Skip to main content

The Sanity of True Genius

ISSUE:  Winter 1985

My title is, you will recall, taken from one of the Essays of Elia. Lamb begins his essay with the following words.

“So far from the position holding true, that great wit (or genius, in our modern way of speaking) has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest wits, on the contrary, will ever be found in the sanest writers. It is impossible for the mind to conceive a mad Shakespeare. The greatness of wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be understood, manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties. Madness is the disproportionate straining or excess of any one of them. “so strong a wit, ” says Cowley, speaking of a poetical friend,

“—did Nature to him frame,
As all things to his judgment overcame;
His judgment like the heavenly moon did show,
Tempering that mighty sea below.”

The ground of the mistake is, that men, finding in the raptures of the higher poetry a condition of exaltation, to which they have no parallel in their own experience, besides the spurious resemblance of it in dreams and fevers, impute a state of dreaminess and fever to the poet. But the true poet dreams being awake. He is not possessed by his subject, but has dominion over it.”

Throughout history, there have been two opposing schools of thought about men and women of genius. The one portrays the genius as exceptionally well balanced; the other affirms a close connection of genius with insanity, or at any rate, mental instability. My purpose here is to investigate how it is that such discrepant opinions have come to be held, and to consider whether any reconciliation between these opposing views is possible.

As an example of the first school of thought, I shall quote from Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting of 1715.

“The way to be an Excellent Painter is to be an Excellent Man.

A Painter’s Own Mind should have Grace, and Greatness; That should be Beautifully and Nobly form’d.

A Painter ought to have a Sweet and Happy Turn of Mind, that Great, and Lovely Ideas may have a Reception there.”

Vasari, writing of Raphael, said that he “was endowed by nature with all that humility and goodness which one sometimes meets in those who, more than others, add to their humane and gentle nature the most beautiful ornament of felicitous affability. This made him show himself sweet and agreeable to everybody and under any circumstances.”

The artist Peter Paul Rubens, hardworking, methodical, and immensely wealthy, was gifted with such clear judgment that he was employed as a diplomat both by the Duke of Mantua and also by the Infanta Isabella. In the face of personal bereavement and political obstruction, he remained serene. No one could be further removed from the notion that artists are necessarily tormented beings. Characters such as these make it comprehensible that, in some periods of history, it has been believed that the greater the genius, the more likely it is that he will be an exalted type of human being; noble, lofty, and harmonious; displaying in his life, as in his works, both exquisite sensibility and perfect control. To this way of thinking, the greatest works of art could only be produced by people of the highest character. The noblest works mirror the nobility of the artist’s soul.

By the middle of the 19th century, a less exalted notion of genius obtained, perhaps in the wake of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, first published in 1859. The idea of the noble artist has been replaced by the Puritan ethic of work. Carlyle remarked: ” “Genius” (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all).” Galton, introducing the second edition of his book Hereditary Genius, wrote: “At the time when the book was written (1869), the human mind was popularly thought to act independently of natural laws, and to be capable of almost any achievement, if compelled to exert itself by a will that had a power of initiation.” Galton believed that great achievement was dependent upon three gifts, all of which he considered were inherited. These gifts were named as “ability,” “zeal,” and a “capacity for hard work.” He entirely repudiated the idea that anything approaching mental instability was part of creative achievement. “If genius means a sense of inspiration, or of rushes of ideas from apparently supernatural sources, or of an inordinate and burning desire to accomplish any particular end, it is perilously near to the voices heard by the insane, to their delirious tendencies or to their monomanias. It cannot in such cases be a healthy faculty nor can it be desirable to perpetuate it by inheritance.”

