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I Got a Room at the Top of the World Tonight: The Art of Madness

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,

A difficult path is this — poets declare!

— Katha Upanishad

We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.

— George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron

Earl Fowler

If you’ve ever tried your hand at writing — whether your goal be a novel, a poem or a whimsical email to a friend — you will have noticed that the best parts pretty much write themselves.

I imagine the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to painting or composing music or any art form. Or, for that matter, to thinking about science or architecture or gardening or theology or any creative endeavour you care to name.

“The novels and poems,” D.H. Lawrence once observed, “come unwatched out of one’s pen.” In his estimation, based on pure passionate experience, such works flow from “pure passionate experience.”

Which isn’t to deny the need for high energy, boldness and clarity on the part of the creator. We’re not talking here about parapsychology’s “automatic writing,” the bogus, self-deluded, claimed ability of certain people to produce texts without consciously writing anything.

Rather, I’m interested in the way chaotic, inchoate, far-flung thoughts are somehow transformed — or, in the capacious, humming mind of a Coleridge or a Poe or a Blake or a Melville, magically transform themselves — into chains of meaningful connections: what Aristotle identified as a marriage of “dissimilarity with similarity” to create art.

In his 1739-40 tome, A Treatise of Human Nature, Scottish empiricist David Hume argued that all our ideas are ultimately drawn from experience and that we associate them — move methodically from one to another — according to three “natural relations” among them:

The qualities from which this association arises, and by which the mind is after this manner convey’d from one idea to another, are three, viz. RESEMBLANCE, CONTIGUITY in time or place, and CAUSE and EFFECT.

I believe it will not be very necessary to prove, that these qualities produce an association among ideas, and upon the appearance of one idea naturally introduce another. ’Tis plain, that in the course of our thinking, and in the constant revolution of our ideas, our imagination runs easily from one idea to any other that resembles it, and that this quality alone is to the fancy a sufficient bond and association. ’Tis likewise evident, that as the senses, in changing their objects, are necessitated to change them regularly, and take them as they lie contiguous to each other, the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects. As to the connexion, that is made by the relation of cause and effect, we shall have occasion afterwards to examine it to the bottom, and therefore shall not at present insist upon it. ’Tis sufficient to observe, that there is no relation, which produces a stronger connexion in the fancy, and makes one idea more readily recall another, than the relation of cause and effect betwixt their objects.

Hume would go on to rattle the foundations of science and philosophy by arguing that inductive reasoning and belief in causality cannot be justified rationally; instead, both arise from custom and mental habit. All we can observe, he concluded, is a “constant conjunction” of events — the sun rising every morning, for example — but we can’t prove that the future will resemble the past based on the fact that it always has in the past. That’s presupposing the very thing you’re trying to establish.

To counter Hume’s skepticism, Immanuel Kant — in 1781’s Critique of Pure Reason — would develop a theory of “transcendental idealism” in which the nature of things as they are is completely unknowable to us but via which we can nevertheless be certain that our brains will structure experience along familiar lines.

This seemingly desultory association of ideas (O ye of little faith) leads me to an examination of the what clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, in her marvellous book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, calls “the dynamic and complex interaction that takes place between the observer and observed during the process of imaginative, combining thought.”

(Quick terminology footnote: Since 1991, when Touched with Fire was published, the term “manic-depressive illness” has largely been replaced by “bipolar disorder” as the medical community’s preferred term for a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. As well, many of the people who were once considered schizophrenics would today be diagnosed as bipolar.)

In Modern Painters, 19th-century art and social critic John Ruskin anticipates Jamison’s “dynamic and complex interaction” in his typically glorious prose:

A powerfully imaginative mind seizes and combines at the same instant, not only two, but all the important ideas of its poem or picture; and while it works with any one of them, it is at the same instant working with and modifying all in their relations to it, never losing sight of their bearings on each other; as the motion of a snake’s body goes through all parts at once, and its volition acts at the same instant in coils that go contrary ways.

Arthur Rimbaud, a callow 16 when he set loose the delirious visions and revolutionary symbolism at play in Le Bateau Ivre after being inspired by the adventure novels of Jules Verne, opined in a letter that year to fellow writer Paul Demeny that in order to navigate impassive rivers, a poet:

… makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. … He reaches the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them.

“I come from a race noted for vigour of fancy and ardour of passion,” Edgar Allen Poe writes in the opening paragraph of his short story Eleonora, an account of a fictional narrator whose dead cousin (whom he had loved in an unfamily way) absolves him in a harrowing visit from beyond the grave for marrying another woman:

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. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

After conducting a series of psychometric studies into the nature of human intelligence, 20th-century American psychologist J.P. Guilford reached the not terribly surprising conclusion that creative individuals — those sometimes afforded penthouse views from what Tom Petty called “a room at the top of the world tonight”; we’ll get back to that — are far more likely than your average joe or josephine to exhibit “divergent” rather than “convergent thinking.”

