the consensus seems to be that playing banjo with your buddies or making decorative coffee mugs in your backyard kiln doesn’t mean you’re more likely to need professional help. But when it comes to genius-level creativity, the truly groundbreaking stuff, there is much more doubt.
One researcher puts it like this:
In a forthcoming paper, Simonton argues that everyday creative people are probably more mentally healthy than noncreative people, but among the highly creative, the so-called super geniuses, perhaps pushing the boundaries comes at a price.
My sense is quite the opposite, but I really only have knowledge of creative people in music. My impression is that there are different sorts of creative musicians. The ordinary working musicians, the ones who fill the ranks in orchestras and teach in conservatories are no more nor less sane than the norm. But there is a sizable group of more eccentric musicians who certainly think of themselves as highly creative who do seem to suffer from some forms of mental illness. They are attracted to music as a kind of refuge from the world and approach it as a kind of solipsistic indulgence. I suspect that many of the people in the writer's workshop might have been a bit alike. However, at the higher levels of creativity, in the case of well-established performing artists or composers, every one that I have encountered has shown a very high level of mental acuity and no signs of mental disorder.

What I think is lacking in this whole discussion is the historical perspective. The idea of a connection between madness and creativity was the invention of the Romantic Era and stemmed from their fascination with disorder and chaos. This fascination with and attraction to madness has been well described by Charles Rosen in his The Romantic Generation:
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, madness--for writers, painters, and musicians--was not simply a withdrawal from the distress of everyday life, a protest against intolerable social conditions or against a debilitating philosophy. It had gained a new ideological charge: madness was a source of creative energy.
Several of the finest German writers of the generation born around 1780 would be considered clinically insane by most standards: Friedrich Hölderlin passed the last decades of his life in an almost total schizophrenia, Heinrigh von Kleist ended his with a suicide pact, and Clemens Brentano was afflicted with a religious melancholia and depression as great as Cowper's.
Madness, for the Romantic artist, was more than the breakdown of rational thought; it was an alternative which promised not only different insights, but also a different logic. [op. cit. p. 647]
The point here is that this is a largely historical phenomenon. As the 20th century unfolded, it faded and I doubt I could point out a single composer of today whom you could call mad to any degree. As for writers, I am not familiar enough with that field. Perhaps writers are always mad!

A piece that would make a good close for this post is an example Rosen chose: the setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine by Robert Schumann. Here is "Ich Wandelte Unter Den Bäumen" that Rosen describes as "hallucinatory":


Virgil T. Morant said...

It seems to my every recollection of Schumann biography that he was quite unable to compose anything serious during one of his mental episodes. (There is, for instance, the tune he was famously obsessed with: I don't think anything came of it during any period of madness when it was haunting him.) And I think this says something. Namely, even if there is in any instance some connection between mental illness and a composer's creativity, a composer could scarcely muster up the will or discipline to write one of his great works while in the throes of a clinically depressive episode.

Simon Rattle recently had some interesting, albeit perhaps somewhat speculative remarks, about Schumann's mental health, among other things, in this very interesting talk:

Virgil T. Morant said...

Forgive me for a second comment. I neglected to tick the subscribe button with my last comment, so I'm leaving this just to get the email updates.

Bryan Townsend said...

Virgil, thank you for your thoughtful observation. In a blog post I can usually just scratch the surface and that is particularly so in this post. One of the best discussions I have seen on Schumann and his obsessive nature is in the book by Rosen. He reveals so many fascinating things about the 19th century Romantics. That tune that you refer to is in the Phantasie, quite an early work, and it is a quotation from Beethoven. Rosen talks about it on pp 101 et seq. In the case of Schumann in particular, I don't think you can separate his character, which seems to have had an undercurrent of irrationality, from his creativity. But, as I was saying in the post, I think this is very much a particular historical phenomenon, happening at a particular time. The early Romantics were reacting very strongly to what they saw as the excessive rationality of the previous generation. For them, a touch of madness was the antidote to too much intellectualizing.

Shantanu said...

Recently I watched an episode of House M.D. where one of the opening scenes showed a mental hospital where a lady was sitting at the piano was playing the first movement of Kinderszenen. Maybe Schumann's own irrationality did come out in a special way in such pieces which are more intimate than showy - more about personal trouble than a worldly struggle. His music often comes across to me as trying to hold very large and turbulent forces within a small form - maybe that mirrors his personality in some way. If he was irrational, I prefer his irrationality to the gimmickry of Cage and Stockhausen and the soullessness of Berg, Feldman and Bartok. I think the Romantic vision is not crazy. Maybe it is from our standpoint, but it was also more meaningful and wholesome than the uber-scientific and rational perspectives of today. We are living in a time when being alive and being an acceptable and "interesting" part of society is held as very important. And all large scale concepts of reality are by default coerced to be scientific, never mystical or meaningful. Maybe that is for the best, because we are also more free of dogma today than the 19th century was - but because of that, art suffers. Maybe if we understood how we cannot have everything at the same time, we would automatically appreciate the madness of Schumann and not try to analyse it callously. Because, do not forget that if we cannot create any art today, it is also because we are more intent on understanding the means to that creation, to the conceptualisation, not the soul of art. Romantic art, even though there are large orchestras, difficult to play parts, complex harmonies, etc. is Romantic art because it points to some vague inspiration in the heart of the artist - that can never be understood if not shared by the listener, can never be described and mimicked like manufacturing an IC engine from a blueprint...

Therefore, I think historical perspectives can be amazingly flawed. I think something changed at the beginning of the 20th century which makes us decidedly a different people than the 19th century. Our art is never going to be as lasting because it is no more our only way out - we have technology, the internet, space travel, and a million other things...

*tips hat*

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that I need to start giving out awards for comments. Shantanu, that is probably the most profound comment that has been left on this blog. It reminds me of a couple of lines from a poem by Theodore Roethke that I set several years ago:

“What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance.”
―Theodore Roethke

I know that episode of House M.D. It is from early on in Season 6, I think, when he is in an institution.

Shantanu said...

Thank you Bryan, that is so generous of you.