In 1904, Havelock Ellis published a book entitled A Study of British Genius. Ellis selected from the Dictionary of National Biography 1,030 names of particularly eminent people, of whom 975 were men and 55 were women. He found that only 4.2 percent were demonstrably psychotic. He wrote of this finding: “It is perhaps a high proportion. I do not know the number of cases among persons of the educated classes living to a high average age in which it can be said that insanity has occurred once during life. It may be lower, but at the same time it can scarcely be so very much lower that we are entitled to say that there is a special and peculiar connection between genius and insanity. The association between genius and insanity is not, I believe, without significance, but in face of the fact that its occurrence is only demonstrable in less than five percent of cases, we must put out of court any theory as to genius being a form of insanity.”

The apparent incompatibility of insanity with creativity is further supported by the fact that creative people, when they do become insane, generally show a decline both in the quality and the quantity of their productions. Schizophrenic painters, for example, often show a shift in their paintings toward subjects reflecting their own personal disturbance which have little relevance to the perceptions of the normal person. Not infrequently, they deteriorate to the point of endlessly repeating stereotyped patterns. The Dutch psychiatrist J.H. Plokker, in his book Artistic Self-Expression in Mental Disease acknowledges that, at the onset of a schizophrenic breakdown, an artist may be stimulated to record something of his new way of perceiving the world, but the impulse is usually short-lived. “Everyone who knows anything about art sees the difference between the normal and the pathological when he looks at a series of works by one patient, and soon becomes bored on seeing psychotic creations, once the first moment of surprise has passed. The arid, stereotyped and fixed elements in the content and particularly in the shapes soon show the mental stagnation.”

Nor is it only schizophrenia, amongst mental disturbances, that interferes with creative production. Severe depression usually prevents production so long as it persists, although, as we shall see, susceptibility to recurrent depression is not infrequently associated with creative powers. Eliot Slater and Alfred Meyer have charted Schumann’s mood swings in relation to his compositions and have clearly demonstrated that depression had an inhibitory effect upon his production, whilst elation facilitated composition. Rossini abandoned composition of operas in 1829 at the age of 37. During the next 25 years, he suffered severe episodes of depression, accompanied by insomnia, loss of appetite, suicidal ideas, and self-reproach. In 1854 he announced: “Someone else in my state would kill himself, but I. . . I am a coward and haven’t the courage to do it.” In the following year he said: “Death is better than living this way.” But, by the spring of 1857, his depression had lifted, and he once more began to compose.

From these and many other accounts, it might appear self-evident that mental illness and the capacity to create are incompatible. Yet, from antiquity onward, a link between genius and madness has been recurrently affirmed. Seneca, in his dialogue De tranquillitate animi, wrote: Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit, that is, “There has never been great talent without some admixture of madness.” This belief finds its echo in Dryden’s lines:

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Throughout the 19th century, the belief that genius and madness were closely related appears to have become more common. The French psychiatrist, Moreau de Tours, a disciple of Esquirol, compared genius with insanity, believing that both states resulted from overactivity of mind. The German psychiatrist, Moebius, took up the idea of the “superior degenerate,” which persisted well into our own time under the title of the “creative psychopath.” Wilhelm LangeEichbaum, whose book Genius, Insanity and Fame was still being reprinted in 1956, stated that most geniuses were psychopathically abnormal. And even if geniuses were not demonstrably insane or psychopathic, it was commonplace to allege, as did no less a figure than Proust, that “everything great comes from neurotics. They alone have founded religions and composed our masterpieces.”

The number of writers who have suffered from recurrent episodes of depression, not infrequently leading to suicide, is certainly striking—John Clare, William Cowper, Thomas Chatterton, Christopher Smart, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas—and it is not difficult to add to the list. Bos well wrote of Dr. Johnson: “He felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfullness and impatience and with a dejection, gloom and despair which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved and all his labour and all his enjoyments were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.” Johnson tried to ward off depression by all manner of obsessional rituals. He was terrified both of death and of insanity and, like many other sufferers from depression, hated going to bed because of the morbid thoughts that tormented him. I am purposely omitting the consideration of writers who are known to have suffered from syphilis, epilepsy, or other forms of organic brain disease, like Nietzsche, de Maupassant, Dostoevsky, and possibly Strindberg and Poe.

