I felt a funeral in my brain..." Emily Dickinson
Picture a man asleep at his desk. This is where he works, thinks, plans and where the mastery of his rational mind is called upon with the most urgency. Yet sleep has overwhelmed him. Directly over his shoulder, owls crowd close, flap their wings and stare. Two cats lurk nearby. All around the sleeping man, shadowed bats fill the air. They are oversized and terrible and look as though they could lift the man out of his chair and tear him apart. It is a horrifying picture. On the front of the desk these words are scrawled: "The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters." That is also the name of the etching by Francisco Goya (1746-1828).
Goya knew all about monsters. Toward the end of his life, the brilliant artist finally capitulated to the growing melancholy in his brain. He’d painted The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters at age 48 and fairly stuffed the piece with the denizens of darkness, those creatures who are the symbols of the night: owls, bats and cats. A few years before his death at age 82, Goya began his Black Paintings. Prowling his home alone at night and using the walls as a canvas, the artist--who had spurned marriage and domestic comforts so that he might completely focus on his art--finished his most unsettling, jarring and nightmarish work of all, Saturn Devouring His Children. In this piece, Saturn (the symbol of time), full of wild-eyed lunacy, holds the tiny body of a man in his hands and literally chews off its head. As Saturn does to his child, so Time had done to Goya.
But that was just Goya. I could mention Van Gogh and his insane swirls and yellows and that little Ear Incident. I could mention Beethoven and his well-documented rages and plunges into emotional blackness. I could mention Poe. That odd little boy who watched his mother die night after night on a stage in Richmond, Virginia. When she finally did die, the event marred poor Edgar for the rest of his life. Then there was Virginia Woolf, the life of the party, until she donned her jacket, filled the pockets with rocks and went for a walk in the river. What about Hemingway? And what kind of twisted psyche feels a funeral in her brain? Besides Emily Dickinson, of course.
The belief in a connection between artistic creativity and madness is ancient. We have come to expect that those blessed or damned with the ability to paint, write or compose music will be a little bit nuts. The eccentric painter, the hard-drinking writer and the screaming composer are part of our folklore and (you might be surprised to learn) have been part of Western folklore going back to Aristotle.
However, there is growing evidence that what ailed these folks was not, in fact, the gods, consumption or other various maladies that have been attributed to gloriously creative lunatics since before Alexander crushed Athens. It is becoming increasingly apparent that artists--past and present--may be unified in their suffering from depression, whether the bipolar brand of Virginia Woolf or the unipolar brand that nearly cost the award-winning author William Styron his life.
In a special issue of Discover magazine, "Powers Of Creation," (October 1996), Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison and Harvard psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg duke it out, each with plenty of muscle to back their individual claims. In the article, "That Fine Madness," Jamison offers a list of creative geniuses who were obviously not playing with a full deck, "...poets William Blake, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton; novelists Emile Zola, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Robert Louis Stevenson" (Discover,77). This list goes on to include playwrights, "visual artists," and musicians.
Rothenberg comes back to insist that the creative process requires "robust mental health" (Discover, 82). I confess, reading Jamison’s list, I am hard-pressed to find much mental health there.
The March/April 1999 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine jumps into this discussion with the article, "Study Links Angst To Creativity," calling upon Dr. Arnold M. Ludwig of the University of Kentucky Medical Center to make a prima facie case for the link between mental illness and creativity. "By first examining a sample of more than a thousand eminent persons representing 18 separate professions, Ludwig determined that men and women in the artistic occupations have higher rates of mental instability than the rest...Among artists, writers were found to have had the highest lifetime rates of mental disorders. And among writers, poets exhibited the highest rates of mental disorders, strongly backing Ludwig’s hypothesis that those engaged in more emotive or imprecise professions are likely to demonstrate higher lifetime rates of mental instability" (P&W, 13).
Speaking as one of those "in the artistic occupations," I can tell you, we already knew this. It’s nice to have Jamison and Ludwig along, but this isn’t news. The real news came out of the March/April 1999 issue of Psychology Today in an article called, "Depression: Beyond Serotonin."
I hope you are sitting down.
Move over Jamison, Rothenberg and Ludwig. The Big Guns are here and this gang uses phrases like, "the neurobiology of depression" (Psychology Today, 30).
