Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide. (John Dryden)
The latest dystopian fantasy to capture pop culture’s imagination is The Hunger Games. It is also the latest adaptation of a hugely popular series of teen fiction, which may be unique to the current era. The Hunger Games refers to a ritual in which young warriors compete to the death for the prize of rations for their impoverished home districts. Ironic associations with the Olympics and the ancient Greek "Funeral Games" come to mind, as do socio-political programs from welfare to public health to wartime ration cards. Art can be as provocative and complex as the societies it vivifies. And as long as societies are corrupt, dystopian fantasies will stimulate a core of the collective.
Georges Braques said, “the artist is not misunderstood, he is unrecognized. People exploit him without knowing it.” Blunt if not apparently harsh, his indictment holds up to scrutiny. Kay Redfield Jamison’s seminal book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament examines the dialectic of her subtitle, illustrating the remarkable overlap between artists and mental illness. The artist is misunderstood, and mental illness has always been victimized. “Thin partitions” are often all that divide the artist from a clean bill of mental health. Tenuous, ever shifting boundaries exist between the artist and society vis-à-vis the roles the artist plays, and between the misunderstanding and exploitation Braques cited.
Jamison concludes her work of penetrating psychological insight with a discordant warning that resonates with one of the most frequent themes of dystopian imagination, genetic manipulation and sterilization. Writing in 1993, she concludes,
The historical precedent is chilling. Tens of thousands of mentally ill individuals, including many with manic-depressive illness, were sterilized or killed during the Third Reich, and many other thousands of psychiatric patients were sterilized earlier this century in the United States.
Dryden’s “thin partitions” have not prevented the literal confinement of “mad” artists in the form of institutionalization. The more porous, phantom forms of confinements like isolation and criticism are subjective enough to be dismissed. Artists who are “crazy,” “troublesome” or “eccentric” can be relegated to the margins. Michel Foucault’s History of Madness and Unreason in the Classical Age offers unsettling evidence of how the “mad” were often lumped with other “undesirables” like the criminal, the criminally insane, and the poor. The commonality of the cage was forced upon those whom “reasonable” society deemed unreasonable. Skeptics of such unsettling schools as Jamison’s and Foucault’s could offer examples from the Renaissance forward of society’s elevating patronage of the arts. Philistinism and dilettantism have coexisted in each of the eras under consideration. As recently as the 1940’s medical studies suggested sterilization as a “cure” to hereditary mental illness. In a particularly disturbing case, Jamison cites the work of Drs. Myerson and Boyle, reporting on the “high incidence of manic-depressive illness in certain socially prominent families.” Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry they are referring to the eminent family of Henry and William James, the two most famous men of letters in a family as troubled mentally as it was artistically prodigious. “Whom could we have sterilized in this family line to prevent the manic-depressive state and at what cost of social riches, in the truer sense, would this have been done?”
Though the Eugenics movement was short-lived, the disturbing ripples of such prejudice will be felt as long as humanity remains in its current state, subject to human error. Our greatest teacher when it comes to the human condition is found in art. But society has always felt threatened by the democratization of knowledge, and this is another reason the liberal arts are increasingly banished to the margins. We give lip service to the value of a liberal arts education and pour our resources into so-called “homeland security,” sports and pop culture. And while “fringe festivals” of “alternative” artistic expressions may be increasingly popular, art has always been a marginal enterprise. Every age records a few strident voices bemoaning the paucity of support for culture, lamenting a golden – and lost – “classical” age where art flourished on the wings of wealthy patrons and ennobled a society who appreciated its creative bounty. The complaint that every era has been more cultured than one’s own is oft repeated.
Artists have always been misunderstood and exploited. The volatile artistic temperament, with its “near alliance” to “madness” has always threatened a “reasonable” status quo. Any artist who has felt the sting of a sucker-punch from having her personality used against her when its volatility has inconvenienced a power-wielding player can testify to the painful injustice of such an experience. The dystopian fantasy is not a modern invention; speculative or science fiction is not unique to a world capable of nuclear annihilation. The primary function of art is an affirmative response to the eternal question about the meaning of life. The oldest mythologies and the latest blockbusters, with varying degrees of success, attest to this. The believers in progress would do well to consider the roles of artistic expression across history, and pay attention to the “colorful” personalities behind so much of what we call “great art.” The eminent New England Transcendentalist, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote,
The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.