Nor is recurrent depression the only type of mental illness to afflict creative people. Kafka, for example, must be rated as schizoid, though not as schizophrenic. When Isaac Newton became mentally ill in middle life, he was not only depressed but notably paranoid, accusing his friends of maligning him and of plotting against him. Many of the greatest philosophers seem to have been men of schizoid personality; unwilling to, or incapable of, making close relationships or starting a family. Our first conclusion, that madness and creativity are incompatible, looks less convincing when we realize how many men and women of genius have exhibited such striking abnormalities of mind.

It might well be argued that, because we know so much about these interesting people, we have gained a false impression. Could it be that, if you and I had engaged the interest of biographers, we should be found to exhibit as much, or more, psychopathology? It is a possibility not wholly to be discounted. I could, of course, speak for myself, if not for you; but it would be out of place to do so. It is appropriate, however, to underline the fact that, the more we know about anyone, the easier it becomes to discern neurotic traits, mood disorders, and other aspects of character which, when emphatically present, we call neurotic. The famous and successful are usually less able to conceal whatever vagaries of character they may possess because biographers or Ph.D. students will not let them rest in peace. Or if, like Freud and T.S. Eliot, their papers are guarded by watchdogs until any conceivable chance of offending the living is well past, speculation all too often attributes to them the most improbable vices. I am disposed to think that psychiatrists, and especially psychoanalysts, have very little idea of what the average or “normal” man or woman is like, and are therefore prone to label as “neurotic” all manner of persons who are actually within the normal range. As one of my psychoanalytic teachers used to remark: “The normal man is a very dark horse.”


There is another, and perhaps more compelling reason, why genius and madness have been associated. The word “genius” is itself of interest. According to R.B. Onians, whose book The Origins of European Thought will be familiar to many of you, genius is the Roman equivalent of the Greek “psyche,” that is, “the life-spirit active in procreation, dissociated from and external to the conscious self that is centred in the chest,” The genius, like the psyche, is identified as that part of the person supposed to survive death. Both genius and psyche were located in the head. Onians writes: “The idea of the genius seems to have served in great part as does the 20th-century concept of an “unconscious mind,” influencing a man’s life and actions apart from or even despite his conscious mind. It is now possible to trace the origin of our idiom that a man “has or has not genius,” meaning that he possesses a native source of inspiration beyond ordinary intelligence.”

So, even in antiquity, it was assumed that the creative process involved two aspects of mind, one which was presumably under the conscious control of the subject, perhaps equivalent to the Freudian “ego,” the other something which had to be wooed or summoned, like one of those spirits from the vasty deep which Owen Glendower so boastfully asserted would obey his call. It is, I believe, the notion of inspiration which has been most closely linked with the idea that creative people are unstable. Just as the insane have sometimes been considered to be possessed, so those who are inspired have been believed to be transported into a state of divine madness. Although Plato distinguished insanity from inspiration, Iris Murdoch, in her Romanes Lecture of 1976, The Fire and the Sun, tells us that Plato “speaks more than once of the artist’s inspiration as a kind of divine or holy madness from which we may receive great blessings and without which there is no good poetry.” In later periods, the distinction between ordinary madness and divine madness became blurred. You will remember that, earlier in this lecture, I quoted Seneca’s remark; “There has never been great talent without some admixture of madness.” It is thought probable by scholars that Seneca, who was writing in the first century A.D. (he was forced to commit suicide in 65), was actually using the word “dementia” in the sense of divine inspiration rather than that of insanity; but, however that may be, the two have been confused ever since. In our own day, the confusion has, as it were, been reversed. Instead of artists being considered to be mad, the insane have been thought to be inspired. R.D. Laing and his followers have so idealized the schizophrenic condition as to make those of us who have so far avoided this psychosis uncertain as to whether or not we might have missed some startling insights into the nature of reality.