In tests of convergent thinking there is almost always one conclusion or answer that is regarded as unique, and thinking is to be channelled or controlled in the direction of that answer. …

In divergent thinking, on the other hand, there is much searching about or going off in various directions. This is most obviously seen when there is no unique conclusion. Divergent thinking … is characterized … as being less goal-bound. There is freedom to go off in different directions. …

Rejecting the old solution and striking out in some direction is necessary, and the resourceful organism will more probably succeed.

Probably only someone who has spent way too much time in a Skinner Box and a white lab coat, straining to descry obscure hidden meanings in Rorschach images, would be inclined to describe great artists and scientists as “resourceful organisms.” But the concept of divergent thinking as an essential aspect of creation is a useful one. (I myself have known artistically inclined friends to occasionally induce divergent thinking via artificial stimulants such as drugs or alcohol.)

Of course, like Lord Ronald in a beloved story by Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, one can get a little too exuberant when it comes to flinging oneself upon a horse and riding madly off in all directions.

“My thoughts,” Walter Jackson Bate quotes English poet/critic/philosopher/theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge as saying in Bate’s 1987 biography Coleridge, “bustle along like a Surinam toad, with little toads sprouting out of the back, side and belly, vegetating while it crawls.”

When anyone crosses that often-posited thin line between genius and madness, when one follows Coleridge’s path from grandiosity into mania, the stately pleasure dome inevitably begins to crumble and it’s time for a wellness visit, however unwelcome, by a stolid but sober person from Porlock.

Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle’s famous description of Coleridge’s conversational style reminds me a bit of a riffing, improvising, madcap Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams, not to mention that crazy guy you scurried to get away from last week when he accosted you coming out of the liquor store:

To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or not, can in the long-run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent soever the flood of utterance that is descending. But if it be withal a confused unintelligible flood of utterance, threatening to submerge all known landmarks of thought, and drown the world and you!

I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers,— certain of whom, I for one, still kept eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of their own.

He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way,— but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new courses; and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe, where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.

Coleridge had a dazzling intellect and is credited as much as William Wordsworth with igniting the Romantic Movement in England. But when tripping on laudanum and/or suffering from the manic phase of what was pretty likely a severe bipolar disorder, he’d make for a flummoxing seat mate on the bus ride into work.

Mercurial 20th-century American poet Robert Lowell, to whom Jamison devoted a Pulitzer-nominated book in 2018’s Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, wrote with deep sorrow (he knew whereof he spoke) about the “jagged gash with which my contemporaries died.”

Among his mutually destructive generation of highly intelligent but off-kilter poets — which included John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz — Lowell witnessed:

… personal anguish everywhere. We can’t dodge it, and shouldn’t worry that we are uniquely marked and fretted and must somehow keep even-tempered, amused and in control. John B(erryman) in his mad way keeps talking about something evil stalking us poets. That’s a bad way to talk, but there’s some truth to it.

More than some. Like Lowell, all of the above were hospitalized for episodes of wild mania at one end and deep depressions at the other.

Berryman was 57 in 1972 when he made a fatal leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis onto the west bank of the Mississippi River. First wife Eileen Simpson wasn’t there with her safety net as she had been in 1953 — the year Dylan Thomas finished drinking himself to death — when she wakened in a panic in the middle of the night at the Hôtel des Saints Pères in Paris, barely in time to keep the budding alcoholic from slipping off the balustrade.

Just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Jarrell had gone to seek treatment in 1965 for a withering depression, the 51-year-old stepped into traffic — “as if asleep,” being the way Lowell imagined it. “Child Randall, greeting the cars, and approving — your harsh luminosity.”

In 1974, when she was 45, Sexton ended her life by putting on her mother’s old fur coat, removing all her rings, pouring herself a glass of vodka, locking herself in her garage and starting the engine of her car.

And after what Simpson describes as “ten years of living hell — of paranoid rages, terrifying anxiety and, in more stable periods, aching insight, loneliness and despair over his lost promise,” Schwartz’s death in 1966 when he was 52 might have been the saddest of all:

Delmore, a recluse, who had once been “flagrant” with “young male beauty” and so gifted that it was thought he would be the star of his generation, had fallen dead in a hallway outside his squalid room in a fleabag hotel in Times Square. The heart attack that took him was neither easy nor quick. He had been “tearing his sorry clothes” for over an hour before the noises of struggle attracted attention. An ambulance took him to Roosevelt Hospital (where, when his time came, Cal [Lowell’s nickname] would also be taken) to be pronounced dead. At the morgue, because “there were no readers of modern poetry around,” as Saul (Bellow) wrote of his character Humboldt, Delmore’s body lay unclaimed for two days.

