Genius, Madness, Creativity

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I think these are the ways that madness and genius are similar: the experience of creativity, seeing/speaking in ways not generally understood, and social isolation.

No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness. — Aristotle

Oh! How near are genius and madness! Men imprison them and chain them, or raise statues to them. — Diderot

I have lived an unusual life in one way at least; I have known lots of gifted people. I’m a middling to OK academic student but have known lots of people who blitzed uni — the sort of people who get 6’s and 7’s (distinctions and high distinctions) for every assignment. I have little to no musical ability, but I know several people with orchestra-level musical ability, and at least one who is (to my mind at least) a world-class composer. I know at least one very gifted painter of traditional portraits, and I have known the person who had one of the largest radio audiences in Australia.

Despite Aristotle and Diderot (and the line of thinking they represent), these very gifted people are all quite sane. They organise their lives as well as anybody else. When any of them has experienced mental illness, it has been an awful experience for them and has affected their art badly. Feeling so depressed you don’t want to get out of bed is hardly a recipe for making good art (or any art at all).

Were Aristotle and Diderot Mad?

So, where does the notion of the closeness of genius and madness come from? I think there at least two sources: the experience of creativity (which I think is what Aristotle was thinking of), and the social response to the mad and the gifted by their society (which Diderot speaks of).

Firstly creativity. When we make a discovery or breakthrough, it can be an incredible high. This could be a medical breakthrough or telling everyone how good a new novelist that we have discovered is. It could be a technique we’ve learned (the way Jeffrey Smart does brushstrokes and the look this gives) or understanding a pattern in our relationships that has been a problem for years.

During the time of breakthrough or discovery we can be quite obsessive. We can feel that we are thinking about this new thing every waking moment, we want to know all about it, how it can be used; we want to tell others about it, and share our excitement about it. We can feel elated and very focused. This can indeed seem to be close to madness.

Secondly is the social situation of the genius.

A genius may bring a new way of doing or thinking about something. Newton brought a new way of thinking about motion, while the impressionists and cubists brought new ways of seeing and painting. The innovations in the European ‘fine’ arts in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were sometimes regarded as madness. Our Western culture values newness (this is a common value for both Modernism and Romanticism, it seems to me) and sees genius as bringing innovation. Doing a good job within a tradition and not challenging the limits of the tradition or discipline is not regarded so highly. (E.g., genre fiction is not regarded as highly as ‘real literature’.) Madness and genius can both speak in ways that are not understood by the surrounding culture.

This leads to madness and genius being marginalised. The mad and the gifted are not part of the ‘mainstream’ — they are seen as being fringe-dwellers. They are set apart, special, but in a sense ‘quarantined’ also. These are the polarities that Diderot speaks of — honoured or chained (and sometimes both at the same time: novelists are asked to be commentators on political developments in the media but are not appointed to policy committees by governments).

I think these are the ways that madness and genius are similar: the experience of creativity, seeing/speaking in ways not generally understood, and social isolation.

Sanity and Creativity

I think it is possible to see creativity as (at least one aspect of) sanity. It seems to me that sanity needs some element of clear perception of, and conscious response to, our situation. When the situation we are in changes, then some degree of novel response is required; some degree of creativity will usually be required.

We do this every day in small ways that we usually don’t notice. Re-organising the order in which we will run some errands because of a phone call, finding a different way to run a meeting so that decisions are recorded, or changing the way we discuss things with our partner so that unproductive arguments are avoided: these are humble, but perhaps quite important, examples of creativity.

Humble Creativity

One reason I dislike the ‘genius and madness lie close together’ line is that it presents creativity and innovation as something that only geniuses and mad people are capable of. I think this impoverishes our lives. It encourages us to accept the way things are and not change our situation so that it is more enlivening for ourselves and those around us.

I would like to hear about your experience of creativity. Do you see yourself as creative? Have you known highly creative people? Did you find them a bit mad or quite pedestrian? What have been the creative moments in your life? I look forward to hearing about your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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