When one comes to consider the accounts given by creative people of the appearance of inspiration, the confusion between inspiration and madness appears less surprising. The state of inspiration is often accompanied by feelings of being possessed and compelled by something beyond the ego. J. W. Cross records that George Eliot told him “that, in all she considered her best writing, there was a “not herself ” which took possession of her, and that she felt her own personality to be merely the instrument through which this spirit, as it were, was acting.” Thackeray wrote: “I have been surprised at the observations made by some of my characters. It seems as if an occult Power was moving the pen. The personage does or says something, and I ask, how the dickens did he come to think of that?” Sometimes, but far from invariably, the state of being inspired is accompanied by emotional exaltation of an extreme kind. An observer reported that Swinburne, uttering poetry, would pace up and down the room in a passionately excited state, apparently unaware of his surroundings and oblivious of a thunderstorm which was raging at the time. Tchaikovsky wrote: “It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering. Hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought follows another.”

There seems to be general agreement that inspiration cannot be willed, although it can be wooed. When it does appear, it is usually accompanied by feelings of joy, relief, or satisfaction; but the person experiencing such feelings does not necessarily behave in an uncontrolled way. Tchaikovsky and Swinburne were both emotional characters. Moreover, they were living at a date when the romantic notion of the artist was paramount, and no doubt felt that tempestuous emotions and uninhibited displays of feeling were expected of them. When Anthony Trollope’s autobiography was published posthumously, in 1883, it harmed his reputation, because he portrayed the novelist not as an artist but as being like a shoemaker. This was, of course, a defensive maneuver. Trollope was a sensitive man, prone to depression, who deliberately adopted a stiff upper lip and a bluff persona in order to face the world. But the image of himself as dogged craftsman rather than inspired artist which he chose to present was out of line with the Zeitgeist and so damaged his image that it was not until some 40 years after his death that his imaginative gifts as a novelist again won general recognition.

Although scientists may, like Archimedes, exclaim “Eureka” when inspiration suggests a solution to a problem, they generally describe their experience in more prosaic terms than do musicians and poets. Newton, when asked how he made his discoveries, replied: “I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly by little and little into the full and clear light.” Gauss, describing the solution of a problem which had plagued him for years, wrote: “Finally, two days ago I succeeded, not on account of my painful efforts, but by the grace of God. Like a sudden flash of lightning, the riddle happened to be solved. I myself cannot say what was the conducting thread which connected what I previously knew with what made my success possible.”

So, although inspiration is clearly exciting and rewarding, whether or not it is accompanied by passionate emotion and excitable behavior depends upon the temperament of the person experiencing it, the circumstances in which he finds himself, and what he thinks is expected of him. It is quite unjustified to link inspiration with mental illness or instability. Indeed, I believe that so-called “inspiration” is no more than an extreme example of a process which constantly goes on in the minds of all of us when faced with any problem, however mundane.

To explain what I mean, I must digress from my main theme and consider the nature of thinking. It is, I believe, still generally supposed that there is such a thing as “rational thought,” directed toward, and in touch with, something called “external reality,” or “the real world.” This type of thinking is often contrasted with fantasy, which is deemed to be subjective, escapist, and unconnected with reality. Such was the view espoused by Freud, who postulated two “principles of mental functioning” which he called “primary process” and “secondary process.” Primary process was defined as being directed by the pleasure principle and was therefore guided by the subject’s unfulfilled wishes, however unrealistic. Secondary process was supposed to be directed by the reality principle, and was therefore pointed toward the external world. Freud supposed that, at the beginning of life, “the state of psychical rest was originally disturbed by the peremptory demands of internal needs. When this happened, whatever was thought of (wished for) was simply presented in a hallucinatory manner, just as still happens today with our dream-thoughts every night. It was only the non-occurrence of the expected satisfaction, the disappointment experienced, that led to the abandonment of this attempt at satisfaction by means of hallucination. Instead of it, the psychical apparatus had to decide to form a conception of the real circumstances in the external world and to endeavour to make a real alteration in them. A new principle of mental functioning was thus introduced; what was presented to the mind was no longer what was agreeable but what was real, even if it happened to be disagreeable. This setting-up of the reality principle proved to be a momentous step.”