“We poets in our youth begin in gladness,” Wordsworth had written in a prescient moment, given the imminent fates of contemporaries like Keats and Shelley, Coleridge and Byron. “But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.”

Suffering from emotional turmoil and coming of age in a period he and his colleagues considered inhospitable to poetry (dear God, what would they make of the barren TikTokian cultural zeitgeist of today?), Schwartz would rewrite that sentiment as:

We poets in our youth begin in sadness;

thereof in the end come despondency and madness.

“Pushkin could count on railway workers to know his poems,” Berryman grumbled to Simpson while they were getting to know each other in the early Forties. “Think of it! Who reads poetry in America?”

In his poem Visitors, Lowell — born into a Boston Brahmin family that could trace its origins back to the Mayflower, destined to die at 60 in a New York taxicab after suffering a heart attack en route to the house of his second ex-wife, writer Elizabeth Hardwick — vividly describes one of his trips to the cuckoo’s nest:

“Come on, sir.” “Easy sir.”

“Dr. Brown will be here in ten minutes, sir.”

Instead, a metal chair unfolds into a stretcher.

I lie secured there, but for my skipping mind.

They keep bustling.

“Where you are going, Professor,

you won’t need your Dante.”

Like Lowell, like Schwartz, like Berryman, Jamison, now 76, has had first-hand acquaintance with what Lord Byron once described as “the mind’s canker in its savage mood.” Her skipping-mind struggles with bipolar disorder began in her adolescence; she once attempted suicide by overdosing on the lithium she had been prescribed to help contain her moods.

“What is the nature of this disease of mood and reason that so often kills and yet so often is associated with the imaginative arts?” she asks. “What kind of illness takes those who have it on journeys where they, like Robert Lowell, both do and do not need their Dantes?”

The best answers to those questions that I’ve encountered are in Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a perceptive, empathetic 1982 memoir about the stormy rise and fall of Berryman & Co. as she strives compassionately to understand his drinking, infidelity and depression.

Jamison’s answers are less subtle and more rigorously scientific, but here are three easy takeaways from her work. If they’re misstated here, the fault is mine:

  1. “Recent research strongly suggests that, compared with the general population, writers and and artists show a vastly disproportionate rate of manic-depressive or depressive illness; clearly, however, not all (or even most) writers and artists suffer from mood disorders.”

  2. Bipolar disorder is a genetic disease, as is clearly shown in “the context of the family psychiatric histories, or pedigrees, of several major literary and artistic families (including those of Byron; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Herman Melville; William and Henry James; Robert Schumann; Coleridge; Vincent van Gogh; Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf).

  3. In auspicious circumstances — i.e., just another manic monk day that doesn’t turn into a godforsaken, outrageously manic Tuesday — “impassioned moods, shattered reason, and the artistic temperament can be welded into a ‘fine madness’ ” that conveys heightened imaginative powers, intensified emotional responses and increased energy. Jamison wouldn’t put it this way, but in layman’s terms: For some people, there is a relationship between art and madness. To quote Byron once more, “those who, by the dint of glass and vapour, discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye” are sometimes rewarded with a turbocharged but controlled Humean association of ideas.

Let’s put a little meat on each of those contentions. Lists are mind-numbingly dull, I know, and I apologize in advance. But they do help make a point. And so, in addition to Berryman, Jarrell and Sexton, what do the following poets have in common?

Paul Celan, Thomas Chatterton, Hart Crane, John Davidson, Sergey Yesenin, John Gould Fletcher, Vachel Lindsay, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Gérad de Nerval, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Sara Teasdale, Georg Trakl, Marina Tsvetaeva.

I knew you’d figure it out. All suffered from major episodes of depression and mood swings that would today be classified as evidence of bipolar disorders. All chose to go early into that good night and committed suicide, as did similarly afflicted fellow writers here on self-murderers’ row:

Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Malcolm Lowry (unless he was killed by his wife), Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf.

