Every once in a while, a writer patient will come into my therapy office and announce, "Well, I heard the other day on the radio that we're all crazy."
"Who's crazy?" I ask.
"Us. Writers. Artists in general. This shrink was on some talk show on NPR, and he said it's been proven that we're all manic-depressives."
"I'm confused. Do you mean that because you're a writer you're manic-depressive, or does being manic-depressive cause you to be a writer?"
"He said it could be one or the other, but it could be both. What do you think?"
"I think I'm going to sit out the next NPR pledge drive."
Apparently, it's still fashionable: the notion that the creative impulse---given the emotional difficulties that often seem to accompany it---is merely the product of a psychological disorder. In case you haven't heard, the current favorite diagnosis for artists, particularly writers, is bipolar disorder---a condition that used to be called manic depression.
A number of well-known books have made this argument, from Kay Redfield's Touched By Fire to Alice Flaherty's more recent The Midnight Disease. But the idea that writers are of a single and highly neurotic personality type goes all the way back to---who else?---Freud. In the 1950's, a guy named Edmund Bergler (credited, by the way, with inventing the term "writer's block") wrote many books on the subject. His explanation for the reason that writers write? "Psychic masochism."
(A psychoanalyst friend of mine not only objects to Bergler's theories, but laments how often he got them into print. As my friend puts it, "Unfortunately, the only person who wrote constantly about writer's block, but appears never to have suffered from it, is Edmund Bergler.")
Obviously, the idea that the artistic impulse is inevitably the product of a psychological condition is
not new. After all, history is filled with examples of the tormented artist stricken by melancholy,
going on drunken binges, cutting off an ear, and generally behaving---as we therapists like to say---inappropriately. But to infer that some kind of "craziness" underlies creative endeavor, or, even worse, that the impulse to create is itself an indicator of some condition, is just plain wrong.
First, to whatever extent a therapist believes in the validity of diagnostic labels like "bipolar," one thing is clear: Labels exist for the convenience of the labeler. How helpful they are to the artistic person is debatable. (I recall hearing a radio interview with a family therapist who claimed that 98% of Americans were co-dependent. I found this as helpful as saying that 98% of Americans walk around on two feet. Ascribing a label to an entire group renders the label superfluous.)
Second, claiming that the creative impulse comes from any one source---whether mania, psychosis, or the moon---is both ludicrous and potentially harmful. Ludicrous because it's over-simplified and inconsistent with the lived experience of countless artists. Potentially harmful because it undervalues the mysterious, indefinable aspects of the creative act.
I'm reminded of a quote by H.L. Mencken, who said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem---neat, plausible, and wrong." The tendency to see an artist's emotional (or even creative) struggles solely in terms of their being a problem---and thus potentially solvable---betrays a profound narrowness in scope, imagination, and appreciation for the hidden ways of the artistic heart.
The point is, yes, perhaps Van Gogh did suffer from symptoms that we might today label as bipolar. But what is also true---and certainly more important---is that he was incredibly talented. Both facts can co-exist, without one necessarily causing the other.
As always, I'm struck by our desire to take that which defies explanation and try to reduce it to some kind of rational terms. Whether residing in the rules of all the "how-to" books on writing currently in
print, or emerging from the latest analytic theories, or championed in studies from the academic community, we seem to need to "make sense" of creativity, to isolate its source in some concrete, quantifiable way.
And we always fail. Its magic continues to elude us. Thank God.
The novelist John Fowles put it best: "For what good science tries to eliminate, good art seeks to provoke---mystery, which is lethal to the one, and vital to the other."