Is There a Thin Line Between Genius and Insanity?

Part 1: Are tales of "mad geniuses" accurate representations?

Posted Sep 25, 2020

On the night of December 23, 1888, in Arles, France, Vincent van Gogh, enraged that fellow painter and possibly romantic partner Paul Gauguin was about to leave him, took a razor and sliced off his left ear—not just a part but all of it. With severed lobe in hand, van Gogh then walked to a nearby brothel and presented the trophy to a young prostitute, Gabrielle Berlatier. Authorities quickly apprehended the self-assailant and placed him in a mental hospital. The story of van Gogh mutilating his ear is well known, immortalized in the artist’s famous "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe" (1889).  

We associate van Gogh with mental instability and wild behavior, and we project those qualities onto his art. Did van Gogh really paint his hallucinations? Similarly, did the eccentric and half-crazy Beethoven really compose sounds he couldn’t hear?

Simple anecdotes may help us understand complex issues. But are these tales of “mad geniuses” accurate representations? Or have they been exaggerated because we love a good story? Is there a greater incidence of insanity and creativity among creative geniuses, or do a few notoriously disturbed characters distort our view? As I suggest in my new book The Hidden Habits of Genius (Harper Collins, 2020): it’s complicated!

“You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head,” said Charles Dodgson’s Alice in Alice in Wonderland. “But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” The notion that genius is only thinly separated from insanity goes back at least to ancient Greece. Aristotle linked the two when he said, “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.”* To give the ancient trope a modern context, consider the words of Robin Williams, whose suicidal death in 2014 was precipitated by Lewy Body Dementia: “You are only given a little spot of madness, and if you lose that, you are nothing.”

Are geniuses any more likely to experience mental disorders than the general population? In the course of researching my book over a fifteen-year period, I looked at the lives of approximately a hundred geniuses, from Alcott to Zola. At least a third of the group—among them Michelangelo, Newton, Beethoven, Lincoln, Tesla, Kusama, van Gogh, Woolf, Hemingway, Dickenson, Dickens, Churchill, Rowling, Plath, Picasso, John Nash, and Kayne West—regularly display or displayed some form of affective disorder. A third is a high number, compared to 5 to 10 percent (a very rough approximation) among the general population. Geniuses don’t have a habit of being unbalanced, but they do have a proclivity to it.

Artists seem to be more affected than scientists. Recent studies suggest that scientists have the lowest prevalence of psychopathology (17.8 percent increase above the general public); their relative stability is perhaps attributable to the fact that an orderly, step-by-step protocol often plays out within the well-defined lines of scientific investigation, to say nothing of the unequivocal precision involved in quantitative reasoning.   

The rate of mood disorders, however, increases dramatically through composers, politicians, and artists, with the highest prevalence present in writers (46 percent) and poets (80 percent). Perhaps those with diagnosable disorders self-select into fields, such as poetry and painting, ones that seem more accommodating to people with psychic fluctuations. Perhaps affected people intuit that psychic turbulence is a wellspring that inspires a creative product—as rap artist Kayne West is reputed to have said: “Great art comes from great pain.”

But back to van Gogh. Physicians have posited more than a hundred theories as to the cause of van Gogh’s unbalanced state, among them bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, neurosyphilis, temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe, subacute closure glaucoma, xanthopsia, and Ménière’s disease. In addition, there was a strong genetic component in the painter’s ultimate fate. Of the four children born to Anna and Theodorus van Gogh, two died in a mental institution (Theo and Wilhelmina) and two by suicide (Vincent and Cornelius).

In May of 1889, van Gogh self-committed to an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. During the next year, he produced some of his most beloved creations, including "Irises," as he saw them in the courtyard at Saint-Rémy, and "The Starry Night," painted while looking out his sanatorium window. His final work, "Tree Roots," done after his release, is said by art historian Nienke Bakker to be, “One of those paintings in which you can feel van Gogh’s sometimes tortured mental state.”

Was van Gogh’s “crazy” art the product of a tortured mental state, as suggested above, or a wholly lucid theory of art? Many of the distinctive qualities of van Gogh’s style—his shimmering images, choice of color palette, and swirling two-color textures—were explained as artistic theory in letters to brother Theo, long before Vincent’s mental disintegration. Van Gogh was well aware of the line between sanity and insanity, and he knew when he was sane and when he was not. As he wrote to Theo in 1882, “As a patient, you are not free to work as one should, and not up to it either.” 

To stay on the “safe” side of the line, van Gogh painted. “Work is the only remedy,” he wrote in 1883. “If that does not help, one breaks down.” Toggling between the safe harbor of productive genius and disabling insanity, van Gogh continued to paint—until he couldn’t. On the morning of July 27, 1890, he wandered off into a field near the Oise River and shot himself with a revolver.

The words of Robin Williams, again, may provide a modern context for van Gogh and many “unbalanced” artists. “You are going to come to the edge and look over, and sometimes you are going to step over the edge, and then you are going to come back, hopefully.”

But the question remains: Does madness inform visionary art, or does it run collateral with and independent of it? This is the issue to be engaged in Part 2 of this post. 

Facebook/LinkedIn image: ingehogenbijl/Shutterstock

References

*Sources for all quotations for this post are to be found in “Leverage Your Difference,” Chapter 7 of Craig Wright, The Hidden Habits of Genius (Harper Collins, 2020).