Mentally ill/chronically depressed composers and musicians who died by suicide:

Charles Bennington, Tommy Boyce, Vic Chesnutt, Jeremiah Clarke, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Ian Curtis, Nick Drake, Brad Delp, Keith Emerson, Donny Hathaway, Michael Hutchence, Jill Janus, Naomi Judd, Mark Linkous, Richard Manuel, Ronnie Montrose, Phil Ochs, Peter Warlock, Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

Artists in the same boat (prematurely piloted by Charon over the rivers Styx and Acheron, across the tide and into what Lowell’s buddy Dante referred to as “endless night, fierce fires and shramming cold”):

Ralph Barton, Francesco Bassano, Francesco Borromini, Edward Dayes, Vincent van Gogh, Arshile Gorky, Benjamin Haydon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Jules Pascin, Mark Rothko, Nicola de Staël, Pietro Testa, Henry Tilson.

Artistically creative types, suffering from probable mental illnesses and/or major depressions, who tried but failed to kill themselves (at least in the short term):

Konstantin Batyushkov, Charles Baudelaire, Hector Berlioz, Joseph Conrad, William Cowper, Ray Davies, Isak Dinesen, Afansy Fet, Gustaf Fröding, Paul Gaugin, Nikolai Gumilyov, Herman Hesse, George Innes, Eugene O’Neill, Charlie Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Schumann, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Francis Thompson, Hugo Wolf, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Excluding the aforementioned, a back-of-the-envelope inventory of those who wound up at some point in their lives in asylums or psychiatric hospitals would include:

Arthur Benson, Irving Berlin, Ralph Blakelock, Louise Bogan, Anton Bruckner, John Clare, William Collins, Richard Dadd, T.S. Eliot, Roky Erickson, William Faulkner, Robert Fergusson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Guston, Carl Hill, Friedrich Hölderin, Daniel Johnston, Henry Kendall, Velimir Khlebnikov, Otto Klemperer, Charles Lamb, Robert Lowell, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Mingus, Edvard Much, Sinéad O’Connor, Georgia O’Keefe, Boris Pasternak, Raphaelle Peale, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Ezra Pound, Bud Powell, Theodore Roethke, John Ruskin, Delmore Schwartz, Christopher Smart, Jean Stafford, William Styron, Torquato Tasso, James Taylor, Brian Wilson.

These dockets are simply illustrative and no attempt has been made to be all-inclusive. Many in these illustrious but despondent roundups had physical illnesses, alcohol or drug addictions. Many faced extremely trying circumstances in their lives. It would be a mug’s game to try to tease out mood disorders from the other conditions. Each feeds the other anyway.

Also, it goes without saying that the great majority of mentally ill people, just like most so-called normal types, never create a piece of art the world deems worth a damn.

But still.

If you wanted to put together a sample merely of poets who cracked none of the above directories but still can be grouped under the heading “Writers, Artists, and Composers with Probable Cyclothymia, Major Depression, or Manic-Depressive Illness” — as Jamison helpfully does — you’d have to throw in, just for starters:

Rupert Brooke, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Edward Fitzgerald, Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victor Hugo, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Louis MacNeice, Alfred de Musset, Alexander Pushkin, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Walt Whitman.

Cyclothymia? Delivering emotional ups and downs far beyond what most people experience, it’s a milder, temperamental variant of bipolar disorder.

Among other writers in this broad category, Jamison includes:

Hans Christian Anderson, Honoré de Balzac, James Barrie, James Boswell, John Bunyan, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nikolai Gogol, Kenneth Graham, Graham Greene, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, William James, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, August Strindberg, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola.

Composers and musicians:

Anton Arensky, Noel Coward, Stephen Foster, George Frideric Handel, Charles Ives, Gustav Mahler, Modest Mussorgsky, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky.


David Bomberg, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Eakins, Théodore Géricault, Hugo van der Goes, Edward Lear, John Martin, Michelangelo, Adolphe Monticelli, George Romney, George Frederic Watts, Sir David Wilkie, Anders Zorn.

OK, so enough with the meshugge phone books. You could quibble over a few inclusions or exclusions. But it’s hard to gainsay what even a crusty old skeptic like Hume would have acknowledged as Jamison’s “literary, biographical, and scientific argument for a compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between the two temperaments — the artistic and the manic-depressive.”

Point two: Long before humble Austrian monk Gregor Mendel planted those glory-bound peas in the 19th century and paved the way for the modern understanding of genes as basic units of heredity, the persistence of something wickedly familial that this way comes — described by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick in his inimitable oracular style as “genealogies of high moral miseries” — had been incorporated as a standard trope in ancient literature.

Poe milked the idea of family curses and what Tennyson called the “taint of blood” in The Fall of the House of Usher, and it’s a theme that continues to play out in no end of horror flicks and movies about eccentric clans.

That a tendency toward depression often runs in families has been recognized at least since the 1600s, when English writer Robert Burton remarked: “I need not therefore make any doubt of Melancholy, but that it is an hereditary disease.”

