The history of genius is drenched in ambivalence, saturated with both worship and loathing. Ever since Plato claimed the gods include insanity with each gift of inspiration, exceptional talents have been idealized and condemned, depending on the fashion of the moment. In the Middle Ages they were said to be possessed by demons; today, they're allegedly hobbled by mental illness.
The fact content is about the same; even the recent pseudoscientific theories illuminate more about the theorist than the genius. They're useful primarily as a leveler, a way to neutralize envy, since for those who need it, there's much comfort in the idea that exceptional people are flawed.
Lately this ancient cushion has received fresh padding from the mental health profession, a group traditionally suspicious of exuberance, imagination, and risk-taking.
Much of the new stuffing comes from psychological autopsies, the most popular approach. In "Byron, the Flawed Angel" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), Phillis Grosskurth exhumes a poet whose worst flaw seems to be his bratty self-indulgence.
Though billed as "a master of psychoanalytic biography," Grosskurth diagnoses Byron by tacking the loaded modifier "manic" onto words like "activity" without providing clinical justification for doing so. Of course, this makes every human experience fair grist for the psychiatric mill.
When Byron falls in love, "he was in that manic state when he wanted to proclaim his love from the rooftops." When he manages a four-mile swim across the Dardanelles despite his club foot, normal triumph is denied him. "Byron's mood had never been so manic," Grosskurth decides. "He suddenly started writing to his friends and for the next two months his letters are filled with descriptions of the exploit."
Byron is labeled manic-depressive because he was "too moody" to qualify as schizophrenic. Yet the official guidelines for both disorders require evidence of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations, or at least some blatantly destructive impact on normal functioning. It's not enough to be habitually moody, dramatic, promiscuous, selfish and financially immature.
But once the criteria are diluted this thoroughly, a motivated judge can find enough "evidence" in everyone's history to bundle them all into the same Procrustean bed with all the mad geniuses. As Anatole Broyard pointed out, "There are just as many disturbed and self-destructive bakers, but we do not analyze their cakes."
All mythology needs some truth to survive. It happens that the manic and creative states do share certain characteristics: Both have prolonged periods of agitated enthusiasm when ideas tumble about and food, sleep and social responsibilities lose their importance. The crucial distinction is whether the behavior is out of control: whether the symptoms create art or personal disaster. And the same principle applies to the flip side. Whether artistic or not, productive whirlwinds are often followed by exhaustion, dragging its familiar retinue of lethargy, sadness and self-doubt. This is as natural as the depletion of the land after harvest, becoming illness only if it endures and paralyzes.
Once you label all intense productivity "manic" and its normal downswing "depression," you pathologize everyone who experiences both and dilute the gravity of real mental illness. And with such elastic definitions of madness, creativity and genius bouncing around, the interaction among them is impossible to prove.
Fortunately, proof isn't a high priority. At a professional conference on mood disorders, I heard the author of the original study on writers' depression say that "issues of statistical significance are less important than the clinical implications" of her research. Who needs scientific validity when the quest is so fascinating?
No inherent pathology
In fact, each new "breakthrough" is widely embraced despite any flaws in conception or methodology. Most samples are far too small to support reliable conclusions, and survey techniques often distort the actual prevalence of mental illness. For example, when they define depression as simply being treated for it, they eliminate those who truly suffer from it but shun treatment, while assuming that everyone in treatment really has it - and all to precisely the same degree.
Even when the data are clear, the interpretations are biased. Maybe there are more alcoholic artists than soldiers, but this could reflect their greater freedom and isolation rather than any inherent pathology. Similarly, when comparing self-reports of depression from creative and control groups, nobody considers the artists' eagerness to explore their souls in private and embellish them in public - including with a therapist.
Also overlooked is the financial roller-coaster of the creative life, which creates mood swings all by itself. And little is said about the volitional aspect of mental "illness," when people deliberately cultivate their eccentricity because they assume it demonstrates their genius, while others play up their "artistic temperament" as a good excuse for bad behavior.
There are too many different threads to knit any consistency here, although it's promised in "The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy" (Guilford, 1988). The title reflects the evergreen hope that the great are indeed paying for it, but the subtitle is misleading since nothing is resolved at all.
Psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig examines 1,004 eminent people, from Lady Astor to Samuel Gompers, in the (failed) attempt to link greatness to such primal causes as family dysfunction and birth order. He provides many impressive - if inconclusive - charts, and finally admits that "while intriguing, speculations of this sort are justified only if it has been established that mental illness is common among the eminent. To date, this has yet to be established."
Perspective is key
An equally determined approach propels "The Key to Genius: Manic Depression and the Creative Life" (D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb, M.D., Prometheus, 1992), which borrows the forensic technique without the sharper implements. While the authors strain some diagnostic muscles tying Beethoven's "first recorded depression" to his mother's death, they paint a friendlier portrait of mania, including cheerfulness, optimism and good will as symptoms, and suggesting that manic- depression is what transforms talent into genius. This might reflect the fact that one author is an artist with a more benign and proprietary perspective on the whole business.
And perspective is the real key to this mystery. In the absence of fact, opinion will always dominate, along with the individual agendas that drive it. Many needs are met by linking creativity and madness, not the least of which is the everlasting compulsion to shake the pedestals of exceptional people - but not hard enough to dislodge them from view. As long as they are considered damaged or doomed, we can appreciate their creations without having to envy their more interesting lives, their freedom, their talent.
This also satisfies the prissier therapists, those who were drawn to the profession in the first place by the chance to experience intimacy without risk.
By sharing the dramas of their artistic patients, they can approach the thrill of coloring outside the lines without having to dare it themselves. This is particularly true for those who trace their lineage to that notorious spoilsport, Sigmund Freud, for whom the creative urge was merely a flight from depression and sexual frustration.
The anti-creativity chorus is full of sour notes (and grapes), yet jealousy alone cannot explain the deeper animosity that surfaces now and then. Perhaps May Sarton can: "The creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes. Under all the superficial praise of 'the creative' is the desire to kill. It is the old war between the mystic and the nonmystic, a war to the death." Whatever it may be, it continues.
Judith Schlesinger is a practicing psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. She is a professor at Pace University and author of "Music and Madness," about the psychological and cultural impact of music.
! Pub Date: 4/06/97