I recently attended a lecture by a prominent academic who theorized that creativity was somehow connected to mental illness. She cited a number of examples that ran the gamut from Lincoln and Churchill to numerous famous writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and artists like the posthumously acclaimed, institutionally committed painter Vincent Van Gogh.
Citing the fact that Lincoln and Churchill allegedly suffered from depression and novelists like Hemingway committed suicide, while Faulkner and Fitzgerald were alcoholics, she seemed quite positive that her theory was correct. As further evidence, she named a number of other brilliant scientists like Newton and Einstein, the latter because he had a schizophrenic son.
What began as mere disagreement with this thesis, grew into a vehement and accelerating antagonism. Boiled down to its essence, this academic spread the notion that to be truly creative you had to be off the beam or whatever the politically correct term is these days for varying degrees of mental illness.
The absurdity of this idea amounts to insult. It is probably true that some creative people, like others in the population, have some form of mental illness. But, I would argue, that the vast majority of creative people do not fall into this category. There is only one common thread. They are creative. They create ideas and invent things that have not existed before. That alone makes them different.
Like love, no one has adequately explained why some people are creative and some are not. Neuroscientists offering theories and speculations might tell you that they know where in the brain creativity takes place, but they can't tell you why or how.
Nevertheless, once the anger passed, the idea did spawn some thoughts, not only about the nature of creativity but how worldly validation, meaning success and celebrity, and its dark opposite, failure and non-recognition can lead an artistic creator to a form of pathological behavior.
It is quite true that so-called famous writers have, indeed, succumbed to what might be termed mental illness or its various manifestations like depression, addiction, paranoia or suicidal behavior. Hemingway was hospitalized in the Mayo Clinic for paranoia and later put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. In his case, suicide was a family disease. Faulkner in his later years was a drunk and apparently died from falling off his horse while under the influence.
Fitzgerald became a hopeless alcoholic and died at age 40 from the addiction. Jack London disappeared at sea, an alleged suicide. Edgar Allen Poe was found dead on a Baltimore street, presumably from alcoholism. To compound the mystery of this degrading death he was not even wearing his own clothes. Von Gogh checked himself into a mental hospital and, as further proof of his unbalanced state, cut off an ear.
As for Lincoln and Churchill, who, I suppose can be characterized as creative, their admitted depressions may qualify for mental illness, but I wouldn't attribute their creativity to that ailment. I'm not sure that Lincoln, a great President, can qualify as being "creative," although I would dub Churchill, a novelist and writer, certainly a creative force.
Creativity is not necessarily the province of only those who have attained worldly success. In fact, I would say that worldly success is probably the enemy of creativity. All of the writers cited above were enormously successful early in life. They were lauded, lionized, and celebrated. In my opinion, it was this very early success that brought them down. Perhaps they had either lost faith in their creativity or for one reason or another felt they could not match their earlier creative surge. One might even speculate that they became mentally unbalanced by their inability to match the very creativity that had made them famous. But, it was not, as the professor had alleged, because their creativity was a byproduct of mental illness.
In my circle who did achieve recognition and commercial success. Their creative work was dazzling and incandescent. But for some reason, they never fulfilled their dreams of validation by others, meaning worldly success. The landscape is littered with such enormously creative people who, for one reason or another, never achieved their dream of recognition, although they might have been satisfied with a very personal fulfillment.
Perhaps they were lacking in drive or could not handle rejection or were intimidated by the arrogance and criticism of the doorkeepers of the moment. Or they might have grown tired of being pummeled by the combat of the marketplace and no longer submitted their work to anyone. They might have plied their creativity in secret, filling trunks with manuscripts and closets and basements with paintings, hoping that a next generation might stumble on their work and publish it for posterity. On the other hand, they might have deliberately chosen anonymity and non-recognition, pursuing their creative art to satisfy a very private dream.
The battle for recognition is fierce and mostly unfair. The bitch Goddess of Luck is fickle and unmerciful. And God help those who are blessed with luck that abruptly runs out and leaves their ship of success stranded in a windless sea. I wonder which is worse, no success at all or success that mysteriously aborts after an initial spurt?
Because I am a writer, I am using the creative writing analogy, but it applies equally to all artists, painters, composers or anyone that creates something that had never existed before. The analogy also applies to scientists, inventors and those who embellish and interpret the creative achievements of others like actors, singers, and dancers as well. Such performers may resent being relegated to mere interpreters of other people's creativity and I will concede I could be accused of too narrow a definition.
The fact is that worldly success for a creative person requires, aside from Lady Luck, a certain singular mindset, an obsessive pursuit of recognition, a selfishly organized life in pursuit of one's creative dream which can be stressful enough to push people over the edge of sanity and, perhaps, bring on some manifestation of mental illness.
I often wonder what became of all my talented acquaintances who burned with artistic zeal and creative ambition and disappeared into oblivion, the oblivion of my own perspective at least. Were they failures in the worldly sense, dropouts in the game of life, cursed or blessed by the creative spark? Or simply losers in a race where there is no finish line?
I am in no way trying to denigrate the great creative minds that have made it into the pantheon of immortality. That too, is an unpredictable war of survival drawn from a pool of mostly recognized creators, many of them, well known in their day, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, for example. Their immortality is well deserved and we all recognize their work as pinnacles of creative effort and an invaluable contribution to world culture.
I am paying tribute here to the unrecognized, the anonymous, the unknown, the unsung, that intrepid band of creative writers and artists who, for one reason or another, have failed to garner any traction among the doorkeepers of their era, but, nevertheless, deserve our praise and admiration for their efforts and our loss.
Not to realize one's dream can, indeed, drive one crazy. It is not, as the professor alleges, the other way around.