Writes Jamison: “Modern medicine gives credence to these literary notions of familial madness; the genetic basis for manic-depressive illness is especially compelling, indeed almost incontrovertible.”

In Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, biographer Robert Bernard Martin underscores the well-founded grounds on which Queen Victoria’s favourite poet was obsessed with his family’s “black blood,” of which his own severe depressions were a relatively mild manifestation. Two great-grandfathers, a grandfather, his father and all six of the long-tenured poet laureate’s brothers suffered from what Jamison describes as insanity, severe melancholia, incendiary tempers, or manic-depressive illness.

“What! am I raging alone as my father raged in his mood?” Tennyson cried in Maud, his own favourite poem, which he once characterized as “a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid poetic soul … the heir of madness”:

Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down

and die

Rather than hold by the law I made, nevermore

to brood

On a horror of shatter’d limbs …?

“Some curse hangs over me and mine,” wrote Byron, who sprang from a long line of dissolute, dangerously unstable, short-lived, sometimes suicidal, sometimes murderous, always fiercely restive ancestors on both sides.

Others who inherited what appears to have been bipolar disorders from families with extensive histories of mental instability: Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann; Vincent van Gogh; Henry and William James; Herman Melville; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Virginia Woolf; Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley; Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell.

“My father was a coward. He shot himself without necessity,” Hemingway wrote about Dr. Clarence Hemingway, a physician who shot himself in the head with his own father’s ancient Smith & Wesson revolver after years of what biographer Kenneth S. Lynn summarizes in Hemingway: Life & Work as convulsive rages, feverish enthusiasms, and sporadic nervous collapses.

“At least I thought so,” Hemingway fils (if one is permitted to refer to Papa as fils) continued in a passage that wound up being cut from his Green Hills of Africa, a non-fiction account of a month-long 1933 safari he and his wife undertook, mostly in Tanzania:

I had gone through it myself until I figured it in my head. I knew what it was to be a coward and what it was to cease being a coward. Now, truly, in actual danger I felt a clean feeling as in a shower. Of course it was easy now. That was because I no longer cared what happened. I knew it was better to live it so that if you died you had done everything that you could do about your work and your enjoyment of life up to that minute, reconciling the two, which is very difficult.

In 1961, Lynn relates, after a stay at a psychiatric hospital and electroconvulsive therapy for psychotic depression, after suffering rages like his father, feverish enthusiasms and morbid depressions, still in pain and ill health after two plane crashes on successive days seven years before, the 61-year-old Nobel Prize-winning author:

… arose from his bed, went to the kitchen, got the key, opened the storeroom, selected a twelve-gauge, double-barrelled shotgun he had bought at Abercrombie & Fitch, pushed two shells into it, walked upstairs to the foyer, turned the gun against himself and fired.

Other suicides in Hemingway’s family: his brother Leicester, his sister Ursula, his granddaughter Margaux. Two of Hemingway’s sons, Patrick and gender dysphoric Gregory (who died as Gloria of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center in 2001), were spectacularly messed up and underwent various psychiatric treatments, including electroshock therapy. In a 1987 interview, cross-dressing Gregory — not yet Gloria —described bouts with mental illness that had resulted in seven “nervous breakdowns,” a staggering 97 ECT jolts and a trail of wreckage from three marriages and divorces.

Bottom line: The “storm whereon they ride” — Byron got there before Jim Morrison —was “overcast with sorrow and supineness,” lethal and heritable.

Third point: The pen and the brush flow more easily when you’re looking for fun and feeling groovy. So long as they don’t morph into uncontrollable Coleridge-style verbal diarrhea, episodes of manic intensity and expansiveness — accompanied by inflated self-esteem, intensified sexuality, a reduced need for sleep and an abundance of energy — intersect, crisscross and conjoin a dimension of artistic inspiration — pure passionate experience — once ascribed to the muses or the gods.

And suddenly I’m hearing Van Morrison: Tennessee, Tennessee Williams. Let your inspiration flow … Curse your eyes, David Hume!

Psychologist Guilford, as we have seen, called the ability to dip into irrational or non-logical thought — while managing to avoid mutating into one of Milton’s seraphim with hallowed fire, a pre-Raphaelite dragon with leather wings or a pink-beaked cygnet with a silvery-grey head (uh-oh; time to cut back on the caffeine and ’scuse me while I kiss the sky) — “divergent thinking.”