Author of some of the greatest fiction of the 19th century, and American letters in general, Herman Melville suffered from the “spleen” of a melancholy temperament that tossed him about the seas of life like a sailor on one of his fictional whale-boats.
This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, - which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains.
Jamison’s chapter titles are poetic quotes describing states of the temperament she considers, and its parallels with mental illness. “That fine madness,” “Endless night, fierce fires and shramming cold,” “Could it be madness – this?” “Their life a storm whereon they ride,” “The mind’s canker in its savage mood,” “Genealogies of these high mortal miseries,” and “This net throwne upon the heavens” are the vivid titles from poets as varied as Byron, Dickinson, Donne and Melville.
Edgar Allen Poe was one of the brightest lights in world literature, one of its most original and visionary voices, and among its most troubled. A manic-depressive alcoholic who attempted suicide and died tragically young, Poe wrote compellingly about his experiences. Rather than being dismissed as a melodramatic and eccentric dissolute, Poe is a window into those “thin partitions” between creativity and a temperament allied with illness.
My feelings at this moment are pitiable indeed. I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before. I have struggled in vain against the influence of this melancholy – You will believe me when I say I am still miserable in spite of the great improvement in my circumstances.
Writing in the early twentieth century about Poe, Dr. John Robertson cited the fortune the world derived from the troubled minds of artists, “however high an inheritance tax the victims of heredity must pay.” A portion of that tax is what Poe referred to as the poet’s genus irritabile. “The poet sees injustice never where it does not exist, but often where the ordinary man sees no injustice whatsoever.” The poet is an “irritable genius” indeed, both by nature and by calling. This is to the benefit of society, and at not inconsiderable cost to his own wellbeing. “Art,” Kafka said, is “an axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart.” And like the hammer of Thor, it can be a burdensome instrument that demands tremendous courage and strength from the one who would wield it. It is no wonder so many artists are irritable, disturbed and “touched.”
Jamison’s book concludes with an appendix of “Writers, artists, and composers with probable Cyclothymia, Major depression, or Manic-depressive illness.” It is a staggering list. The poets alone number 84, and include such eminent figures as Blake, Burns, Byron, Coleridge, Dickinson, Eliot, Hopkins, Hugo, Keats, Millay, Pasternak, Pushkin, Shelley, Tennyson and Whitman. Nearly two-dozen suicides number among these poets. When one considers the fact the vast majority of suicides are victims of mental illness, the life-threatening gravity of mental health appears in a new light.
Robert Schumann suffered acutely throughout his brief life, before dying in an asylum at 46. “Violent rushes of blood, unspeakable fear, breathlessness, momentary unconsciousness, alternate quickly.” As did the creative muses in a composer whose output was astonishing during his “manic” periods of hyperactive inspiration.
The poet and Jesuit priest Gerald Manley Hopkins died of a “fever” at a similar age, “morbidly depressed, and in fear of going mad,” Jamison notes. Like Poe and many others, he articulated his experiences in both prose and verse. “The melancholy I have all my life been subject to has become of late years not indeed more intense in its fits but rather more disturbed, constant, and crippling… my state is much like madness.” He described his “Dark Sonnets” as poems “written in blood.”
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Virginia Woolf, another tragic genius and suicide, described the lingering darkness of depression over which the sufferer has little control,
…those interminable nights which do not end at twelve, but go into the double figures – thirteen, fourteen, and so on until they reach the twenties, and then the thirties, and then the forties…there is nothing to prevent nights from doing this if they choose.
Equally alarming can be the “merging of identities and experiences so common to the manic experience.” Jamison cites a “who-could-make-this-stuff-up?” example from the poet Theodore Roethke:
One day I was passing a diner and all of a sudden I knew what it was like to be a lion. I went into the diner and said to the counter-man, “Bring me a steak. Don’t cook it. Just bring it.” So he brought me this raw steak and I started eating it. The other customers made like they were revolted, watching me. And I began to see that maybe it was a little strange.
