(A brief look at bias in the
definition of normalcy.)
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
—e. e. cummings
plying the repetitive metaphor
through the sullied simile of being.
—J. W. T.
“Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit”
Why is it that have most great artists been considered mad by the standards of their milieu? Not just angry, mind, but full out, balls to the wall, nuts: “insane” . . . “over the edge” . . . “out of control”! Is this a condition of state, necessarily? Is it systemic or endemic to the breed, to the profession, to profundity itself? Is personal perspicacity an aberration? And what is it about the process of artistic inspiration and expression that lends itself to the apparent circumvention of that which any particular milieu defines as “normalcy”?
What is “normalcy”? More specifically, what is the nature of this seemingly somewhat spurious psychological concept, that is so ubiquitously used to abjure and adjudicate sociological conventionality in our culture today? How has this concept been defined in the past, and how do past denotations of an acceptable social gloss differ from contemporaneous ones?
The noted contemporary cultural anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, in his astute and revolute volume They Became What They Beheld, quotes James Joyce in opining: “‘I flew by the nets,’ . . . the nets of family, church and country. Literate artists fly past the nets . . .” (pg. 26). What people and/or processes shaped our current conceptual comprehension of these “nets” of cultural constraint? And, for any given age, who (and/or what instrumentality) decides what is or isn’t proper thought, or behavior; and from what authority does this decisive process proceed?
Finally, why also, have so many of the most critically acclaimed, trend-setting artists in the world-shaping media fields of contemporary jazz and rock music had marked proclivities (as have had artists since the beginning of human history) for alcoholism, drug use and addiction, and ultimately, in countless cases, self-destruction? And, is there a genetic predisposition, as has been clinically shown recently for alcoholism, for the physiological accompaniment of mental illness with creativity? This article will attempt to briefly codify and clarify some, if not all, of these quondam queries.
Primarily: “normalcy”, and “aberration” are, by definition, culturally conditioned concepts and not absolutes. Secondarily: there is a demonstrable connection between creativity and creative ability, and what is termed “madness” or “mental illness”. Tertiarily: acceptable modes of thought, motivation, and behavior are defined societally by whatever applicable notions happen to be extant. Quaternarily: The bases for these psychological assumptions are usually insidious social control mechanisms, consciously and/or unconsciously inculcated as cultural norms, by whatever pervasive philosophical schemata (usually religious) are, or have been, culturally paramount for any individual subject.
Note: For brevity’s sake, and the purposes of this specific version of this essay we will attempt to deal with only the primary and secondary aspects of the hypothesis at present, leaving the tertiary and quaternary aspects to be dealt with at a later date.
Definition of Terms
In order to precisely understand the terminology utilized by society at large and this article, hereinbefore and hereinafter, and to attempt to circumvent those metathetical traps that lay in wait for the unwary thinker, we should, for clarity’s sake, avail ourselves of the ultimate authority and compendium of etymological efficacy: The Oxford English Dictionary. Too often we lose sight of the origins of meaning in our language, the prescriptive definitions. Consequently, any attempt to expositionally espouse conceptualizations based upon those descriptive definitions which we actually only “connote” and have no real, clear denotative understanding of suffers from both an heinous lack of specificity and an erroneous sense of certainty.
The word “normal”, and, thereby, our contemporary concept of normalcy, is defined by the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary in a prescriptive and chronologically metathetical fashion: as proceeding from the Latin word norma , a “carpenter’s or mason’s square; hence, pattern, rule, etc.”; and thence to “2. Constituting, conforming to, not deviating or differing from, the common type or standard; regular, usual . . .” (s.v. “normal”).
“Aberration” (or, abnormality actualized), is defined in the selfsame lexicon as: “[T]he action of wandering or straying; the state of error or irregularity thence resulting . . .”, and, “1. lit. [A] wandering away, a straying; a deviation or divergence from the straight or recognized path. . . 2. fig . “[A] deviation or divergence from a direct, prescribed, or ordinary course or mode of action . . . 3. [A] wandering from the path of rectitude, or standard of morality . . .” (O.E.D., s.v. “aberration”). Once again, a circumstantially concomitant, and culturally conditional, definition.