Austrian author Arthur Koestler (who would later jointly commit suicide with his wife; what is it with these people?) coined the phrase “bisociative thinking” in The Act of Creation, his 1964 study of processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts:

We have seen that the creative act always involves a regression to earlier, more primitive levels in the mental hierarchy, while other processes continue simultaneously on the rational surface — a condition that reminds one of a skin-diver with a breathing-tube. (Needless to say, the exercise has its dangers: skin-divers are prone to fall victims to the ‘rapture of the deep’ and tear their breathing tubes off — the reculer sans sauter of William Blake and so many others …). The capacity to regress, more or less at will, to the games of the underground, without losing contact with the surface, seems to be the essence of the poetic, and of many other forms of creativity.

Koestler illustrates the idea with an invocation from William Butler Yeats for continued access to his poetic muse:

God guard me from those thoughts men think

In the mind alone,

He that sings a lasting song

Thinks in a marrow bone.

Yeats, the major impetus behind the astonishing Irish Literary Revival of a century ago, makes a prose case for divergent or bisociative thinking — call it what you want — in his essay “A Remonstrance with Scotsmen for Having Soured the Dispositions of Their Ghosts and Faeries”:

You have discovered the faeries to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all up before the magistrate. In Ireland warlike mortals have gone amongst them, and helped them in their battles, and they in turn have taught men great skill with herbs, and permitted some few to hear their tunes. Carolan slept upon a faery rath. Ever after their tunes ran in his head, and made him the great musician he was. …

You — you will make no terms with the spirits of fire and earth and air and water. You have made the Darkness your enemy. We — we exchange civilities with the world beyond.

It’s not by mouthing Presbyterian hymns or minatory finger-waving or fretful elucubration that the constitutionally occluded can hear the mermaids singing, each to each, but by letting their freak flags fly with assonance and anaphora and apostrophe.

The trick, of course, lies in knowing when to rein in an exhilarating and powerfully creative ur-Force — especially when it’s time for dinner and one’s modus vivendi includes a 9-5 gig at the bank like, say, the young T.S. Eliot. You don’t want to hear mermaids singing when calculating the gross domestic product of Newcastle. When that happens, you’re into siren, jutting rock and shipwreck territory.

Major drugs used in recent decades to treat bipolar disorder (lithium, valproate, the neuroleptics, carbamazepine and a whole range of anti-depressants) have proven effective in ironing out mood swings.

The downside — to which I can personally attest after spending the last half of 2021 in an anti-depressant Jell-O mold, layered with fruit salad — is the mental slowing and impaired concentration that these pharmacological wonders produce as sorry side effects. The appurtenances of drugged-out living — boredom, fatigue, apathy, decreased emotional responsiveness and a colourless flattening of experience; for a panoptic aerial view, try staying up five days in a row sometime watching MeTV — are the main reason people stop taking their meds.

When it comes to the relationship between psychiatric drugs and the arts, John Donne’s “net throwne upon the heavens” can be kind of a drag. “Be thine own palace,” Donne counselled in the Age of Shakespeare, “or the world’s thy jail.” Two hundred years after Donne, John Keats, temperate studies to be a surgeon notwithstanding, was warning of the potential of the natural sciences to:

… clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine —

Unweave a rainbow.

Before becoming ill, I would have thought — if I’d ever considered the matter — that being benumbed, impassive and detached would be preferable to being pathologically miserable and disconsolate. I would have taken van Gogh at face value when he lamented:

If I could have worked without this accursed disease — what things I might have done … following what the country said to me. But there, this journey is over and done with.

Per usual, however, I would have been wrong. There are never any blacks and whites, only shades of grey.

Here’s a musing from British essayist and novelist Edward Thomas, mainly remembered today for his poetry about the First World War in which (the war, that is, not the poetry), according to his commanding officer, he perished after being “shot clean through the chest”:

I wonder whether for a person like myself whose most intense moments were those of depression a cure that destroys the depression may not destroy the intensity — a desperate remedy?

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who repeatedly wound up in hospital for treatments of the insanity he feared inheriting from a morbidly pietistic father, is best known for his painting The Scream, the artistic apotheosis of modern angst. Not sure about his agitated pastel man on the bridge, under the orange sky, but even Munch saw the up side of down:

A German once said to me: “But you could rid yourself of many of your troubles.” To which I replied: “They are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.”

Writes Jamison:

Many artists and writers believe that turmoil, suffering, and extremes in emotional experience are integral not only to the human condition but to their abilities as artists. They fear that psychiatric treatment will transform them into normal, well-adjusted, dampened, and bloodless souls — unable, or unmotivated, to write, paint, or compose.

Mark Twain, subject to what he called “periodical and sudden changes of mood … from deep melancholy to half-insane tempests and cyclones,” once joked — or was he serious? — that there could be no funny stuff in heaven because the “secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow.”

The lives and careers of many standup comics still standing, and of most of those who aren’t, have underscored the validity of that hoary chestnut.