Foucault’s seminal work on mental illness in the 18th century is the subject of another essay in this labyrinthine thread of art and society. Like Jamison, he notes with chilling effect the fragile balances between extremities in illness and treatment, where sterilization lingers in a shadow holding a scythe. Jamison quotes his observations on the bipolar twins of “mania and melancholy:”
…the affinity is evident: not the affinity of symptoms linked in experience, but the affinity – more powerful and so much more evident in the landscape of the imagination – that unites in the same fire both smoke and flame.
It is telling that even the most clinical of works – Foucault's and Jamison's are two divergent examples of case studies – depends upon metaphor, the lifeblood of poetry, to communicate the truths of lived experience. The creative impulse is more omnipresent than the rational mind of Cartesian logic would have us believe. Other groundbreaking works are case study examples of this split, like The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and the Origins of Consciousness, and The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, by Julian Jaynes and Iaian McGilchrist, respectively. These two great books can be read as “chicken and egg” rationales for the same argument approached from opposite directions. Foucault is relevant again here, and his claims for the “Age of Reason” also being an age of regression (and repression) have been as controversial as Jaynes’ findings. McGilchrist’s title refers to a dichotomy, that of the rational mind – “the emissary” – usurping control from the intuitive, affective and integrative “master,” the creative half of the brain. Against Descartes’ limited and limiting “I think, therefore I am” is Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know.”
Creativity requires an integration of inspiration and discipline, emotion and reason, freedom and control. This dialectic must be balanced sometimes upon a tightrope. Again, those “thin partitions” draw us near. Coleridge called them “fugitive causes.”
Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, has a logic of its own as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and more dependent on more and more fugitive causes.
One of the “fugitive causes” of the tension between artist and society, most clearly seen in the hemispheric differences of the brain, the rational mind’s imbalanced control of power across the course of history - and especially since the so-called “Enlightenment”- resides in what Keats called “negative capability.”
This is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact & reason.” Keats goes on to say that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.” Given our craving for certainty, our discomfort with the shadow side of existence, our hunger for control, order, safety and comfort, it should not surprise us the chameleon artist not only feels ill at ease within conformist society, he experiences the distancing effects of being ostracized or exiled. Whether this experience is literal, as in the case of confinement or institutionalization, or more figurative, in the forms of rejection and isolation, is a matter of degree. The figurative means are both fugitive and obvious, from the marginalization of the “eccentric” or “different,” to the ousting of the irritable, axe-wielding figure.
Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, like Foucault’s History of Madness, is considered elsewhere. It is worth noting his linkage of the artist and the “absurd man.” The absurd man is the one who describes and experiences life rather than explaining and justifying it. The absurd man is allied to both great wit and madness, and through his comfort with irony and ambiguity produces “passionate works.” It is the artist who is most alive. Recall Martha Graham’s classic advice to Agnes DeMille to “keep the channels open” and stay attuned to that “divine dissatisfaction, the blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It is not a question of the artist’s superiority to her fellows; the values of creativity and imagination are uncontested, the power of the human mind is arguably its most supreme faculty. No, it is a question of correcting an imbalance, of breaking down walls that have compartmentalized artists and creativity because they always, at some level or another question the establishment. They pick at the frozen regions of the heart, they expose the corrupt means used to justify the ends of greed and the lust for power.
The Myth of Sisyphus should be required reading. Camus asserts the primacy of the creative impulse in defining the essence of humanity.
Creation is the most effective, the staggering evidence of man’s dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition…
Along with the revolt against all the limiting forces that enslave the human mind and body, Camus holds up not only freedom, but passion and diversity. A life of emotional openness and engagement, of an enlarging embrace. Taking a page out of the Jungian analyst James Hollis’ work, the ultimate question one must ask before any life decision is simply, “does this diminish or enlarge my soul?” Virtues enlarge, vices diminish. We are not talking of commandments, creeds or dogmas. The basic human choices of love versus fear or hate, gratitude versus envy or spite, joy versus avarice, and generosity versus greed are at stake. “Intelligence and passion mingle and delight each other,” Camus notes, in an unlikely affirmation from an alleged existentialist. Great wit must be near allied to madness in such an absurd world as this one. It is an allegiance that should be cherished as it is celebrated and sustained by the artistic marriage of the head and the heart.