The weekend read: Why do we want genius to be mad?

The weekend read: Why do we want genius to be mad?


norman lebrecht

December 05, 2014

Dr Judith Schlesinger asks: What useful purpose does it serve to insist that our greatest creative minds must be somehow damaged and disturbed, particularly when there is no real evidence for it?


Read the full article here.


  • Fourth Norn says:

    Mad – or bad or loved by God or some such romantic notion. To my mind, the only ‘extra’ quality that distinguishes the greatest creative artists is single-mindedness. Ask them to boil an egg and they’d probably burn the saucepan.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The article is an excellent one. The subject cannot be researched scientifically until the correct meaning of the notion of ‘genius’ is clearly established, and living geniusses have been discovered to be examined, and in numbers which – in relation to controll groups – will produce clear results.

    Since great, creative artists seem extremely rare nowadays, and since such people are mostly ‘discovered’ to be geniusses after their death, it is very unlikely that such research can ever be carried-out.

    But the whole enterprise is useless as science. Some psychology and common sense observation can bring some insights as well.

    Great creativity requires (indeed, as the earlier comment already says) a great single-mindedness, and also a mental perspective far beyond and above the consciousness we need for practical daily life. Anybody who knows really creative people will observe that they often have strongly neurotic streaks. Neurosis is a category, different from serious psychopathology like schizophrenia, and describes emotional disfunction which hinders or blocks the peronality as a whole. Energy dedicated to great artistic achievement withdraws energy from other concerns, and it is there that the artist stumbles into practical mishap: he often feels alienated from the real world since his creative imaginative inner world seems more ‘real’ to him. The result is the feeling of being ‘not normal’, ‘out of touch’, any time the creative mind comes down from his olympus into the real world where he is in contact with other, really normal people. So, to outsiders such person seems both obsessed with something unfathomable (because what the artist ‘sees’ is invisible to, or: not understood by, other people) and highly clumsy in things that are not difficult in themselves. This feeling of being ‘out of step’ with reality can, in the long run, cause serious mental / emotional problems, which is only too understandable but has nothing to do with ‘maddness’. So, any neurotic problem an artist may be seen to suffer from, or even (in some cases maybe) pathology, is not a condition for great creativity but the result of it. It is the price to be paid for possessing some extraordinary talent.

    Someone like Goethe seems to have been both brilliant and visionary and perfectly adapted to the real world, but his work is often a bit dull and consciously constructed; he ‘tamed’ his visionary temperament but lost also something along the way. Leonardo da Vinci was a quite normal character, but struggled to finish works, and his output is fragmented: also some deep problem there. Michelangelo was a visionary, and highly neurotic, as Van Gogh and Beethoven were… etc. etc. Artists find different ways to adapt to themselves and their world, in their time, it is the same problem but with ever different ways of dealing with them, or suffering from them.

    I happen to know a couple of highly-gifted artists and there this process of struggling with ‘the world’ can easily be detected. ‘Madness’ of genius, as the myth goes, is merely the correct observation of the environment who see a highly-achieving artist having trouble with the real world. (Goethe’s play ‘Torquato Tasso’ treats the struggle of the artist with the world in a brilliant way.)

    • Bernard Poulin says:

      Is oit the artist who cannot adapt or the world which feels threatened by someone who doesn’t? Is the artist or genius or creative more disturbing than disturbed? Is their activity and thought and workings actually not more normal than the contemporary environment which is presently seriously abnormal to mental health?

    • Dr. Judith Schlesinger says:

      Thanks for the kind words, John. You accurately point out that any scientific research on the subject is precluded by the lack of a “correct” definition of genius. I would add that true science also requires something that can be reliably measured. But I doubt there will ever be “units” of genius to calibrate, particularly when people vary so widely in their opinions of who is, and who isn’t, one. !

      The inquiry is compounded by the continued ambiguity of so-called “madness,” as publicly evidenced by the guild uproar around the latest psychiatric “Bible,” the DSM-5. All the protests and petitions – backstage and otherwise – clearly demonstrated how diagnosis rides on special interests and political trade-offs, rather than scientific validity. It’s actually an embarrassment to the profession, and the National Institute of Mental Health has been engaged in an active quest to find an alternative system.

