Craziness is not the price paid for genius Creativity: The envious who don't have it mythologize the madness of brilliance.


April 06, 1997|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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