January 10, 2011 § 3 Comments
“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” ~ Voltaire
“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” ~ Robin Williams
In his seminal work, “Madness and Civilization,” French philosopher Michael Faucault posits that psychiatry uses labeling language (known as positive science) to camouflage the bourgeois values imposed on social deviancy.
In other words, the mental health system acts as a kind of suppressive goon against nonconformity.
Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that:
“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”
From an evolutionary perspective, survival depends on some kind of social acceptance. So it’s natural that we attempt to avoid stigmatization. Yet, the seeker-dreamer feels compelled towards living authentically and will often sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of true self-expression.
Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.
Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals.
The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale to not let one’s mind run too far into the fanciful woods.
Edgar Allen Poe observed:
“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
In the Renaissance, the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.”
Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.
Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people between 1927 –1943. She found what was considered neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists & 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%.
The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%).
As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:
“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”
The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).
A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, “I’m going mad!”—after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music & jumping up to scribble in a notebook.
He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.
And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:
“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”
Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that it’s better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.
Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, one’s mind must certainly be open to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.
Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.
So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.
“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
“There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.” Seneca