      In any case, one cannot properly claim a connection between two wobbly variables like this. It’s much like expecting two cubes of jello to stick together. But the notion has been popular since Plato’s “divine madness,” which is now commonly misinterpreted as an ongoing clinical problem, rather than a fortunate and temporary inspiration.

      What makes me sad is how eager people are to pin perjorative labels on the greatest minds among us…

  • Milka says:

    It serves a very useful purpose -it gives the non creative” comfort” in accepting
    their everyday lives .It is how many people explain away and accept their dull everyday normal lives as compared
    to the hyper ,agitated , unhinged life
    style of the creative artist .
    Most children are born with imagination and a creative bent but it is soon beaten out of them by parents
    wanting a “normal” offspring like themselves ,the only exception being sports . I’ve known some highly creative artists that not only
    boil eggs but can make a great dinner.

  • Jorge Grundman says:

    Well now I am sure that I am not a genius because I am not mad…Or am I mad and I am not a genius?….

    Just only to bring a little smile to this matter….

    I believe every true artist is always in pursuit of his perception of perfection. And when he touches the heaven always the ground is waiting his feet. This continuous fear of not being able to surpass the last level he was able to draw probably is one of the variables in the equation.

    With a view from the bridge is easy start to think about the madness of this kind of live. Other matter is this up and down is only a fact of the genius. My answer is probably no. The problem is that the remaining of the humankind never is subject of this kind of admiration.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Very good article. This is part of the dregs of romanticism, the idea of the mad and ideally impoverished genius. I am sure this is why Rubens is not more appreciated: happy, successful, eminently sane. Certainly in painting the unfortunate van Gogh was the exception in being truly insane. Caravaggio was almost certainly a psychopath but that is another discussion. No-one would say that Titian, Rembrandt, Picasso were mad. But as Jung said we are at best normal on average.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There seems to be a link between an artist’s adaptability to the real world and his superficiality. Rubens is brilliant but theatrical and superficial. Van Gogh and Caravaggio are intense, have more ‘to say’. Rembrandt achieved an emotional and psychological depth when things did no longer go well in his career and he had to deal with death, bankruptcy and loneliness. Picasso is primitive, lacking any subtle feeling and thus the capacity for suffering – he did not care, really. In music: just compare Mendelssohn with Chopin, or Strauss with Mahler.

    • Dr. Judith Schlesinger says:

      Perceptive comment, Mike. I would like to differ on one point, however: the alleged “insanity” of Van Gogh. This has come into question in recent years, mostly because of the online publication of over 800 of his letters (free, and in English!).

      Aside from implications that it was actually temper-prone roommate Paul Gaughin who made that neat ear-slice in a fight, there are new assertions that VG did not suicide, but was accidentally shot by some kids, and in the stomach, not the usual target for suicides.

      Depressed and lonely? Sure. And also suffering with tertiary syphilis (which can mimic psychosis), epilepsy, and absinthe poisoning. The problem is that Van Gogh provided the best visual for the whole mad genius movement – that self-portrait with bandaged ear. Put that together with that awful song, and you have enough “evidence” to satisfy many people – oh, that, and his wild brushstrokes.

  • Milka says:

    anonymus while making some salient
    observations is on tricky ground. Does
    anonymus mean creative artists or does anonymus mean performer “artists” who arrive on the scene after the fact , so to speak .
    There is a great difference how the world perceives both types who at
    times seem to share the same stage .

  • Dr. Judith Schlesinger says:

    Exactly right, Anonymus. It is a desire of the public to believe that great creativity comes packaged with a lifetime of suffering. For one thing, it blunts any envy their talent might evoke.

    The media feeds this hunger each time a celebrity meets a tragic death. That’s when all the pundits come out to say, “well, of course – what else can you expect of this bunch?”

    People should consider the pragmatic difficulties of the creative life before they rush to armchair diagnosis of the creative person. But alas, they don’t. The myth of the mad genius is far too seductive and satisfying.

  • Milka says:

    Dr.Schlesinger is selling a book.Whatever
    insights she touches on here leaves a lot to be desired .