Virginia Woolf’s related, more elegantly stated take in A Room of One’s Own: “The beauty of the world, which is soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”

This conception of dark nights of the soul as a sort of felix culpa, or happy fall — a sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse — was driven home recently when I visited my local library and stumbled upon Bill Goldstein’s illuminating book The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature.

Goldstein plucked the title from American writer Willa Cather’s remark that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” which, by the power of subtraction invested in me, I can now reveal happened precisely — mirabile dictu — one century ago or thereabouts.

Goldstein, the founding editor of the books site of the New York Times on the web, entwines the lives and artistic creations of the Duchess and three Dukes of Dark Corners. All began 1922 as basket cases and ended the year as titans of modernism, which greatly influenced the way we think today about all the arts, religion, experience, reality — everything, really.

In the ghastly, glaucous aftermath of the First World War and the four waves of a horrific flu pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people worldwide (Woolf, Eliot and Lawrence all became sick), modernism became a global, social and cultural movement that greatly undermined the West’s faith in reason and adherence to Enlightenment values. We are still living with the consequences, for good and for bad.

Even without the literary breakthroughs and interwoven personal dramas of the fabulous four, 1922 would have marked what expatriate American poet and critic Ezra Pound (a rabid anti-Semite later to become a fascist collaborator and 12-year hospital psychiatric patient) accurately described in a letter that January to Eliot as “after all a grrrrreat litttterary period.”

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in February. Volume I (Swann’s Way) of the first English translation, by ill-starred Scottish writer C.K. Scott Moncrieff, of Marcel Proust’s epic A la recherche du temps perdu hit bookstands shortly before Proust died in November.

Woolf — who saw herself as a “porous vessel afloat on sensation” — was certifiably bipolar. Allegedly sexually molested (as was her sister Vanessa) as a child and as a teen by half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth, Woolf was frequently admitted to hospitals for psychotic manias and depressions until ending her life in 1941 by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. It took almost a month to find her body.

Writes Jamison:

Her grandfather, mother, sister, brother, and niece all suffered from recurrent depressions, her father and another brother were cyclothymic, and her cousin James, who had been institutionalized for mania and depression, died of acute mania.

A veteran of two suicide attempts, stranded in bed by the flu for weeks before and after her 40th birthday on Jan. 25, Woolf began 1922 in acute distress over her failure to produce anything close to what Goldstein calls “the precise quality of literary esteem she aspired to.”

Eliot, recognized by friends like Wyndham Lewis as an indecisive J. Alfred Prufrock “to the life,” was unhappily married to Vivien Haigh-Wood, an equally wretched, constantly ill, mentally fragile woman. He marked the start of the year in Lausanne, Switzerland, recovering from a nervous breakdown so severe that he had left his job at Lloyds Bank for a three-month rest cure in October 1921. After their separation in 1933, she would wind up dying in an asylum at 58, apparently from a heart attack but possibly from a drug overdose.

Forster, a sexually thwarted gay man dominated by a demanding mother who hung on till he was 66, suffered from debilitating depressions that rendered him listless, woolly headed and incapable of writing fiction for years. Saddened that her friend was already living the “lonely middle age of buggers” as he turned 43, Woolf and Lawrence independently hit on a single word to describe Forster’s forlorn state heading into 1922: inanition.

Lawrence, raised in a poor a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire, was born restless, reckless, perpetually dissatisfied with where he was and always looking for the next big adventure. In 1922, he and his wife, Frieda, would abandon their self-exile in Sicily, trying out new lives in Ceylon, Australia and Taos, New Mexico.

Friendships, competition, admiration for Proust and palpable jealousy over Joyce’s masterpiece all helped spark the burst of creativity that the four featured writers would experience after beginning 1922 in the doldrums.

“Well, what remains to be written after that?” Woolf would ask rhapsodically after “devoting myself” to Proust. She soon sketched out her answer in her diary. “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street has branched into a book; & I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side — something like that.”

Woolf would revive a bit character from her relatively conventional first novel, A Voyage Out, and begin work on Mrs. Dalloway, her first great work of fiction. Guided by Pound, who helped breed lilacs out of the dead land, Eliot would assemble and publish The Waste Land — one of the seminal and most disturbingly autobiographical poems of the last century — to lasting acclaim.


A galvanized Lawrence would take just six weeks to write Kangaroo, his underrated novel about — what exactly? Australian fringe politics, the Australian landscape, and in the 50-page twelfth chapter that he called The Nightmare, a look back at the harassment and persecution that he and Frieda had faced in England during the war. She had German parentage and he was openly hostile to militarism.