The Psychiatric Dictionary contains no specific definition for normalcy, but does define “aberration” as: “[a]ny morbid deviation from normal mental activity . . .” (s.v. “aberration”, italics mine). Further, this volume goes on to define “creativity” as: “[t]he ability to create something new, presumed to be a product of sublimation . . .” (s.v. “creativity”), and the concept of “sublimation” as: “. . . the process of modifying an instinctual impulse in such a way as to conform to the demands of society . . .” (s.v. “sublimation).
Thus, it can be easily seen that the legitimacy of any such socially certain set standards are situationally definitional; and, as such, originate in those subtle and intrinsic assumptions that constitute the peripatetically penurious parsing of propinquitously impertinent phraseology.
In 1987, Nancy C. Andreasen, of the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, as part of a landmark study of the relationship between what is termed “mental illness” and creativity, reported that there seems to be a close association between creative ability and “affective disorders”. Over a 15 year period, Andreasen subjected 30 faculty members at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, one of the best-known creative writing programs in the country, to scientific scrutiny. She also interviewed another 30 control subjects of comparable age, sex and education, whose careers included hospital administration, law and social work (qtd. in Bower, 262).
Andreasen found that 80 percent of the aforementioned scriveners had experienced an episode of either severe depression or “manic” depression — either with a pronounced mania characterized by feelings of euphoria, increased energy and poor judgment, or a milder “hypomania” — at some time in their lives. Depression or manic depression occurred in only 30 percent of the control group.
Andreasen’s report follows a similar study, done in 1983 by Washington D.C. psychologist Kay Jamison, of 47 top British artists and writers (qtd. in Bower, 1987, p. 262), and is also supported by another study, subsequent to her’s, done by investigators at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. (qtd. in Bower, 1988, p. 135).
In the former study, more than one third of the 47 subjects reported having sought treatment for depression or manic depression, with poets and playwrights being most likely to have severe mood disorders or dramatic mood swings.
In the latter study, psychologist Dennis K. Kinney, who conducted the research with psychiatrist Ruth Richards and several others, reported a heightened level of “everyday” creativity — encompassing both occupational and leisure activities — among people who undergo relatively mild mood swings as well as the healthy relatives of manic depressives. (Full-blown manic depressives seem to be somewhat less creative than these two groups but show greater creativity than control subjects.)
Kinney states that: “[t]he data suggest that enhanced creativity may be a positive characteristic associated with an inherited liability for manic depression” (Bower, 135). Several other studies not mentioned here (dealing with affective and bipolar disorders) echo this statement and posit creative ability in the mentally ill as a kind of functionally compensatory biological mechanism for those afflicted with these cognitive or behavioral dysfunctions.
Lengthy and assiduously transcribed interviews with each subject made it possible for the researchers from McLean to assess and attempt to quantify creativity on a number of scales that applied to both vocational and leisure activities. Mind, they were not trying to measure genius per se, rather, they were trying to get a handle on everyday types of creative function. Kinney says: “. . . creative people in our sample may paint in their spare time, write poetry, start their own business or come up with novel ways to improve their work environment”.
In other words, in this study the researchers attempted to scrutinize the creativity of commonplace people with regard to psychological functionality or dysfunction present in their lives. The researchers had previously tested and calibrated the creativity scales with more than 300 psychiatrically healthy subjects from a larger adoption study recently conducted in Denmark.
Kinney and his coworkers studied 17 manic depressives, 11 of their parents and siblings with no psychiatric diagnoses and 16 individuals with a mild form of mood swings. The 45 subjects used as controls had no family history of mood disorders; 15 had no psychiatric disorders and 18 had some diagnosis other than mood disorder, usually some form of anxiety disorder. They found, amongst other things, that individuals with mild mood swings or manic depressive relatives tend to express their creative potential in different fashions. Those with manic depressive relatives show the highest creativity in avocational pursuits, whilst those with mild mood swings were more creative at work (Bower, 135).
