Genius and Madness

From Elvis to Picasso and the thorny intersection of "madness" and creativity.

Sex and Art

Must the Poet Be in Love?

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My question today concerns the relationship between sex (or maybe we could call it worshipful adoration) and creativity. And to forestall, from the get-go, potential misunderstandings, let me say this: I don’t believe sex and creativity are ALWAYS linked in creative people, nor do I believe asexual people (such as some maintain Leonardo was) are, by definition, uncreative. I do believe, however, that in some artists, some of the time, sex and art are tantalizingly combined in, shall we say, arousing fashion. One of my favorite poets, the wonderful and very dark Philip Larkin (“life is slow dying”) has spoken of this particular nexus. Here’s what he had to say: “The vision required of the artist has got something to do with sex. I don't know what, and I don't particularly want to know. It's not surprising because obviously two creative voices would be in alliance. But the vision has a sexual quality lacking in other emotions such as pity. . . Ovid, for instance, could never write unless he was in love. Many other poets have been and are the same. I should think poetry and sex are very closely connected." The poet Rilke ventures something similar: “Artistic experience lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight” (Thanks to my student Stella Tran for bringing this line to my attention). Dante instantly comes to mind here. In some ways he’s the archetype of the hopelessly besotted swooning poet. When he was 9, he met Beatrice, and fell in love at first sight (as poets are wont to do). He never knew her well, only exchanged greetings in the street, yet in many of his poems she is depicted as semi-divine, watching over him constantly. Love for Beatrice was a reason for poetry and for living. The case is the same for another Italian, Petrarch, who after giving up his vocation as priest caught sight of a woman named Laura in a church. As with Dante and Beatrice, the two had very little personal contact; still, Laura awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the Rime Sparse. Laura is unreachable—as all the best consuming lovers are--but her presence inspires unspeakable joy. Was she real or an idealized, pseudonymous character? Scholars have debated the question. So what can be made of all this psychologically? I’m not sure. One on hand, artists often conjure muses who inflame them and ignite their imaginations. The muse stirs the pot of desire, of thirst, and this turbulence gets transformed into creative products—the poem almost becomes a sort of secret courtship. Also, if Freud is correct, then art siphons a quota of its energy from sexuality, as does everything we do. As Larkin put it, “the vision has a sexual quality.” Freud would doubtless agree. It was Freud, too, who developed the concept of sublimation, through which “the libido evades the fate of repression by being channeled from the very beginning into curiosity.” As always, I’d be curious, myself, to hear what others think of this ungodly alliance of sex and art. I see it in a lot of the people I write about. Maybe you do too.

William Todd Schultz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Pacific University in Oregon and edited the Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press 2005).

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