So, life becomes real and life becomes earnest. Only by putting away childish things like fantasy and directing one’s efforts toward reality, however disappointing, can one expect to gain satisfaction for one’s needs. It sounds like a Victorian re-creation of the story of the Fall. The immediate satisfactions of the Garden of Eden must needs be abandoned. The fantasy that all will be provided without effort must be discarded in favor of the Puritan work ethic. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”

Yet one might inquire, what is this “conception of the real circumstances in the external world” to which Freud refers, and how is it formed? In Freud’s view, the infant originally responded to stimuli, whether from the outside world or from within itself, by immediate motor discharge. Gradually, as the organism came more under the influence of the reality principle as opposed to the pleasure principle, its motor response became delayed. Freud writes: “Restraint upon motor discharge (upon action), which then became necessary, was provided by means of the process of thinking, which was developed from the presentation of ideas. Thinking was endowed with characteristics which made it possible for the mental apparatus to tolerate an increased tension of stimulus while the process of discharge was postponed. It is essentially an experimental kind of acting, accompanied by displacement of relatively small quantities of cathexis together with less expenditure (discharge) of them.”

Freud’s notion that thinking is connected with the post-ponement of immediate responses to stimuli accords well with modern views about the evolution of intelligence. The lower down the evolutionary scale one descends, the more one finds that behavioral responses to stimuli are preprogramed or automatic. Insects, for example, perform extremely complex sequences of behavior, but, as experimental interference with such sequences demonstrates, there is little flexibility in this type of behavior. Like obsessional neurotics, insects have fixed routines which must not be too much interrupted. The essential feature of intelligent behavior is that it is flexible, and, if flexibility is to become possible, the individual must acquire the power not to respond automatically and immediately to the stimuli which impinge upon him. Ask me a question to which I have no immediate answer and I respond by saying, “Give me time to think.”

But what is this process of “thinking” to which we attribute such importance? Freud, as we have seen, sharply distinguished it from fantasy. Freud linked together play, fantasy, and dreaming as essentially unrealistic, childish, primitive forms of mental functioning concerned with hallucinatory wish-fulfillment rather than with adaptation to the real world. We all know that there are such fantasies: escapist nonsense like thrillers or romantic novels to which we turn when we are too tired to think. But not all fantasy is of this lowly kind. Without fantasy, the great masterpieces of civilization could not have been produced. Nor, in my view, could the hypotheses of science.

Einstein once defined thinking as “a free play with concepts.” In his own thinking, visual images predominated over words. He wrote: “For me it is not dubious that our thinking goes on for the most part without the use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously.” The theory of relativity depends upon being able to imagine how the universe would appear to an observer traveling at near the speed of light. Einstein himself attributed his achievement more to the quality of his imagination than to his ability as a mathematician or physicist. Although Freud was right in supposing that play, fantasy, and dreaming can sometimes be concerned with escapist wish fulfillment, he was wrong in affirming that this is their only function. It is recognized by zoologists (and by psychologists) that play is often adaptive; a preparation for interaction at an adult level, and also for activities like hunting, fighting, and sex. It is significant that Einstein uses the word “play” in his definition of thinking. I find myself in entire accord with Johan Huizinga, the author of Homo Ludens, in believing that play is an essential part of any creative endeavor. When one ceases to be able to play with possibilities, one can no longer achieve creative solutions. In my experience, the commonest cause of work-block is treating a problem or project as if it were a matter of life or death. Desperate seriousness makes both play and creative work impossible.

I am sure that Freud was wrong in supposing that play and fantasy are necessarily childish ways of escaping reality. I also believe that he was mistaken in interpreting dreams as disguised wish-fulfillments. Modern theories of dreams regard them as ways of processing information. The curious mixture of past events with those of the previous day, which so often occurs in dreams, is accounted for by the fact that some kind of scanning process is going on comparing recent experience with past experience and sorting out from the mass of incoming stimuli what needs to be remembered. It may even be that dreams are a way of playing with experience in rather the same fashion as thinking is “playing with concepts.” Many dreams appear to be attempts at linking together experiences by making them into a narrative; and narrative, as we all know, is one way of making sense of, or of giving meaning to, our experience of life.


