Between Genius and Insanity: Is There a Thin Line?

Part 2: Mental disorder: Coincidence or cause?

Posted Sep 26, 2020

This is part 2 of 2. Part 1 can be found here.

Vincent Van Gogh never mentions insanity as a habitual resource for an artist, a wellspring from which imaginative ideas might flow. He never mentions making cross-border raids, gathering images from the land of psychic disorder to re-create once safely back home in the realm of rationality. But as I show in my recent book, The Hidden Habits of Genius (Harper Collins, 2020), two other geniuses, Virginia Woolf and Yayoi Kusama, say exactly that: Their creativity derives from a disordered mind.

On the morning of March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf, age fifty-nine, filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse, north of London, to the same fatal end as Vincent van Gogh had initiated on a bank of the River Oise, north of Paris. Woolf’s mental unbalance met the clinical criteria for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s long-supportive husband, described her condition thusly: “In the manic stage she was extremely excited; the mind raced; she talked volubly and, at the height of the attack, incoherently; she had delusions and heard voices—for instance, she told me that in her second attack she heard the birds in the garden outside her window talking Greek; she was violent with the nurses. In her third attack, which began in 1914, this stage lasted for several months and ended by her falling into a coma for two days.” Earlier, in 1904, Woolf had thrown herself out a window but had survived.

In the most self-revelatory of her novels, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf transfers to her characters her own experiences, both real and hallucinatory. Mrs. Dalloway is the sane, conventional Virginia; Peter Walsh serves as her hypomanic alter ego; and Septimus Warren Smith portrays her psychotic doppelganger who hears birds singing in Greek, comes to think that the staff wishes to harm him, and escapes by jumping out a window to his death.

“As an experience,” Woolf said, “madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about.” After the exciting terror of madness, the salvific process of writing began. As she said, “I write to stabilize myself.”

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) also stabilizes herself through her art. Retreating from the psychic excitement of her studio each evening, she crosses the line, or in her case the street, to a safe harbor in Tokyo’s Seiwa Psychiatric Hospital. Named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2016, Kusama is famous for her obsessively repeating polka-dot designs (see, for example, The Hidden Habits of Genius, Figure 7.1) 

KeongDaGreat/Shutterstock
Source: KeongDaGreat/Shutterstock

As she has written, “Across the street from the hospital I built [in 1977] a studio, and this is where I work each day, commuting back and forth between the two buildings... I fluctuate between the two extremes: the sense of fulfilment an artist gets from creating, and the fierce inner tension that fuels the creativity... between feelings of reality and unreality.”   

Kusama has been experiencing unreality since she was a child. In her Autobiography, she recounts the type of obsessive-compulsive psychosis that she experienced as a fledging artist in New York during the 1950s: “I often suffered episodes of severe neurosis. I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body... I woke one morning to find the nets I had painted the previous day stuck to the windows. Marveling at this, I went to touch them, and they crawled on and into the skin of my hands. My heart began racing. In the throes of a full-blown panic attack, I called an ambulance, which rushed me to Bellevue Hospital. Unfortunately, this sort of thing began to happen with some regularity... But I just kept painting like mad.” Like mad indeed.

Van Gogh, Woolf, and Kusama toggled back and forth across the line of lucidity and insanity. But on which side, or mental state, does the genius happen?  

With van Gogh, his genius appears to have been situated squarely in the seemingly benign, rational side of his persona. Woolf implies that she captured lava from “terrific madness” and worked it into genius once safely back in the home port of lucidity. Kusama writes that her genius and madness were coterminous. With Woolf and Kusama, their “madness” was not a state of mind coincidental to their creativity, but rather the very cause of it.   

What allowed socially isolated Isaac Newton to concentrate in the extraordinary way he did? Psychologists suggest that he “suffered” from autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Should a “time machine” have been allowed to prescribe and deliver to him a medication such as Ritalin? Were Beethoven alive today, surgery could ameliorate, if not eliminate, the inner-ear otosclerosis from which he suffered. Psychoanalysis and antidepressants might have helped Woolf go on writing, but at what cost? Kusama tried the “talking cure” of Freudian psychoanalysis for six years, but her art suffered. “Ideas stopped coming out no matter what I painted or drew,” she said, “because everything was coming out of my mouth.” Robin Williams knew he would never be balanced and doubted that he wanted to be, for fear of losing his comedic genius. “Then you’re f--king dead, okay!” he said. 

Scientists may one day discover a way to eliminate or radically reduce such “dis-ablers” as deafness, autism, Asperger’s, OCD, and ADD. But can this really be considered progress if it means no theory of gravity or laws of motion, no more “Ode to Joy,” no more polka-dot purses, no more "Starry Night" on my coffee mug, and no more laugh-till-you-cry jokes? You make the call.

Follow Craig Wright at craigwrightgeniusmusic.net

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).