Two other studies are pertinent for our purposes at present, both conducted by Kareen and Hagop Akiskal of the University of Tennessee. The first of these was a study of 750 psychiatric patients in Memphis. The Akiskals found that those with mild manic depression or mood swings were more likely to be creative artists (Bower, 262). The second is an ongoing study being done with other psychiatrists at the University of Paris involving examinations and extensive interviews with writers, painters, sculptors and musicians, which includes comparisons with a comparable number of interviewees in other occupations as controls.
“So far, the most striking aspect of the artists is their temperament, not the presence of major psychiatric disorders,” says Hagop Akiskal. “Since their teens and 20’s they’ve been moody people with emotional ups and downs” (Bower, 262).
Nearly 70 percent of the artists had some type of affective disorder, noted Akiskal. The most common diagnoses were a moderate form of manic depression or even milder, intermittent periods of mood swings. More severe disorders, he concludes, would most probably been too disruptive an influence on the artists careers.
Obviously, the limitations of this essay are legion. The primary problem one encounters with regard to this particular subject is that of the relatively small sample size of some of the subject groups in the aforementioned studies. Alas, one must conclude from the relative paucity of creative genius at large in society today, and the relative infrequency of cases of artistic ability throughout history (as evidenced by the high prices the products of said infrequent genius command on the open market) that sample size, for any study of this nature, will consequently always be small. There just will never be a great pool of artists extant to be sampled during any given historical age, past, present, or future.
There is also the question of a producing a verifiably effective methodology for quantifying and interpreting data on the possibly innumerable and endless permutations of creative ability and madness as they are apprehended by researchers in their perusal of any subject or group of subjects.
There are also scholarly views on the subject, some of which have found their way into print, that hold to the contrary, to wit: that there is nothing inherent in or intrinsic to artistic genius and creative ability that, necessarily, demands madness as a prerequisite for the process of creation. The author Anthony Storr, in an essay entitled “Sanity of True Genius” (pp. 249-268), argues effectively (conversely, for the purposes of this essay) that: “. . . it has been believed that the greater the genius, the more likely it is that he will be an exalted type of human being; noble, lofty, and harmonious; displaying in his life, as in his works, both exquisite sensibility and perfect control.” He goes on to say that: “[t]o this way of thinking, the greatest works of art could only be produced by people of the highest character. The noblest works mirror the nobility of the artist’s soul.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” (Anon.). Consequently (all aphorisms aside), and with a nod to Occam’s Razor, there must be some connection between madness and creativity for all these quite cogent folks to have felt compelled to thus comment upon the ties so frequently down through the ages. Surely then, bearing the findings mentioned, cultural and societal efforts to set a standard for and/or classify normalcy must be seen as ultimately vainglorious.
Hopefully, as the quantitative and empirical abilities of psycho-neurologists improve with the advent of new techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging and whole brain tomographic modeling, the human neural net will be mapped with some precision, and the synaptic dissemination of information and impulse will be thoroughly cataloged. Until these daunting tasks are done, and verified by a wealth of experimental data, we will be left with the unenviable, if nevertheless exciting task of attempting to induce conclusions about the connection between madness and creativity by the best means and methods available at present, represented by the cutting edge studies referred to in this essay.
Bower, B. (1987, October 24). Mood swings and creativity: New clues. Science News 87, p. 262.
Bower, B. (1988, September 3). Manic depression: Risk and creativity. Science News 88, p. 135.
Carpenter, Edmund. They Became What They Beheld. New York: Ballantine, !970.
cummings, e.e. “as freedom is a breakfastfood” Poems 1923-1954. New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1954.
Psychiatric Dictionary. 4th. Ed. Oxford U.P. 1970.
Storr, Anthony. Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice & Other Phenomena. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
The Oxford English Dictionary. Compact Ed. Oxford U.P. 1971.
Thrasher, J.W. “Sullied Similes” 'Euphonic Sequipedalien Paronomasia'. unpbl. ms.