If we discard Freud’s notion of “primary process” and “secondary process” and accept Einstein’s definition of “thinking,” it is easy to see that those people who are especially good at thinking are likely to be rather different from the ordinary run of mortals. The average man is usually too preoccupied with getting and spending, with sex, with the demands of his family, and with social interaction, to give much time to “playing with concepts.” It is surely no accident that the majority of the world’s greatest thinkers since the time of the Greeks have formed only transient personal ties. This is true not only of Newton, to whom I referred earlier, but of Descartes, Locke, Hume, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein. Although their achievements were of a different kind, we might also include the historians Gibbon and Macaulay. Some of these men of genius were homosexual; others had passing affairs with women. None of them married, and most of them lived alone for the greater part of their lives. Whatever may be the nature of the mysterious process by which new concepts are formed out of play with existing concepts, we may be sure that it requires time and dedicated attention. John Maynard Keynes said of Newton, “His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. . . . I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret.”

I suggested earlier that inspiration cannot be willed but can be wooed. Part of the wooing process seems to consist of what Graham Wallas called “preparation, the stage in which the problem was investigated in all directions.” This might be compared with Einstein’s “playing with concepts.” This is followed by Graham Wallas’ second stage, which he called “incubation.” In this, the problem is laid to rest, to allow unconscious processes to do their work. We do not know what these processes consist of, but we may assume that some scanning and sorting activity is going on, perhaps rather like that which modern theory supposes is taking place in dreams. Incubation may take a very long time indeed. Brahms recalled, “When I have invented or discovered the beginning of a song. . . I shut up the book and go for a walk or take up something else; I think no more of it for perhaps half a year. Nothing is lost though. When I come back to it again it has unconsciously taken a new shape, and is ready for me to begin working at it.” None of the thinkers I have listed went mad, with the exception of Nietzsche. As I mentioned above, his psychosis was determined by organic brain disease, probably the consequence of syphilis, which, in his day, was more easily acquired and less easily treated. But, although they were not mad, I suppose that most modern psychiatrists would classify them as abnormal in that they eschewed, or failed to achieve, what is usually regarded as being the chief source of human happiness—a lasting, close, loving relationship. Perhaps Proust was right when he wrote: “Indeed it is the possession of a body that is the great danger to the mind, to our human and thinking life.”

I am suggesting, therefore, that types of creative activity which require long periods of preliminary study, followed by further long periods of incubation, are more likely to be undertaken by people who are less involved in social and sexual interaction than the average. Some such people are clinically abnormal, like Newton, who was emotionally isolated, quarrelsome, and suspicious, even when he was not psychotic. Others, like Kant, had closer social relationships and might merely be deemed eccentric; though Kant was a severe hypochondriac. Descartes lost his mother when he was just over a year old. During his 20-year residence in Holland, he moved house 23 times; behavior which is characteristic of the maternally deprived, who restlessly search for what has been missing without knowing what they are looking for or being able to find it, Hume suffered a well-at-tested period of depression, which he called the “distemper.” As I suggested earlier, the more one studies these people, the more psychopathology one finds, and it is difficult to be sure of how closely related this may be to their creative achievement. But they do share the condition of comparative emotional isolation from others; and, in my view, this is probably a prerequisite for creative achievement of a highly abstract kind. Instead of entering into direct communication with others, they substitute indirect communication through the medium of their work. By writing rather than talking, they avoid the dangers of involuntary revelation. Above all, by keeping aloof, they avoid the danger of the fragile ego being submerged or destroyed by persons with whom they may become involved. A particularly strong need for personal autonomy is characteristic of certain types of creative people. Leibniz attributed his autonomy as a thinker to the fact that he taught himself and did not fill his head “with empty and cumbersome teachings accepted on the authority of the teacher.” Hume attributed his success as a philosopher to his having thrown off all prejudices and to learning to depend on the truth of his own reasoning. Berkeley wrote: “But one thing I know, I am not guilty of, I do not pin my faith on the sleeve of any great man. I act not out of prejudice & prepossession.” Kant observed, “Every rational being exists as an end in himself,” and “The autonomy of the will is the sole principle of all moral laws and of the duties conforming to them.” Because interaction with others seems to be an inescapable need for virtually every human being, it seems probable that those who are temperamentally incapable of close relationships are compelled by their isolation to seek other means of communication. Kafka, for example, could only conduct his love affairs by letter. Although he wrote desperate letters to Felice Bauer, complaining that she did not write to him often enough, that he needed to have information about where she was and about exactly what she was doing every moment of each day, he saw little of her in reality. The same pattern was followed in his relationship with Milena. Kafka’s sense of self, of being genuine, depended upon his being able to keep other people at a distance. I think the same is true of many writers.