Twelve years after publishing Howards End, a reinvigorated Forster would shatter a tenacious, enervating case of writer’s block to resume work on the long-languishing project that would become A Passage to India, a novelistic examination of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement informed by his visit to India a decade before and his ineffectual 1921-22 stint as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas State (now part of Madhya Pradesh). It quickly became the biggest success of his career.

Out of lassitude and dejection, triumph. Beyond what Hamlet sees as “but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,” hope. From what Robert Burns self-diagnosed as “groaning under the miseries of a diseased nervous System; a System of all others the most essential to our happiness — or the most productive of our Misery,” art.

The lesson to be drawn here is not, of course, the absurd cliché that suffering is a necessary precursor to the creation of great art. The great majority of successful writers and artists are not tortured souls with sliced-off ears and Faustian contracts tucked into their shirt pockets.

As Scottish writer, academic and comedian Alison Louise Kennedy groused 10 years ago in a delightful essay in The Guardian titled “Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist”:

I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation. If an artist has managed to take something appalling and make it into art, that's because the artist is an artist, not because something appalling is naturally art.

The ace in the hole possessed by artists — when grief comes, as it must, to us all — is their honed ability, more than most, to transform pain into something beautiful. To transmute cotton into silk, base metals into noble ones, straw into gold.

Kennedy continues:

As I've mentioned elsewhere, artists have access to a creative way of life that can sustain them through dark times. They have used, and will use, their crafts to transform what they can of life’s pain and loss and fear into something communicative and alive. This can be a generous and lovely thing for all concerned and can produce healing, as can anyone’s triumph over adversity. It doesn’t mean anyone needs to be rendered abject — by others, or themselves.

Out of biology, propensity. Proclivity. Proneness. Predisposition. But biology is not destiny.

Out of samsara (the Hindu/Buddhist cycle of life and death in which the material world is bound), nirvana.

In her preface to the 1990 edition of Poets in Their Youth, Simpson recounts a moving anecdote:

During a recent symposium on the self-destructiveness of American writers, my spirits rose when (Pulitzer Prize winner) Galway Kinnell turned the discussion to the healing power of art. He had met a woman at a London party who, on learning that he was a poet, asked if he knew the poems of John Berryman. When he said that he did, the woman took from her wallet a well-worn piece of paper and gave him this to read:

Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.

Her having gone away

in spirit from me. Hosts

of regrets come and find me empty.

I don’t feel this will change.

I don’t want anything

or person, familiar or strange.

I don’t think I will sing

anymore just now,

or ever. I must start

to sit with a blind brow

above an empty heart.

When Kinnell asked why she carried around such a desolate poem, she said that when she was on the verge of suicide she chanced upon it. That realization that another human being felt exactly as she was feeling had saved her life. Ever since, she had carried He Resigns — a poem from Delusions, etc. — with her as a talisman against suicide.

My talisman is the late, great Tom Petty’s Room at the Top, a 1999 song about escapism and the end of his first marriage. Petty, whose father used to savagely beat him with a belt until he was covered in welts, considered the number so depressing that he refused to play it after wrapping that year’s tour to support the Echo album he had made with the Heartbreakers.

The tune by a man who overcame an abusive childhood, volatile marriage and heroin addiction — only to fall victim just short of his 67th birthday to what was ruled an artificial overdose of today’s all-to-common cocktail of opioids (OxyContin and two kinds of fentanyl), benzodiazepines for insomnia or anxiety (Xanax and temazepam) and an anti-depressant (Celexa) — is wistful, evocative and plaintive. But it’s the simple, world-weary lyrics that capture the desolation to which everyone can relate when we’ve been down so long it looks like up to us:

I got a room at the top of the world tonight

I can see everything tonight

I got a room where everyone

Can have a drink and forget those things

That went wrong in their life.

And I ain’t comin’ down.

Shantih shantih shantih

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5 comentários

Wow...just wow, stellar seer Fowler. What an exploration. As Danny Kaye sang in Up In Arms, which became my childhood party piece, "Manic-Depressive Pictures presents...Hello, Fresno, Goodbye! Produced by R.U. Manic, and directed by Depressive..."

Respondendo a

but no...

...and as the bell rings for lunch, we find our heroine in the corral, eating her heart out. She is beside herself; her favourite position...'Oh father, you must let me marry Cowboy Dan! he owns the biggest ranch in Texas, Bar None!' Bar None? why, that's the password of the FBI...


Thank you Earl. Your pencil does spin gold. I have to settle for graphite.

EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
14 de ago. de 2022
Respondendo a

Thank you. But at this point, I'd settle for a little lead. You're the sharpest pencil in this cup and Susan the brightest crayon in this box. We need her back.

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