Poetry: mental health, genius and madness.

Poetry and mental illness

In my honours year I did a research project on the links between mental illness and artistic genius. The purpose of course was to enquire into the commonly referenced idea that madness is a necessary condition for the production of brilliant work. The research, unsurprisingly, is much more ambiguous than popular belief. And much more cautious about making statements regarding causation.

One reason for this ambiguity in the research is because, by and large, it involves the retrospective diagnosis of literary figures with conditions they may or may not have named of their own volition in their lifetimes. Take for example Virginia Woolf. Even the most cursory reading of her letters and memoirs provides evidence to the claim that she suffered from bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression, so named for the bouts of hyperactive mania followed by corresponding bouts of depression). She even referred to her experiences as madness that came in waves she could neither foresee, nor forestall. So it’s reasonable to infer that what she was dealing with was a manifestation of what we refer to as bipolar disorder. But here’s the thing: there is a gulf between self expressed/identified madness and diagnosed madness. Not to mention that treating it as a dichotomy rather than a continuum erases a multitude of experiences. Add to that that a key difference between mad/mentally ill or not, is the judgement of whether or not the madness is interfering with the person’s daily function (as determined by an expert who is not the person whose existence is being judged). Even more problematically, daily functioning is defined as per a capitalist, ableist framework where anything that interferes with smooth social conduct, eight hour work days in a job, an individualist/internal support system is seen as a problem. But perhaps that is the beginning of a different point. Suffice to say that looking for evidence of madness in the lives/experiences of people who have been judged to have been artistic geniuses skews the sample rather spectacularly.

Which brings me to the next point: and that is about set theory and syllogistic reasoning. Not all geniuses have mental illnesses. Not all people suffering from mental illnesses are artistic geniuses. Some people who have mental illnesses are also artistic geniuses. Therefore sometimes mental illness and artistic genius happily co-exist. And sometimes mental illness precludes artistic genius (or the expression thereof). And other times artistic genius is a protective factor against some mental illnesses. So basically all you can say (with any degree of integrity) is “madness and genius are both parts of some psyches”.

So if I am mad and I walk through this world in pain and with difficulty but without anyone noticing – I am not mad.  Gah.  In other news, my apologies for skipping last week’s post.  I shall tell you of the events that lead to that presently. x


4 comments on “Poetry: mental health, genius and madness.

  1. The connections between “genius” and “madness” are a social construction, the result of processes of categorization. Both are suggested to be extreme ends of “normal”, minds that are statistical outliers. It is arguable that “genius” is a form of “madness”, only that it is a form in which the output is considered valuable by society. As you say, genius is seen to be “productive” whereas “madness” is not. “Productivity” is socially contextual, laden with prejudice, and subject to tools of social control that seek to maintain the status quo. Many ground breaking theorists, artists, researchers have been considered “crazy” for their ideas and creations at the time in which they have worked, if these were seen to challenge convention too deeply. It is only in retrospect that some of these geniuses have been appreciated. It is likely that many of today’s geniuses will have their work and ideas dismissed as “mad”. I think we can talk less of whether genius causes madness or vise versa, or if a person is likely to coexist with both genius and madness. It is perhaps more poignant to think of how society creates these categories and the blurriness (as well as harmfulness) of the way in which we try to make the labels distinct from each other.

  2. redjim99 says:

    As important is how we as the sane public force certain groups into boxes, shun them and then are surprised when they get worse. Medication stifles many, and social/family pressure to conform does as good a job. Many times it is the fact that they are looking for something different.


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