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The Price of Genius: Robin Williams

The "crack" is where the light shines through!

Catherine Ann Jones. Guest Blogger

Once the English poet, Dame Edith Sitwell, was praising William Blake and a cynical friend remarked, “Blake, he’s cracked in the head.” Sitwell responded by saying, “Ah, but that’s where the light shines through.” Later pop singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen used this in a lyric in his song, Anthem. Sometimes that ‘crack’ in creative people is indeed where the light shines through. How then to separate the highs of genius from the sometimes threat of madness?  What is the price of genius?

Vincent Van Gogh created his masterpieces, each and every painting, in only ten years. Some say the intensity of his paintings clearly reveal his madness. However, I believe Van Gogh, sensitive to psychic energy, simply painted what he saw. Objects perceived as energy which science now confirms they are.

Sometimes what creatives perceive is deemed madness by others. Robin Williams had that spark of genius in both comedy and drama as well as a spark of madness. Remember his brilliant performance in The Fisher King? He also suffered from depression for many years and as many before him, fell prey to substance alcohol and drug abuse as well. Unlike some Hollywood stars who suffered similar addictions, there was never any scandal or on toward problems on the set. Williams - always first on the set - was totally reliable to work with, and kept his demons to himself…for as long as he could.

Most suicides are committed by men and usually after some loss whether personal, physical, or professional. In 2013, CBS cancelled Williams’ new television series, “The Crazy Ones” after only one season. Many stars struggle with insecurity of how much longer they will be successful.  Also in 2013, Williams was deeply upset by the death of his idol, Jonathan Winters.

The British novelist, Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar or manic-depression for many years. She wrote: “...never trust a letter of mine not to exaggerate what's written after a night lying awake looking at a bottle of chloral and saying, No, no, no, you shall not take it. It's odd how sleeplessness, even of a modified kind, has the power to frighten me. It's connected I think with these awful times when I couldn't control myself.”

Woolf took time off to ride out the depression, only to throw herself into her next work, "Three Guineas", which "pressed and spurted out ... like a physical volcano."

A word here of adaptive and maladaptive aspects of manic-depression. Virginia Woolf withdrew more and more into her separate world which also resulted in a new form of literature: ‘stream of consciousness’. Compare the sometimes explosive performances of Robin Williams as well as  Van Gogh’s visual perceptions as depicted in his paintings to the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing of Virginia Woolf’s novels. As if her unconscious mind wrote and not just her conscious mind.

In my play, On the Edge: the Final Years of Virginia Woolf, Virginia shares what her madness is like:

”Sometimes, I think, one day I may go too far and I shan’t be able to find my way back. And yet, despite the danger-or perhaps because of it-something urges me on...deeper and deeper. Half the time, I feel I’m on the brink of some discovery, some extraordinary truth hitherto unknown. Oh, Vita, how little we really know. There must be another life. Not in dreams, but here and now, with living people. I feel as if I was standing on the edge of a precipice with my hair blown back as if I were about to grasp something that just evaded me. There must be another life. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves. We’re only just beginning to understand.”

Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Robin Williams each suffered from severe depression, each created something entirely new, never seen before. And each paid a price for their genius. Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “The beauty of the world … has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” The ability to reconcile such opposite states is ever a critical part of any creative act.

What is amazing is not that the demon finally caught up with these three artists, but that they were able for so many years to keep the demon in check and leave us a superb legacy of art, literature, and great performances.

 Catherine Ann Jones, M.A. in depth psychologyis an award-winning playwright (Calamity Jane, On the Edge, The Women of Cedar Creek) and screenwriter (The Christmas Wife (Jason Robards, Julie Harris), Unlikely Angel (Dolly Parton), Touched by an Angel series). A Fulbright Scholar to India studying shamanism, over thirty years teaching experience in New York (The New School University) and Los Angeles (U.S.C.), writing consultant, author of The Way of Story and Heal Your Self with Writing (Nautilus Book Award)and workshops both here and abroad. www.wayofstory.com

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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