This may not bear much resemblance to what I said at Asylum, because I was winging it, but following on from Tom’s Guest blog, some more thoughts about the curious relationship between the two.
The list of identifiably mad creative genius types, is shocking. Depression and mental instability are widespread in the creative community and always have been. However, there are also far more ill people who do not produce great works of art or literature. Being mad means not working, usually, while suicide has cut short too many lives. How different would the world be if Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath Thomas Chatterton and others had not taken their own lives? How much more could Poe or Tennyson have done if they’d not been fighting demons? Periods of madness tend to be periods of creative inactivity. I don’t know if having poor mental health is more likely to attract you to artistic professions, or if the irregular hours and it being okay to not work when you can’t is a part of the correlation. Perhaps being creative runs the risk of driving you mad…
Mostly we measure madness as deviation from normality. You only have to go back a few hundred years and the people we would now medicate, were considered mystics. These days if you went into the desert and heard a voice instructing you to kill your son, you’d be taken into care, you wouldn’t be founding Judaism. It creates some interesting questions about the history of religion, too. Go into a supermarket in your Druid regalia, or your steampunk outfit and if you are the only one, people will look at you like you are crazy. Go in with twenty other folks who are also dressed up, and its instantly more socially acceptable. The impression of madness can be all about the numbers. This rather suggests that if enough of us take up the alternative, the crazy fringe stuff, we could make it normal. There are interesting and amusing implications to this.
To do anything creative, you have to think of things no one has ever thought of before. An excess of thinking things no one else thinks means dislocation from consensus reality. This alone would account for the close relationship between insanity and genius. It’s a bit of a balancing act and for some of us there is a choice. Plunging into the deep waters of awen in search of the salmon of wisdom, can be a deliberate action. Stay in there too long, and you drown. You can also chose not to plunge, to control the mind so that errant thoughts are quickly discarded. We construct our own realities and we have a lot of scope to choose and manage our own thoughts.
There’s a lovely Robert Holdstock term for people who stay too long in the magical forest: Bosky. I have been there. I write about madness. I voluntarily enter into situations that alter my state of consciousness (not drugs, brain chemistry). I am not afraid to think the wilder, more dangerous thoughts, and a great deal of my writing comes out of these journeys. However, I also know how to walk that tightrope, dancing down the edges without falling into dysfunction. I know how to stay real, when to step back from the computer and clean something, cook something, reassert regular reality.
I also know from experience that mental ill health is not creative. Depression and anxiety knock the inspiration out of me, leaving me in a dead and useless head space. Creativity actually takes a lot of discipline, a loss of mental balance does not give you that, wild flailings are seldom creative, which is why merely being a bit mad will not make you a creative genius. It may be true that some of our great creative minds took substances to help them, but taking substances will not turn you into Coleridge, or Hendrix. Vision without discipline isn’t enough.
Playing with that which seems like madness can be a very good thing. It is only by thinking of that which does not exist, has not happened, is not currently possible, that we get innovation, and that’s as true for science as for fiction. I think it’s the person who makes those journeys alone who is most vulnerable. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, have someone watch your back. Test the ideas on one you trust so you know if you’ve come back with poetry or bat shit crazy. A little more of the right kind of madness would make the world a much better place.