Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mental Illness and Creativity

Things you might not know about me:

I wore red shoes under my wedding dress.

I have a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies.

I display a soul-shattering phobia of spiders.

I have Michelle Kwan's autograph from when she was about fifteen and I was about fifteen and I followed figure skating manically for a couple of years until one year I gave it up for Lent because that's how obsessed I was.

But this isn't about any of the above. It's about mental illness and creativity, something that I haven't pored over academically, but have pondered on from time to time. There are several garden varieties of mental illness among some long-lost extended family members. I think one of them is schizophrenic. Or maybe paranoid. Or maybe he's paranoid he's schizophrenic. I don't know, the point is, if your family tree has mental illness in its branches, it's okay for you to make mental illness jokes. I don't want NAMI to come after me; it's a great organization and a sweet lady I know is the president of NAMI or some such thing in my state. But humor and mental illness seem to attract each other.

So let's keep Woody Allen in the Big Apple with his plethora of neuroses and travel down Crazy Street.

First, I have to mention that my favorite comedy featuring mental illness - or perhaps the only comedy I know of featuring mental illness - is "Arsenic and Old Lace." Rent the Cary Grant version. There are days, when I find ants in my cereal, like this morning, that I feel like being carted off after phoning "Happydale Sanitarium - Sanitarium - Sanitarium." I rather suspect those of you who are mothers of young children often feel the same.

Now, let's get deep. Hold your nose, close your eyes, dunk.

How are mental illness and creativity related? The creative impulse in itself could be explored from many angles: personality, personal giftedness, intelligence, and a large dose of serendipity are involved. The other day a coworker and I were discussing the fact that it seems often in church - whether the sermon is good or not - that we find ourselves weaving some of our most creative, lively, and intriguing thoughts. If you believe in the Divine, then I think your concept of creativity will reflect that. The Trinity in itself (themselves?) is (are?) creative. If we want to get philosophical, we can ask: how is creativity related to personhood? Does creation necessitate free will? Is the creative impulse related to Beauty as a Transcendant? (That means Beauty as it exists objectively, by which we describe things as beautiful, reflecting that Transcending Beauty - it is not the subjective response.)

But creativity and perspective/perception are related. It is how an artist sees something that often catapaults her or his works into the Louvre: the Masters are my favorites, but I am deeply stirred by the colorful swatches pasting Van Gogh's canvases. Van Gogh, whose consumption of absinthe affected his perceptions; Van Gogh, who saw the Starry, Starry Night when he looked up into the cosmos.

Which is Why I Hate Modern Art - it is a perception of what? Someone's perception of who knows what. I think their gooey insides. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: Rothko paints a great blinding square of color, but the time I see the Incarnation represented in it I'll eat my hat.

But what if one has mental illness? Consider the engineering side of creativity: I was first struck by the strange link between mental illness and engineering feats when I viewed "The Aviator", a stellar portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Howard Hughes was directing an epic war film and kept insisting that he wanted the camera to catch airplanes' speed: so rivets were smoothed down, the shape and body of airplanes were altered to increase aerodynamic qualities, a few years later, voila! Modern flight is born - sure, people flew before this, but now, it became commonplace. But Hughes' obsessive-compulsive behaviors destroyed his personal life. He was tormented, hounded, driven.

And because of this, you or someone you know has flown across the country recently, for what is actually a relatively low cost.

The other day I was privileged to hear a discussion about actors, art, mental illness and genius: it centered, of course, on Heath Ledger's mind-blowing performance as the villain "The Joker" in "The Dark Knight," easily argued to be Best Picture for 2008. The villain himself is portrayed as unhinged, utterly demented, eerily genius at pitting people against each other - evil. Heath Ledger, who already had a history of substance addictions, couldn't sleep while he was filming "The Joker." The portrayal of "The Joker" is, in my opinion, one of the top genius performances that I can think of for a very long time, and I am confident will remain so. Where the Joker was utterly separated from normal feelings of guilt, remorse, or conscience, Ledger was tormented by the character. Ultimately, continuing his fallback habits of addictions and substance abuse, Ledger accidentally took his own life by overdose. His artistic genius in this one role perhaps made him vulnerable to depression.

Does mental illness open windows onto the world that most people aren't privileged to look through? Does someone with schizophrenia, or manic/depressive disorder, or depression - does that person paint the world in a different way than a person whose brain chemicals function according to the status quo, whose past contains minimal trauma? But if so - at what cost?

Today, the Howard Hughes' of the world have ready access to prescriptions for obsessive/compulsive disorder. It seems cruelly utilitarian to suppose that modern flight was worth one man's destruction. Surely it is better to function - and function well - than to burn brightly, for an instant, and then out.

Consider the pain felt by John Nash's family - Nash, a Nobel prize-winning mathematician, whose life was swallowed up by schizophrenia and depression. That Nash's theories are brilliant, none can contest. Alongside his childrens' memories of receiving bizarre, encrypted, nonsensical postcards from their absent father, abroad in Europe.

Outside my office, petunias spring up, unbidden, from cracks and gapes in the concrete sidewalk. From wreck and ruin, chemical or personal, in the shadowy "mind" - part brain, part psyche? - beauty springs forth.

Take your medicine. See your doctor. But know that whatever disorder, neurosis, or disease wracks your soul, sometimes Starry, Starry Nights shine forth from your unique window onto the world.

5 comments:

Emily said...

It's absolutely maddening to me how you do it ever time. Every dang time.

Would you please go start your owl book now? Please?

Bob said...

very interesting observations
very interesting observations
very interesting observations
very intersecting observations
very intersecting obfuscations
" " "
" " "
" " "
" " "
(im a lazy OCDer)

pastorbecca said...

Very wonderful post.

Have you read "Lying Awake"? It's a book about a sister in a religious order who experiences religious ecstasy, which is actually caused by illness. It's fascinating in many of the ways you've touched on here.

I think Nash and VanGogh are the most-used examples, but the links and lines between illness and genius are many and complex. Thanks for the thoughts!

Becca

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