The poets and novelists to whom I earlier drew attention as being particularly prone to depression are temperamentally different from the abstract thinkers, and from the schizoid writers like Kafka. Their relationships with other human beings are closer but are also apt to be stormy. Can a predisposition to depression also act as a spur to creative endeavor? I believe that it can, for reasons which I shall proceed to outline. One of the main characteristics of persons who are particularly liable to depression is the fragility of their self-esteem. We all become temporarily depressed as a consequence of loss, failure, or bereavement. But most of us, perhaps because of a fortunate genetic endowment or a felicitous early childhood, have inner sources of self-esteem which are sufficient to sutain us in the face of the normal hazards of existence. When fate assails us, we reel, but we recover. We know that, come what may, we shall live to fight another day. But those who are prone to depression seem not to possess such inner resources. When faced with any minor setback, a marital quarrel, a rejection slip, or a bad review, they are plunged into a state of melancholia from which they can envisage no escape. For such people, avoidance of a descent into the abyss becomes the major endeavor of their lives. Some, like Balzac, keep the devil at bay by manic overwork. Success and public recognition can, in some degree, compensate for inner emptiness by providing recurrent injections of self-esteem from outer sources. I use the word “injection” deliberately. Depressives are as dependent on recurrent “fixes” of recognition and success as are addicts on their drug. It is not difficult to understand that liability to depression is a powerful spur to creative achievement in those who are gifted enough to use this way of coping with their temperamental disability. The puzzle about genius is not that the people we call “geniuses” are endowed with superior gifts. We all know people who are quicker witted, better read, more generally knowledgeable than ourselves. But many lack the driving force, the compulsive urge to make a coherent narrative out of their lives or to attempt the kind of integration which we recognize and celebrate in men and women of genius. Modern studies by clinical psychologists have demonstrated that, measured by personality tests, creative people show, or at least admit to, more psychopathological traits than the average. But they are also equipped with greater resources than the average person to deal with their conflicts and problems. I hope I have said enough to convince you that, although Lamb was right in saying that the genius is not mad, in that “he is not possessed by his subject but has dominion over it,” he was wrong in asserting that “the greatness of wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be understood, manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties.” In the consideration of genius, imbalance, too, has its place. The motive force which impels a man or woman to embark upon the hazardous, often unrewarding, task of endeavoring to make coherence and sense out of the external world or their own inner disorder often springs from alienation or despair. Instabilities, whatever their origin, can compel the gifted person to put his gifts to use. We owe an irreparable debt to many unhappy men and women who were hounded by their miseries into creating works of genius.

As the eminent American scholar Irvin Ehrenpreis put it— far better than I can—in a review in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books: “The power of the human mind to recompose painful ordeals as shapely and seductive music, as stories or poems—these resources are what keep us from going rigid with horror in the face of the grinding wretchedness that even the most placid existence must endure.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading