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Divine MadnessReview - Divine Madness
Ten Stories of Creative Struggle
by Jeffrey A. Kottler
Jossey-Bass, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, M. Phil.
Mar 28th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 13)

Why are so many creative people apparently crazy? Is mental illness, for some people, a doorway to creativity, something that unlocks latent genius that would otherwise lie dormant? Jeffrey Kottler attempts to answer this question in Divine Madness, Ten Stories of Creative Struggle. The book presents ten case studies of well-known artists, using the term in a broad sense. They are all people who have pushed their creative talents to the limits. In most cases they finally lost the struggle, and died at their own hand or as a consequence of drug abuse. Their lives pose questions about creativity, about suffering, and about art. Finding answers is very much harder.

The individuals Kottler chooses to study are a mixed group of writers, visual artists, and performing artists. Their names are familiar: Plath, Woolf, Monroe, Garland, Nijinski, Hemingway and others, a roll call of the famously mad. Kottler is a psychologist. His aim in writing this book is to explore the links between madness and creativity. His interest, he informs us in the preface, is to find ways of helping such people find ways of rising above their disabilities and expressing themselves more productively. Kottler identifies two poles of discussion on this sort of biography: "the search for "truth" or some illusion of objective reality about what "really" happened". He aims to establish a balance between these extremes. Thus he adopts an apparently skeptical stance, although perhaps at the cost of accepting a bit of every explanation available: consensus by democracy rather than adherence to a standard.

The criterion for choosing the ten artists was the "diversity of their artistic expression". Thus we find intuitive performers such as Nijinsky and Lenny Bruce alongside those with a studied intellectual basis to their art, such as Hemingway and Woolf. Marilyn Monroe is a genius alongside Mark Rothko; Judy Garland alongside Sylvia Plath. Aside from whether these are equivalent geniuses, there are some remarkable similarities in their lives. All suffered as children and emerged wounded into adulthood. All had a yearning for perfection through self expression, but were dissatisfied even as they approximated it. All sought solace in chemicals, either at the behest of doctors, or on their own initiative, often both. And there is little question that their lives got worse under the influence of drugs.

Kottler records his hope that in our more enlightened time the traumatic developmental experiences of these individuals would be acknowledged, and that any therapy would not lock them into their past, but help them find a way to live with their continuing distress, and to make choices that would enhance rather than inhibit their lives. He rightly condemns the appalling breaches of ethical standards exhibited by doctors and therapists in many of these cases. The actions of exploitative and abusive parents, friends and spouses are also highlighted; it is hard to read this book without a sense of anger at how vulnerable individuals were, in many cases, continually exploited by self-interested and abusive individuals. Kottler also recalls the kindness of lovers, spouses and others who did what they could but were often rebuffed.

One issue that is not put to rest in Divine Madness is that of what is to be accepted as 'madness'. Kottler cites discoverers such as Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein as exemplifying the notion that madness frees individuals from taken for granted ideas, and allows insights not available to others. But this seems to stretch the concept of madness too far if it is to serve any purpose as a synonym for mental illness. Neither are Kottler's criteria for mental illness especially helpful. Self defeating behavior, dysfunctional relationships, self-medication and feeling worthless are not unique to mental illness, although they often accompany it. But Kottler is not alone with this difficulty. Psychiatric diagnostic systems are similarly unclear.

There is a considerable literature that appears to confirm a link between creativity and mental illness. There are simply too many tortured geniuses to be accounted for by chance. But as with many well known associations, moving from correlation to causation, or even establishing a consistent underlying link proves problematic. One view is that an underlying predisposition may manifest as either creativity or madness. At its most extreme this perspective holds that creativity offers of form of 'compensatory advantage' for individuals genetically predisposed to psychosis. But genetic predisposition to psychosis is itself contentious, weakening any claim of a simple genetics of creativity. A less extreme position is that both madness and creativity result from personality traits that can lead to either creativity or psychosis. The problem with this latter view is the Kottler's examples are those of artists who are both mad and creative.

Divine Madness sits somewhere between an academic work and popular psychology, leaning towards the latter. There is a list of references for each chapter, but not every empirical claim can be traced to a source of evidence. The writing, too, varies between an objective authorial voice, and occasional lapses into the imagined voice of the subject. And for all the equivocal statements about whether the individuals were mad or just eccentric, talented, and struggling with inner conflicts, there is a lack of critical analysis of "mental illness". Diagnoses are generally accepted as accurate. There is little distinction made between depression consequent on drug abuse and an underlying depressive state that might be called an illness.

Divine Madness is a compelling read. Each case study is richly detailed and highly descriptive. The writing flows well, and the book avoids settling into a predictable format. Some chapters begin in childhood, others in later life, some with key incidents. In all cases early development is explored, almost invariably to discover trauma, abuse and neglect. Sylvia Plath is perhaps the sole exception. Kottler retraces each life with commendable economy given the complexity of the individuals, the volumes written about them and the limitations imposed by compressing a life into a single chapter. Whether you agree with all of his interpretations or not, each case study is thoroughly informative. In the final chapter Kottler attempts to provide a general explanation of madness and creativity. In this chapter he retreats from a commitment to the idea that the subjects of these case studies are mad. Instead, he points to similarities in the language used to describe creativity and madness. Asking how anyone could survive the sort of abuse suffered by Monroe, Garland and Brian Wilson, he answers "lots of people" (original emphasis). He points out that although the family trees of many mad creative people show familial evidence of madness, they also show abundant evidence that genetics do not provide a total explanation. He also points to the insights gained in states of mania and depression that have informed the art of many of his subjects. Kottler would concede, based on his acknowledgement that not everyone would agree with his interpretations, that his sample of ten is arbitrarily selected. These are all famous people after all; there are others less famous who might tell a different story.

The book is an enjoyable read. If it does not answer the questions it raises it at least brings together a group of people who have a lot in common, although are also importantly different. Their lives give us pause to reflect on some important issues in the construction of madness. Divine Madness is definitely worth a read.

 

 

 

2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien RN, M.Phil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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