Apparently, fellow poets and writers, we are every bit as whacked as we have long suspected. But it goes deeper than we ever dared believe. "The newest evidence indicates that recurrent depression is in fact a neurodegenerative disorder, disrupting the structure and function of the brain cells, destroying nerve cell connections, even killing certain brain cells, and precipitating cognitive decline. At the very least, depression sets up neural roadblocks to the processing of information and keeps us from responding to life’s challenges" (Psychology Today, 32).
Research shows that the center of the brain in charge of helping us see the sunny side of life, specifically the left side of the prefrontal cortex (called the PFC), is malfunctioning in depressed patients. When the left side malfunctions, the right side--where feelings of gloom and doom are processed--goes into some kind of overdrive. Now, the left side doesn’t only make us feel as perky as Annie and give us cause to believe that "The sun’ll come out tomorrow!" It also controls the little "almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain that pumps out negative feelings" (Psychology Today, 33) called the amaygdala which is kind of "Ground control to Major Tom" where depression is concerned. With no left PFC to keep the lid on things, the amaygdala goes haywire and takes the right PFC with it. As the whole business goes up in flames (so to speak), the stress-related hormone, cortisol, starts spewing like Linda Blair Unplugged.
What does all this mean to us writer-types who cut science class in college? It means that, "It is one thing to find abnormalities in the way the brains of the depressed function--but structural abnormalities? Anatomical ones?" (Psychology Today,34). It means that the circuitry in our heads isn’t just misfiring. The circuits, themselves, are screwed.
The article goes on to say that this brain screwing most certainly took place when we were quite young, before puberty, and was triggered by a traumatic event or series of traumatic events (Psychology Today, 72). Raise your hand if you are surprised. The bottom line is this: that "thing" or those "things" that happened when we were still just little tykes did more than upset and scare us half to death.
That event or those events caused brain damage.
Part of the left PFC, the ventral anterior cingulate, actually shrunk by as much as 40% (Psychology Today, 34). Is this why, even when bipolars are manic, they can work themselves into a wild frenzy and still find it nearly impossible to feel genuine happiness? Is the mind trying to make a connection it simply cannot make?
Many psychologists insist that the link between artistic function and depression is far from solid. Not only do they remind us that there are many depressed persons who are not even remotely artistic, they make stern mention of the solid and sane William Shakespeare and the smiling Jane Austen. Of course, I agree. Shakespeare was a rock, Austen a veritable field of daisies and my friend Barbara did nothing more creative than put on her nightgown and go to bed for two years when depression started crawling around inside her head. But this does not negate the clear connection between creativity and depression.
We know, for instance, that drunk drivers cause traffic deaths. However, this claim is not invalidated simply because there are drunk drivers who have never caused a traffic death and there have been numerous traffic deaths that in no way involved drunk drivers. Writers should be more serious about science class and psychologists should be more serious about Logic 101.
If scientists have, indeed, discovered the organic roots of depression, this still does not explain why the depressed so often lean toward artistic pursuits. I think, perhaps, I can help. Let me say this: when you are hyper-sensitive to every single thing that goes on around you and every emotion you feel is magnified to an intensity that is almost unbearable, it does tend to demand--and possibly to create--an outlet of some kind.
Depression is the razor-toothed monster that rips and chews the reasoning mind. Depression is that sinister sickness full of dark creatures and nightmares. It is pain beyond pain, suffering beyond suffering. It is being on the outside of life and looking in, unable to taste the wine, smell the spices or feel the joy of existence. To suffer from depression is to, indeed, stumble among the Walking Dead.
In its most advanced and deadly stage, depression gives a last order from a fevered brain--misconnecting, misfiring, sputtering and coughing--to make the pain stop! Now! And so goes approximately twenty percent of its victims like those in the Roll Call Of Death compiled by William Styron in his book, "Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness, "Hart Crane, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Henry de Montherlant, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergi Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky" (Darkness Visible, 35-6). Suicide is the result of a final desperate command issued from the ravaged mind of a victim of depression.
Now, there is hope.
Those nerds we ridiculed because they wore pocket protectors, dissected frogs and had no clue why Joyce was controversial will rescue us. It is they who have placed our brains under a microscope and seen the proof. It is they who have validated what we have been feeling and they who will find the chemical, the medication, the cure. Time to put down the guitars, set Yeats aside for awhile and take a neurosurgeon to lunch.
Hang on, just a little while longer. Fight it just a little bit more. Our sleeping "reason" will be awakened. Don’t give up and don’t let go. The cavalry is coming, and they are wearing white lab jackets.
© Camille Moffat 2001
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